Modern British democracy was born in the medieval parliament.
However, in their nascent form, early parliaments were very far from democratic. Indeed, originally, they weren’t even called ‘Parliament’. Instead, they began life as the Anglo-Saxon Witan – a select group of noblemen gathering together to hear the will of their king.
But from small acorns, great oaks can grow. Over the centuries, it evolved into an institution with genuine powers. In time democracy was gradually introduced such that it provided even commoners with limited elected representation.
By the time of the English Civil War in the mid-C17th it was strong enough to assume full executive power and depose a king.
Ideas that first took shape in the parliaments of medieval England would help give birth to some of the largest democracies in the world today. Not just in Britain but also in the USA, Canada, India, Australia, and several other former British colonies.
This is the story of how the foundations of modern democracy were slowly but steadily laid by the medieval English parliament.
The kings of Anglo-Saxon England were not constrained by any such thing as a parliament. They were free to rule alone and to take as much or as little advice from their subjects as they deemed appropriate.
Of course, the sheer administrative challenge of ruling a kingdom as large as England meant that it was impossible to micro-manage everything. In terms of the day-to-day running of the kingdom, the king would assemble a trusted council of favourites. He’d consult with them, take their advice and delegate to them as and when he felt the need.
However, sometimes it was necessary for the king to communicate his will to a wider audience. And, when this became necessary, he’d summon a Witan.
The Witan was more a platform for the king to convey decisions to his leading subjects rather a means for him to seek their advice. He might use the Witan to make important announcements, appoint subjects to key offices or announce the grant of royal patronage to favourites. Sometimes he might actually seek the advice of those present at the Witan – but only if and when he chose to do so.
The closest the Witan came to wielding genuine political power was when there was a dispute over royal succession. Then the Witan would be empowered to elect the next king from amongst the rival candidates.
The Magnum Concilium
After the Norman Conquest much changed but, at the same time, very little changed.
An Anglo-Saxon elite was replaced by a Norman elite. The witans were gone. However, in many ways, the Norman kings continued to rule in the same old manner.
Like the Anglo-Saxon kings before them, Norman kings ruled primarily in conjunction with a small council of ministers. As was the case before, these men were hand-picked by the king from amongst an inner circle of favourites. However, like their predecessors, Norman kings also occasionally needed a platform to communicate their will to a wider audience.
Instead of witans they would summon ‘Great Councils’ (Magnum Concilium) which, despite having a different name and being populated by Norman Barons, operated in a very similar way to a witan.
In early Norman times royal income came primarily from royal lands, feudal duties and from revenues collected from fines. The general population was not directly taxed by the king except for exceptional circumstances. As a result the issue of taxation rarely, if ever, came up. So there was no reason to discuss it, either in the early Great Councils or otherwise.
The king remained, as they had during Anglo-Saxon times, the absolute lord and master of the kingdom. And, critically, the sole arbiter of policy decisions on all matters of state.
A Plantagenet Crisis
Things only began to change during the C12th when the Plantagenet kings arrived on the scene. Change, when it came, was prompted by the need to raise money.
In 1187, western Christendom was stunned by the news that Saladin had destroyed a crusader army at Hattin and taken Jerusalem. The Holy Land stood in danger of being utterly overrun. It was clear the monarchs of Europe would need to find the manpower and the money to launch a major new crusade if disaster was to be averted.
Henry II of England responded by raising a ‘Saladin tithe’ in 1188, with a view to financing the English contribution. This tax amounted to 10% on revenues and movable properties. It was an extraordinary measure but most people at the time accepted it as a necessary response to an extraordinary crisis.
Henry, however, did not live to lead the crusade. In the end this task fell to his son, Richard the Lionheart. Despite the fame and glory Richard won on crusade, the financial cost was enormous. To make matters even worse, Richard was captured whilst returning to England and an enormous ransom had to be paid.
England was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was left to Richard’s successor, his brother John, to sort out the mess.
Force and Will
The only way to balance the books was to levy heavy taxes. This placed an increasing financial burden on the barons of England. John imposed these burdens following the principle of vis et voluntas (‘force and will’), which essentially meant that the king did as he pleased. This was a mindset that effectively placed him above the law. To John’s way of thinking this only reflected the customary prerogatives of kings.
In normal times, when high taxation was a rare occurrence, the enforcement of the king’s ‘will’ was not overly burdensome. But now, with high taxes becoming a norm rather than an exception, the burden was heavy.
The barons were increasingly concluding that there ought to be some limits on the powers of kings. At the very least, kings should operate within the bounds of their own laws and the accepted customs of the realm. The alternative seemed to be rapidly heading in the direction of arbitrary tyranny.
