The Speaker of the House of Commons is one of the most important officials in the English Constitution. Since the first Parliament of 1270, the post has evolved and developed into the rigorous and, some might say, stylised aspects of the governance of Britain. The advent of television has helped to make the functions of this office more clear and, of course, raised the profile of the individual who holds the office. The first female Speaker, Betty Boothroyd is now perhaps also the best known and can certainly be reckoned as one of the most effective holders of the post in modern times.
The Speakership of the House of Commons is an ancient office, the appointment of a spokesman predates the first summoning of the Commons to Parliament in 1258. The Speaker is non-partisan and is elected by the House at the beginning of each new Parliament. However, speakers were not always non-partisan. Up to the seventeenth century, the Speaker was very often an agent of the King. This began to change during the Civil Wars in the 1640s and the turning point when the Speaker became an agent of Parliament itself is often dated to Speaker Lenthall’s famous riposte to Charles I who came to Parliament and demanded that five members be arrested for treason:May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here, and I humbly beg Your Majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what Your Majesty is pleased to demand of me.Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the Speaker was normally a political ally of the Government and some speakers were appointed to Government posts. Another famous Speaker, Arthur Onslow who served from 1728 to 1761 is credited with changing this arrangement and establishing many of the practices associated with the post today. The idea that the Speaker should be above politics and non-partisan was firmly established by the middle of the nineteenth century. The Speaker now neither speaks in debates and only votes in a division when the Ayes and Noes are tied.The Speaker enjoys a high order in the precedence of the Kingdom. Only the Prime Minister and the Lord President of the Council rank above him. The Speaker takes precedence over all Peers except the two Archbishops (Canterbury and York) and almost invariably will be raised to the Peerage on retirement. The Deputy Speaker is the Chairman of Committees, officially Chairman of Ways and Means and presides in the absence of the Speaker and when the House goes into Committee Session by passing the Motion that the Speaker do now leave the Chair.Below is a list of Speakers to the House and the year in which they were known to have served or been appointed, chosen or elected. The List is not quite complete and there are some gaps, particularly in the second half of the 13th and first quarter of the 14th centuries where the records are lost. It should be noted that prior to the 18th century, Parliaments were called and dismissed by the Monarch and there might be a long gap between successive parliaments. For example, James I dispensed with the services of Parliament for much of his reign (1604-25). Some names appear more than once as they were elected Speaker to more than one parliament. Sometimes this was to successive parliaments but election of the Speaker from the preceding Parliament was not a foregone conclusion.Early Speakers were known as Parlour or Prolocutor and it was not until Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1377 that the name and office of Speaker became more or less established. The list from his tenure to modern times is practically complete and he is traditionally taken as the “first” Speaker. His predecessors certainly fulfilled a similar function but the office was frequently held by the Lord Chief Justice four of whom are known and are identified in the list here.