Early Parliament and the Representative Process - Sarah Woodbury

Early Parliament and the Representative Process

It’s impossible to give a truly detailed account of the history of democracy in Great Britain on a blog, but  elections and the idea of representation by people over whom monarchs rule dates back to the Middle Ages.

From Anglo-Saxon times, the Saxon Kings of England consulted with their high ranking lords on matters of state. This continued after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD, and continued throughout the Middle Ages.

The Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, is often held up as a turning point in democracy. It was a document forced upon him by his barons insisting that he listen to their counsel and not act without consulting them: “This feudal document mainly guaranteed certain rights to the barons, who made up most of the landowning elite. But the Magna Carta also established that the king must obey the law and use only lawful means against his subjects. Even at the height of their powers, English kings seldom acted without consulting important nobles and church leaders, the Lords of the kingdom. After the Magna Carta, the king increasingly sought the advice and consent (agreement) of the Lords in exchange for their supporting his government’s policies and projects. This was the origin of Parliament.” http://crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-25-2-king-and-parliament-in-medieval-england.html My historian daughter points out that Americans are enamored of the Magna Carta. She says it was less a ground-breaking document than a reminder to King John of how kings before him had ruled. It did, however, codify what before had been unwritten tradition.

Within the next hundred years, Parliament evolved to include not only the House of Lords—the landed barons and lords of England—but the House of Commons, which “served as the means by which the King could communicate with men who, although below the ranks of his leading tenants, were of standing in their localities and well-informed of local grievances.” These representatives of towns and boroughs were either appointed by their town councils or elected. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/periods/medieval[BH3]

The first known date of the meeting of the larger Parliamentary assemblage was in 1212 and “from the 1260s, no general tax was levied without the consent of the representatives of local communities specifically summoned for the purpose of giving their consent, and only Parliaments in which the Crown sought no grant of taxation met without these representatives. The Crown’s increasing need for money meant it was a short step to the Commons becoming an indispensable part of Parliament. After 1325 no Parliament met without their presence.” http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/periods/medieval

The Scottish Parliament is first mentioned in 1235 but has a tradition dating back to at least the twelfth century. Like the English Parliament, the Scottish Parliament was a meeting of various ‘estates’—classes of men—which in this case included clergy, noblemen, lairds, tenants, and burgesses. http://scotparlhistory.stir.ac.uk/howitworked.html The first official Parliamentary act of which there is a record dates to 1293 during the rule of John Balliol. http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/global/Games/timeline/index.htm

In addition, the Celtic tradition of tanistry was well established in the Scottish Highlands in the Middle Ages, having been imported from Ireland as early as the fifth century: “In its simplest terms, a Tanist was a royal successor … In the earliest days, the Tanist was not necessarily directly related to the king, or even the same branch of the royal family; however they would share a common ancestor. In fact, during the early middle ages, the King was elected by the noble princely families, and the Tanist was elected as well. It was a lifetime post.” [BH4] http://mercedesrochelle.com/wordpress/?p=279

As a side note, this history puts the American Revolution into context, with its rallying cry of ‘no taxation without representation’. By 1776, the English people had experienced five hundred years of representation in Parliament, where the king could not tax his people without their consent. The American colonists believed, as Englishmen, that this right was inherent. When it was refused them, it became a cause for revolution.

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