A Brief History Of Royal Assent By Commission

Today Lords Commissioners gave Royal Assent to legislation before proroguing Parliament. Traditionally, the Monarch signified their Assent in the presence of Parliament, but the statute 33 Henry 8 c. 21 allowed Henry VIII to grant Assent without visiting Parliament.

Although the modern short title for this Act is the Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541, it’s a bit of a misnomer.[1] Royal Assent-related provisions were only a small component of the original legislation. It also attainted Queen Catherine Howard and her accomplices and made it treason for an unchaste woman to marry the King without disclosing her sexual history.[2] On January 30, 1542, the Lord Chancellor informed the House of Lords that the King couldn’t give Assent to the bill in person “lest the repetition of so grievous a story, and the recital of so infamous a crime, in the King’s presence, might reopen a wound already closing in the royal bosom.[3]” Consequently, the bill included a clause to allow Henry to signify his Assent by signing Letters Patent, which would then be communicated to Parliament.[4]

The new method was first used to give Assent to the statute 33 Henry 8 c. 21 along with a bill regarding the trial of ‘lunatics’ for treason.[5] To modern eyes, it looks decidedly odd that the legislation authorizing Royal Assent by Letters Patent itself received Royal Assent by Letters Patent. In the words of R. W. Perceval “if Henry VIII had not been so absolute a monarch, and his Parliament so subservient, such a change could probably not have been made, at least without an enabling Act.[6]” 

Although Royal Assent by Commission is now associated with Lords Commissioners wearing parliamentary robes and cocked hats, the Henrician legislation didn’t specify how Parliament was to be informed of the King’s Assent. The only statutory requirement was that the Letters Patent be sealed with the Great Seal and bear the Royal Sign Manual.[7]

When the procedure was first used, the Lord Chancellor simply exhibited the King’s Letters Patent to the Lords and Commons.[8] On the next occasion, the King empowered the Lord High Treasurer to declare his Assent on his behalf.[9] However, Commissions for Dissolution and Prorogation customarily delegated the job to several peers,[10] and by 1547, commissions of peers were also signifying Royal Assent on the King’s behalf.[11]

Despite the new procedure, Royal Assent by the Sovereign in person remained the norm. As Perceval has shown, Assent by Commission was quite rare between 1550 and 1750,[12] though it became more common in the later decades of the 18th century. Perceval suggests that this was likely due to the increasing number of bills being passed. There could easily be 90 or 100 bills awaiting Royal Assent at the end of a session, so a practice began whereby a Royal Commission would take place a few days before prorogation to reduce the number of bills the Sovereign needed to deal with in person. For example, on May 22, 1775 the Lords Commissioners assented to 76 bills, leaving 19 for George III to deal with when he prorogued Parliament on May 26.[13]

From 1800 onward, the Monarch’s physical presence in Parliament was largely restricted to the State Opening and prorogation. Under Queen Victoria, the Sovereign’s presence at prorogation tapered off and then stopped entirely after 1854. That also marks the last occasion that a British Monarch signified the Royal Assent in person at Westminster.

For a little over a century, Royal Commissions were the only way to signify Assent. But by the mid-20th century, the practice had become increasingly controversial. Many MPs resented having to stop what they were doing and go to the Bar of the House of Lords to witness the signification of Royal Assent. The Royal Assent Act 1967 created a third method of signifying Assent: the Sovereign could sign Letters Patent and that fact could be notified to each House sitting separately by their Speakers. While the 1967 Act preserved the Monarch’s ability to grant Assent in person or by Commission,[14] the simpler procedure became the norm. Assent is now only given by Commission when Parliament is prorogued.[15]

The fact that a temporary expedient designed to spare Henry VIII’s blushes went on to become a constitutional norm is quite remarkable. As Perceval observed, it shows “[h]ow unexpectedly that Constitution grows, and what curious materials are built into its fabric![16]


[1] Parts of the Act had been repealed within a few years, but schedule 1 of the Statute Law Revision Act 1948 repealed the remaining provisions except for those relating to Royal Assent. Schedule 2 of the 1948 Act also gave the 1541 Act its modern short title. Although the Act was actually passed in 1542, its official short title places it in 1541 because, prior to 1793, Acts of Parliament took effect retroactively from the first day of the session in which they were passed.

[2] The Act can be found in The Statutes of the Realm, vol. 3, (1817; repr., London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1963), 857-860.

[3] “House of Lords Journal Volume 1: 30 January 1542,” in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 1, 1509-1577, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1767-1830), 171. British History Online, accessed April 29, 2021, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol1/p171.

[4] Section 3 of the Act established the new procedure while section 5 declared that the use of the new procedure would be “taken and reputed good and effectual to all intents and purposes…Any custom or use to the contrary notwithstanding.”

[5] “House of Lords Journal Volume 1: 11 February 1542,” in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 1, 1509-1577, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1767-1830), 176. British History Online, accessed April 29, 2021, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol1/p176.

[6] R. W. Perceval, “Henry VIII and the Origin of Royal Assent by Commission,” Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 3, issue 2, (Winter 1949), 311.

[7] See section III of the statute 33 Henry 8 c. 21.

[8] Perceval, 310. The Lords Journal of 11 February 1542 contains an account of the proceedings in Latin.

[9] “House of Lords Journal Volume 1: 29 March 1544,” in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 1, 1509-1577, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1767-1830), 263-265. British History Online, accessed April 29, 2021, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol1/pp263-265

[10] For a Commission for Dissolution, see “House of Lords Journal Volume 1: 29 March 1544,” in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 1, 1509-1577, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1767-1830), 263-265. British History Online, accessed April 29, 2021, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol1/pp263-265. For a Commission for Prorogation, see “House of Lords Journal Volume 1: 14 January 1540,” in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 1, 1509-1577, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1767-1830), 127. British History Online, accessed April 29, 2021, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol1/p127.

[11] “House of Lords Journal Volume 1: 27 January 1547,” in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 1, 1509-1577, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1767-1830), 289-290. British History Online, accessed April 29, 2021, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/lords-jrnl/vol1/pp289-290.

[12] Perceval, 313.

[13] Perceval, 314.

[14] While it did repeal the statute 33 Henry 8 c. 21, section 1(1)(a) allowed Royal Assent to be “pronounced in the presence of both Houses in the House of Lords in the form and manner customary before the passing of this Act.”

[15] Until 2002, the Governor General of Canada (or their deputy) had to travel to Parliament to assent to legislation. The Royal Assent Act 2002 introduced a simpler procedure using a written declaration while stipulating that the older ceremony should still be used on certain occasions.   

[16] Perceval, 315.

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