The term ‘parliament’ originally meant an informal meeting of indeterminate size. From this early definition it grew into the legislative assembly known today. The escalation of that evolution began with Magna Carta in 1215, drawn up by England’s magnates to codify laws and the rights of the individual and signed by King John. Although King John quickly reneged on his agreement, after several revisions an altered version became law in 1225. Magna Carta is translated as The Great Charter.
The 1215 version of Magna Carta had put forth the idea of voluntary taxation; that is, those being taxed would have to give their consent. But how could they physically do that? How could they vote on such a thing? By a gathering, a meeting, a ‘parliament.’ Cut out of the 1217 version, this idea was reinforced by Hubert de Burgh in 1225 when, during the minority of Henry III, he called together a parliament of nobles to ask for one-fifteenth of their movable goods as tax, implicitly supporting the concept of voluntary tax. And to arrange for a voluntary tax a parliament would be necessary.
When Henry III claimed his throne in 1227, political in-fighting and Henry’s obsession with regaining the lost French province of Poitou lead to empty coffers, bad feelings among the nobles and a rejection of another tax in 1232. Political upheavals lead to the wholesale revocation of royal charters, making everyone nervous. The king’s actions implied that Henry no longer supported the ideals of Magna Carta, that he would grant or revoke land titles by his will alone, that he was the law and the only law, that he could make it up as he went along. In 1234 opposition had grown so fierce that Henry was obliged to reissue the Charters and affirm his place within the law; never again would the king be allowed to rule by his will alone, thus affirming the rule of the law.
All of this was prelude to the rise of Parliament.
The term parliament came into common use in the 1230’s to describe a gathering of the king and his ‘great men.’ For quite some time kings had been expected to consult with their closest advisors and various important men in the kingdom. Henry’s unending appetite for new taxes, combined with the need to ask his subjects for approval of every new tax, gradually evolved into a system of supply (taxation) and the redress of grievances, or the king’s willingness to respond to the complaints of the people. Put another way, he traded increased taxes for whatever his people wanted from him at the time. Since he frequently had to ask for more money, this system of give and take became ritualized and lasted until the late 17th century. But Henry asked one time too many, and in 1242 his subjects said no to a new tax for a new war, forcing him to pay for it with other monies. It wasn’t until 1269 that he was given another tax. Among other reasons, in return for the tax his nobles asked for some say-so in whom Henry appointed to administrative positions. He refused, so they refused. Things went better than expected for a while but in 1258 Henry’s finances collapsed. Trying to be a major influence in Europe he had pledged his son, Edmund, to the throne of Sicily, an ambition he could never achieve. He did, however, inherit a 90,000 pound debt to the Papacy that left him destitute and turning to his barons for help. It came at an enormous political price, sparking a 7 year period that changed everything regarding the English government.
In 1258 the Provisions of Oxford took the power out of the king’s hands and established the Council of Fifteen, a group responsible to the barons meeting in Parliament. In return for paying off his debts his nobles took over running his country. These magnates, meeting in parliament at Oxford, began a series of sweeping reforms meant to show that royal government was a ‘collaborative, consultative’ enterprise, known as the Community of the Realm; the king would make his decisions with the advice of a council of fifteen advisors appointed during this parliament of magnates. The king could not dismiss members of this Council of Fifteen, only the magnates meeting in parliament could do so. Community of the Realm was a somewhat fuzzy political concept that encompassed the entire body politic, from the earls and barons to the free peasants, including them in a royal government that was both consultative and collaborative. The idea was to somehow include everyone in the functioning of government. Like so many other ideas during this rising period of Parliament, the exact definition was less important than the concept.
The arrangement didn’t last long. By 1262 Henry had repudiated the Provisions of Oxford and was back to ruling on his own authority as the Council of Fifteen fell apart and the barons’ inherent differences forced them apart. A near rebellion lead by Simon de Montfort lead to an arbitration hearing in which King Louis IX of France would decide whether Henry could rule on his own, or had to abide by the Provisions of Oxford. King Louis scoffed at anything that lessened royal power, such as parliamentary influence, so in 1264 he decided in Henry’s favor and open rebellion broke out. In a battle fought at Lewes, near the Channel coast, de Montfort’s forces won a nearly miraculous victory against superior forces, taking Henry’s eldest son and heir, Edward, prisoner and holding him hostage. For the next year de Montfort was the de facto ruler of England, ostensibly ruling on the principles of the Provisions of Oxford. But his rule was never thought legitimate, his base of support small and shrinking, and in 1265 Edward escaped imprisonment and raised a new army. The fight went on. At the Battle of Evesham de Montfort was killed and Henry once again took over ruling England. He lived 7 more years.
