Competition for the title “world’s oldest Parliament” is intense. Much of the discussion centres around definitions of democracy and whether or when voting was extended to all members of society. Contenders include Greece, Iceland and the Isle of Man. Britain’s case rests on the first recognisably representative Parliament, held in 1265, exactly 750 years ago this year.
Even in 1265 there had been a long tradition of kings consulting with advisors, usually consisting of the nobility and the clergy, before making major decisions concerning land ownership, tax and war. These consultations did not hide the fact that the king still kept a firm hold on the reins of power.
Increasingly, however, kings had to rely on the cooperation of their barons in order to raise money and men, to fight wars and maintain their rule. Sometimes serious rifts developed: one such occurred in the middle of the 13th century under King Henry III.
Henry was unpopular, having been crowned as a child and never managing to prove himself an effective or respected leader. He was thought to be under the control of his wife, Eleanor of Provence, and her avaricious family, on whom Henry bestowed wealth and privileges.
The barons were steadily losing their influence over him, which they thought they had established through Magna Carta. Their many attempts to secure participation in his administration eventually broke into open revolt. There was effectively a coup d’état in 1258 when a council of barons led by Simon de Montfort, forced Henry III to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, a new governing structure where the king ruled through a panel of 24 barons and churchmen, selected half by the king and half by the barons.
However soon thereafter splits began to appear amongst the barons, which were exploited by Henry III in an attempt to escape control by the council.
This culminated in the Battle of Lewes in 1264. De Montfort’s forces, though outnumbered, won a decisive victory. Henry III was captured, forced to pardon the rebels and re-instate the Provisions of Oxford.
In an attempt to consolidate his Power, de Montfort called a parliament in 1265 which was to represent not just the clergy and barons, but also representatives from towns and villages throughout the country.
It was the first parliament summoned without the authority of the king. It was also the first to invite participation by not only appointed knights from the shires but burgesses, representing towns such as York, Lincoln and the Cinque Ports (key coastal towns in south-east England). It invited comment on wider political issues such as control over the unrestricted powers of feudal lords. It therefore constituted the first representative parliament in England.
In fact the gathering was less a prototype for what we now regard as parliamentary democracy and more a highly partisan assembly of de Montfort’s supporters. And, ironically, it led to a re-establishment of royal power in the years that followed.
His new status clearly went to de Montfort’s head, as after this parliament he began blatantly expanding his own power and wealth. In turn a rebellion against him broke out, resulting in his defeat and death at the Battle of Evesham in August of 1265. The rebels were led by Henry III’s son Edward, the future King Edward I.
However after the precedent set by de Montfort’s parliament, knights and burgesses continued to be included in future parliaments. This grouping, being made up of men not part of either the nobility or the clergy, became known as the “Commons of England”, and later as the House of Commons.