Growing dissent and the threat of open rebellion finally forced John to accept a compromise in 1215. That compromise was Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta established three key principles in the government of England:
- The king was subject to the laws of England. He could not simply rule by vis et voluntas anymore.
- The king could only make new laws and raise taxes (except for customary duties and dues) with the consent of a Great Council of the realm.
- The king’s subjects owed the king obedience only if the king acted in accordance with the established laws and customs.
Critically for the evolution of Parliament, clause 14 of Magna Carta stated that, to raise a new tax, the king:
“… will cause a general summons to be issued, through the sheriffs and other officials, to come together on a fixed day (of which at least forty days’ notice shall be given) and at a fixed place… the business appointed for the day shall go forward in accordance with the resolution of those present.”Magna Carta, clause 14, first established the principle that there should be no taxation without representation
It was a revolutionary document in the history of democracy. However, King John would not stick to his side of the agreement. Rather than settling the matter, Magna Carta marked the first stage in an ongoing struggle for executive power.
The Birth of Parliament
The Great Councils of the early C13th were far from representative democratic bodies. Ultimately, they still consisted purely of the nobility. Commoners, even the wealthiest leading citizens, were not represented at all.
Both John and his son Henry III would resist, as far as they were able, any attempts by these Councils to limit their powers. This led to two Barons’ Wars. However, as the century wore on, Councils increasingly flexed their political muscle to influence important decisions.
In April 1234 a Great Council pressurised Henry III into removing Rivaux, one of his favourite ministers. This was the first time a king’s choice of minister had been successfully challenged.
In 1235, a Great Council passed the first English Statute (later more commonly known as Acts of Parliament).
The Great Council of 1237 marked a significant milestone in so far it was the first time it was referred to as a ‘Parliament’ (derived from the French word for speech / parley).
1254 marked a further milestone. To achieve a broad consensus in financing a military expedition to France, representatives from the lower clergy and elected knights were summoned to Parliament for the first time.
The de Montfort Revolution
As Parliament struggled to exert more influence over government, tensions with the monarch increased. Finally, open rebellion broke out in the 1260s.
By 1265 the rebels held the upper hand, even managing to capture the king. Henry III now had no choice but to bend to the will of Parliament.
The leader of the rebel faction was Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester. By the summer of 1265 de Montfort was at the height of his powers but, rather than claiming the throne for himself, he chose instead to strengthen the democratic character of Parliament.
Building on the one-off example of 1254, de Montford summoned a Parliament in which ‘the commons’ as well as the nobility had official representation.
In this parliament the ‘commons’ were represented by elected representatives. From each of the counties, 2 Knights of the Shire were elected and from each of the boroughs 2 Burgesses.
The electorate and the representatives elected were drawn from amongst the non-noble freemen of England (i.e. property owners). It was not a truly representative democracy, but it did introduce the principle of election (even if only a limited section of the population were granted the franchise).
De Montfort did not live to build on this achievement. Later the same year fortune turned against the rebels. De Montfort was defeated and killed at the Battle of Evesham by the king’s son (the future Edward I).
The Model Parliament
Although de Montfort’s revolution eventually ended in defeat, his ideas were destined to live on.
Edward I adopted many of de Montfort’s innovations, making them the standard parliamentary custom rather than an exception. Edward’s Parliament of 1295 would become known as the Model Parliament, establishing as it did a model for future medieval parliaments. And it was based, to a large extent, on de Montfort’s format.
From this period onwards it became customary for the ‘commons’ to be represented in parliaments as well as the lords.
How elections were conducted varied enormously from one place to another. How truly democratic these elections were is very much open to debate but the fact that they happened at all was a big step forward. Parliament, from this time onward, was no longer simply the voice of the nobility.
However, not all the precedents established at this time made Parliament more democratic. 1295 also established the idea that certain members of the nobility and senior clerics had an automatic right to be summoned to Parliament. Furthermore, this right could be conferred on their heirs, establishing hereditary peers amongst the nobility.
Parliament in the Late Middle Ages
From the C14th onwards, the role of Parliament increasingly combined control over granting taxes with raising political grievances with the king. After a time, it became normal for taxation to be granted by parliament in exchange for concessions with regards to certain grievances of the day. Parliament’s demands of the monarch could (and did) vary from the reasonable and beneficial to the unreasonable and petty (and sometimes selfish).
Despite their name, the ‘commons’ in Parliament were not that representative of the mass of common folk. They were typically rich merchants, knights, former aldermen, sheriffs, and mayors. Indeed, initially, to be elected as a Knight of the Shire, you first needed to be knighted, although this criterion was gradually relaxed. There is no escaping the fact that the elected commons were landed gentry of a social rank sitting high above most of the population.
