Birth of the English Parliament
Nobody set out to create Parliament. It developed naturally out of the daily political needs of the English King and his government. Nor did it develop continuously over time, but went through short periods of rapid growth. Yet despite its unintentional and haphazard development, the modern British Parliament is one of the oldest continuous representative assemblies in the world. How did this happen? It is a story that involves revolt, war, invasion, several dethronings, and even Henry VIII’s love life.
Simon de Montfort’s Parliament
Simon De Montfort’s Parliament was the first instance of a parliament in which representatives from towns and the shires were summoned together to discuss matters of national concern. This Parliament is seen as the earliest forerunner of the modern Parliament because of its inclusion of both knights and burgesses, for a reason other than the granting of taxation. This broadened the types of people represented at a high level who were participating in affairs of the nation.
In 2015 the Houses of Parliament, along with the people of the UK, commemorated 750 years since the Simon de Montfort Parliament (1265).
Who was Simon de Montfort?
Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, was a French noble who came to England in the 1230s and received lands from King Henry III who was around the same age. Simon controversially married the king’s sister at a time when marriages of the aristocracy were strictly controlled by the king. Henry III however, accepted the marriage and Simon became one of King Henry’s main advisers.
Simon De Montfort’s Legacy
Simon de Montfort was not, of course, consciously founding the House of Commons. He has been seen as a principled leader, driven by a genuine sense that reform was right and just. He had strong religious convictions and close friendships with leading intellectuals of the time, connected with Oxford university, who were greatly concerned with political ideas about good government.
On the other hand, Simon de Montfort was seen by many at the time as an inflexible fanatic, or self-interested opportunist. He was unpopular among the barons, and this may have been part of the reason he struggled to gain support. He came to power by force and used his position to enrich his family and followers, to the point where he alienated his key ally, Gilbert de Clare, the new earl of Gloucester.
Montfort was a populist leader who presented himself as the defender of ‘England for the English’, a popular cause in the country at large, where people had come to see the king’s misgovernment as the result of his reliance on foreign advisors. He also pursued policies against the Jewish money-lenders, cancelling debts to many minor landowners who were suffering from excessive borrowing. This may well have been driven by conscience rather than populism. Many of the intellectual circle with which Montfort was involved were advocating new ideas about Christian piety that involved intolerance towards Jewish communities, and which resulted in the 1270s in the expulsion of all the Jews in England. Despite the principle of it, persecution of the Jewish money-lenders was undoubtedly popular with the social groups on which Montfort based his support, and which were represented in Montfort’s Hilary parliament of 1265.
When Edward became king after Henry III died in 1272, he once again began to call representatives of the counties and towns to parliament. This happened more and more frequently, and these representatives eventually formed the House of Commons in the fourteenth century.
Simon De Montfort’s parliament
Simon de Montfort held two parliaments during his time in power. The second of these took place at Westminster between January and March 1265, and was the first parliament at which representatives of the cities and boroughs were present alongside knights representing their counties to discuss matters of national concern as opposed to granting taxation.
Who was summoned to Simon de Montfort’s parliament?
Montfort’s second Parliament was summoned on 14th December 1264. Summoned were 23 lay magnates, 120 bishops, two knights from each county and two citizens from each town. Also summoned were four men from each of the Cinque Ports. The Parliament began on 20th January 1265, and would be the longest of Montfort’s leadership. The Parliament was summoned to discuss arrangements for Prince Edward’s release.
The composition of those attending the Parliament was significant because it formed the basis of a more representative democracy – the make up of Montfort’s Parliament can be linked to the House of Commons as we know it today.