For: ESLG 3150 course
Topic: The history of England can be defined as the gradual process of Parliament asserting its authority over the monarchy.
Term: Spring I, 2000
The political history of British Isles over the past 800 years has been largely one of reducing the power of the monarchy and transferring authority to a London-based Parliament as the sovereign legislative body for all of Britain. This development has resulted in political, social and religious conflicts, as well as evolving governmental and constitutional institutions.
The early political history of the British Isles is the story of four independent countries (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), but a dominant English political and military expansionism over the centuries resulted in a united country (United Kingdom).
The last England’s invader Duke William promptly set out to establish firm control over his English kingdom. He reorganized the government by making the old Saxon witan into a “Great Council”, which included the great lords of the realm and met regularly under William’s direction, and by establishing Curia Regis, a permanent council of royal advisers.
William’s youngest son Henry I ruled the country for 35 years and during his reign he won the support of barons by singing a “Charter of Liberties”, which listed and guarantees their rights (individual liberties).
Early English monarchs had considerable power, but generally accepted advice and some limitations on their authority. Powerful French-Norman barons opposed King John’s dictatorial rule by forcing him to sign Magna Carta in 1215. This document protected the feudal aristocracy rather then the ordinary citizen, but it came to be regarded as a cornerstone of British liberties. It restricted the monarch’s powers; forced him to take advice; increased the influence of the aristocracy; and stipulated that no citizen could be punished or kept in prison without a fair trail.
Such developments encouraged the establishment of parliamentary structures. In 1265, Simon de Montfort called nobles and non-aristocrats to form a Council or Parliament to win the support of people. To it were invited not only the great barons and clergy, but also representatives of the knights of shires and from the towns. This initiative was followed in 1295 by the Model Parliament (because it served a model for later Parliaments) of Edward I, which was the first representative English Parliament. Its two sections consisted of the bishops, barons, two representatives of the knights of each shire and two representatives from each important town. In this way Parliament won the “power of the purse”: by refusing to agree to new taxes, it could force kings to do as it wished. As Parliament became more influential it won other rights, such as the power of impeach and try royal officials for misbehavior. From here we can conclude that by the end of Edward’s reign the peculiarly English concept of government, in which a strong king with powerful royal officials is still limited by the common law and by Parliament, was complete.
However, the Parliament was too large to rule the country effectively. A Privy Council, comprising the monarch and court advisers, developed. This was the royal government outside Parliament, until it lost power to parliamentary structures in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Although parliament now had some limited powers against the monarch, there was a return to royal dominance in Tudor England in 1485. Monarchs controlled Parliament and summoned it when they needed to raise money.
Parliament showed more resistance to royal rule under the Stuart monarchy from 1603 by using its weapon of financial control. Parliament began to refuse royal requests for money. It forced Charles I to sign the Petition of Rights in 1628, which further restricted the monarch’s powers and prevented him from raising taxes without Parliament’s consent. Charles attempted to arrest parliamentary leaders in the House of Commons itself. His failure to do meant that the monarch was in future prohibited from entering the Commons. As the result of it civil war broke out in 1642. The Protestant Parliamentarians under O. Cromwell won the military struggle against the Catholic Royalists. Charles was beheaded in 1649 and thee monarchy was abolished. But it didn’t last long in 1660 they restored the Stuart Charles II to the throne. Parliament ended his expansive wars and imposed further restrictions, such as Habeas Corpus Act in 1679, which stipulated that no citizen could be imprisoned without a fair and speedy trail.
In the early and mid sixteenth century country was ruled by King Henry VIII (king 1509-1547) who had made Parliament his willing tool and had replaced Catholicism with the Church of England. Henry was succeeded by three of his children (Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I) in succession. But only Elizabeth made a great contribution during her reign (1558-1603). She allowed any form of worship that fit into the rather loose framework of ideas that Parliament had established for the Church of England. But she would accept none that conflicted with her authority as the head of that church. After the pope excommunicated her in 1570, she had Parliament declare that Catholicism was treason. Parliament lost power during her reign. It did not meet often, as she needed to ask it levy taxes for her. In theory Parliament continued to have all of the powers it had won during the Middle Ages.
The Elizabethan reign later was called “The English Renaissance”. And this is right. She did a lot to her Kingdom. On of it was the opening of the trade routs to Russia, trade companies like the East India Company, the Muscovy Company and the Virginia Company.
The Stuart monarchs who succeeded Elizabeth try to impose absolutism and to rule by “divine right”. But the English Parliament, asserting its ancient rights and privileges, challenged them. The result was a struggle that lasted through the better part of the seventeenth century, culminating in the victory of Parliament over the kings. In the age when absolutism triumphed almost everywhere, England was the striking exception of the rule. Growing opposition to the Stuarts centered in Parliament. The Stuarts disliked Parliament, but were dependent upon it because only the House of Commons had the right to levy taxes. The Stuarts insisted they had absolute authority to follow whatever policies they chose. The conflict between Parliament and the king came to a climax under Charles I (king 1625-1649). In 1626 Charles found himself at war with both France and Spain. Parliament refused to grant new taxes until it had had “redress of grievances”. Led by Sir John Eliot, the members of Commons finally forced Charles to sign the “Petition of Right” in 1628. This pact guaranteed certain rights of Parliament and of individual Englishmen against their king.
The first Parliament of 1640, the so-called “Short” Parliament, mat less then a month. But soon after Charles was forced to call another Parliament, which came to be called the “Long” Parliament because it met off and on for twenty years (1640-1660). In 1641 the Long Parliament set out to dominate the government. More important, it passed a series of acts to make absolute monarchy impossible.
From 1642 to 1645 the civil war broke in England. It was between Supporters of King Charles (Cavaliers) and the supporters of the Parliament (Roundheads) under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. The “Roundheads” won in this war and the members who remained from the previous Parliament come to be called the “Rump” (sitting part of Parliament). In 1649 Charles was beheaded and later Oliver Cromwell became the King of England. After his death in 1658 his son Richard took control over the country. But he was a poor ruler and soon resigned. In 1660 the surviving members of the Long Parliament were called back into session to invite Charles Stuart to become King Charles II of England.
Charles II had his problems with Parliament, but he was usually able to surmount them, and he always knew when the time had come to back down.
The growing power of Parliament against the monarch in the seventeenth century was reflected in the development of more organized political parties. Two groups (Whigs and Tories) became dominant, and this feature was to characterize future British two-party politics, in which political power has shifted between two main parties. The Whigs didn’t accept the Catholic sympathizer James II as successor to Charles II and wanted religious freedom for al Protestants. The Tories generally supported royalist beliefs, and helped Charles II to secure James’s right to succeed him.
He (James) attempted to rule without Parliament and ignored his laws. His manipulations forced Tories to join Whigs in inviting the Protestant William of Orange to intervene. William arrived in England in 1688, James fled to France and William succeeded to the throne as England’s first constitutional monarch. Since no force was involved, this event is called the Bloodless or Glorious Revolution. Royal powers were further restricted under the Declaration of Rights (1689), which strengthened Parliament and provided some civil liberties.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights of 1689 established Parliament once and for all as the equal partner of the king. This division of power was soon to prove itself a far more effective means of government than the absolute monarchies of the continent, and it assured that the constitutional development of England would continue.