the origin of parliament -- 5/01/17

Today's selection -- from Edward I by Andy King. In 1215 AD, a dramatic confrontation of the English King John by a group of rebel barons resulted in the Magna Carta, which attempted to limit the power of the king, including, among other things, requiring the king to consult with these barons regarding taxes or payments to the king. In the ensuing years, that group became what we now know as the Parliament, a word that means "consultation". In the early years, parliament was an event or occasion rather than an institution, and had no fixed or predetermined membership or meeting dates. But it met with increasing frequency because kings had a voracious appetite for funds:

"The forum for [King] Edward I's political bargaining [for taxes and other matters] was Parliament. Medieval parliaments were an occasion, rather than a permanent institution, summoned at the king's will, and dismissed once their work was com­pleted (usually after a few weeks). They were essentially a development of the thirteenth century, though arguably their roots stretched as far back as the Anglo-Saxon witan. Under Edward's predecessors, parliaments had been sum­moned only sporadically; and the reformers' Provisions of Oxford had demanded that three parliaments be held every year, at fixed dates. Edward went a long way to meeting this, summoning parliaments more frequently than any other medieval King of England. After his return to England in 1274, he regularly held parliaments twice a year, at Michaelmas (30 September) and Easter. There were interruptions, in 1277 and again in 1282-3, when Edward was busy waging war in Wales, and in 1286-9, when he was absent in Gascony. After 1293, the timing of parliaments became somewhat more erratic, though there was at least one, and frequently two, every year until 1302. For the next three years, Edward decided he could manage without parliaments, but they were resumed in Lent 1305, followed by parliaments that autumn, in spring 1306 and January 1307.

Edward I (center) is flanked by King Alexander of Scotland
(left) and Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd of Wales (right) at an
early meeting of Parliament

"The composition of Parliament was still very flexible. There was no fixed parliamentary peerage, and individ­ual magnates, bishops, abbots and royal servants were summoned at the king's discretion; this body would even­tually become the House of Lords. The other body was the representatives: the knights of the shire (usually two elected from each county) and the burgesses (usually two elected from selected towns, plus four from London); together, they would eventually become the House of Commons. The election of representatives from the shires was first ordered by Henry III, in 1254; and burgesses were first summoned by Simon de Montfort in 1265.

"In the first half of Edward's reign, representatives were summoned only to a minority of parliaments, depending on the business to be discussed. They were, for instance, summoned to the Shrewsbury Parliament of Michaelmas 1283 to witness the treason trial of the Welsh magnate Dafydd ap Gruffudd; but once they had witnessed Dafydd's execution, they were dismissed, and the council conducted the rest of the Parliament's business at the nearby manor of Acton Burnell, belonging to the chancellor, Robert Bur­nell. However, representatives were almost invariably summoned when a grant of taxation was required. And from the 1290s, as Edward required such grants more frequently, so they were summoned more frequently; increasingly, indeed, they were summoned even when no taxes were to be requested. By the end of the reign, prece­dent had hardened into custom: Parliament was settling into a regular form, and the principle had been firmly established that lay taxes could not be imposed without the consent of the Commons in Parliament.

"Grants of taxation were necessary because the crown's own regular income (roughly £27,000 a year, derived from sources such as crown lands, feudal dues, the profits of justice and customs) was sufficient only to cover routine peacetime expenses. Any additional expenditure required additional income. Henry II, Richard Coeur de Lion and King John had all resorted to racking up feudal dues and auctioning justice to fund their wars. However, such arbi­trary exactions aroused bitter resentment, leading to the rebellions of John's reign, and the outlawing of such prac­tices under Magna Carta. [The primary form of direct taxation, known as an "aid," was used] initially to fund the cru­sades; and each of Henry's successors had raised similar aids, usually to fund wars. However, such a tax could not be imposed arbitrarily, and required consent (as Magna Carta had laid down); and by [his son] Edward's reign, it was cus­tomary to obtain such consent from a parliament. Henry III had been notably unsuccessful in this regard, failing to obtain consent for any grants of taxation between 1237 and 1270, when a twentieth was granted for Edward's cru­sade. By contrast, Edward wrung more such aids from his subjects than all of his predecessors put together. For the first eighteen years of his reign, his spending was relatively modest, and he raised only two aids (one of them to pay for the Welsh war of 1282-3); but between 1290 and 1306, he collected no less than seven aids, bringing in altogether nigh on £400,000 [in a country where the total supply of money was likely only £1 million]."


Edward I: A New King Arthur?


Andy King




Copyright Andy King, 2016



All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment