Magna_Carta_(British_Library_Cotton_MS_Augustus_II.106)

One of four known surviving 1215 exemplars of Magna Carta.

While the signing of Magna Carta by King John in 1215 is a universal focus of any discussion of the English political system’s development, it was not the first step toward the parliamentary system that exists today. Indeed, the foundation for parliamentary government was laid back in 1066 when William the Conqueror imposed his vision upon the island of Britain. As the feudal system developed in Norman England, English kings were dependent upon the nobles and the clergy for a stable base of support. A tradition arose whereby the English monarch would call a Great Council of the leading nobles and clergy. The king still reigned supreme, but issues of practicality were apparent to even the most obtuse monarch and most kings saw the wisdom in consulting with the people who controlled the money and the armies.

Occasionally, however, one side or the other chose to forge its own path, as can be seen in the examples of Henry II’s conflict with Thomas Becket–a conflict that ended with Becket’s death–and King John’s refusal to listen to his feudal barons, a conflict that culminated in King John’s signature being affixed to Magna Carta. Shortly after signing Magna Carta King John attempted to repudiate his “assent,” a move that resulted in the First Barons’ War. King John died in 1216 and his son, Henry, succeeded to the throne, the only problem being that he was only nine years old. Until Henry III reached an age where he could assume control, England was under the effective control of his barons. After some brief instability early on, the barons helped him to establish a legitimate reign. Their stint in full control of the country, however, had only whetted their appetite for a larger measure of control.

Henry_iii_coronation

The coronation of King Henry III, as depicted in Cotton Vitellius A. XIII.

Not long after Henry had assumed control of his reign he began to chart his own course, leaving the barons who had initially supported him feeling somewhat betrayed. Both Henry’s wife and mother were French, a situation that led Henry to rely on the advice of foreign kinsmen more so than on the advice of his own barons. Henry’s government gradually declined as he shifted many of the important financial and administrative duties away from his barons and over to the household departments of his court, positions that were occupied by those still loyal to him. By 1258, the barons had grown tired of Henry’s games. An ill-fated attempt by Henry to secure control of Sicily–by means of a back-door agreement with the Pope–proved to be the final nudge that pushed the simmering unrest in England over the edge.

Battle of Lewes, 14 May 1264

Battle of Lewes, East Sussex, 14 May 1264, by Hardy.

In an echo of Magna Carta, the English barons banded together and forced Henry to agree to a series of articles called the Provisions of Oxford. The articles attempted to regain the traditional supervisory power that the barons had previously held, but shortly after having agreed to abide by the Provisions of Oxford Henry rallied enough support to repudiate his acceptance of the baronial council. At first the barons struggled to mount a unified resistance, but a French-born noble named Simon de Montfort emerged on the scene to lead the English barons in their cause. Tensions rapidly escalated and by 1264 Henry had amassed an army to march against the defiant barons. At the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264, King Henry III and his son were defeated and captured by Montfort’s army.

Just as the barons had been unhappy with Henry’s overbearing rule, so were they skeptical of Montfort’s success and rise to power. Montfort, to his credit, recognized that the barons comprised a crucial bloc of support for any leader, and he moved forward with calling the first English parliament that was not authorised by a monarch. Montfort instructed that each county elect two knights, and that each borough elect two burgesses and two alderman to attend the parliament.  The meeting of barons, considered to be the first English parliament, began on 20 January 1265. It is considered the first English parliament in the technical sense because it was the first time that representatives to the parliament had been elected, rather than appointed. In addition, it was the first time that both knights and burgesses had attended the same parliament, an arrangement that broadened the groups represented.

Simon_de_Montfort

Simon de Montfort, in a drawing of a stained glass window found at Chartres Cathedral.

For his part, Montfort only drew the ire of King Henry III and was killed later in 1265 during the Second Barons’ War. Montfort’s parliament did not signal the start of a consistent, broadly represented parliament, but it did lay the foundation for later parliamentary developments in the 13th century. 1265 saw the first parliament summoned by Edward I, a parliament at which both knights and burgesses were present. It was not until the Model Parliament in 1295 that regular attendance by commoners became a fixture of parliamentary practice in England.