20 January 1265: England’s first parliament meets
The new assembly presents a potent threat to Henry III
The first parliament in English history met on 20 January 1265, but it was so different from its modern- day equivalent that the two can barely be compared. It was called not by the king – the decent, dithering Henry III – but by the rebellious magnate Simon de Montfort, who had become the standard-bearer for the cause of the barons against the monarchy.
After defeating Henry’s forces at Lewes in May 1264, de Montfort decided to call an assembly (‘parlement’) in Westminster Hall to discuss his plans. The king had called such assemblies before; what was unusual about this one, though, was that its members included representatives of the shires and boroughs, not just the clerical and aristocratic elite. As such, it posed a potent challenge to the king’s monopoly of power. It was made up not merely of England’s bishops, abbots, earls and barons, but of two knights from each county and two burgesses from each borough.
Of course de Montfort never intended it to be entirely independent; many historians think he packed his parliament with men sympathetic to his interests. But by inviting knights and burgesses – who became known as the ‘Commons’ – de Montfort implicitly recognised the rising power of the English gentry.
Little detail about this first parliament survives, and it seems to have broken up within a month. But it established a vital principle, and when Henry’s son Edward I summoned the ‘Model Parliament’ 30 years later, he too invited knights and burgesses, as well as representatives from each city, all of whom were elected.
So perhaps de Montfort’s reputation as the accidental godfather of parliamentary democracy is not entirely false, even if he was far from being a democrat. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
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