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The history of Parliament

A tour through the history of Parliament's evolution
by

Simon Phillips

on 18 April 2010

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Transcript of The history of Parliament

The History of Parliament Anglo-Saxon origins The modern UK Parliament can trace its origins all the way back to two features of Anglo-Saxon government from the 8th to 11th centuries. These are the Witan and the moot.

The Witan was the occasion when the King would call together his leading advisors and nobles to discuss matters affecting the country. It existed only when the King chose and was made up of those individuals whom he particularly summoned. The 'shire moot' was a local meeting attended by the local lords and bishops, the sheriff, and most importantly, four representatives of each village. These two gatherings remained separate for many centuries, but eventually the noble councillors of the Great Council and the local spokesmen of the County Court would combine to make a Parliament of two Houses, the aristocratic Lords and the locally representative Commons. The First Parliaments The first known official use of the term Parliament was in 1236. It described the meetings of the English monarch with a large group of his nobles (the earls and barons), and prelates (the bishops and abbots). The word Parliament means an event arranged to talk and discuss things, from the French word "parler".

For the first few centuries of its existence Parliament was only an occasion and not an institution. It was called at the whim of the monarch, consisted of whoever he wanted to speak with, met wherever he happened to be, could last as long as he wanted, and had no independent officials of its own.
During the 13th century the barons were frequently in revolt against the kings whom they thought were governing the realm badly, that is, against the barons' own wishes. In 1215 King John was forced to agree to Magna Carta, the "great charter" of legal rights which insisted that he listen to and follow the advice of the barons.
Then, at the meeting of Parliament at Oxford in 1258 the barons stated their dissatisfaction with Henry III, and tried to force him to accept a set of conditions called the Provisions of Oxford. These radical proposals called for regular meetings of Parliament three times a year, which should also include 12 non-noble representatives chosen from the counties.

Henry III refused to agree to the provisions and war broke out between him and the leader of the barons, Simon de Montfort, who was victorious in 1264. In January 1265 de Montfort called his own Parliament to discuss the peace terms. Simon de Montfort's Parliament

This Parliament is seen as the earliest forerunner of the modern Parliament because it included not only the men who made up the Great Council, but also representatives from each county and from the cities and towns, known as burgesses.

De Montfort was killed in battle, only a few months after his Parliament, by Henry III's son, Edward. When he became King in 1272, Edward I developed Parliament into an institution for his own purposes.
Key dates 1215
King John agreed to Magna Carta which stated the right of the barons to consult with and advise the king in his Great Council 1265
Simon de Montfort, in rebellion against Henry III, summoned a Parliament which included for the first time representatives of both the counties and towns 1327
From this date representatives of the counties (knights of the shire) and of the towns (burgesses) were always summoned together to Parliament 1399
Parliament deposed Richard II and Henry IV's reign started
1414
Henry V acknowledged that the approval and consultation of both Houses was necessary to make new laws 1512
Henry VIII moved the royal family out of the Palace of Westminster after a fire, and left it to the use of Parliament and some government offices The Civil War The period from March 1629 to April 1640 later became known as the Personal Rule because Charles I did not summon Parliament during this time.
Outwardly, this was a period of peace and prosperity, but Charles I was slowly building up opposition against him among segments of the political elite by his financial and religious policies.


In 1644-5 Independent military leaders, particularly the MP Oliver Cromwell, accused the Parliamentarian generals, the Earls of Essex and Manchester, both of them Presbyterian Members of the House of Lords, of not fighting the war forcefully enough. Cromwell's army - The New Model Army - won a succession of victories, ending with the surrender of Charles I in June 1646.
On 30 January 1649 King Charles I was beheaded outside the Banqueting House on Whitehall.
In March, Acts were passed abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords and in May another Act was passed declaring "the people of England" a "Commonwealth and Free State by the Supreme Authority of this Nation, the Representatives of the People in Parliament ... and that without any King or House of Lords".
Oliver Cromwell was declared 'Lord Protector' - essentially the country's leader, but he was only able to do this with the support of his New Model Army.

Political chaos followed the death of Oliver Cromwell in September 1658. His successor as Lord Protector, his son Richard, was not able to manage the Parliament he summoned in January 1659 or the Army leaders on whose support he relied.

People had had enough of military rule, and were calling either for the reinstatement of the Long Parliament or fresh elections for a new Parliament. After years of failed political experiments, most people turned with relief to the old ideas of what constituted a proper Parliament and government.

