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20 January: On this day in history

What events happened on 20 January in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: January 20, 2022 at 6:05 am
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20 January 1265: England’s first parliament meets

The new assembly presents a potent threat to Henry III

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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.

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20 January 1356

After a struggle for the Scottish throne lasting almost a quarter of a century, Edward Balliol renounces his claim in return for an English pension of £2,000 a year. He retires to Yorkshire, and never returns to his native Scotland.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

20 January 1658
Cromwell's Second Protectorate Parliament reconvenes in Westminster. Two weeks later, alarmed at opposition from die-hard Republicans in its Lower House, Cromwell abruptly dissolves it.
20 January 1783
Preliminary peace treaties were signed between Britain on one hand and France and Spain on the other to end hostilities between the nations following the American War of Independence.
20 January 1779
Death in London of Hereford-born actor and theatre manager David Garrick. He will be given a lavish public funeral and is buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.
20 January 1812
Engineer Thomas Meik was born in Duddingston, Midlothian. Meik specialised in the construction of ports; his projects included Hendon Dock on Wearside, Blyth harbour and the Scottish ports of Ayr, Burntisland and Bo'ness.
20 January 1921
Fifty seven officers and men were lost when the British submarine K5 sank with all hands while en route to a training exercise in the Bay of Biscay.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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