Last week we had a large audience for our annual lecture in Portcullis House, Westminster. Dr John Maddicott FBA gave a fascinating talk on Parliament’s relationship with ordinary people between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.
Dr Maddicott began by defining both ‘parliament’ and ‘the people.’ In doing so he traced the development of parliament from a group of the monarch’s close advisors to a body which resembles more closely our own idea of Parliament: two houses, the Lords, and what we know now as the ‘Commons’, formed of knights of the shires and burgesses elected by townspeople. The inclusion of the ‘Commons’ in the thirteenth century in itself changed parliament’s relationship with ‘the people’, previously the ‘Lords’ were said to represent the views of the common people of the country to the King without any direct election.
The large number of factors which led to the creation of the Commons – consultation over taxes, the need for the crown to consult local government figures, and the extra legitimacy given by the inclusion of knights and burgesses – was part of a change in how Parliament was seen by local people. Although not democratic in the way we would understand it today, representation of ‘the people’ was increased by the fact that some elections took place. This marked a change from Parliament as a body which simply impacted upon people’s lives to one which had more claim to represent ordinary people.
Dr Maddicott argued that the clearest way in which this change could be seen was in petitioning. Edward I began the practice in 1275 by encouraging parliamentarians to present the grievances of ordinary people to him. Petitions soon had a clear formula: they were written in vernacular French, brought attention to a governmental abuse and asked for this to be remedied. This offered ordinary people the possibility of direct redress of grievances through a method that simply hadn’t been there previously, and there is evidence that all sorts of people took this opportunity. For example, petitions survive from women, from villeins (or serfs, people who were legally tied to the service of their Lord) or others from the wider peasant class, such as a petition from a group of masons working on Norwich Castle who had not been paid in two years. On occasion petitions, especially when grievances were gathered together in large ‘Common petitions’, led to reforming statutes. Dr Maddicott argued that this was largely due to a moral duty for parliamentarians to improve the lives of the poor.
The relationship changed, however, after the Black Death. The huge social changes – for example the shortage of labour which led to the end of the system which tied villeins to their Lord, and a rapid increase of wages – put the rich gentry in Parliament at odds with the interests of the ordinary working person. Instead of offering petitions to relieve their grievances, parliament instead passed laws trying to limit wages and restrict movement of labour. However, Dr Maddicott argued that it is too crude to see this new relationship as purely confrontational. For those who have survived the Black Death, their lives and status had improved considerably, so there was less need to petition the king. Furthermore, there were occasions when the House of Commons would support grievances, particularly against abuse of power by magnates. Participation in elections, especially for the knights of the shire, also rose as living standards increased. While we of course do not know how much influence those who were relatively poor had on these elections, it was enough for parliament to legislate for the famous ’40 shilling’ franchise in 1430 to try and limit the numbers participating. This figure was, even at the time, set comparatively low, so those well under the ranks of gentry could still have a say in elections (for more, see ‘County Elections before 1504’).
Dr Maddicott concluded by cautioning that this was not a story of a Whiggish progression where ordinary people increasingly took power from the magnates. It is worth remembering that those classed as ‘villeins’ had little or no say in parliament, and that rights were won as well as lost. In this period, however, it appears that many ordinary people would have had an opinion on parliament and an interest in its proceedings. Petitions offered a genuine route to protest against abuses of power, and relatively large numbers cared enough to participate in elections. There was a ‘positive response by people to the opportunities Parliament offered’, as well as the acceptance of the burdens it imposed.
Dr Maddicott is Emeritus Fellow in History at Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of ‘The Origins of the English Parliament: 924-1327‘ (2010) and has recently published ‘Founders and Fellowship: The Early History of Exeter College, Oxford, 1314-1592‘ (2014).
For more, see our ‘Explore: Medieval’ webpages and blog series on the legacies of Magna Carta and the Simon de Montfort Parliament.