England, now a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is famous for not having any written constitution unlike, for instance, the United States of America which has a constitution dating from 1787. Instead, custom and practice have evolved into traditions which form an unwritten constitution, described in the 19th century by Bagehot.
Today the UK has a constitutional monarchy advised by a Prime Minister who heads a Government in the House of Commons which derives its power from universal suffrage of the adult population of the UK. A second, unelected, revising chamber – the House of Lords – is a direct descendant of the high medieval Parliament of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal which in turn descended from the pre-Conquest witan that was called to advise and legislate with early medieval kings.
To reach this position took approximately 700 years in a series of steps, some large, some small, starting from government based on the exercise of royal will. The last king to claim this power of vis et voluntas (force and will) was John (d. 1216) until he was forced by the principal Barons to agree to the limitations written into Magna Carta (1215).
In his son Henry III’s reign the term ‘Parliament’ emerged as the technical term for an assembly of notables, summoned by the king once or twice a year. Very occasionally this assembly also included non-noble representatives of the localities who would bring their grievances to the king and report back to their communities on the king’s policy. From the 1260s it was accepted that general taxes could only be levied with the assent of these local representatives. Because the value of the king’s lands was increasingly insufficient for the needs of royal policy, taxation became more important for governance. From 1326 Parliament always included these local representatives who eventually became known as the Commons. The Lords Spiritual and Temporal continued to meet with the king between parliaments at Great Council meetings.
So, by the fifteenth century Parliament consisted of three separate groups with extensive ownership of land – the basis of medieval power:
Lords Spiritual – Bishops, Abbots and Priors of rich religious foundations;
Lords Temporal – dukes, earls and other senior nobles with large land holdings;
Commons: Knights of the shires and Burgesses (representing towns & cities). Usually the local gentry would agree between themselves who was to represent their shire (occasionally with pressure from a local lord). If the position was contested then every man who was resident in the county and had an annual income of 40s or more from freehold land could vote. (This low income threshold meant that yeomen and even some husbandmen were enfranchised).
Attendance tended to be poor – around 50% – unless there was very important business such as in 1399 to appoint a new king, but even then, only about two thirds of those summoned showed up.
Parliament did not meet every year: there were 54 Parliaments in the whole 15th century. The length of a Parliament varied greatly, the shortest session was just over one week, the longest over a year; most met for between one and two months. Members of Parliament had their own properties which required their attention and travel on horseback was slow by today’s standards. Unlike today, the king was usually physically present to hear arguments and put his point of view. Decisions could not be made without the king’s presence and agreement. Today this royal consent is a formality and, since the Civil War of the 1640’s, the monarch is forbidden to enter the House of Commons.
Parts of the Palace of Westminster, in which parliament usually met, still stand, notably, Westminster Hall, begun in 1097.The roof was rebuilt in the 1390’s in English oak and is still in good condition. Usually parliament convened in the Painted Chamber and the Lords then moved into the Queen’s Chamber, both of which were destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century. Parts of nearby Westminster Abbey were sometimes used by the Commons. Parliament met wherever the king summoned it besides Westminster: Coventry (1404, 1459), Gloucester (1405/6/7), Leicester (1414, 1426), Bury St Edmunds (1447), Reading (1453). In the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII Parliaments were all summoned to Westminster.
Whilst all kings were nominally head of government, there were times when Parliament was used to validate a new power structure:
In 1327 Edward II was judged incompetent to govern and was replaced by his young son (Edward III) with his mother acting as Regent for three years. This established a useful precedent which could be used to threaten future incompetent or tyrannical kings.
In 1399 a parliament that had been summoned by Richard II still met despite the fact that he had been deposed in the interim and it could not be opened by him. This parliament set out the justification for Richard II’s deposition and Henry IV’s accession.
Throughout much of the lifetime of Henry VI, who proved incapable of clear direction, government was managed by a Council, sometimes by Protectors, and at times by the Queen. Richard Duke of York laid his claim to the throne in Parliament which eventually agreed that he should be declared Henry VI’s heir.
In 1484 Parliament’s first business was to accede to the deposition of Edward V and confirm the accession of Richard III.
