The Parliament of England

The term ‘parliament’ came into use in the early 13th century to describe a national forum for discussion, and the institution’s origins lay in the consultative Great Council, consisting of the nobility and senior clergy, which had been regularly summoned by English monarchs since the Norman Conquest.

Parliamentary constitutionalism was built on Magna Carta’s enunciation of fundamental rights and its declaration that the king’s will was bound by law. Renounced by King John after he signed it in 1215, the document was reisssued by Henry III’s regent William Marschal and then by the king himself in 1225 when he attained his majority. By 1297, when Edward I’s parliament issued it yet again, the charter was fundamental to the English legal tradition. Following Magna Carta’s adoption the convention was established that parliaments ought to be summoned when monarchs wished to raise money through taxation, and by the mid-13th century knights of the English shires were occasionally attending parliament to advise the Crown – especially on financial matters.

King Edward I presides the Parliament

The nobility and senior clergy played an especially important administrative role during Henry III’s minority, and aristocratic resentment at his failure to consult once he started to rule led to the adoption of the Provisions of Oxford (1258). Henry had to agree to the establishment of a supreme administrative council of 15 barons whose performance was monitored by thrice-yearly meetings of parliament. Simon de Monfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (and son of anti-Cathar crusader) emerged as the leader  of this constitutionalist movement. But in 1264 Henry obtained a papal bull which exempted him from having to abide by his oath to uphold the Provisions. In the military hostilities that followed, Henry was defeated and taken prisoner by de Monfort’s army at the Battle of Lewes (14th May 1264). Many of the nobility became alarmed at this turn of events.

Simon de Montfort and the barons demanding reforms from King Henry III, 1258

In December 1264 de Monfort summoned the first English parliament to be convened without a preceding royal authorization. The senior clergy and the baronage were summoned as well as two knights from each shire, and the presence of two burgesses from each borough, chosen by a form of democratic election, was a real innovation. De Monfort’s system was adopted by Edward I during the ‘Model Parliament’ of 1295, by which time the knights and burgesses were collectively known as ‘the Commons’. The Provisions of Oxford had been allowed to lapse following de Monfort’s defeat, and death, at the Battle of Evesham (4th August 1265). Nonetheless, the knights and burgesses who attented parliament had continued to gain in authority, and it became widely accepted that discussion of taxation usually required the summoning of the Commons. The idea however that knights and burgesses should attend every parliament only gained ground in the mid-14th century.

Nobles, knights and burgesses – the Commons

In 1341 the Commons started to meet separately from the nobility and clergy, and Edward III’s reign saw the establishment of the principle that the support of both Houses of parliament and of the monarch was needed before any law could be approved or any tax levied. The Hundred Year’s War is therefore part of the story of English constitutionalism, since the king was forced to seek parliamentary approval for the very levels of taxation needed to meet the costs of campaigning. Parliamentary consent had also been important in approving the deposition of Edward II and in establishing his son’s legitimate right to rule. Edward III nonetheless tried to avoid parliamentary scrutiny as much as possible. During the Good Parliament (1376), the Commons were critical of the way of war was being conducted and its members demanded a novel right to scrutinize public expenditure.