Model Parliament Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Model Parliament established an important precedent by joining the shire knights and town burgesses with the spiritual and temporal lords, resulting in the widest political representation to that point in English parliamentary history.

Summary of Event

Political historians view the evolution of the English Parliament as one of the greatest legacies of the English Middle Ages to the theory and practice of representative democracy throughout the world. Parliament had its forerunners in both Anglo-Saxon and Norman traditions and practices. It was considered normal and necessary for feudal kings to rely on their barons for advice as well as for military aid. Usually kings turned to a small council of permanent advisers, a council composed of the chief barons of the realm and important ecclesiastics. There was a prevailing tension, however, between this small council of permanent advisers, called the curia regis, and the larger magnum concilium, or Great Council of peers of the realm, who felt more and more that they, too, had a right to be consulted on matters of policy that affected their own situation. [kw]Model Parliament (1295) [kw]Parliament, Model (1295) Model Parliament England;1295: Model Parliament[2570] Government and politics;1295: Model Parliament[2570] Laws, acts, and legal history;1295: Model Parliament[2570] Social reform;1295: Model Parliament[2570] Edward I

The English kings, particularly from the time of Henry II (1154-1189), found themselves increasingly involved in costly wars with France. To gain support for these wars, particularly financial support, the kings turned to the magnum concilium and also to other barons and burgesses who commanded sources of wealth. Not surprisingly, therefore, some historians have tended to interpret the evolution of Parliament largely, though not solely, in economic terms.

The immediate circumstances surrounding the Parliament of 1295 can be found in Edward I’ Edward I foreign policy. The king had been involved in costly wars with the Welsh. A far grander enterprise, however, was on the horizon: a war against France. Edward claimed that war was necessary to prevent France from depriving England of Gascony, a French territory (now called Gascogne, in southwestern France) rich in wine production. Both the writs summoning the members to Parliament and accounts by medieval chroniclers attest that Edward used the threat of foreign war, which was probably real, as his chief reason for calling members of the realm together to give him support. The campaign that Edward envisioned was of such a scale that the unified support of all was imperative. After negotiations between France and England failed, the king issued writs in September and October through his Chancery that required those summoned to participate in a parliament beginning the second week of November, after the feast of Saint Martin.

In composition, the Parliament of 1295 was made up of the lords spiritual, or the great churchmen; the lords temporal, or the great barons; and representatives of what was eventually to become the House of Commons. These representatives of the “commoners” came from two groups: knights of the shire, or men who held considerable land but who were not barons of the first rank or direct vassals of the king, and burgesses, or representatives of incorporated towns. Edward also summoned the two archbishops, all the bishops, the abbots of the larger monasteries, seven earls, and forty-one barons.

The composition of the 1295 Parliament thus involved the widest membership of any parliament up to that time. Edward I rarely summoned knights from the shire and burgesses from the cities and towns. In 1295, when they joined the temporal and spiritual lords in the assembly that came to be called the Model Parliament, they set an important precedent. Afterward, they began to meet in Parliament with some regularity, although representation was proportional neither to geography nor to population. The famous principle cited in the summoning writs, “that what affects all, by all should be approved,” is found in Justinian’s code and also in university statutes and in the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. It expresses one of the most salient principles of democratic government and runs like a thread through medieval political history. The writ to the archbishop of Canterbury obligingly describes the common threat necessitating the Parliament: the king of France would “deprive us of our land of Gascony, by withholding it unjustly from us” and is conspiring “to destroy the English language altogether from the earth.” England;Parliament

Like the lords spiritual, the great barons were also summoned by name. The summons is clearly a command, not an invitation, ordering the individual addressed to appear in person at Westminster on the Lord’s day next after the feast of Saint Martin in the approaching winter.