‘The main functions of Parliament in the fifteenth century were the granting [to the king] of taxation and the consideration of petitions’ (Jacob). In other words it acted as a court of final arbitration in disputes over property, setting levels and methods of taxation and trying cases of treason. Most law arose from petitions: written requests from anyone addressed either to the king personally, or to the commons or Lords collectively. Today these would be called private members bills presented by an M.P. on behalf of a constituent or an organisation. Most legislation today is initiated by the government.
If the king wished to raise money for a specific purpose: to raise an army for war in France; to improve coastal defences against invasion; to build ships to protect trade routes, then the king’s request had to be granted by the Commons, with the agreement of the Lords. This was because members of the Commons and Lords Temporal would be those responsible for ensuring that the taxes were collected from their tenants. The Church was usually exempt from taxation but might be asked to make donations or loans. However, in matters of constitutional importance the Lords might take precedence and act unilaterally such as the appointment of the Council during the minority of Henry VI in 1422.
Government documents had been written in Latin until the end of the 13th century when Norman-French began to be used. During the fifteenth century English became the language of debate in Parliament but, because government had been conducted in Norman-French during the previous century and was widely understood by the Lords and Commons, the official business of parliament continued in Norman-French. Some vestiges of this remain today in communications between the Monarch, Lords and Commons: Le Roy/La Reyne le veult – is still the official announcement of royal assent to a Bill. Throughout the fifteenth century the statutes passed in parliament were publicly circulated in French. From 1482 printed editions were produced. You can find them with English translations here.
Strong connections with France persisted throughout the 15th century, apart from making war there. Richard II had been born in Bordeaux; Henry IV’s father, was born in Ghent, Flanders; Henry VI, born of a French princess, was crowned king of France in Paris (1430); Edward IV was born in Rouen (1442); Henry VII spent half his life in Brittany and France before Bosworth (1485). Everyone who mattered in Parliament understood Norman-French. Nonetheless, the petitions presented by the Commons were increasingly in English.
The role of Speaker, chairman of and spokesperson for the Commons emerged towards the end of the 14th century. Usually elected by the Commons themselves, but sometimes pressure was brought to bear to ensure that someone amenable to the king would be preferred. One example is Sir William Catesby, a close friend of the king, during the brief reign of Richard III.
Some Parliaments of special interest
October 1399 (interregnum)– the day after Richard II abdicated.
This Convention Parliament was the first of its kind in English history, as there was no monarch to open Parliament. The main purpose was to offer the throne to Henry IV and then, as the new king, he had the power to re-summon Parliament which then continued to meet in his name.
1406 (Henry (IV) The Long Parliament lasted nine months because the Commons refused to grant taxes to the king until he granted their demands.
1407 The Commons successfully asserted its right that it should originate all new taxes in its own House.
1414 (Henry V)
Held at Greyfriars, Leicester – the same place that Richard III would be buried in 1485 and his grave rediscovered in 2012.
1414 Henry V acknowledged that the approval and consultation of both Houses was necessary to make new laws.
1426 (Henry VI minority) Parliament of Bats (clubs, not flying mammals)
Summoned at a time of dispute between Humfrey, duke of Gloucester and Cardinal Henry Beaufort, removed the latter from his office of Lord Chancellor. Carrying swords was forbidden so the attendees carried clubs/bats for their defence in case a brawl broke out. Even today in the House of Commons Government and Opposition benches are said to be two sword lengths apart – about 4 metres. The sergeant at arms carries a sword and the sword of state plays a ceremonial role at the opening of parliament and other state events when the monarch is present.
1459 (Henry VI) Parliament of Devils. To pass bills of attainder against Yorkist nobles.
May 1461(Edward IV)
His first Parliament justified Henry VI’s deposition and set out Edward IV’s title and right.
January 1484 (new style Calendar) (Richard III – his only Parliament.)
Passed the Act Titulus Regius confirming Richard’s right to be king.
Passed Acts of Attainder on approximately 100 people involved in the Buckingham Rebellion of October 1483.
Passed a separate Act against Lady Margaret Beaufort, removing her land and other assets and placing these under the control of her husband, Lord Stanley. A fateful decision.
IWF & JLL
The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot (Chapman & Hall, 1867)
The Fifteenth Century 1399-1485 E.F. Jacob, (OUP, 1961) Chapter IX Government