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The Great Parliament of 1265: Medieval origins of modern democracy

statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester, England.

By Elizabeth Mitchell, University of Lincoln

On the eve of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta – the charter recognised as laying the foundations of England’s modern democracy – new research by a medieval historian from the University of Lincoln, reminds us that 2015 also marks 750 years since the earliest forerunner of a modern parliament was held.

Having almost defeated King Henry III of England, Simon de Montfort called the Great Parliament of 1265, which was the first in history to strip the king of unlimited authority and involve other citizens within the parliamentary process. De Montfort insisted the representatives be elected, not appointed, and ensured that both knights (representing counties) and burgesses (representing boroughs) were present – substantially broadening representation to non-peers.

Simon de Montfort, renowned for his strong commitment to democracy and justice, is today recognised as the pioneer of representative government. In a free public lecture at Lincoln Cathedral, Dr Philippa Hoskin will explore how his ideas about justice were influenced by his close friend, chaplain and confessor Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln.

Dr Hoskin, Reader in the University of Lincoln’s School of History & Heritage, specialises in studying the medieval English church. Her current research explores the philosophy, theology, political influence and episcopal administration of Robert Grosseteste, who lived during a time of shifting boundaries between secular and religious jurisdiction.

“Over the course of the next year,” Dr. Hoskin said, “we will commemorate the 1215 Magna Carta, which was the first major attempt to limit a king’s political power; but it is also important that we remember the great significance of the de Montfort Parliament of 1265. This is seen as setting the precedent for a system of rule by constitutional law and representative government, and my lecture will explore exactly how society arrived at this crucial point; a landmark moment in British history.”

Recent studies conducted by Dr Hoskin have centered on de Montfort’s rebellion against the King in 1263, which led to the holding of this Parliament.

Relief of Simon de Montfort in the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives
Relief of Simon de Montfort in the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives

Her research helps to explain why this rebellion garnered so much support from the English bishops, despite the fact that de Montfort was less than committed to addressing the Church’s grievances. Her recent examinations of some of the bishops’ surviving records suggest that their concerns about the nature of the King’s rule were based on their commitment to maintaining natural law.

Dr Hoskin explained: “The bishops who remained close to de Montfort throughout his rebellion hoped that his efforts to constrain the King’s power would restore the balance of natural law, which to them was a matter of great concern. The personal obligation they felt to ensuring the balance of the world was taken from the philosophical and theological beliefs of Robert Grosseteste, who wrote on the difference between a monarchy and a tyranny, and advocated that as well as ensuring justice among his subjects, the King must demonstrate justice himself.

“It is apparent that these beliefs had a great influence on other bishops throughout the 13th century, as well as on Simon de Montfort himself. Indeed, we have these to thank for the establishment of the Great Parliament in 1265. Having been taught by Robert Grosseteste, de Montfort believed that justice was an obligation for everyone, and he was a great advocate of respecting authority while protecting the lower classes.

“Having said that, we must also acknowledge that while leading the Parliament of 1265, de Montfort had illegally usurped the power of the king, Henry III – and what kind of justice is that?”

Dr Hoskin will present her findings at the Annual Bishop Grosseteste Lecture, to be held at Lincoln Cathedral on Thursday 9th October 2014. The lecture, entitled Justice Mercy and the Law: Grosseteste, de Montfort and the Parliament of 1265, will begin at 12pm. Tickets are free but places must be reserved. Tickets are available from Lincoln Cathedral’s Minster Shop.

See also A Captive King: Henry III between the battles of Lewes and Evesham, 1264-5



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