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Edward I devised a famous political experiment – the mediaeval Model Parliament

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 30 August 2013

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This edited article about the British parliament originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

A knight and MP, picture, image, illustration

A knight and squire on the road to London to attend Parliament by James E McConnell

After King John had signed Magna Carta, Parliaments became regular in England, although at first only the most powerful of the King’s subjects attended them. Soon however the King’s chronic shortage of money once more forced a change.

At that time the Kings of England also ruled over the huge province of Gascony in the south-west of France. War with France was almost continuous. England relied more and more on mercenary troops, and these had to be paid.

Henry III of England feared an attack on Gascony by France’s ally, the King of Castille. He needed money to hire more soldiers, but this time the English barons refused to allow further taxation unless the people of the country agreed.

In market places and city squares throughout the land Royal Heralds proclaimed the summoning of a Parliament. But this was to be a Parliament with a difference. Two humble knights from every county were to be called. This was only fair since they, after all, bore the brunt of both war and taxation.

King Henry got his money, of course, and thereafter the knights of the counties were summoned to Parliament.

The election of these knights was a rough-and-ready affair, but it provided a fine excuse for a village fair. The knight who was elected may not have been so happy. The journey to Westminster was difficult and dangerous. Roads were no more than tracks, and could be knee-deep in mud if it rained.

In London, the new Member had to pay for his own food and lodging, and even when he attended Parliament there was little he could do except agree to further unpopular taxes.

Yet over the years he found that his influence was growing. During the civil war between Henry III and Simon de Montfort, both factions needed the support of the knights. After defeating the King’s forces at the battle of Lewes in 1264, Simon de Montfort called a Parliament of his own. Four “discreet knights” from every shire were summoned to discuss the state of the realm.

Next year, Simon summoned another Parliament to Westminster. This time he also called for two representatives from every borough. The knights and barons of the aristocracy were horrified to find themselves associating with mere merchants, but Simon knew what he was doing. He realized where the money now lay – and just who could be taxed! For their part, the merchants were honoured to have their new status recognised.

In the Middle Ages, most MPs were illiterate. Few people apart from clerics could read or write, and whenever a member wanted to present a petition he had to have it drawn up for him by a clerk.

Only a few years after Simon de Montfort’s Parliaments, another important change took place. The Royal Clerks started to keep regular records of these petitions which they called the “Rolls of Parliament.” They were in fact in the form of a long roll of parchment, and can still be seen in the Public Records Office in London.

In those days, summoning Parliament was a highly complicated business, so in 1282 Edward I tried out a new scheme. He summoned two Parliaments at once. One, representing the north of England, met at York. Another, representing the south, met at Northampton.

Then the king realized the danger in this. In the 13th century, England was not as unified as it is today, and the great barons of the north were almost independent. The experiment was not repeated.

Edward I has been called the “Father of Parliament.” It was he who summoned the famous “Model Parliament” of 1295, upon which most later Parliaments of the Middle Ages were modelled. The King summoned barons, archbishops, bishops, representatives of the lower clergy, two knights from every shire and two citizens from every borough. It was the first assembly to be really representative of England as a whole, and from that time on Parliament grew rapidly in power and prestige.

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