The Beginnings of Parliamentary Democracy
The Classical world never knew popular representation; that is to say, whenever a council met, its members were there to pass their individual judgments upon the issues placed before them with no consideration at all of the views of their class, profession, or trade. In this the Classical world differed from Anglo-Saxon England; for example, where it was customary for the Reeve, the official who was either the steward or bailiff of an estate appointed to maintain order, collect dues and supervise labor and the “four best men” of the town to attend the Shire-moot or council. The Town-reeve and the “four best men” were elected by their fellow-townsmen and were required to put the electors’ views and wishes before the moot.
With the establishment of the feudal system after the Norman Conquest, this system was continued and indeed extended from the shire-courts right up to the King’s High Court at Westminster. The greatest tenants-in-chief, whether bishops or barons, were required to attend the High Court by writs of summons sent to each; in other words, they did not enjoy representation, but had to attend in person; while on the other hand, the lesser tenants-in-chief and the cities and boroughs were required to produce two representatives from each shire, city, and borough to do their duty for them, and the lesser clergy were granted the same advantage.
The business of these representatives was judicial and financial, and work of this kind had long been done on the representative principle in the shire-courts. The summons to Westminster arose out of the fact that by degrees the justice of the King’s Court began to supersede the justice of the local, popular, feudal courts.
By the time that Henry II (1154-1189) had established his very expert curia regis, or King’s Council, which no other court could match either in the power it wielded or in the matters it could judge, the High Court at Westminster had achieved such a reputation that the vast number of petitions presented to it, many of which in earlier times would have been presented to the lower courts of the manor or shire, made it necessary for the King’s Council to set up three committees to deal with them. These committees were known as Common Pleas, the Court of Exchequer and the King’s Bench; and it was when these three committees met together in one body that we find the word parliament, meaning deep discussion, first being used.
During the reign of King John, the barons, by means of Magna Carta, attempted to limit the power which the king wielded over the country through his Court at Westminster; in other words, they tried to limit the extent of the jurisdiction of the King’s Court. In this they failed, and in the reign of John’s successor, Henry III (1216-1272), the system became more firmly embedded in English national life.
The next important step forward was taken in 1265, when the Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, led the barons in opposition to the tremendous personal power which the king was gradually seizing, and eventually took up arms against him and defeated him. Making himself virtual dictator, he summoned what some historians regard as the first real Parliament.
Simon had an unswerving love of justice and strong religious feelings. He had at heart no less what he believed to be the rights of the people than the privileges of the barons. He wanted the law to be predominant, but not a law interpreted for the good of one man.
It was to further these beliefs that in January, 1265, he summoned to a Parliament not only the greater barons and the bishops by separate writ, and two knights elected in the shire-court of every county, but also two burgesses from each of the larger towns to represent the freemen and taxpayers.
It was this last which was really revolutionary in the history of government in England up to this time, for the burgesses had no right in law to refuse their consent to the imposition of this system of taxation called tallage if it were demanded by the Crown. Indeed, only a few years earlier, some citizens of London had been imprisoned by Henry III for opposing the imposition of a tallage.
The effect of de Montfort’s summoning of the burgesses was much more far-reaching than he could have visualized. In Parliament for the first time, and from this time burgesses sat in every Parliament—the ordinary citizens had a voice in the financial affairs of the country, and could use their influence to determine what taxes should or should not be raised. Exactly five hundred years later, a British Government heavily loaded with debts, hit upon the idea of raising money by the sale of stamps which had to be affixed to certain documents before those documents became effective. On 5 February, 1765, the House of Commons passed the Stamp Act, and immediately attempted to impose it also on the American colonies.
The American colonists had for some years been protesting against the tax on land imposed by the Parliament at Westminster for the purpose of paying part of the cost of the British army’s stationed in America. They argued that they should not be taxed by a body in which their voice could not be heard. The Stamp Act brought matters to a head, and the resentment of the colonists was only prevented from boiling over on this occasion by the British Government which had passed the Act being driven from office before the Act had become effective. The next Government repealed the Act, but at the same time insisted that it had full authority over the colonies.
