In June the world will celebrate 800 years since the issuing of Magna Carta. But 2015 is also the anniversary of another important, and far more radical, milestone in British democratic history, writes Luke Foddy.
Almost exactly 750 years ago, an extraordinary parliament opened in Westminster.
For the very first time, elected representatives from every county and major town in England were invited to parliament on behalf of their local communities.
It was, in the words of one historian, « the House of Commons in embryo ».
The January Parliament, which first met on 20 January 1265, is one of the most significant events in British democratic history. The election of two knights from every shire and two burgesses from the towns helped establish the two-member county constituencies that endured until the 20th Century.
The delegates coming to parliament in 1265 even had their costs covered – a sort of 13th-Century MPs’ expenses.
But for all its importance, the January Parliament remains little-known beyond academic circles, although the BBC will be marking the anniversary with a day of coverage focusing on democracy.
In part, this may be down to the eclipsing effect of Magna Carta on this remarkable step towards representative government.
But the 1265 Parliament went much further than Magna Carta in shaping our political process.
« The Great Charter laid down the first written constitution, but it was primarily a charter for the elite, » explains Professor David Carpenter, author of a new book on Magna Carta. « It did not envisage anything resembling a House of Commons.
« It is not until 1265 that the momentous step is taken to invite the commons to parliament. »
Parliaments had, of course, existed long before 1265, but they were traditionally elite gatherings between the king and his chosen advisors. Knights, too, had been summoned to parliament before, in 1254, but only to discuss taxation.
At the January Parliament of 1265, however, both the counties and boroughs were to be represented, and the parliament was concerned with the wider business of the realm, not just taxation.
This was, therefore, a landmark moment in England’s political evolution.
The story behind this radical reform is a medieval classic of revolution and rebellion – a drama fuelled by idealism, pragmatism and ambition whose legacy is still felt today.
And like many extraordinary moments in history, it was the product of extraordinary times.
The ruling king in 1265 was Henry III, but Henry wasn’t really ruling anything. It was Simon de Montfort, the rebel earl of Leicester, who was in control, having seized power the year before.
Montfort, who called the January Parliament, was the leader of a political faction that sought major reform of the realm. Fed up with Henry’s misrule, as they saw it, these barons had confronted the King and, at a parliament in Oxford in 1258, forced him to adhere to a radical programme of reform. This resulted in an appointed council sharing power with the monarch.
These reforms were enshrined in the Provisions of Oxford, which for the first time defined the role of parliament in government.
Later reissued as the Provisions of Westminster, they specified that parliaments should be held three times a year to « discuss the common business of the realm » – a major shift from their usual purpose of granting taxes as set out by Magna Carta.
By 1261, however, Henry’s position had grown stronger, and he rid himself of the reformers’ shackles. « I’d rather break clods behind the plough, » he is supposed to have declared, « than rule by the Provisions! »
It is perhaps testament to the ideological fervour of the time that Henry’s betrayal of the barons’ reforms provoked civil war, but war is indeed what followed.
In May 1264 Montfort won a stunning victory at the battle of Lewes, where both King Henry and his heir, the future Edward I, were taken prisoner. He was now the de facto ruler of England, governing in King Henry’s name.
This was revolutionary stuff. Four centuries before Oliver Cromwell would overthrow Charles I, another English King had been reduced to a figurehead.