Simon De Montfort and the 750th anniversary of the first parliament
Seven-hundred-and-fifty years ago, on 20th January 1265, an English Parliament was convened without the permission of the king. This seems unexceptional today but back then it was a revolutionary act, challenging royal authority.
Moreover, the new Parliament included representatives from the towns and cities – the ‘commons’ - as well as the nobility. It did not last long but it may be argued that the ‘Montfort Parliament’ was the beginning of the parliamentary system as we know it.
Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, was a baron who led other barons in armed rebellion against King Henry III. For nearly two centuries previously under England’s feudal system the monarch would summon a ‘great council’ of land-owning nobles and barons when he needed support - usually for more taxes.
Over time, as the barons struggled to place limits on royal authority, the ‘great councils’ became parliaments. Things had come to a head with King John in 1215, when rebellious barons forced him to agree to limitations on his power. The agreement – Magna Carta – was soon annulled but this led to the First Barons’ War and, in 1225, to the reissuing of a revised version of Magna Carta by Henry III. The revised version was granted as a way of ending the barons’ rebellion, in return for new taxes.
This issue – the authority of the monarch in relation to his ‘council’ or parliament – erupted again in the Second Barons’ War from 1263 to 1267. Henry III’s confirmation of Magna Carta meant that the barons were feeling their power; the king was now always expected to seek their advice on taxation and the king therefore had to convene his parliament more frequently.
Montfort was very radical, even revolutionary, in that he wanted the barons to select the king’s ministers and wanted the king to agree to follow the barons’ advice. The situation in England under Henry III exacerbated the barons’ discontent. In 1258, there was devastating famine yet Henry, who had failed in an earlier military adventure in France, now sought funding for a costly acquisition of Sicily. Montfort’s radical agenda gained support from other barons.
In 1258, they pressured Henry into accepting their written demands, known as the Provisions of Oxford. These Provisions are regarded by some historians as the first written constitution of England. They sought a government jointly directed by the king and a council of 15 barons, with parliament to be convened regularly, three times a year, not just when the king wanted more taxes.
As with Magna Carta in 1215, the king soon abrogated his agreement – with the blessing of the Pope who annulled the Provisions.
This seeded further discontent, leading to the Second Barons’ War. Montfort’s forces achieved a significant victory in the battle of Lewes in 1264 when they captured the king and his son, Edward.
Montfort summoned a new parliament on 14 December that year, bypassing the king. The new parliament, meeting on 20 January 1265, was more fully representative, with two knights from each shire and two burgesses, mostly merchants, elected from each town and city. Montfort declared that he wanted every corner of England represented, not just the barons and clergy. The towns and cities represented new class forces who wanted greater freedom. Thus began ‘the realm of the commons’.
Montfort’s support for the ‘commons’ resulted in loss of support by some key barons who felt he had gone too far. In August 1265, at the battle of Evesham, Montfort was killed and, for his audacity, was dismembered by the royal forces and his head placed on a spike.
The king convened another parliament but, while the battle at Evesham had been lost, things could never be the same again: England had experienced a parliament of ‘lords and commons’.
In 1295, King Edward’s ‘Model Parliament’ included representatives from the towns and cities and Magna Carta became a statute for the first time in 1297. The House of Commons met separately in 1341, and its representation and power was extended over the centuries. It remains today ‘the People’s House’.
Parliaments owe much to the French-born baron, Simon de Montfort, who dared to rebel 750 years ago.
The image at right shows a statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester, England. It is reproduced here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user NotFromUtrecht. CC BY-SA 3.0.