Today is exactly 700 years since King Edward II* wrote the words “Le Roy le veult” on a document that banned MPs from wearing armour or carrying weapons into his Parliament.
What is known as the Statutum de Defensione portandi Arma was signed into law on the 30th October 1313, and it has never been amended or modified.
To this day, an MP cannot walk into the House of Common in plate armour, or presumably a bullet proof jacket — and the Lords cannot wave swords or nuclear missiles around in their House either.
The bill was passed, as is explained in the text below because “certain persons” had disrupted previous debates on the rare occasions when the King wanted to summon a Parliament. Trying to work out who or why such disturbances took place has proven rather difficult though, but could be related to the deteriorating war in Scotland, and the King’s infatuation with men in the court.
Obviously, when the current Monarch visits the Palace of Westminster, she has an honour guard which is armed, and there are armed police around the building — but within the two rooms that make up the Houses of Parliament themselves, only the Serjant-at-Arms or Black Rod traditionally carries a sword.
They can bear arms in the Houses, as the bill banning such things only applies to those people summoned to a Parliament — namely the MPs and Peers. You and I could — in theory — walk into the Commons carrying a sword.
It is claimed that the distance across the floor of the House between the government and opposition benches at 3.96 metres, is equivalent to two swords’ length. That may be purely symbolic though, as swords had been banned for several hundred years as it was, and Parliament does like its symbolism. Certainly the room used previous to the current Chamber was much smaller, so such a rule could never have applied there anyway.
That hasn’t stopped the occasional MP waving the Mace around though.
Incidentally, although at 700 years old, it is one of the oldest laws still in effect, it’s not the oldest. The Statute of Marlborough Act, which became law in 1267, is the oldest piece of English law yet to be repealed.
If you ever get to go on one of the tours of Parliament, then you might be shown some ribbons on hanging on each coat hook for the Lords cloakrooms — these are for swords, just in case a Member were to arrive armed and need somewhere to hang their sword while in the main Chambers.
The MPs cloakrooms are private, although I am told that the occasional wag will hang a fake sword from their allocated hook.
Oh, and finally, if you hear that sword hooks are placed in the lifts — sorry, that’s a myth. There are indeed hooks in place, but the Parliamentary Archives looked into it for me, and it turns out those are to hold protective blankets when the lifts are being used for moving heavy objects around the building. Sorry about that!
The bill reads in modern English, roughly as follows:
The King, to the Lieutenant, the Treasure and the Barons of the Exchequer, sendeth Greeting.
Whereas of late before certain Persons deputed to treat upon sundry Debates had between Us and certain great Men of our Realm, amongst other things it was accorded, That in our next Parliament after, Provision shall be made by Us, and the common assent of the Prelates, Earls, and Barons, that in all Parliaments, Treatises, and other Assemblies, which should be made in the Realm of England for ever, that every Man shall come without all Force and without Armour, well and peaceably, to the Honour of Us, and the Peace of Us and our Realm; and now in our next Parliament Prelates, Earls, Barons, and the Commonalty of our Realm, there assembled to take Advice of this Business, have said, that to Us it belongeth, and our part is, through our Royal Seigniory, straitly to defend wearing of Armour, and all other Force against our Peace, at all Times when it shall please Us, and to punish them which shall do contrary, according to our Laws and Usages of our Realm; and hereunto they are bound to aid Us as their Sovereign Lord at all Seasons, when need shall be;
We command you, that ye cause these Things to be read afore you in the said Exchequer, and there to be enrolled, Given at Westminster, the thirtieth day of October.
*The Parliament website says Edward I, but he was dead by then.