The assurances of Charles II, the late king's exiled heir, that he would submit any settlement to the decision of Parliament, convinced the political nation in May 1660 to invite Charles II to return to claim his father's throne. People argued in Parliament about wether William should be made King, as some believed that James II had abdicated the throne.
William of Orange cut the debate short by threatening to abandon the country if he was not made King. On 6 February 1689 Parliament resolved that James II had abdicated by his departure and that the Crown should be offered jointly to William and his wife Mary, the actual successor of James II.

A Declaration of Rights
When Parliament formally made this offer of the Crown on 13 February it also read aloud to William and Mary the Declaration of Rights. This was a statement of the rights of the subject and, particularly, the liberties of Parliament (such as frequent Parliaments and freedom of speech) which it was claimed the last Stuart monarchs had infringed.

Contrary to common belief, Parliament did not present the Declaration to William and Mary as a condition which they had to accept to be made King and Queen. The rights affirmed in the Declaration did, however, take statutory effect in December 1689 when the Convention, with William and Mary's royal assent, passed the Declaration as an Act of Parliament, now known as the Bill of Rights.

Though it is not a revolutionary statement of universal liberties, being mostly concerned with the specific misdeeds of James II, the Bill of Rights stands as one of the landmark documents in the development of civil liberties in England - and a model for later, more general, statements of rights, such as the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution.

Joint monarchs
The new monarchs' recognition of the sovereignty of Parliament was more clearly stated in the wording of the revised oath written by Parliament for their coronation on 11 April 1689. William III and Mary II had to swear to govern according to "the statutes in Parliament agreed on" instead of by "the laws and customs ... granted by the Kings of England".
James II succeeded Charles II as King, but wasn't popular. The Dutch ruler, William of Orange, was asked to invade England and did so on 5 November 1688.
William, upon arrival with his army in the English capital, did not claim the throne by conquest, but summoned a Convention of Lords and MPs (not called a Parliament, as it was not summoned by the King) to devise a political settlement. Civil war began to look likely in1639 as those unhappy with Charles I's rule fought against him and his supporters. Civil war began properly 3 years later on 22nd August 1642 as Parliament took up arms against the King. The Moot Hall in Keswick Henry III A stamp commemorating de Montfort's Parliament Charles I Cromwell Charles II William of Orange What's a Witan? It's a moot
point! So the king
had it all his
own way then? Nice work if
you were born
into it! Oooh,
that's pretty! So somewhere
for the posh lot
to make decisions.. ..and somewhere
for the commoners! So the King (or Queen)
met with other rich
people? Yup. A bit like
School Council,
but the King (or
Queen) made
the decisions in the end. So some revolting
people didn't like
that fact that the King
(or Queen) could do
what they wanted? Not quite - the Barons
'revolted', which means they
told the King he had to
involve them in the
decisions. They made
him make a promise and
this was called the Magna
Carta. So what was
that all about? The barons wanted
Parliament to meet
regularly. King Henry III
didn't. They had a fight
and a dude called
Simon de Montfort won. So this was a bit
more like modern
Parliament with
people like MP's? Yup, but it didn't
last long as Edward's
son killed de Montfort
and, as king, went back
to making the decisions
himself. So this Charles dude
decided he wanted
his own way? Yup, as king he still
had a lot of power and
could rule without
Parliament. He wasn't
using his head though.... They look scary!! They were angry. By
ignoring Parliament,
Charles had effectively
ignored ordinary people.
That wasn't popular! So why was
Cromwell unhappy? Cromwell was fighting
against the King to get
him to stop ignoring
Parliament. Cromwell
felt that some people
could be making more
effort to fight the king. So because Charles
hadn't used his head,
he lost his head! Exactly. Cromwell's army
managed to arrest the king
then had him be-headed.
Cromwell then used his army
to rule the country by fear.
He was the leader of Parliament
and called the Lord Protector. So England was
ruled by a King
again? I'm confused! When Cromwell died,
his son took his position
but couldn't control the
army. People had become
fed up with being ruled
by an army, and wanted to
go back to being ruled by
a King - this dude... So James II was
another unpopular
king then? Yes - so unpopular
that some people asked
a bloke to take over.
William took over in a
reasonable way though,
and this was popular. So what does
that all mean? Basically, people
liked being able
to have a say in how
the country was run. Without the King
or Queen just deciding
to ignore them? Exactly. They made the
King and Queen make a
promise that Parliament
had to agree to it before
a decision was made.
The King and Queen signed
this agreement which is
known as the Bil of Rights
and it is still recognised today.
Full transcript