Over the next seven or eight years the colonists grew louder in their complaints and more warlike in their behaviour, until the situation exploded in 1775 with the colonists declaring war on the British. The principle for which the colonists were fighting was summed up in their slogan: “No taxation without representation” and this has, in fact, become a basic principle of democratic government, the seeds of which were sown by Simon de Montfort in 1265.
But the introduction of the burgesses had a more immediate effect than this. In feudal times, land had been the only source of direct taxation, and for this reason only the landowners had been consulted. Soon, however, wealth derived from commerce began to approach very close in value to the value represented by land. When this became evident, it did not long escape the wit of the king that a tax on personal property could be a lucrative source of revenue. The fact that the burgesses were already called to Parliament automatically meant that the rich new merchants were represented in Parliament, and could be taxed without any principle of justice being affronted, or a new principle having to be introduced. The transition was, therefore, painless, almost unnoticed.
By chance this all came about when the throne of England was occupied by one of the most intelligent and law-respecting kings ever to sit upon it.
Henry III survived the death of de Montfort on the battlefield of Evesham by seven years, and was succeeded by the son who had defeated his enemy, Edward I. Two years before his father’s death Edward had left England for a Crusade to the Holy Land, and when he eventually landed at Dover on 2 August, 1274, he had already been king for two years. Though the kingdom to which he returned was outwardly peaceful and well administered, it was not long before the new king embarked upon a series of reforms which were to have a most significant effect on the future development of the kingdom and its institutions.
For a proper understanding of these reforms, it is necessary to know something of Edward himself. He was thirty-three years old when he came to the throne, upright, broad-shouldered, with lithe, sinewy limbs, his once fair hair bleached and his skin permanently tanned by the suns of the Holy Land.
From his boyhood he had been raised as a warrior, and his reputation in arms was equalled by none of his subjects. He had had little time to read, but though no scholar he could write French with fair ease, Latin a little less certainly and corresponded with his brother-in-law in Spanish.
He had one great intellectual passion, the study of the law, which he had first begun as a young boy under one of his father’s justices, Hugh Giffard. Now his mastery of legal argument was as formidable as his mastery of arms.
He feared no man, but while strong-willed he was at the same time magnanimous. Swift to anger, he was equally swift to forgive. A contemporary once said of him, “He is a king terrible to all the sons of pride, but gentle to the meek of the earth.”
He hated every kind of waste and extravagance. His father had been reckless with money to the point of almost continuous embarrassment, and Edward was determined as king not to suffer the humiliations to which he had had to submit as prince. He was determined to be master in his own house, but again unlike his father he was determined to be so not in opposition to his barons, but in friendship with them. For this reason he did not try, like his father and grandfather had done, to set himself apart from them. In this resolve he was fortunate that most of them were of his own age or younger; they had fought with him at Evesham; and had accompanied him on his Crusade. Whether consciously or not, they recognized his superior qualities, and if they could not count themselves among his intimate friends, they were none the less eager to have his royal approval.
The kingdom was managed by the great clerks of the State departments that had grown out of the royal household. The two oldest of these were the Chancery and the Exchequer, which had first evolved in Anglo-Saxon times. To these two, Henry II had added the Wardrobe, which in the hundred years of its existence by the reign of Edward I had been transformed from an actual department for providing royal clothing into an office of finance and administration.
The great clerks and their myriad assistants, trained by and drawn mostly from the Church, were expert public servants, who, no matter what happened in the State, remained unchanging. They it was who laid the foundation of the great and famous British Civil Service of modern times; and like their successors of the twentieth century they, in the thirteenth, exercised a stabilizing influence on every aspect of State.
Despite this well-organized administration, however, Edward knew that there was much room for reform in his realm, and even before his coronation festivities were over he had set out on a progress. As he travelled about the country to the enthusiastic welcome of his common subjects, what he learned convinced him more than ever that change must be made.
