The best books to understand how parliaments worked

Coleman A. Dennehy Author Of The Irish Parliament, 1613–89: The evolution of a colonial institution
By Coleman A. Dennehy

Who am I?

I am a historian of early modern law and parliaments in Ireland and Britain, having written several books and articles on the topic, and am also a criminologist. I have had an interest in the history of parliaments for many years, in particular the manner in how they operate, how they were staffed, and how they worked (or in some cases didn’t work). Although political histories are interesting and sometimes important, parliamentary political history does not interest me as much. I love the practical application of how institutions operated and what they can tell us that conventional histories of political development and parliamentary politics can not.   


I wrote...

The Irish Parliament, 1613–89: The evolution of a colonial institution

By Coleman A. Dennehy,

Book cover of The Irish Parliament, 1613–89: The evolution of a colonial institution

What is my book about?

This book is an unashamed institutional history of the Irish parliament in the seventeenth century. Many historians consider the Irish parliament in a purely political context—a forum where communities, classes, allies, and enemies could hammer out main issues. Whilst the Irish parliament was sometimes the scene of political battles, it was also an important administrative and legal element of the state machinery of early modern Ireland. This institutional study looks at how parliament dispatched its business on a day-to-day basis. It takes on major areas of responsibility such as creating law, delivering justice, conversing with and providing counsel to the executive, and administering parliamentary privilege. This book aims to present the Irish parliament as one of many such representative assemblies emerging from the feudal state into the modern world. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The House of Lords, 1603-1649: Structure, Procedure, and the Nature of Its Business

By Elizabeth Read Foster,

Book cover of The House of Lords, 1603-1649: Structure, Procedure, and the Nature of Its Business

Why this book?

This is a superb book. It is a comprehensive consideration of the business record of the upper house. What I personally find to be the more entertaining and interesting house of parliament, Foster has a rare ability of making the complex matters accessible, and making what might seem to be archaic or irrelevant procedures understood in their proper context. Despite the fact that the Lords could sometimes be consumed by seemingly unimportant issues such as hats and privilege, these episodes are expertly deciphered with a view to helping the reader understand that these issues were not just important to individuals at the time, but a brilliant window onto the nobility and how it was affected by the conflagration that was the Stuart period

The House of Lords, 1603-1649: Structure, Procedure, and the Nature of Its Business

By Elizabeth Read Foster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The House of Lords, 1603-1649 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Foster discusses both the structure of the House and its business, including studies of the officers, the fee system by which they were paid, the function of the judges and attorney general, the select committees and their appointment, the committee of the whole House that developed during this period and its significance, and the joint committees that became increasingly important during the civil war years. The study also contributes to the understanding of later parliaments.

Originally published in 1983.

A UNC Press Enduring Edition - UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books…


The Irish Parliament In The Middle Ages

By H. G. Richardson, G. O. Sayles,

Book cover of The Irish Parliament In The Middle Ages

Why this book?

Although it sometimes changes, if I were forced to choose, this is probably my most favourite history book. Even though it is now seventy years old, it still reads remarkably up-to-date. Like many of the other books on this list, it eschews the political history of parliament in order to focus on the institutional and developmental history of the medieval Irish assembly. Whilst a book with chapters on medieval taxation and the feudal state might not seem to many as being as fascinating, the passion and drive that is clearly evident in the authors is something that immediately infects the reader. The argument is jumping off the page and slapping you across the face. More than proficient in English medieval history too, they are somewhat of a rarity in written history of the islands in that they seamlessly slide from one to the other. The fact that it was a long-standing writing partnership (although frequently with an acerbic tone) makes it all the more unique.

The Irish Parliament In The Middle Ages

By H. G. Richardson, G. O. Sayles,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Irish Parliament In The Middle Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based largely on manuscript material, this comprehensive account of the Irish Parliament in the Middle Ages shows that early Irish parliaments cannot be identified either in form or function with their modern namesake and, consequently, demonstrates that the concept of governmental democracy had a much slower, more gradual development than historians have heretofore believed.
The history of the Irish Parliaments proper begins with that held at Castledermot in mid-June 1264. During the reign of Edward II and the early years of Edward III significant changes took place-changes, the authors, point out, similar to those taking place in the development of…


The House of Lords in the Parliaments of Edward VI and Mary I: An Institutional Study

By Michael A. R. Graves,

Book cover of The House of Lords in the Parliaments of Edward VI and Mary I: An Institutional Study

Why this book?