The commons nevertheless became a permanent feature of the parliamentary system. From 1341 onwards, it became the custom for the commons and the lords to meet separately before coming together to (hopefully) agree a unified approach. In time this would lead to the formal distinction between upper and lower houses – the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
The Good Parliament
The so-called ‘Good’ Parliament of 1376 saw another landmark. In 1376 there was quite a list of grievances to be brought before the king (then the elderly Edward III). To help streamline this process, the commons decided to choose Sir Peter de la Mare to act as its spokesman. It was a practice that became customary after this time and such officers would become known as ‘The Speaker’ (as they were chosen to speak to the lords and the king on behalf of the commons).
Principal amongst the grievances of the Good Parliament were allegations of corruption pertaining to some of the king’s senior ministers. The ministers concerned were impeached and removed from office. This was the first ministerial impeachment sanctioned by an English Parliament.
The word ‘commons’ could be used to represent several different concepts in late Medieval England. The most clearly defined use of the word related to ‘the commons’ who sat in Parliament. This was a specific group of men who came from a narrowly defined strata of what was then the upper middle classes.
However, the word ‘commons’ could also be used to describe the community of the realm. In that sense its meaning pertained to the collective of the political community. By implication surely the ‘community’ must therefore encompass everyone? Surely it must also include the non-land-owning masses – the tenant farmers and itinerant labours? Indeed, to an extent, when people talked about ‘the commons’ in the late Middle Ages, they did indeed mean the entire community. And, increasingly, the term came to encompass (and even imply) the lower strata of society.
Richard of York, in protesting his opposition to certain Lancastrian ministers, claimed to be acting on behalf of the ‘common good’. In that sense he claimed to act on behalf of the entire community, theoretically including the poorest peasants. This was despite the obvious fact that it was highly unlikely that a wealthy duke could genuinely have had much of an understanding of the lives of poor farmers!
The importance of rank
Class distinctions in the Middle Ages mattered far more than in the modern world. People at the time generally accepted that ‘high born’ men of rank were more important in every sense than ‘low born’ men of humbler origins.
So, at one level, the views of ‘the commons’ was presented as being the views of all the common folk. At another level they were often interpreted with much greater weight placed on the views of the wealthiest and most influential commoners. To the medieval mind it seemed obvious. The landed gentry were clearly better qualified to speak on behalf of all the commons, than a mass of poorly educated farm labourers.
This stratification of the commons by social rank was reinforced in 1430 when the right to vote in elections was further restricted to men who owned property worth 40 shillings or more. The reason? Apparently, it had been noted that elections for the recent Parliament (which often took place in county court houses) had been crowded by too many people “of low estate”.
So, yes, it was accepted that the common man should be represented in Parliament. However, this came with the caveat that the common man should only be represented by the worthiest of common men. Where ‘worthiest’ meant wealthier men of higher social rank.
Whilst the commons were elected, the way these elections took place had a clear impact on precisely how democratic they truly were.
The details of how elections should be run remained rather vague. As a result, elections were held using widely different processes from one county to the next. In general, an election was held in a county hall. Freemen who qualified to vote (i.e. owned property or land) would turn up and elect/endorse the two candidates.
But how were these candidates picked? How did they get on the election roster in the first place? And how was voting organised and counted? The details were left to the local establishment to decide. The end results could be as democratic (or undemocratic) as you might imagine. And whilst some effort was made to deter corruption and bribery, the system was clearly open to abuse.
The influence of patronage was also a factor. Candidates for election were invariably amongst the wealthiest commoners in the county. But how did these individuals get to be so wealthy in the first place? Usually, it was because they had rich customers and/or patrons who supplied them with lucrative contracts. And, often, such patrons were influential members of the nobility.
Powerful noblemen like John of Gaunt acted as an important patron for many wealthy commoners across his extensive Lancastrian estates. Many such men were elected to Parliament and were, rightly, regarded as Gaunt’s men. Since a large part of their personal wealth and future income depended on Gaunt’s patronage they were hardly likely to act against his interests in Parliament. And, of course, Gaunt was just one example.
The Power of the People
Significant social change followed the Black Death for the mid C14th. Drastic depopulation had led to an intense labour shortage. The obvious effect of this being that the common working man could now command a higher price for his labour.
This did not go down well with traditional sections of the English nobility who did what they could to keep commoners of ‘low estate’ in their place. Sumptuary laws of 1363 attempted to proscribe the prices and types of materials appropriate for people of different classes. It would not do to have nouveau riche yeomanry dressing like lords!