As previously stated, the word ‘parliament’ had in been in use for some time by the 12th century, meaning essentially some sort of meeting, a parley. But by the 1230’s it had begun to take on a more specific meaning, that of a deliberative meeting of the king’s great council, his closest advisors, and it was even later that the word came to mean a permanent institution and not just an occasion. The slangier, and much later term ‘parley’, has taken on the old meaning of the world ‘parliament’; that is, a discussion or meeting between an indeterminate number of people. Throughout Europe parliaments evolved not to counter-balance the king, that is, not as a rival to the king’s power, but rather part of it. They were summoned by the king to give him council, or advice. They were meant to represent the entire population through the magnates, the upper class, who were looking after the welfare of all those who dwelt within their area. They were the voice of their community in matters before the king. The king’s council was the inner core of this meeting and did most of it’s business, becoming professionalized over time. In England, earls, barons, prelates and magnates were all summoned by the king to parliament, and all attended. Attendance was not optional. And after the 1250’s the parliament began reaching even lower down the social scale, summoning representatives from shires and towns, and clergy. This meant that English parliaments had an element of political and consultative inclusiveness not found elsewhere; the English upper and even middle class had significant and important input into the running of the kingdom. They were the community of the realm. The lower classes did not have influence yet, but this form of power sharing between king and subjects was enormously important. No longer would the free men of the kingdom be ruled without being heard, as was made clear in the troubled period from1258-1267.
The reasons parliaments could be called were many and varied. For some judicial matters the king might wish to spread the blame for a decision, to dilute the negative fallout by having a parliament advise him on the matter. The same could happen in other areas of debate; law, administrative matters, war, peace. Essentially any matter that came before the king could be taken up by a parliament. For the king a major benefit was that if parliament advised him and problems arose from a decision, then parliament would support him. With the beginning of Edward I’s reign, the parliaments began hearing petitions against royal officials. They were becoming a crucial vehicle for the king to learn the concerns of his subjects, and in turn to let his subjects know his concerns.
The key to their power was taxes. Although the clause in the 1215 Magna Carta requiring consent of the taxed to pay voluntary taxes had been removed in later versions, the sentiment remained and became an unwritten law until 1297, when Edward made had it written into law. Only by the consent of the community at large could extraordinary taxes be levied. The concept of parliament necessarily being the ones to decide on such taxes did not happen right away; not until Edward III would the passing of such taxes become synonymous with parliament. But almost from the start it was recognized that such parliaments were the easiest way of dealing with tax matters, and this was a milestone on the road to a legislative Parliament.
Parliaments were not mundane creations, however, assembled to deal with mundane matters. They did so, sometimes, but that was certainly not how they saw themselves. These were assemblies of the king’s most powerful and influential advisors, the who’s who of their day, and they gathered to discuss matters of high importance to the kingdom. Kings who saw them as such could count on their support. Kings like Henry II, who accepted their taxes but disdained their advice, did not fare so well.
The composition of parliaments could be manipulated for various purposes, but usually to broaden the base of support for a measure (and dilute the blame, one presumes). Barons, magnates and prelates were all well and good, but the inclusion of shire knights and burghers brought to a parliament a true cross-section of English society; or, at least, as much as could reasonably be expected of the times. Edward’s most famous parliament, the Model Parliament of 1295, even included the lower clergy, although making too much of the name would be wrong: the parliament was not a model for the future. At this meeting the attendees split themselves into three groups, the knights and barons in one group, the clergy in a second and the townsfolk in a third, similar to the later French model. Into the 14th century, however, the lesser clergy decided not to meet with the king in a parliament but in separate ecclesiastical convocations, leaving the upper classes and the townspeople for parliaments. And by the 1320’s the burghers and shire knights were meeting together regularly in what would evolve into the House of Commons, while the magnates and barons were left to become the House of Lords.
This increasing importance of the lower gentry and townspeople, the shire knights and burghers, was a reflection of the broad political base brought about by the Angevin Empire. Shire knights had been relied upon to perform a myriad of administrative functions, from collecting taxes and conducting surveys, mostly unpaid. They also performed judicial roles and were vital to the functioning of the government. Kings angered them at their own peril, because if these duties were not carried out the Angevin government would come to a stop. Thus, the Angevin government of this period, the 12th and 13th centuries, functioned on the principles of consent and consultation. The free people of England, from the barons down to the free peasants, were necessary to carry out the countless tasks of government, and if they were not allowed input into their government they could cause it to stop. As this new and broadening scope of English participatory government came into its own in the period 1258-1265, the political have-nots of previous times, the common folk, if you will, began to be seen as more than important, they were, indeed, crucial to the functioning of the country. No longer were they ordered about but they were asked for consent and they were listened to for advice. In modern vernacular, they were wined and dined, at least in comparison to previous times.
Throughout Europe similar organizations were cropping up, all based on the ancient idea that a king should consult his great men for advice and should rule in accordance with custom and law. This was not constitutional monarchy, although it did contain the seeds of that evolution, it was simply a more codified form of the principle that kings should rule according to good law and in consultation with other men, first the nobles and later the lesser classes. Most European assemblies eventually succumbed to this or that movement, but the English parliament survived, because it was built on a broad national foundation that was integral to the running of government. It was not affixed to the apparatus of government, it was embedded within it. The middle classes were used to participating in government at the local level, be it in the judicial or administrative fields, and were accustomed to helping rule themselves. Thus, when they came to parliament, that larger political stage was simply an outgrowth of the smaller one with which they were familiar. The settings were new, the scope was new, but the activities were not.
This emergence of Parliament was not a democratic institution. The meetings were not to tell the king how to rule, but to help the king rule. They were not a limit on his power, as such, although it does seem that in the extreme if the members of parliament became restive enough they could bring the government to its knees, simply by doing nothing. In that respect there may have been a check on the king’s power, but such an extreme would require massive work to bring about.