Friday, April 10, 2020

Parliament in the Middle Ages

by Susan Appleyard

Parliament was the feeble offspring of the Magna Carta. ‘No taxation without representation.’ That was the slogan of a later age and a different country, but it serves here. Magna Carta was forced on King John by the barons, and what the barons meant by representation was… well, themselves, plus some of the more prominent landed knights. The barons were serving the commonwealth of the realm which was… well, themselves.

Nevertheless the weakling child that had been born in a meadow near Runnymede, despite lack of nurturing, survived and was given an infusion of vitality in 1265 by Simon de Montfort.

Simon de Montfort

His father of the same name was the one who did such sterling service for the Catholic Church during the Albigensian campaign. De Montfort junior is credited with being the Founder of Parliament, but his motives were far from altruistic. He was a rebel who seized power from King Henry III after his victory at the battle of Lewes. But his position was tenuous. To gather more support for his cause, he summoned burgesses from all the major towns, as well as the barons and knights who had previously counseled the king. It was the creation of a new limb: the Commons.

Under Henry’s son, Edward I, the calling of parliament became a more frequent event. In the thirty-five years of his reign, parliament was summoned no less than forty-six times. Nor was Edward’s motive altruistic. He needed money to pursue his Welsh and Scottish wars. The Commons had not yet learned that they could say ‘No, Sire,’ or perhaps they were a little overawed by him, but they did soon learn that if they voted the King money they could get something in return.

16th-century illustration of Edward I 
presiding over Parliament 

To summon parliament writs were sent out from the chancery instructing the sheriffs of each county to hold a county court for the election. Freemen who owned freehold land worth 40 shillings a year could vote. Two knights of the shire were elected from the thirty-seven counties in England, and two burgesses were elected from every town that had the right to send members to parliament enshrined in its charter, as many as two hundred and twenty-two.

Inevitably there were abuses and fights aplenty. A man who thought he had a good chance of being elected and took along some friends for support would swiftly change his mind when he arrived and found the door blocked by a rival who had even more friends. In 1362 deputies of the sheriff of Lancaster returned themselves without consulting the constituents.

John Paston got into a fight at the shire house with the sheriff, Sir John Howard, and was twice struck by a dagger. Members were supposed to live in the borough, but sometimes nobles and knights would invade a town, bringing along their own candidate and forcing the voters to elect him. Or a local baron would send along his thugs to make sure the candidate who best supported his interests was elected. Some of the great nobles didn’t have to resort to strong-arm tactics; they simply let their wishes be known, and it was done. These practices were particularly prevalent during the War of the Roses.

The money was good: four shillings a day for the knights; two shillings for the burgesses. Not bad when the average daily wage for a peasant was two pennies. The financial burden fell on the shires and the boroughs.

By the late middle-ages the Commons had won some clout. They made laws and they made kings. And they unmade some kings too.

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This Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives was originally published on May 24, 2015.

Susan Appleyard is the author of numerous work of historical fiction. Her latest release is Bonfire of the Perfect: The Albigensian Crusade. See all Susan's works at Amazon.

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