Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The origins of Parliament

Simon de Montfort
window of Chartres Cathedral
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

These are the books I've consulted:
David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery. The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004)
Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: the Kings who made England (William Collins, 2013)
Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (London: Windmill Books, 2009)
Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Robin Shepherd, Westminster a Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

David Carpenter argues (p. 491) that 

‘Magna Carta ‘constituted a watershed between different styles of government, making it much harder for the king to treat individuals in an arbitrary fashion, especially when it come to taking their money’. 

Henry III (1216-72)

During Henry’s childhood, and until he began his personal rule in 1234, England was ruled by a series of regencies. The most fundamental developments of his reign were the emergence of parliament, the widening of the political community and the growing sense of xenophobic national identity, all shaped by opposition to royal politics. In 1258 his personal rule was ended by a political revolution far more radical than Magna Carta in 1215. 
Henry’s high view of kingship can be seen in his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey from 1245 in honour of Edward the Confessor. It was twenty-four years before the new abbey could be consecrated, and even then the building was unfinished. However, he also confirmed Magna Carta in 1237 and 1253, apparently sincerely, suggesting that he believed that the king had to act under the law. 

His political failing was his naivety. In 1236 he married Eleanor, daughter of the count of Provence and related through her mother to the powerful ruling house of Savoy. Eleanor’s sister, Margaret, had married the French king, Louis IX. A tough and determined woman, Eleanor advanced her own family in the English court. Another group of foreigners also became influential, the sons of Henry’s mother’s second marriage to the Poitevin nobleman, Hugh de Lusignan. The foreign nobles quarrelled with each other and with the English nobles, and the competition over patronage thwarted Henry’s desire to create a harmonious court.

Henry had not abandoned the idea of recovering the lands his father had lost. But his ambition to restore the lost Plantagenet lands of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine was beyond his budget. In 1242 he took an army to France, but was forced to retreat from the army of his brother-in-law, Louis IX. Gascony, was all that now remained of the Angevin Empire. 

Law and government

In the early years of Henry’s personal rule the reforms of the common law and the king’s government continued. From 1234 a court headed by professional judges, later to be called the ‘court of king’s bench’ travelled with him. From 1236 the king ruled with a sworn council of twelve ministers, who overhauled the running of the sheriffdoms. More and more people were now seeking the king’s justice, both at the common bench at Westminster and before the general eyres. 

Financial exactions

Like his father, Henry was in constant need of money. His campaign of 1242 had been very expensive. It was followed by another in 1253, and also in the 1250s by an unsuccessful attempts to secure Sicily first for his brother, Richard of Cornwall and then for his son, Edmund.  In addition, his court and his renovation of Westminster Abbey cost a great deal of money.  

In clear breach of Magna Carta royal agents exploited all the available sources of royal revenue, in particular, collecting the income of vacant bishoprics, and levying taxes on the tenants of the abbots and bishops. Forced to yield increasing sums to the exchequer, the sheriffs exacted heavy taxes from their localities. Because they did not wish to offend the magnates, they levied heavier exactions on the bulk of the population. Henry had alienated the political nation outside the baronage. This is the period when the story of Robin Hood began to circulate.  The murmurings against taxation were exacerbated by the belief that the country was governed by foreigners, ‘the Poitevin tyranny’. One chronicler lamented that Henry ‘loved aliens above all the English’.  The English were becoming united by their hostility to foreigners.

The development of parliament

The central constitutional fact of Henry’s reign is the development of parliament. The term first appeared in an official record in November 1236, and was used with increasing frequency afterwards. On this occasion, the event was a meeting of the king’s ‘great council’, the body that the Anglo-Saxons had called the ‘witan’, whose members included officers of the royal household, government officials, barons, and senior clerics.  

At this time, the term 'parliament' meant an event rather than an institution.  It became more important because of the financial needs of the crown, caused by Henry’s extravagance. Magna Carta had stipulated that to gain common consent for taxation, the greater barons were to be summoned individually and the lesser tenants through the sheriffs. Subsequent versions of the Charter omitted this clause, but it continued to operate. Because it comprised a wide social spectrum, including many minor landholders as well as the barons, it believed that it truly represented the wider political community. 