In the cases of the bishops and great barons, the summons to Parliament was a personal one, and the work to be done by these members was in a real sense personal work, but such was not the case with the knights of the shires and burgesses, as a writ to the sheriff of Northampton makes clear. The sheriff is told “to cause two knights from the aforesaid county, two citizens from each city in the same county, and two burgesses from each borough, to be elected without delay, and to cause them to come to us at the aforesaid time and place.” The writ explains that the knights and burgesses are to be “discreet,” “capable of laboring,” and empowered to act for their constituencies so that the business at hand could be finished then and there, evidence of the principle of representative government. Furthermore, these representatives, according to the writ, must be registered. The sheriff is enjoined to have on record the names of all knights, citizens, and burgesses elected to Parliament.

When Parliament assembled in November, each group ended by giving the king only as much as it was compelled to give. The king had to settle for a tenth of the revenue of the archbishop of Canterbury instead of the third or fourth he requested. The barons and knights gave one eleventh of their income to the king, and the boroughs gave one seventh, an indication not only of the relative wealth of the various components of the realm but also of their bargaining power. As each group assented to aid, it was dismissed and went home.

In interpreting the Parliament of 1295, a number of important features should be considered. In this Parliament, all elements of the realm were represented, but they were not yet established in the two groups which eventually became a bicameral legislature, a future development when the burgesses and the knights of the shire joined together for common discussion apart from the lords spiritual and temporal. Clearly present in 1295 was the working principle of aid for redress of grievances. The members of the Parliament of 1295 still acted within the framework of feudal grant of aid to the king. Pragmatically, this aid was now given only after collective bargaining.

Significance

Parliament took an important step forward in a gradually established custom of consulting the middle class in Parliament, not outside it. The principle that “what affects all, by all should be approved” meant in effect that policies should have at least the passive support of those affected by them. This is the essential principle of broad participation in the political process and is perhaps the single most significant detail of the summons to the Model Parliament of 1295. Edward’s parliaments were considered the most solemn of his councils, whose members were his representatives. The Model Parliament was not a full, functioning legislative body, nor could it challenge the authority of the king, but it did establish the consultative function of Parliament. The full implications of the Parliament of 1295 were realized only later, when lawmaking power was integrated with the consultative-judicial power of Parliament.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butt, Ronald. A History of Parliament: The Middle Ages. London: Constable, 1989. This valuable and authoritative study questions many of the assumptions about the actualities and later assessments of the Model Parliament by positioning it in the overall history of the most fundamental English political body.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, R. G., and J. H. Denton, eds. The English Parliament in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. The collected essays gathered here honor medieval parliamentary historian John Smith Roskell. They discuss parliament from its “prehistory” through 1509, with a good balance of constitutional and political historical analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, G. L. “The Formation of Parliament, 1272-1377.” In The English Parliament in the Middle Ages, edited by R. G. Davies and J. H. Denton. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. This chapter is the best single overview of the political and historical context of the Model Parliament, focusing on the reigns of Edward I through Edward III.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plucknett, Theodore F. T. English Constitutional History from the Teutonic Conquest to the Present Time. 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960. Points to precedents of representation before the Model Parliament and so establishes a broader context for interpretation of the importance of 1295 in the history of Parliament.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powicke, F. M. The Thirteenth Century, 1216-1307. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1962. An indispensable account of the political history of the sequence of events around the Model Parliament.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sayles, G. O. The Functions of the Medieval Parliament of England. Ronceverte, W.Va.: Hambledon Press, 1988. A series of documents by one of the most authoritative of British political historians, highlighting English parliamentary history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sayles, G. O. The King’s Parliament of England. New York: Norton, 1974. This brief account is concise, accessible, and based on a lifetime of research and study. Includes an excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Robert, and John S. Moore, eds. The House of Commons: Seven Hundred Years of British Tradition. London: Smith’s Peerage, 1996. Spans the history of the House of Commons. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, John. The House of Lords: From Saxon Wargods to a Modern Senate. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997. An account of the House of Lords from the time of the Anglo-Saxons to the present. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.

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