A written agreement – the Magna Carta

Closer Look – A Short History of Parliament [PDF 3.40Mb, 13 pages]

In the early 13th century King John waged a long and drawn-out war with France, which was largely funded by taxing the feudal barons. Under feudal law, the King granted the barons land, or fiefdoms, and in exchange could demand money and troops. This, in turn, meant that the barons had to impose taxes on the people in their fiefdoms. In 1215 the barons, fed up with King John's demands and his failure to consult them, rebelled. The King's use of the justice system to suppress his opponents had also caused widespread discontent.

In June 1215, one month after the rebellion started, King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta or 'Great Charter'. It limited the King's authority by establishing he was subject to the law, not above it. The Magna Carta also regulated feudal customs, the operation of the justice system, and formally recognised that the barons had a right to be consulted and to advise the King in the Great Council.

While most of the document described the division of power between the King and the barons, it also made reference to the rights of individuals. One of the most celebrated sections is credited with establishing the principle of a right to a fair trial. It states:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This declaration of individual rights has been seen as an important step towards the development of democracy, and has influenced documents such as the Australian Constitution and the American Bill of Rights.

Rebellion to representation

First use of the word Parliament

The first time the word parliament was used to describe an assembly between the King and his advisors was in 1236.

Despite the reforms of the Magna Carta, King John's successor, King Henry III, continued to clash with the barons. Many of the barons were unhappy with Henry's rule, including his failed campaigns to regain territory in France, and his choice of advisers and allies. Townspeople resented the King's tax demands and interference in their affairs.

In 1258 the barons forced the King to agree to rule with the advice of a 15-member baronial council, and to consult with Parliament more regularly. They wanted Parliament to meet three times a year and to include 12 non-noble representatives chosen from the counties. However, King Henry did not honour the agreement, and the opposing barons, led by Simon de Montfort, went to war against him.

De Montfort was a baron who believed the King's power should be limited, with more influence given to county knights and burgesses (representatives from the cities and towns). In 1264 he defeated the King and became Britain's de facto ruler.

The following year, de Montfort attempted to boost his baronial support by summoning knights of the shires and burgesses from cities and towns to attend his own parliament. This was the first time commoners had been represented at such a meeting, although their attendance would not become permanent for another 63 years. The inclusion of commoners in de Montfort's parliament has meant it is seen as the forerunner of the modern parliament.

Soon after this parliament met, De Montfort was killed in battle by Henry III's son, Edward. Unlike his father, King Edward I called Parliament to meet more regularly. Parliament also included two elected representatives from each county (knights of the shire) and city or town (burgesses), making it more representative of the people. This provided the model for the future House of Commons, with members elected by, and representing, a constituency.

The emergence of a parliamentary model

From 1327 the people's representatives sat in Parliament permanently and by 1332 were referred to as the House of Commons. The British Parliament now comprised three familiar elements: the monarch, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. However, it had no formal meeting schedule and continued to be called at the request of the King.

Up until this time, the House of Lords had far more influence on the King and a greater say in the decisions of Parliament. However, in 1341 the House of Commons began meeting independently, and it was after this that its power increased.

One of the main functions of the Commons was to petition the King and the House of Lords to resolve local and national issues through new laws. These petitions often formed the basis of bills (proposed laws). As well, it became practice for the King to seek the approval of the Commons for new taxes, particularly as these taxes often had the greatest impact on the people represented by the Commons.

An ongoing conflict with France meant King Edward III (1312 -1377) was forced to summon the Parliament more frequently to secure funds to wage war. The King's need for money gave the Commons leverage (bargaining power) to request concessions in return, including that the King and House of Lords act on their petitions.

By the mid-15th century, rather than simply petitioning the House of Lords, the Commons had equal law-making powers. It was also responsible for granting the King access to money raised by taxes. Today, its law-making powers exceed those of the House of Lords. The timeline (below) details some of the key reforms achieved by the Commons in the 14th and early 15th centuries.

  • 1362

    New law decrees Parliament must approve of all taxation.

  • 1376

    Sir Peter de la Mare, a member of the House of Commons, is chosen by the Commons to act as its spokesman before the King, making him the first unofficial Speaker.

  • 1377

    Thomas Hungerford becomes the first official Speaker of the House of Commons, responsible for running its meetings and representing its views.

  • 1407

    Proposals for taxation must be initiated by the Commons, removing this power from the King.

  • 1414

    Parliament agrees that no bill can become law without the consent of the House of Commons, nor can the King or the House of Lords change the wording of any bills submitted by the Commons without its assent.