In the 1240s and 1250s Henry was refused supply at parliament after parliament, and in the process of denying the king, parliament gained a new sense of its importance in the constitution.  The parliament of January 1242, when Henry was refused money for a military expedition in Europe, is the first authorized account of a parliamentary debate. 

Initially the meetings of parliament were informal and haphazard. But in 1254 the county courts were ordered to elect two knights to come and grant taxation ‘on behalf of everyone in the county’, the first known occasion on which representatives from the shires were summoned to parliament.  After this no tax was ever granted without their consent and from the start they proved themselves independent-minded.

However, the belief was gaining ground that Magna Carta and its associate, the Charter of the Forests, were not enough. They were not enforceable, they said nothing about who the sheriffs were to be and on what grounds they were to hold office, and nothing about the conduct of magnates and their officials. Above all, Magna Carta was silent about the control of central government and the king’s right of patronage.  In 1244 a draft constitution was concocted at a parliament, which stipulated that the great council or parliament should have sole authority to appoint and remove four of the king’s small council, including the justiciar and the chancellor.  

The crisis of 1258

1258 was the crisis year of the reign. The harvest of the previous year had failed, Henry’s Lusignan relatives were behaving in an increasingly overbearing manner, his campaign in Wales was going badly, and his involvement in Sicily had brought on a quarrel with the pope. 

The king summoned parliament to deal with the crisis and to demand taxation. On 30 April three magnates, Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, Richard de Clare, earl of Gloucester, and the king’s brother-in-law, the French nobleman, Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, marched in full armour into the king’s hall at Westminster, and forced Henry to accept a general reform of the realm. He was forced to agree that the kingdom should be reformed by twenty-four men, half of them chosen by him and half by the barons.  The work of reformation was to begin in June at a parliament summoned to Oxford. 

At the Oxford parliament in June, the reformers in effect mounted a coup d’état, stripping the king of physical power by putting their own men into the royal castles. They then took control of central government. A panel drawn from the twenty-four appointed a new council of fifteen members that was dominated by the king’s opponents, led by Montfort. Their programme, which became known as the Provisions of Oxford, was truly revolutionary. According to Marc Morris (p. 39) 

‘Nothing like it had ever been attempted before and nothing similar would be tried again for another four centuries.’  
The chronicler Matthew Paris wrote:
 ‘When parliament opened, the proposal and unalterable intention of the magnates was adopted, most firmly demanding that the king should faithfully keep and observe the charter of the liberties in England.’ 
The new council was to choose the king’s chief ministers and control the whole running of central government; it was to appoint the keepers of the royal castles for the next twelve years; the chancellor was not to seal charters and writs without its permission; parliament was to meet at least three times annually ‘to deal with the common business of the realm and the king together’.  One of the most radical clauses stipulated that sheriffs were to be local knights, remedying the abuses of the barons as well as the king. This reform exemplified the idea of the ‘community of the realm, the notion of a ‘body politic’ that was being taught at the new university at Oxford, where Aristotle’s distinction between a just ruler and a tyrant was being eagerly studied.  

In October 1258 proclamations were sent in Henry’s name to the people of England and Ireland telling them that the new order had been established. This was a truly national programme of reform. 

Simon de Montfort

In swearing an oath to uphold the Provisions, the barons were acting out of a mixture of idealism and self-interest, the contradiction embodied above all in the person of the king’s brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort. Both the barons and the royal family were feuding among themselves and, to add to the complications, the Welsh prince, Llywelyn, was mounting a successful campaign against English rule in Wales. (See a subsequent post for this.)

In 1261 Henry felt strong enough to quash the Provisions and dismiss his justiciar, and for a time he was able to divide his enemies, with only Montfort remaining true to the Provisions. But the king’s party was also divided, with Henry’s son, the Lord Edward allying with his opponents. Montfort was able to force the surrender of the king in the Tower and on 16 July 1263 the Provisions were re-imposed, with the added proviso that the king’s foreign advisors should be expelled. In this atmosphere of xenophobia a shared sense of Englishness resonated through all classes of society.  The Frenchman, Montfort, was now in effect in charge of the kingdom.

