Parliament: The Growth of Parliamentary Sovereignty

The Growth of Parliamentary Sovereignty

The constitutional position of Parliament was at first undifferentiated from that of the great council. Large assemblies were called only occasionally, to support the king's requests for revenue and other important matters of policy, but not to legislate or “consent to taxation” in the modern sense.

In the 14th cent., Parliament began to gain greater control over grants of revenue to the king. From Parliament's judicial authority (derived, through the Lords, from the judicial powers of the great council) to consider petitions for the redress of grievances and to submit such petitions to the king, developed the practice of withholding financial supplies until the king accepted and acted on the petitions. Statute legislation arose as the petition form was gradually replaced by the drafting of bills sent to the king and ultimately enacted by Commons, Lords, and king together. Impeachment of the king's ministers, another means for securing control over administrative policy, also derived from Parliament's judicial authority and was first used late in the 14th cent.

In the 15th cent., through these devices, Parliament wielded wide administrative and legislative powers. In addition a strong self-consciousness on the part of its members led to claims of parliamentary “privilege,” notably freedom from arrest and freedom of debate. With the growth of a stronger monarchy under the Yorkists and especially under the Tudors, Parliament became essentially an instrument of the monarch's will.

The House of Lords with its lord chancellor (now the lord speaker) and the House of Commons with its speaker appeared in their modern form in the 16th cent. The English Reformation greatly increased the powers of Parliament because it was through the nominal agency of Parliament that the Church of England was established. Yet throughout the Tudor period Parliament's legislative supremacy was challenged by the crown's legislative authority through the privy council, a descendant of part of the old feudal council.

With the accession (1603) of the Stuart kings, inept in their dealings with Parliament after the wily Tudors, Parliament was able to exercise its claims, drawing on precedents established but not exploited over the preceding 200 years. In the course of the English civil war, Parliament voiced demands not only for collateral power but for actual sovereignty. Although parliamentary authority was reduced to a mere travesty under Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate, the Restoration brought Parliament back into power—secure in its claims to legislative supremacy, to full authority over taxation and expenditures, and to a voice in public policy through partial control (by impeachment) over the king's choice of ministers. Charles II set about learning to manage Parliament, rather than opposing or circumventing it. James II's refusal to do so led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which permanently affirmed parliamentary sovereignty and forced William III to accept great limitations on the powers of the crown. During the reign of Queen Anne even the royal veto on legislation disappeared.

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