What did the Normans Ever do for us?
As another general election approaches, putting your opinions aside as a ‘leaver’ or ‘remainer’, it’s ironic that today’s Parliament actually came about thanks to the Normans and that even the name ‘Parliament’ was derived from either the French word, parlement or the Latin parlamentum.
It was following the invasion of ‘William the Conqueror’ in 1066 that led to the ‘feudal’ system of government, an arrangement where a Monarch seeks advice from the country’s major land owners and senior members of the Church (Great Councils) before he (or she) would introduce any new laws. In the 11th Century, landowners had a lot more ‘clout’ than they do now as the Monarchy tended not to have a standing army, something that the larger landowners would have for protection and to help police their own estates. For this reason the Monarchy was reliant on them to ensure that any new laws were enforced.
When this system of consultation failed, as it occasionally did, it became impossible for the ‘government’ to function effectively. As an example where the system failed is the case of Henry II and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. This was a long running dispute over the jurisdiction of the Church which eventually resulted in Thomas Becket being murdered.
Another similar dispute was that between King John, (reigned 1199-1216), and the then leading noblemen. This dispute resulted in the creation of one England’s most important documents, the Magna Carta. There was so much animosity between King John and the noblemen that a treaty had to be written into law that promised to protect the church’s rights, protect the barons from illegal imprisonment, give swift justice and limit feudal payment to the Monarchy. Despite assurances from both sides to comply with the treaty, however, neither party stood behind their commitment which eventually resulted in a civil war, the First Baron’s War. (Not to be mistaken with the English Civil War of 1642–1651).
The first recorded reference to the ‘Parliament of England’ was in the 1230s during the reign of Henry III (reigned 1216-1272). It is believed that this early parliament had both a judicial and legislative function. The problem was that Members were rarely called on as Henry III took full control of the government. Leading peers became increasingly concerned about his governing style and his unwillingness to consult with them, preferring instead to seek the council of his foreign relatives. This matter came to a head after the King’s disastrous support for an invasion of Sicily which led to seven of the leading barons forcing Henry to swear to uphold, what became, the Provisions of Westminster and the effective abolishment of Anglo-Norman monarchy. This handed power to a ‘council’ of fifteen barons who were to meet three times a year to monitor their performance. As it was, Parliament assembled just six times between June 1258 and April 1262.
The development of Parliament as an institution
It was during Edward I’s reign (reigned 1272- 1307), and his determination to unite the English Kingdom by force that the reach of Parliament was expanded to include Wales and Scotland. Edward wanted to restore his own authority on the people and avoid an uprising. He did this by encouraging people to submit ‘petitions’ to parliament in the form of grievances so they could be resolved. The problem was, as the number of petitions increased, they were often ignored by ministers. They did this so that more important ‘government business’ could pass through parliament without delay. This is significant as it is the earliest evidence of parliament being used as a forum to address the general grievances of ordinary people; a tradition that continues to this day. These recorded changes show that parliament and government was not the same thing at this point.
If royalty was to impose its will on the kingdom, they needed to control parliament rather than be subservient to it and, as a result, the authority of the English Parliament varied on the strength or weakness of the monarchy at that time.
Upper and Lower Houses
In 1341 the Commons started to meet separately from the nobility and clergy in the house which created what was effectively an Upper Chamber and a Lower Chamber, with the knights and burgesses sitting in the latter. It was in 1544 that the Upper Chamber became known as the House of Lords and the Lower Chamber, the House of Commons, which even to this day are collectively known as the ‘Houses of Parliament’.