Timeline Middle Ages

Formation of the English Parliament

Today, the British Parliament is perhaps most famous for being one of the rowdiest governing bodies in the world. During times of debates, the members will literally yell at one another, and it’s not uncommon for someone to shout out during a speech to express their discontent. 

However, while this might make us laugh today, the impact the British Parliament has had on the world is hard to overstate. But before the British parliament, which includes all the countries of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales), there was just the English Parliament. 

Its roots go all the way back to the 13th century in Medieval England and its formation produced radical changes in England that echoed throughout the medieval world. Today, the emergence of the English Parliament is considered a cornerstone of modern democracy.

The Almighty Power of the King

To understand the importance of the earliest forms of English Parliament, it’s important to understand how the government worked in the Middle Ages. 

To put it bluntly, the king was all-powerful. 

During these times, it was believed that power could only be trusted to the few. And of those few, one was chosen by God to be the supreme ruler of the land. While the king had to cooperate with other members of the aristocracy (aka rich people who own land), he was ultimately the one who made all the rules. 

Sounds pretty good, no? Well, only if you’re the king. If you’re not the king, it sounds pretty unfair. 

As it turns out, a good number of the highest-ranking members of English society in the Middle Ages also thought this way. So they fought to change this. Their efforts went on to change the world.

The Magna Carta Plants the Seeds of Parliament

The first seed of modern Parliament was planted in 1215 AD with the signing of the Magna Carta. 

This document was drawn up by English barons (powerful members of the nobility) who were unhappy with the taxes being levied by King John to fund wars in France. It set up what was known as the “Great Council,” which was a group of bishops and barons who would serve as advisors to the king. 

By forcing King John to sign this document, the barons got him to admit that he did not in fact have absolute power. Later on, King John and his successors tried to nullify this agreement. But it kept coming back in one form or another. 

With the signing of the Magna Carta, the idea of absolute authority essentially died in Medieval England. But the king was still the most powerful man in the realm, even if his power was no longer considered absolute. 

Parliament Takes Control Over Taxes

The king’s power took a big hit in 1362 AD when Parliament forced King Edward III to accept that this “council” and not the king had the right to levy taxes in England. 

Taxes were an immense source of wealth for the king and the nobles. And it was through this wealth they maintained their power. But English king after English king levied taxes on English people to pay for wars in France. This was mainly because they had ancestral ties to the French aristocracy and were trying to maintain their grip on power in mainland Europe. 

English barons, however, didn’t take too kindly to this and eventually banded together to push back. Eventually, they removed the king’s ability to levy taxes and gave it to Parliament instead. This was a major blow to monarchical power and a huge step forward for the English nobility.

Parliament Deposes King Richard II

The next major step forward for Parliament came in 1399 AD when the council agreed to depose Richard II. The grandson of Edward III, Richard II’s claim to the crown had been contested since day 1 as part of a bubbling conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Today, we call this conflict the War of the Roses.

By 1399 AD, Richard III had lost the support of the nobility and they united to remove him as king. To make sure he didn’t cause any more problems, they locked him up in a prison where he later died, presumably of starvation.

This move expressed how powerful the nobility, through the institution of Parliament, had become. They now had the power, when they worked together, to actually remove a king and put a new one in, something that would have been inconceivable just two centuries prior.

The Redress of Grievances 

In 1401 AD, Parliament became an even more important institution in English society by establishing a system known as the “Redress of Grievances.” 

This gave regular people — farmers, artisans, tradespeople, you know, regular Joes — the ability to petition Parliament through local officials. These local officials, who went to and participated in Parliament, were elected by citizens of the town or county. 

Of course, you had to own land and be rich to be able to vote, but even this limited form of representation gave more of a voice to the “regular” people of English society than ever before. 

While this seems like an idealistic move towards democracy, it was ultimately a move to curb the power of the king. Those looking to assert their power in the face of the monarchy could gather support from the lower levels of society and turn that into a voice in parliament, which would then have an impact on the king. 

Despite this selfish motive, it helped make English society more inclusive than it ever had been and much more so than any other society in Europe at the time.

The King Concedes Law Making Abilities to Parliament

After giving the right to levy taxes to Parliament in 1362 AD, the king took another hit in 1414 AD by agreeing that Parliament had to approve all laws made in the kingdom. 

Talk about a major shift. Just two hundred years prior, the king could do whatever he pleased. But by 1414 AD, he had to run everything by Parliament. 

A big reason for this major shift was the lack of political stability in England at the time. In the early 1400s, England was engaged in a prolonged, costly war with France now known as the Hundred Years War. 

In addition, the two branches of the long-lasting Plantagenet dynasty, the Houses of York and Lancaster, were duking it out for control of the English crown. This degraded the power of the monarchy and helped Parliament gain even more control over English government. 

Once King Henry V agreed, in 1414 AD, that all laws in England had to be approved by Parliament and not just the king, Parliament’s position in society was cemented. There was no turning back.

A Model For Future Societies

There is no single date that we can point to as the birthday of the British Parliament. Well, in a way there is. The British Parliament was formed in 1707 with the unification of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. But the Parliament we’ve been talking about, which is perhaps better named the English Parliament, arose over the course of centuries and was developed in response to the changing needs of society at the time. 

Although Medieval English society was far from democratic, the very existence of this institution made English society more inclusive than other societies at the time. 

Over time, common folk were given more and more access to the government, though universal suffrage (the right to vote) did not come until the 20th century. 

Nevertheless, this centuries-long story of the formation of the English parliament helped guide the design of modern societies. Colonists in what would later become the United States of America were outraged at being taxed without representation in Parliament and ultimately waged a war to establish their own self-rule. When they eventually formed a new nation, their legislative branch was designed to resemble the Parliament from which they had just broken free. 

While far from perfect, the US model has gone on to inspire countless other nations in their quest for democracy, and its roots can be traced to the 13th century and the early days of English parliament.

Written by Matthew Jones