This is a splendid exposition of the House of Lords in a crucial mid-Tudor period. Although it covers a relatively short period of time, it can do so because the author is so expert in his chosen field. Like all other books in this list, it concentrates on the procedures and work record of parliament and its constituent houses. However, it also looks at the composition of the house (the English Lords contained bishops and previously abbots and priors) and also the quality of those who sat—education, background, etc. With limited resources Graves also produces chapters on attendance, activity, and the management of business. It is both an in-depth but particularly accessible guide.   

The House of Lords in the Parliaments of Edward VI and Mary I: An Institutional Study

By Michael A. R. Graves,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The House of Lords in the Parliaments of Edward VI and Mary I as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the past the House of Lords has been the Cinderella of parliamentary history. This volume makes amends for the omission. It is the first systematic institutional study of the sixteenth-century Upper House. Not only does it chart its composition and quality, its record of attendance, activity and conflicting centrifugal and centripetal forces, it also examines the role of the legal assistants, who contributed so much to its efficiency as a legislative machine, analyses its procedures and assesses its legislative record in the mid-Tudor parliaments. In the process it also sets the Edwardian and Marian Commons in their right perspective.…


Bills and Acts: Legislative Procedure in Eighteenth-Century England

By Sheila Lambert,

Book cover of Bills and Acts: Legislative Procedure in Eighteenth-Century England

Why this book?

This book is fascinating for many reasons, but in particular this work defines the nature of the relationship between the institution of parliament, the relatively new role of the parliamentary agent (in particular in this case, Robert Harper), and the community of landowners and others who needed to get private bills and local bills passed through parliament. Lambert's real achievement is the depth and level of expertise that she developed in this book on the minute detail of the procedure alongside the rough-and-tumble of parliamentary agency, bringing the local into contact with the very core of the legislative and judicial state. It's essentially about interaction.  

Bills and Acts: Legislative Procedure in Eighteenth-Century England

By Sheila Lambert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bills and Acts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The eighteenth century witnessed both a notable increase in the amount of legislation passed in each parliamentary session as a response to the changing economic and social climate, and the development of new forms of parliamentary practice which foreshadowed the much better known innovations of the nineteenth century. In consequence, Parliament gained much greater influence over the everyday life of the community, and the new profession of parliamentary agent developed to assist landowners and local communities in their dealings with Parliament. The study centres round the work of Robert Harper of Lincoln's Inn, an eminent conveyancer whose active career as…


The Parliament of England, 1559–1581

By G. R. Elton,

Book cover of The Parliament of England, 1559–1581

Why this book?

In many ways this book is perhaps the culmination of Elton's considerable published output on parliament, and one where he vociferously defends his outlook on the early Elizabethan English parliament. It is notable that he does spend some time attacking his previous mentor and supervisor, Sir John Neale, in a way that some readers may find more harsh than necessary. Nevertheless, when discussing parliament, the 'puritan choir', and what Elton terms the 'myth of an opposition,' he is producing parliamentary history of the highest order with an insight and writing style that makes for a book that would be difficult to surpass. Like Richardson & Sayles above, Elton's passion for this topic is clearly evident. Like all other authors in this list, he takes what might seem like a mundane topic to the uninformed and uninitiated, and brings it very much to life.  

The Parliament of England, 1559–1581

By G. R. Elton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Parliament of England, 1559–1581 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a comprehensive account of the parliament of early modern England at work, written by the leading authority on sixteenth-century English, constitutional and political history. Professor Elton explains how parliament dealt with bills and acts, discusses the many various matters that came to notice there, and investigates its role in political matters. In the process he proves that the prevailing doctrine, developed by the work of Sir John Neale, is wrong, that parliament did not acquire a major role in politics; that the notion of a consistent, body of puritan agitators in opposition to the government is mere fiction…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, Europe, and the Crusades?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, Europe, and the Crusades.

The Middle Ages Explore 303 books about the Middle Ages
Europe Explore 624 books about Europe
The Crusades Explore 48 books about the Crusades

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Book of Wonder, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, and Growing Up in Medieval London if you like this list.