Early Modern ideas about Parliament’s origins

Our series celebrating the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament continues today. Dr Paul Cavill, Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge University discusses how the origins of Parliament were viewed in the early modern period…

When did the first parliament in England meet? In modern historical consciousness, the answer is straightforward enough: in the year 1265, following the victory of Simon de Montfort over King Henry III at the battle of Lewes. Historians have long objected that the position was by no means so clear-cut. We might prefer to envisage a protracted process of development, possibly stretching as far back as Anglo-Saxon assemblies, which culminated over the mid to late thirteenth century. Underlying this question is the issue of what defines a parliament. Was the first parliament the first general assembly of the king’s subjects so to be called by contemporaries (or later writers)? Or was it the first such assembly to display certain key characteristics, such as the presence of elected representatives of the commons? A purely linguistic answer is possible – in the mid thirteenth century the English language took the word parlement from French – but hardly helps us to understand the peculiar evolution of our assembly. Equally, ‘essentialising’ parliament (that is, defining specific attributes that an assembly must have to qualify) runs the risk of retrospectively imposing purposes or objectives on past actors – de Montfort foremost among them – that they did not hold. Because of its modern association with representative democracy and constitutional monarchy, parliament has proven especially liable to anachronism.

Drawing of Polydore Vergil
Drawing of Polydore Vergil

One fruitful way of exploring this conundrum is by exploring how people in early modern England wrote and thought about previous parliaments. Dr Alexandra Gajda (of Jesus College, Oxford) and I organised a conference on this theme at Oxford in 2013. Alex and I are now editing a collection of essays based on that conference, called Writing the History of Parliament in Tudor and Early Stuart England. My contribution is an essay on the Italian humanist émigré Polydore Vergil. In 1534, Vergil published the first Renaissance history of England, the Anglica Historia. At that time, Vergil’s adopted countrymen showed little interest in the relative antiquity of parliament: while believing parliament to be very old, they did not pinpoint its beginning, and they used the word promiscuously to refer to all sorts of other assemblies (including classical, legendary and supernatural ones). An assumption that parliaments had met before the Norman Conquest co-existed quite happily with the belief that Magna Carta had been the first statute (and not a concession wrung from King John by the barons, as we now think of it). Then in the Anglica Historia, Vergil innovated: he dated England’s first parliament to the year 1116 and thus credited King Henry I as its founder. Historians have long scratched their heads as to why. I shall be offering an explanation (if not a solution) in a paper at the History of Parliament and ICHRPI’s conference ‘Making Constitutions, Buildings Parliaments’ in London this June and July.

My paper and essay will consider the reception in the Tudor and early Stuart periods of Vergil’s dating. The Anglica Historia received a notoriously hostile reception on account of its scepticism about the mythical line of early British kings: Vergil had even dared to doubt the existence of King Arthur! Yet Vergil’s dating of parliament was initially received without complaint and then tacitly absorbed into the most popular vernacular histories, such as Holinshed’s Chronicles. Thus, by 1600, Vergil’s dating of the first parliament had become received wisdom, even though it lacked a contemporary (or modern) rationale. It used to be said that the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries witnessed a historical ‘revolution’ out of which the modern discipline emerged. While scholars no longer see developments in such terms, they still recognise the extent to which – as part of a transformation in the intellectual outlook of the English gentleman – historical and antiquarian thought became more sophisticated, open to European influence, and relevant to politics.

Ironically, the early efforts often produced by modern standards ‘worse’ history. The rediscovery of forged texts breathed life into myths about England’s past. Some extended parliament’s origins to Anglo-Saxon, British or Roman times. Belief in the longevity of their institution emboldened discontented parliamentarians to censure royal policy, and led them to perceive the crown’s irritated and uncomprehending response as proof that the monarchy fundamentally misunderstood the constitution. This sense of antiquity certainly contributed to deteriorating relations between the early Stuart kings and their parliaments, and thence to a decade of ‘personal rule’ from 1629. My paper and essay arise out of a sense that modern scholarship is prone to interpret any comment about the antiquity of parliament in these partisan terms. The fact that Polydore Vergil’s dating continued to permeate historical consciousness in the early Stuart period, I shall suggest, may undermine some of the more sweeping claims to identify the political meaning behind contemporary historical writing.


Dr Paul Cavill is Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge University. He studies the political and religious history of Tudor England, and is author of The English parliaments of Henry VII, 1485–1504 (Oxford, 2009).

You can read all the posts so far in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. The series is in preparation for our ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.

UK Parliament are also coordinating a series of events to celebrate the anniversary: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome’ exhibition at Westminster Hall; the new digital arts project ‘Democracy Street’ and they invite you all to take part in ‘LiberTeas’ on June 14.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s