In order that these reforms should operate for the justice of all, he first appointed commissioners to go throughout the length and breadth of the country to hear all complaints. He urged them to carry out their work with despatch, and he was obeyed with such alacrity that the inquiry was completed in the amazingly short time of four months.
Based on the commissioners’ findings, Edward drew up his first list of changes. These, however, could not become law until they had been issued under the king’s seal and publicly witnessed and approved in a Parliament of the nation’s highest council. In the spring of 1275, therefore, he called his first grand council and court, to which he summoned the earls and barons, the great officers of the Church and, through the sheriffs, four elected and representative knights from every county and four merchants or burgesses from every important town.
“And because elections ought to be free,” declared the writ from the king to the sheriffs, “the king commandeth upon great forfeiture that no man by force of arms nor by malice nor menacing shall disturb or hinder any to make free elections.”
When at last those summoned had made their way to Westminster they were presented with what later became known as the first Statute of Westminster. It was a long document running to fifty-one clauses which aimed at redressing many of the wrongs of all classes and sections of the population. It was for this reason that Edward summoned the elected representatives, for he needed their approval of those measures which particularly concerned them.
Approved and passed by Parliament, copies of the Statute were sent to all the sheriffs, and it was proclaimed in the courts of every county, hundred, city, borough and market-town, and all judges, sheriffs and bailiffs were commanded to enforce its provisions. He also caused a copy sealed by his seal to be kept at Westminster, and thus inaugurated the system by which laws could be recited in courts not from hearsay but by quotation, and so became capable of being acceptable as evidence.
For the next twenty years Edward continued his great work of reform, and each time he prepared new ordinances, by which the reforms were made legal, he summoned Parliament. In 1295 he summoned the most comprehensive Parliament that had met in England up to this time. It was so representative of all sections of the community that it has become known as the Model Parliament. From this time onwards the powers and authority of Parliament began to increase, and never at any time thereafter could any monarch in England hope to rule against the will and wishes of the High Court of Parliament assembled at Westminster, though some now and again did try.
These early Parliaments were held in a single chamber, at the upper end of which sat the king on his throne. At his feet sat the Chancellor, on one of the four woolsacks arranged in a square on which sat the council, the Justices of the King’s Bench on the Chancellor’s right, the Judges of the Common Pleas on his left.
The council was the inner core of Parliament. Outside this inner square, the bishops and abbots sat on benches running down from the right of the throne, and the earls and barons on similar benches on his left. At the lower end of the chamber, beyond the bar, stood the Commons, led by their leader, later known as the Speaker.
When the Chancellor, or some other councillor, had explained why Parliament had been summoned, the various Estates, the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, the lower clergy, the knights of the shire and the burgesses, making five in all, withdrew each to separate rooms, and there debated what the king and his council proposed doing and agreed upon their answers. When all were ready, the five Estates returned to the Parliament chamber and gave their decisions through their leaders. The majority decision was then made the decision of all.
Within half a century of Edward’s death, from this single chamber, Parliament split into two parts or Houses. The bishops, earls and barons met by themselves; the lower clergy ceased to take part in any proceedings which did not affect the Church; while the knights of the shires and burgesses joined together. Less than a century later the separate work of the two main groups, Lords and Commons, had become more important than their joint work in common session.
It was in the reign of Henry VIII that Parliament, however, really came into its own. Henry early formed the habit of doing everything through Parliament, and so created the impression that nothing could be done without Parliament. Now, instead of meeting for a few weeks, it sat for years at a time. This gave it stability, a solidarity, and sense of tradition, a body of rules and customs and a mastery of politics. Soon it had developed a will of its own and began to deny the Crown all sorts of control it had exerted before, and eventually established its claim to be the superior in the realm.
In no other country did parliamentary government develop along the lines of the English parliamentary system. The time was to come when the strengths of the English system led to its adoption or to its being imitated in every quarter of the globe. Probably no other national institution has so exerted an influence on so many of the world’s inhabitants as that indirectly exerted by the English parliamentary system.
- Parliament of UK documents
- Michael L. Nash, “Crown, Woolsack and Mace: the model Parliament of 1295.” Contemporary Review, November 1995.