750 years ago today Simon de Montfort’s famous 1265 Parliament opened in Westminster Hall. This is one of two anniversaries this year, along with the sealing of Magna Carta, that have enormous significance in English and British constitutional and legal history. They provide the inspiration for our conference this summer, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’. Starting today we’ll be publishing a series of blogposts in the run up to our conference exploring these events and their legacies.
Our series begins with a post by Dr Sophie Ambler, a Research Associate at the University of East Anglia on the Magna Carta Project, a landmark investigation of Magna Carta 1215 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Charter’s issue. Dr Ambler here discusses the importance of Magna Carta in the Montfort Parliament…
2015 sees several big anniversaries, among which the 750th year since Simon de Montfort’s 1265 Parliament deserves to rank highly. The assembly is seen as a landmark in the development of parliament, for it included two knights elected in every county as well as two representatives from the major towns and four from each of the Cinque Ports (and probably four from London), foreshadowing the later ‘county and borough’ franchise that was to determine representation in the House of Commons through to 1832 and beyond. This was not the first time that either knights or townsmen had come to parliament (indeed knights had been attending for centuries) but 1265 was different for an important reason: it was the first time such men were summoned when there was no tax being mooted that required their consent. They were there purely to have their say on how the kingdom should be governed. For this reason, the Parliament was momentous.
Why were knights and townsmen summoned when their presence wasn’t strictly necessary? Because Simon de Montfort understood better than any previous politician the value of their support. The position of Montfort’s government was precarious. He’d won a great victory at the Battle of Lewes in May 1264, taking King Henry III captive and setting up a council of bishops, barons and knights to rule in the king’s name. This revived the programme, first set out following a court coup in 1258, that promised to reform central and local government and improve the lot of England’s people. But, in a world where monarchy was the only thinkable form of government, Montfort’s regime lacked legitimacy. He needed to reach out to a wider public, the knights and townsmen who ran local affairs on behalf of the crown and whose support would underpin his regime in the localities. Montfort would give these men what they had long wanted: a voice in parliament. Such a vast gathering would also allow him to advertise his regime – the representatives would carry home news that the new government was inclusive and just.
The Parliament was one of the longest of Henry’s reign, lasting from 20 January until 11 March. It culminated in a grand ceremony in Westminster Hall, where the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of attendees had gathered. Whilst the king stood in silence, letters were read out proclaiming that Henry had placed himself under the council. Then nine bishops pronounced a sentence of excommunication (the Church’s equivalent of outlawry) against anyone who violated Magna Carta and the Montfortian provisions for the kingdom’s governance. The sentence was enacted through a dramatic ritual: dressed in full liturgical garments, the bishops held lighted candles, which they turned over onto the floor to seal their pronouncement. This was a powerful visual statement of the burden placed upon everyone to preserve the Parliament’s acts.
The anniversary of Montfort’s Parliament thus links with another big commemoration: the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta’s original issue in 1215. Indeed, it is thanks to the Magna Carta Project (a major investigation of the Charter funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) that the text of ‘Simon de Montfort’s Magna Carta’ has come to light. This is a confirmation of the 1225 (definitive) version of the Charter, nominally granted by Henry III but naming in its witness list Montfort and his chief supporters (you can read the text, as well as a fuller account of the parliament, on the Magna Carta Project website). But why confirm Magna Carta, which had nothing to say about either conciliar rule or the new improvements to government that were central to the reform programme? Magna Carta was a valued symbol of lawful rule in the eyes of the knights and townsmen whose support Montfort strove to win. The new regime, which set a council above the king, was shockingly radical. Aligning it with Magna Carta gave it the flavour of something already ancient and established. It also sent a message about how the council would govern: by the principles of the Charter, which placed the ruling power under the law.
The parliament saw Montfort’s regime at its height, but it was not to last. Within five months of their most triumphant display of power, seven of those Montfortians named in the witness list to the 1265 Magna Carta were to be captured, while five more – including Montfort himself – were to be butchered at the Battle of Evesham. But elements of the 1265 parliament endured. One, of course, was the attendance of elected knights and townsmen. But another was the strategy (pursued by Edward Coke in the 1620s, and the American revolutionaries in the 1770s) of cleaving to Magna Carta as if it represented some ‘Ancient Constitution’ above and beyond the authority of any particular king. These were 1265’s two major legacies to parliamentary history.
Dr Ambler is a Research Associate at the University of East Anglia on the Magna Carta Project, a landmark investigation of Magna Carta 1215 to mark the 800th anniversary, in 2015, of the Charter’s issue.
‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. Programme details will be announced shortly. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.
UK Parliament is also marking the 2015 anniversaries with a series of events: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes an exhibition in Westminster Hall launched today: ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome‘, and we were delighted to work with them on the accompanying text. The exhibition charts 18 movements and moments that shaped British parliamentary heritage. You can find out more here.