However, greater economic power brought with it an increased appetite for political influence. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a rebellion against sumptuary laws and the imposition of a poll tax. The ‘commons’ were flexing their political muscles. It was a taste of things to come.
In 1450 the commons again acted. England had just suffered defeat at the hands of the French in the Hundred Years’ war. Many unemployed soldiers returned to England via Kent and many wealthy commoners found they’d lost land and lucrative trade contracts on the continent. It was a powder keg combination. The resulting rebellion, led by Jack Cade, provides another example of widespread popular dissatisfaction with the establishment.
But, to what extent could such grievances find a voice in the English Parliament itself?
The Power behind Parliaments
Given the limited franchise, networks of patronage and widely varied electoral practices the Medieval parliament was hardly a true representation of the will of the people.
The composition of any given parliament could be and was influenced by the political powers of the day.
The Good Parliament of 1376 was able to oppose royal corruption in no small part because of the support of the Black Prince and other powerful members of the nobility. However, it was followed, less than a year later by the ‘Bad Parliament’ which reversed many of its decisions. Why the sudden change? It was probably no coincidence that by 1377 the Black Prince was dead. In the absence of his influence, his brother, John of Gaunt, was able to regain control of Parliament.
An even more extreme example occurs during the Wars of the Roses. A Lancastrian Parliament of 1459 issued bills of attainder and denounced leading Yorkists as traitors. A Yorkist Parliament of 1461, just two years later, issued bills of attainder and denounced leading Lancastrians as traitors. Both Parliaments were clearly utterly partisan and, given the divided nature of sentiment across England at the time, neither can be regarded as fairly reflecting the true will of the nation.
Nevertheless, Parliament was not simply the lapdog of the king, or even of prevailing political factions within the nobility.
The Medieval Parliament of the C14th and C15th could and did act independently at times. The impeachment of the king’s ministers in 1376 is an illustration of this. But there were many other examples.
Richard II infamously clashed with his Parliaments on several occasions. He even had his powers seriously restricted, and several of his ministers removed from office by Parliament in 1388. Again, this required the support of several powerful noblemen, most notably the king’s uncle Thomas of Woodstock.
Henry IV had a constant battle with his Parliaments over financing and the granting of taxes. It was a battle which he often lost. Even Henry V would eventually find it extremely hard to persuade Parliament to fund his campaigns in France. And, as the late Lancastrian regime increasing ran into problems in the late 1440s, Parliament would provide a key forum for voicing opposition to the policies of the court.
Voice of the People
Parliament evolved significantly during the Middle Ages. It started off as little more than a meeting that enabled the king to convey decisions to his leading nobleman. However, by the end of the Middle Ages it had become an institution with genuine political power. Parliament could prevent the king from raising taxes. It could successfully lobby to remove unpopular ministers. It could even pressurise the king into enacting legislation that he might not necessarily agree with, and had elected representatives – albeit representatives of an elite, chosen by the upper strata of society.
Parliament was far from truly democratic, but it had undeniably become more democratic.
To claim that the Medieval Parliament was the voice of the people is clearly a stretch too far. However, it could, on occasion, give voice to genuine popular sentiment and act as a restraint on the actions of kings and powerful sections of the nobility.
Many in parliament claimed to be speaking and acting on behalf of the common well-being. Sometimes this was no more than propaganda but sometimes it was the expression of a genuine sentiment.
As the Middle Ages came to an end, the early foundations of modern democracy had been laid in the English Parliament. It was a journey that still had a long way to go but the first stage of that journey had been successfully completed.
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References & further reading:
Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses: A Source Book, Keith Dockray, Sutton Publishing, 2000
Official UK Parliament website – the origins of the UK Parliament
Parliamentary Elections in the reign of Henry VI Revisited – Some New Perspectives on an Old Subject? – Seminar, Dr. Hannes Kleineke, History of Parliament Online, 2021
Richard II and the Revolution of 1399, Michael Bennett, Sutton Publishing, 1999
Strategy and Manipulation in Medieval Elections, Uckleman & Uckleman, Abstract published on Brewminate, 2020
The Commons in Medieval England, John Watts, Open Edition Books, 2015
The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King, Ian Mortimer, Vintage, 2008
The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, Dan Jones, William Collins, 2013
Parliament of Edward I – The parliament of 1295 is depicted. The image comes from the Garter Book written and illustrated by Sir Thomas Wriothesley in c.1524. (via Wiki Commons)
Witan – from the Old English Hexateuch (via Wiki Commons)
Magna Carta – British Library (Cotton MS Augustus II.106) (via Wiki Commons)
Simon de Montfort – from a stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral (via Wiki Commons)
The Death of Wat Tyler – Jean Froissart Chronicle (via Wiki Commons)