Parliament: The Origins of Parliament

The Origins of Parliament

There was no historical continuity between the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot and the British Parliament. The first steps in the genesis of the modern parliament occurred in the 13th cent. The long, slow process of evolution began with the Curia Regis, the king's feudal council to which he summoned his tenants in chief, the great barons, and the great prelates. This was the kernel from which Parliament and, more specifically, the House of Lords developed. The Curia Regis, more commonly called the great council, had merely quasilegislative powers and was primarily a judicial and executive body. The development of the heritable right of certain barons (the peerage) to be summoned to the council, originally composed at the king's will, was not at all secure until the mid-14th cent., and even then was far from inviolable.

The House of Commons originated in the 13th cent. in the occasional convocation of representatives of other social classes of the state—knights and burgesses—usually to report the “consent” of the counties and towns to taxes imposed by the king. Its meetings were often held in conjunction with a meeting of the great council, for the early 13th cent. recognized no constitutional difference between the two bodies; the formalization of Parliament as a distinct organ of government took at least another century to complete.

During the Barons' War, Simon de Montfort summoned representatives of the counties, towns, and lesser clergy in an attempt to gain support from the middle classes. His famous Parliament of 1265 included two representative burgesses from each borough and four knights from each shire, admitted, at least theoretically, to full standing with the great council. Although Edward I's so-called Model Parliament of 1295 (which contained prelates, magnates, two knights from each county, two burgesses from each town, and representatives of the lower clergy) seemed to formalize a representative principle of composition, great irregularities of membership in fact continued well into the 14th cent.

Nor did the division of Parliament into two houses coalesce until the 14th cent. Before the middle of the century the clerical representatives withdrew to their own convocations, leaving only two estates in Parliament (in contrast to the French States-General). The knights of the shires, who, as a minor landholding aristocracy, might have associated themselves with the great barons in the House of Lords, nevertheless felt their true interest to lie with the burgesses, and with the burgesses developed that corporate sense that marked the House of Commons by the end of the century.

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