Post-classical history

The Great Parliament

THE MONKS who wrote the chronicles of the day had a habit of connecting noteworthy events with curious phenomena of nature. A great wind swept over England when John died and it continued to blow with unexampled fury for several days, as though sent to purge the land of all traces of his presence. There are continual references to iron frosts, to black storms, to drought and plague and other manifestations of divine displeasure. During the year following Lewes there was for a long time a comet in the sky, blood-red and shaped like a sword.

Surely on March 8, 1265, there was in the sky a great blazing sun, a sun strong enough to burn away at least one set of shackles from the wrists of men. On that day of days there assembled in London a parliament such as had never been seen before, a parliament in which common men sat and voted with lords and bishops. This truly unheard-of event was the work of Simon de Montfort. On the thirteenth of the preceding December, after holding the tiller of state with a firm hand through seven violent months, he had summoned some of the peers of the land, most of the bishops, two knights from each shire, and from two to four “good and loyal men” from each city and borough to meet and discuss the business of the realm. This was the first time in history that plain men—the socman, the franklin, the merchant, the alderman—had been judged worthy of a voice in framing the laws under which they lived.

Nothing much is known of this momentous gathering. Not a name, not a scrap of description, not the faint echo over the centuries of one spoken word: nothing but the bare outline of the one decision reached. This is unfortunate, for living history was made in Westminster Hall.

It is not even known how they were seated, the baron, the bishop, the plain knight, and “the bran-dealers, the soap-boilers and clowns,” as someone has phrased it. That they were arranged sectionally is hardly likely. More probably the barons and bishops had the front rows and “the good and loyal men” were far in the rear. The citizens, it may safely be assumed, took pains to present as good a front as their means allowed. Their cloaks and tunics would be of good cloth and warm colors, and no doubt some of them would have a show of miniver or vair at neck and wrist; but at best they would seem sober and as common as twist against the ruffling splendor of the barons and the costly vestments of the high churchmen. What a pity it is that no poet Gray has turned his imagination and his pen to picturing them, the rude forefathers of the modern House of Commons, the mute, inglorious Pyms and Hampdens who had answered the summons to sit with their betters!

There were no rules of procedure in these early days, no set parliamentary ritual. They met, they listened to the King or the minister delegated to expound his views, they debated, and they voted. Some sessions were noisy and voices were raised high in anger and wounded pride. This particular Parliament, however, provided no dramatic moments. A program was presented. The voice was the voice of Henry, but the will back of it was the will of Simon. It had all been decided upon in advance, and it was carried with a good will, without delay or senseless babble.

The provisional government set up in the Peace of Canterbury was to continue. Edward was to have his liberty, but he must continue under restrictions for three years. During that period he must not leave the kingdom and he must not bring in aliens or seek the return of adherents abroad: this on pain of disinheritance. Both Henry and Edward must swear again to abide by the Great Charter and the Provisions of Oxford and must bind themselves not to seek absolution of their oaths.

Three days later there was a solemn ceremony in the chapter house at Westminster to announce publicly that Prince Edward had been released and delivered into the keeping of his father. Henry, wearing crown and royal robes, was present when the declarations to which he and the prince had sworn were read to the gathering. At the finish nine bishops stepped forward in full pontifical robes and, with the customary dashing out of candles at their feet, declared the excommunication of anyone who broke or transgressed the agreements which had been reached.

This ceremony marked the peak of Simon de Montfort’s power. His will had prevailed. The King and the heir to the throne had made their peace and sworn to all the terms, stern though they were, which he had deemed necessary for continued peace and the future good government of the realm. He played no part in the ceremony, but as he stood in his place with the rest and watched he must have found it hard to keep a light of triumph from showing in his eyes. This was the culmination of his years of steadfast adherence to an idea, long years through part of which he had stood alone. For this he had risked life and fortune; for this he had gambled on war and had dared the climb at Lewes.

Perhaps other and more exalted thoughts had their place in his mind as well; that he looked at the good and loyal men from the towns and boroughs and saw a vision of the gradual shifting of power which in time would vest in the hands of their successors all legislative control.

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It is called the Great Parliament, not because of what it accomplished but on account of the momentous precedent it set.

Did Simon de Montfort include the commoners because he realized he must depend on the cities and towns for his main support in the struggles ahead? Was it a purely selfish expedient to bolster his power and insure a more generous response to the calls he must make for financial aid? This viewpoint, which is widely held, must be given full consideration because it is not an unreasonable assumption. The leader of a great cause must have something of the opportunist in him. He must be alive, at any rate, to obstacles and ready to make use of the best weapons which are available. Simon, without a doubt, was aware of the advantages he might derive from his epoch-making invitation to the men who soiled their hands, not in the killing of other men, but in useful occupations.

But he could not have taken the step without being aware of other considerations. He was fully conscious of the tension in the ranks of the barons. He knew how suspicious they had become of him, how easy it might be to offend them still further. How would they react to this daring innovation which made the vote of a vintner or a fishmonger as good as that of a belted earl? Would they see in this another excuse for deserting the ranks? He must have remembered a line from The Song of Lewes: “See! Now is a knight subjected to the sayings of clerks. Knighthood put under clerks has become of little esteem.”

Summoning the commons was a questionable expedient from the standpoint of political advantage alone, one which might harm the cause more than it helped. There is reasonable ground to doubt if as farseeing and able a leader as Simon would have risked this step if he had thought of it as a temporary expedient and nothing else.

There is at least as good reason to believe that he was thinking of the future as much as the present; that he was ready to throw feudal conceptions to the winds and admit that the common man must have a part in shaping his own destiny for all time thereafter. Simon de Montfort was more than the leader of a political faction. For years he had been the symbol of a cause, the stern exponent of new principles. There had been indications of the way his mind was tending. There was the reference in the one letter which remains in his handwriting, because I uphold against them your rights and those of the common people. He alone had been in favor at first of calling a meeting of Parliament without the King. This revolutionary stand, a retreat from all feudal beliefs, might be expected to lead to still more radical acceptances on his part.

There is no way of determining what was in the mind of this daring and passionate leader when he took his long step in the direction of democratic government. This much, however, may not be gainsaid: it was in his mind that the conception first grew of a house of governmental control in which all classes of men would have a voice and vote, and he it was who had the sublime courage to make the experiment. Edward in later years, when he had succeeded his father on the throne, would give the principle permanent acceptance by summoning commoners to all meetings of Parliament. Could this have been one of the things they talked about during the brief interlude when Edward, in youthful enthusiasm, ranged himself by the side of the popular leader?

They share the credit and the glory of it between them, Simon de Montfort and the young Edward. There is plenty for both.

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