Find out how a rebel earl put Britain on the road to parliamentary democracy.
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta – the treaty which limited the power of the monarchy and laid the basic foundations for British democracy. The media has been jam-packed with information about exhibitions, tours and in-depth articles on the subject.
However, a less well-known landmark in the history of British democracy – the 750th anniversary of the January Parliament – is also being marked in 2015. This was a key moment in British history when members of society were allowed to take part in democratic government for the first time.
Why isn’t the January Parliament more celebrated?
On 20 January 1265, knights, burgesses and aldermen met in London for the first real parliament in the whole of British history. This often goes unnoticed in the shadow of Magna Carta and remains little-known outside academic circles. Admittedly, the representatives were ‘elected’ in a somewhat less democratic way in which they are these days, but it was a gigantic step that is seen as the birth of British parliaments.
Who was the key player?
The main instigator of the parliament was Simon De Montfort, the 6th earl of Leicester, who had seized power from Henry III a year previously. De Montfort confronted the king with a group of barons at a parliament in Oxford in 1258 and forced Henry to agree to a programme of radical reform. These were enshrined in the Provisions of Oxford and later as the Provisions of Westminster and specified that parliaments should be held three times a year to discuss the “common business of the realm”.
However, the Henry III backtracked somewhat and in May 1264 De Montfort won a victory at the Battle of Lewes where the king and his heir, the future Edward I, were taken prisoner.
Who were the first Members of Parliament?
De Montfort apparently ordered that each county of England send two knights. Towns were asked to send two burgesses and two aldermen. They were elected locally, sometimes chosen by a lot. Prior to this there had been parliaments, but they were limited to a small elite around the monarch. In contrast, the January Parliament discussed wider affairs of state and included burgesses (or unelected officials) from towns.
The death of De Montfort
Part of the reason De Montfort was so invested in a parliament was because he’d risen to the top of a group of barons and could be expected to be unseated at any moment. Therefore, he was keen to have the backing of a wide section of society. Incredibly for the time, he was very sympathetic to peasants and in his will stated that he had concerns about how they were treated.
But as with all great leaders, he was in many ways very self-interested and this proved his undoing. Securing his place in the kingdom was problematic, as many of the magnates didn’t like him. As the parliament progressed, it became clear De Montfort was positioning himself for greater power. In the end, his key ally, the earl of Gloucester; defected to the Royalists and he was killed at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265.
While De Montfort’s push for reforms was hardly selfless, he did fight for political morality and an open justice of sorts. To this day, his ideas are echoed in the UK’s democratic system and Leicester’s De Montfort University and De Montfort Hall bear his name. There’s even an image of him on the wall of the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives.
If you want to know more about Magna Carta and De Montfort, visit the British Library’s Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition, which runs from 13 March until 1 September. Find out more and book tickets at British Library.