Origins and growth of Parliament
|Parliament - and the idea that it represents the
voice of the whole nation - is one of the principal foundations
upon which British citizens' rights are based. The origins of
Parliament as a place of discussion stretch back to the Anglo-Saxon
and beyond, but it was only in the 13th century that the modern
form of Parliament began to take shape. Monarchs had always
relied on assemblies of their great men for advice, and during
the 13th century the king's most powerful subjects - lords,
bishops and abbots - began to meet regularly as the Royal Council.
This provided a forum for discussion of major issues, and subsequently
formed the basis of the House of Lords.
Writ authorising payment of
expenses to Walter de Thorne,
knight of the shire for Kent, 1318
|By 1265 the common people of the realm were also
represented in national decision making - counties by 'knights
of the shire', and towns by burgesses elected by mayors and
aldermen. Their involvement in major decisions affecting the
whole realm gave the authority and consent of the nation to
the actions the king decided to take. They met separately from
the lords and bishops, and were in effect an early form of the
House of Commons.
The beginnings of legislative power
An important factor in the development of Parliament's authority
was the encouragement by Edward I (1272-1307) of 'petitioning'.
Petitions requesting favour, justice or redress - presented
to Parliament by individuals or organisations such as town
authorities or merchant guilds
- increased the range of business dealt with by the Lords
and Commons. The authority of the king and Royal Council still
remained the core of Parliament, but consideration of petitions
effectively gave the assembly the status of a high court of
justice. Consequently, it came to be accepted that major changes
to the fabric of law and society had to be authorised and
ratified by Acts of Parliament.
First Act of Parliament
kept at Westminster, 1497
Consent for taxation
At the close of the 13th century the idea that Parliament had
to give consent to the changes and demands that the king wished
to make became an essential ingredient in the granting of taxation.
Kings originally demanded taxes to make up shortfalls in the
income from their personal estates, but during the reign of
Edward I the cost of almost constant warfare compelled the king
to ask Parliament for authority to levy taxes. As a result,
taxation and representation became linked - the consent of the
people of the realm being required before they would allow the
king to tax their lands and goods. This was formally established
by statute in 1362.
Representing the whole nation
In the 14th century Parliament began to involve the three
estates of the realm (lords, clergy and commons) more fully.
In 1312, during Edward II's troubled reign, a group of lords,
led by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, claimed to represent the
whole nation when they introduced ordinances to limit the
king's reliance on 'bad' councillors and to trim his power.
These ordinances made no reference to the voice of the clergy
or the commons. Then in 1322 Parliament repealed the ordinances
because they had not been agreed by the full council of the
realm, but only by a council of lords. From that time, all
major matters were to be 'treated, accorded and established
in Parliament' by agreement between the king and all the estates
of the realm.
Indenture for the election of MPs
for King's Lynn, 1624
(128k) | Transcript
Growth of Parliament's scope and power
The outbreak of the Hundred Years' War in 1337 enhanced the
importance of Parliament's function, since many more taxes were
levied to raise funds to fight the French and Scots. The focus
of the entire country upon maintaining armies in the field took
place against the disastrous background of the Black
(1348-50). The leaders of the realm used Parliament to preserve
their position at the top of society as the decline in population
gave the peasantry economic power for the first time. Important
Acts were passed that enforced economic ties to the land, hunting
rights, and the prices that labourers could charge. As an agent
of aristocratic influence, Parliament played a part in creating
the conditions that prompted the Peasants' Revolt in 1381.
|The right of Parliament to criticise
the Crown and its choice of ministers developed more strongly
towards the end of the 14th century. For example, the Good Parliament
of 1376 criticised the government carried on in the name of
the ageing Edward III. This parliament also saw the first instance
of impeachment - the procedure whereby the Commons, representing
the realm, brought an offender to trial before the House of
Resisting a royal request, 1504
(767k) | Transcript
| After 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke
usurped the throne as Henry IV, Parliament became a tool in
the struggle for the Crown among the descendants of Edward III.
Because Henry was aware of the uncertain foundations on which
his kingship rested, Parliament was able to secure concessions
from him. In 1401 the Commons insisted that they would only
grant taxes after their grievances had been addressed, and in
1407 they stipulated that all grants of taxation were to originate
from the Commons. By 1414, the first year of Henry V's reign,
the Commons had gained an equal footing with the Lords in passing
legislation - an important stage in acknowledging the voice
of the wider population.
| From the 1450s to the 1520s Parliament helped
to unravel the legal and political consequences of the Wars
of the Roses.
The ability of 'overmighty' nobles to undermine royal authority
was challenged through legal manipulation of inheritances and
landholding. Rebels and traitors were attainted
in Parliament, and their lands forfeited. Political opponents
found themselves denounced and excluded by factions among the
Lords and their followers in the Commons. Parliament's role
in passing such Acts did not directly affect the rights of the
whole population, but it did alter the power and influence of
the political leaders, which in turn affected how local communities
functioned. This period also witnessed the first widespread
attempts to influence elections through bribery and intimidation
and to pack the Commons with sympathetic MPs.
Petition to the Royal Council alleging
corruption in the election of knights
of the shire for Suffolk, 1453
(174k) | Transcript
||Late medieval and Tudor monarchs tried to use
Parliament as the forum where their personal wishes were turned
into law. The election of a friendly speaker of the Commons
could determine how votes were cast and what Bills were passed.
In 1484 Richard III used just such a technique when the speaker,
his close ally William Catesby, used the authority of Parliament
to endorse the deposing of Edward V.
Parliament under the Tudors
During Henry VIII's reign, parliamentary Acts helped to shape
modern England. The authority of Parliament was employed to
make the massive changes to English society in measures such
as the dissolution of the monasteries and the establishment
of the Church of England. These changes had a profound effect
on how ordinary subjects viewed their nation and its rulers,
since they removed the ancient monastic presence from English
communities and introduced religious divisions that reverberated
throughout the United Kingdom.
Oath of allegiance to Henry VIII
and his successors, 1534
(342k) | Transcript
Act of Attainder of Sir Thomas More,
| The result was a major protest from the northern
counties, in the shape of the 1536 rebellion known as the Pilgrimage
of Grace. At the same time, Henry's reign witnessed important
political steps towards a united kingdom. The Acts of Union
of 1536-43 brought Wales into the English pattern of lordship,
and the new Welsh counties were first represented in Parliament
|During the Tudor period detailed
records of proceedings in the House of Commons began to be kept.
A number of test cases, such as those of George Ferrer in 1543
and William Strickland in 1571, defended the rights and privileges
of MPs against Crown intervention in Parliament's operation.
Disputed elections were to be decided by standing committees
Rebuke to the
House of Commons by Elizabeth I
(640k) | Transcript
The Torn Journal, 1621
(164k) | Transcript
|Although parliaments were still
called by the monarch, Parliament was becoming determined to
preserve its independence from the Crown. By 1621, when James
I asked for taxes to send military aid to the Palatinate, the
Commons used the opportunity to debate the matter against the
king's wishes - thus asserting their ancient right to debate
any subject, without royal interference.
Parliament has remained a stable institution - the basic
principle of representation through election remains unaltered,
and the idea of consent for taxation is still a vital aspect
of any democratic political system. Especially since the 17th
century, Parliament has played a central role in shaping the
development of Britain and in defining the rights and responsibilities
of British citizens.
Parliamentary oath of loyalty
to James I and his successors, 1603
(254k) | Transcript
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