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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 'witan'Glossary - opens new window 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. James I
Writ authorising payment of expenses to Walter de Thorne, knight of the shire for Kent, 1318 - opens new window
Writ authorising payment of
expenses to Walter de Thorne,
knight of the shire for Kent, 1318
Document | Transcript
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 guildsGlossary - opens new window - 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 - opens new window
First Act of Parliament
kept at Westminster, 1497
Document | Transcript
James I

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 - opens new window
Indenture for the election of MPs
for King's Lynn, 1624
Document (128k) | Transcript
James I

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 DeathGlossary - opens new window (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 Lords. James I
Resisting a royal request, 1504 - opens new window
Resisting a royal request, 1504
Document (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 RosesGlossary - opens new window. The ability of 'overmighty' nobles to undermine royal authority was challenged through legal manipulation of inheritances and landholding. Rebels and traitors were attaintedGlossary - opens new window 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 - opens new window
Petition to the Royal Council alleging
corruption in the election of knights
of the shire for Suffolk, 1453
Document (174k) | Transcript
James I 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 - opens new window
Oath of allegiance to Henry VIII
and his successors, 1534
Document (342k) | Transcript
Act of Attainder of Sir Thomas More, 1534 - opens new window
Act of Attainder of Sir Thomas More, 1534
Document (255k) |Transcript


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 in 1536.
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 from 1586.
Rebuke to the House of Commons by Elizabeth I - opens new window
Rebuke to the
House of Commons by Elizabeth I
Document (640k) | Transcript
The 'Torn Journal', 1621 - opens new window
The Torn Journal, 1621
Document (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.

Enduring principles

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 1 and his successors, 1603 - opens new window
Parliamentary oath of loyalty
to James I and his successors, 1603
Document (254k) | Transcript

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