Parliamentary independence

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

The Commons' independence from the monarch was strengthened further in January 1642 when King Charles I entered the Commons in a failed attempt to arrest five members of parliament.

The relationship between King Charles I and the Parliament had steadily deteriorated. The Parliament was critical of Charles' rule, including his methods of raising tax, the wars he fought and his refusal to call Parliament to meet. Some also feared Charles, who was a Catholic, wanted to destroy the Protestant religion in England.

John Pym and four other members of the Commons drafted the Grand Remonstrance, a list of Parliament's grievances. The Remonstrance was passed by the Commons in November 1641. It was the first time the Parliament had so openly challenged a monarch.

Charles considered this to be treasonous. Accompanied by soldiers, the King entered the Commons chamber to arrest Pym and his four supporters but they had gone into hiding. The Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, refused to reveal where the five members were, claiming 'I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here'. Rebuffed, Charles replied 'I see the birds have flown' and left the chamber. This incident demonstrated the autonomy of the House of Commons, and initiated a tradition that no monarch ever enters the lower house of Parliament.

The conflict between the Commons and the King resulted in civil war, which led to the execution of Charles I in 1649 and Britain being declared a republic. The monarchy was restored in 1660 but the King and Parliament continued to clash. In 1689 King William and Queen Mary took the throne and agreed to the Declaration of Rights, which acknowledged Parliament's sovereignty, including its right to free speech and to meet frequently.

Towards a modern parliament

The late-seventeenth century in England saw the emergence of political parties called the Whigs and the Tories. These first political parties were not as formal in their structures and practices as modern political parties.

The Whigs believed the British Parliament should have more power than the monarch. During the nineteenth century, Whigs were in favour of change and reform, and became the Liberal Party. Today, they have evolved in Britain into the Liberal Democrats.

The Tories were more conservative and opposed to change. They supported the power of the monarch and the Church of England, and were unwilling to give the British Parliament more power. Today, they have evolved in Britain into the Conservative Party.

Towards modern parliament