However, his hold on power did not last. In October 1263 the king, now supported by his previously rebellious son, shook himself free from his control. Both sides agreed to appeal to Louis IX of France. In January 1264 in what is known as the ‘Mise of Amiens, Louis totally condemned the Provisions of Oxford and declared that kings should rule unfettered. When Montfort and his followers refused to accept his judgement, the result was civil war. On 14 May they defeated the king at Lewes, taking Henry, Edward and the king’s brother Richard of Cornwall prisoners. In June a council of nine was opposed on the king, chosen by and responsible to three electors including Montfort.  Montfort was once more the real ruler of the country.

Knights and burgesses

However, Montfort faced a formidable opposition: with the support of Louis IX, Queen Eleanor was gathering an army in Flanders; the papal legate excommunicated him; most of the nobility were on the King’s side. In response he turned to what a chronicler called ‘the community of the middle people of the kingdom of England’.  He summoned to the parliament of June 1264 four knights from each shire, chosen by the county court ‘to discuss the business of the realm’. In 1265 he took the novel step of summoning burgesses from the towns to parliament. 
‘Here truly was the House of Commons in embryo.’  (Carpenter, p. 378)
The political nation was wider even than knights and burgesses. In the summer of 1264, faced by the threat of invasion from the queen, Montfort summoned eight men from each village to Barham Down in Kent. The response was overwhelming.  Five bishops supported Montfort and clergy told the people gathered at Barham that he stood for the community of the realm and the rights of the English.  

The battle of Evesham

Montfort’s moment of power did not last. In May Edward escaped from his captivity in Hereford. On 4 August 1265 Montfort was defeated and killed at Evesham in a battle notable for the brutality of its carnage.  
The death of de Montfort at Evesham
British Library Cotton MS Nero D ii, f. 177 (date: late 13th century)

In July 1267 Edward extinguished the last resistance in the Isle of Ely and the war was over. However, Montfort’s tomb at Evesham abbey became a place of pilgrimage. The king accepted some of the reforms that had been forced on him, notably the provisions aimed at controlling the abuses of the sheriffs. When Henry sought taxation to finance Edward’s projected crusade he negotiated with his parliaments. He summoned knights as well as barons and on one occasion also summoned burgesses.

By the end of Henry’s reign all his enemies were dead. In 1269 he asserted his authority by translating the body of Edward the Confessor to its shrine in his expensive new church at Westminster. The church was considered the finest in Christendom and was a strong assertion of the God-given nature of his rule.  However his reign saw the origins of parliament and opened up the possibilities for further conflict between the king and the political nation.

Edward I (1272-1307)

Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile, were the first monarchs to be crowned in the new Gothic Westminster Abbey.  In spite of his determination not to surrender power to the barons as his father had done, parliament increased in importance during his reign. Its core was the Council, which included the justices, the chief officials of the Exchequer, and many of the great lay and ecclesiastical magnates.  However, Edward summoned the Commons on a much more regular basis than his father had done. This began when he summoned knights and burgesses to the parliament at Easter 1275, who swore allegiance to the new king.  As many as 800 were summoned, making it the largest parliament of the Middle Ages.  The House of Commons ‘had actually arrived’ even though the burgesses and knights sat together with the barons and clergy, rather than separately.  Edward saw the Commons as providing political support, as spreading his message in the localities, and as being necessary to vote taxation, in lines with the reforms of Henry III’s reign.  

His reign saw a number of important parliamentary statutes. The Statute of Westminster (1275) dealt with the restoration of royal rights and with law and order law and order,  the Statute of Quo Warranto (1290) with landownership. In the 1290s he fought wars in France, Wales, and Scotland, which meant that Commons representatives attended four of the eight parliaments held between 1294 and 1297. In 1297 Edward was forced to confirm by charter that taxation could only be levied ‘with the common assent of all the realm’. 

The attendance of knights and burgesses was now almost finally fixed. Between 1300 and 1307, they came to seven out of nine parliaments.  Parliament had come a long way since Magna Carta. In 1215 the magnates had seen themselves as fully representative of the realm; now the ‘knights and burgesses’ claimed to be the true representatives of England.  This reflected a shift of power in the localities, with the gentry taking on more of the administration of local government and of justice. In the fourteenth century, with the emergence of justices of the peace, they obtained the primary responsibility of the trial and punishment of crime. Now that the king was dependent on knights and burgesses for taxation, they had become powerful nationally as well as locally.

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