By Steven Muhlberger
Democracy has many roots, some of which are medieval. An important characteristic of humanity since our distant origins as a species has been our ability and willingness to work together. Humans have pursued common goals by gathering in “assemblies” often under the leadership of respected (or feared) members of the “tribe.”
Assemblies did not necessarily have a formal existence. They were often more or less spontaneous gatherings inspired by a crisis. Assemblies were often hard to distinguish from riots, in which one faction used force against perceived enemies. Elsewhere I have described the revolt of the White Hoods in Ghent in 1379 where an assembly transformed itself into a military force and overthrew the existing regime in the city.
That regime was an example of more orderly ways of dealing with common problems – through representation. Ghent, a large city with common interests in the cloth trade, contained more specialized groups. In good times the “best people,” formally or informally chosen, led each guild and much of the political action took place in interactions between them. If such a community was subject to a lord – as Ghent was subject to the Count of Flanders – the guilds and councils led the opposition to any unpopular policies.
Modern representative governments assume that all citizens have the same political rights. This means that they have the same right to choose their leaders. The chosen representatives – chosen by free elections – have an important role in legislation and executive functions.
Medieval practice differed. The adage “what touches all has to be approved by all” well known from Roman and Church Law, expressed an expectation that lords would be reasonable in their demands on their subjects. This sounds quite democratic, but the initiative was in the lord’s hands.
Moreover, a wise lord would listen to the natural leaders among his subjects, whose identity was obvious. They might be elected by the groups they were taken to represent, often members of councils, guilds or ecclesiastical bodies. Or they might be summoned by a higher authority.
An English example of an ad hoc body can be seen in a conference on maritime policy. It was not a governing body. It was an ad hoc body of 12 men selected or elected from each of the “Cinque Ports” (five important ports on the south coast of England), which body the king consulted on matters of shipping and coinage. At a later time some of these people were recalled for further consultation, but that was the end of this group – its job was done.
In the 12th and 13th centuries the European church was growing in power and organization. Canon law – a separate body of law by which the clergy claimed to regulate large areas of Christian life – was growing and being systematized. The growth of ecclesiastical education led to conflict with kings and major lords who were also expanding the reach of their laws. In England such conflicts were sometimes thrashed out in gatherings called convocations. When the need was felt, the two archbishops (of Canterbury and York) and two members of the lesser clergy from every county met with the king to hash out their disagreements, which usually included how much revenue the king hoped to get from the clergy, which as a group was extremely wealthy. Consultation was a necessity.
In the 13th century this process of consultation was bringing order to politics through the institutionalization of councils. We can follow this process best in England. The most important councils from the king’s point of view were the “Small Council” and the “Great Council.” The Small Council (not so small, sometimes including a hundred members) was a near-permanent if amorphous body including earls, bishops, major abbots, and officers who usually needed to be present with the king to be consulted or commanded. Meanwhile, major business was discussed in the Great Council.
During the thirteenth century kings more frequently summoned representatives to talk with them. The largest of these talks ( Latin “parliamentum” French “parlement”) were royal initiatives, and the king’s goal was usually to gain consent for unusual taxation. But of course this gave the representatives of the people (at least the laity, and the freemen a chance to “talk back.” People who felt that the ordinary courts had failed them could petition to a parliament, which was considered a supreme court. Soon enough large groups were using petitions to suggest statutes and permanent laws. Such parliaments could comment on royal policies, which involved war and peace and the judgment of leaders. By the second half of the 13th century, discussions in the Parliament could be used to gain legitimacy. When Simon de Montfort led rebel barons against King Henry III in the 1260s, he solidified his movement by calling a parliament. After King Edward I smashed this baron’s revolt, he called parliaments to enact necessary reforms and shore up his power.
The Model Parliament of 1295
The parliament of 1295 which scholars have called ”the Model Parliament” showed what the king (Edward I) and his advisors thought what they considered to be a useful group to do serious business with.
Here is a list of its different constituent groups, how they were chosen and how they contributed to the structure of the future institution:
CLERGY – After 1295 met separately from (the rest of) Parliament as CONVOCATION
- 2 Archbishops participated because of the importance of their office
- 18 Bishops because of the importance of their office
- Lots of representatives of parish clergy, who were selected/ elected because of their religious role and collective wealth
- 67 Major Abbots, again because of their religious role and wealth
Future HOUSE OF LORDS
- 7 Earls
- 41 Greater barons
- Note: Archbishops and bishops also attended with these important peers as well
Future HOUSE OF COMMONS (= the common people)
- 2 knights per 37 counties (a total of 77). The Sheriffs of each county chose representatives (or recorded nominations)
- 2 citizens or burgesses per 110 boroughs (cities and towns) (for a total of 220). They were chosen by local elections
This seemed in 1295 a reasonable representation of what we might call the “political nation.” Note that no rural Englishmen who were not knights belonged to it, and many of the “knights of the shire” were not knights (though they were rich). We know from our sources that even the people who would later be called Members of the House of Commons routinely deferred to their betters in the Parliament. The seven earls had far more clout than the 220 townsmen from the boroughs.
But that does not mean that the burgesses and the knights had no clout: it was generally accepted that if the king wanted more than the traditional services and taxes from his subjects he would have to convince them that this was justified. His ministers had to make the case that Edward I’s and Edward III’s expensive campaigns were in the national interest. Discussions in Parliament became increasingly central to political life.
In the 1370s the usual leaders were divided because of embarrassing defeats in France; King Edward III was dying, his sons were fighting among themselves, and the king’s ministers were suspected of corruption because the treasury was empty. At this point the “commoners” (with the encouragement of more noble men) took the initiative in attacking the administration. Putting on their judicial hats the commons “impeached “ two of the least popular ministers for their wrongdoing. When the ministers pushed back, the commons selected one of their members, Peter de la Mare, to speak for all of them. No doubt these commoners felt that they represented the vast majority of England’s population – after all, royal practice over the previous century had made that interpretation almost common (sic!) sense. The opponents of the king’s ministers won the day, and the accused were “impeached” (accused) by the Commons, to be judged by the Lords. Both impeachment and the office of Speaker of the House of Commons still exist in many countries with a “Westminster” style government – and even the United States.
This revolution was soon reversed but Parliament continued to have an important role in English politics. For instance when the most dramatic case of defiance to a King’s regime and his policies in the seventeenth century, it was the Parliament (even the Commons) that led the way. Such events as the deposition of Charles I and his execution originated among people who were Common.
So was the development of Parliament in England a root of democracy? Opinions differ. The structure of Parliament stayed much the same until the 19th century. If we look at the membership of the House of Commons we see that even this most common element of Parliament was extremely elitist. The peers of the House of Lords had a great influence on local elections to the Commons. Many MPs were the sons and heirs of the members of the Lords, very likely to eventually sit in the Lords.
On the other hand, the very existence of Parliament in England and later in the United Kingdom was a victory for a style of consultational politics that may have made it possible for reforms to be proposed, debated and implemented without the revolutions on the continent. In the 14th century many countries had had parliaments comparable to the English one; by the 18th century they were gone and efforts to create new ones were unsuccessful.
Democracy is a difficult and even controversial ideal. The history of the English Parliament is a part of that difficult history.
Steven Muhlberger, before he retired from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: A sixteenth-century depiction of the parliament of Edward I, King of England, as depicted by the Wriothesley Garter Book