There never has been a period, since England has been united into a single kingdom, when some sort of council or assembly was not called, from time to time, to aid the King in governing.
In the days of the Anglo-Saxons, this body was called the "Witenagemot" (wit´en-a-ge-mot), or assembly of the wise men, and was made up of the bishops, abbots, king's thegns, and chief officers of the kingdom. It was this body which aided Alfred in making his laws, and which elected Harold—and after him William—to be King of England.
After the Norman Conquest, the Kings from time to time called about them, to aid them with counsel and advice, all the lords who held land directly of them by feudal tenure. Except for the fact that the feudal lords were at first mainly Normans, this body did not differ very much from the one which preceded it; for the great officers of the land were the King's vassals, and the bishops and abbots also held their lands by feudal tenure from the King. It was this Great Council of the barons which settled who should have the crown when there was a dispute; it was also this body which helped Henry II. carry through his great reforms. But the Great Council only aided and advised the King; it did not control him.
What is it that makes the difference between these earlier assemblies and the later one which we call Parliament?
First, Parliament is a "representative" body—that is, it is composed in part of persons who do not sit in right of their offices or lands, but who are elected to represent the people. Second, it is divided into two "houses"—a House of Lords, and a House of Commons. And third, it has more power than the older assemblies had.
The addition of "representatives," along with the great churchmen and barons, was the first step in transforming the old Great Council into the Parliament.
The practice of having "representatives," to act in the name of the community, was first used in local government. In the Anglo-Saxon time, each township sent four representatives to take part in the "hundred" and "shire" meetings. When Henry II. introduced jury trial, he was really using the "representative" principle; for every jury gives its verdict, not from any right which the members have, but in the name of the community which it represents. Thus, in many ways, the people became used to the idea of having representatives chosen to help carry on the local government, in the name of the people of the community.
Why were representatives added to the Great Council?
The reason was that a time came when the Kings needed more money to carry on the enlarged work of government; and, as this money must come chiefly from the people of the towns and country, it seemed best to ask them to send representatives to meet with the Great council, and give the consent of their communities to the new taxes.
These representatives were of two sorts; first, the "knights of the shire," who represented the lesser nobles and country gentlemen who were not members of the Great Council; and, second, the "borough representatives," who came from the cities and towns (boroughs) and represented the trading classes.
The knights of the shire were the first to be added to the assembly. In 1213, for the first time, the Kings called them to meet with the Great Council, "to speak with us concerning the business of our kingdom." From time to time after that "knights of the shire" were summoned to the assemblies until the practice became permanent. The were elected by the landholders, in the county assemblies, and every county sent two, no matter what size.
We have already seen that it was Simon de Montfort who, in 1265, first called representatives of the towns, or "boroughs," to the central assembly. In 1295, Edward I. called a meeting which established it as a rule that, in a Parliament, there ought to be representatives both of the counties and of the towns. This was called the "Model Parliament," because it became a model for succeeding ones. The number of boroughs which sent representatives was greater than in 1265, and from time to time changes were made in the list in after days. Each town which sent representatives at all elected two.
At first, the representative of the counties and towns sat in the same body with the barons and great churchmen; but, by the year 1340, the Parliament had separated into two "houses." The Upper House became the House of Lords, and included the great barons (who bore the titles of "Duke," "Marquis," "Earl," "Viscount," and "Baron"), and also the archbishops and bishops, and the abbots or heads of monasteries.
The Lower House became the House of Commons, and in course of time it became the most important part of Parliament. This was because it was called upon, especially, to vote the taxes which the King needed for carrying on the government. For a time the towns and counties looked upon representation in Parliament as a burden. But, gradually, their representatives began to hold back the voting of taxes, until the King and his ministers promised to correct any grievances of which they complained. Then it was seen that the right of voting taxes was a great and valuable power, and the people no longer complained of the burden of being represented in Parliament.
At first, it was not certain whether the Commons should be admitted to a share in the law-making power, or whether they should be only allowed to vote taxes. But in his summons to the "Model Parliament" Edward I. laid down the principle that "what concerns all should be approved by all." And, twenty-seven years later, the rule was laid down that all matters which concerned the kingdom and the people, "shall be established in Parliament, by the King, and by the consent of the Lords and the Commons of the realm." From this time on the powers of the Commons grew, until they are now much greater than those of the House of Lords.
But we must not think of these early Parliaments as having the great powers which Parliaments have today. The King was still much more powerful than the Parliament, though since the granting of the Great Charter it was recognized that the King was below the law, and not above it. In making new laws, and in laying new taxes, he needed the consent of Parliament; but in carrying on the general business of the government—in making war, and in concluding peace—he could act without Parliament. Often he consulted Parliament about such matters, but he could act as he pleased. The ministers who carried on the government were still the King's ministers, and responsible to him only. It was to be several centuries yet—and a great civil war must be fought, and one King beheaded and another deposed—before Parliament was recognized as the chief power in the government.
Nevertheless, by the time that Edward III. came to the
throne the framework of Parliament—though
not its powers—was complete.