A new beginning? Stubbs’s ‘Model’ Parliament of 1295

The final piece in our Named Parliaments series represents the earliest Parliament we’ve discussed, the ‘Model’ Parliament of 1295. Dr Simon Payling of our House of Commons 1461-1504 project explores the significance of this early Parliament and the Victorian historian who named it…

It is impossible to discern and date accurately the birth of any institution that goes on to last centuries and, in its infancy and adolescence, was subject to profound change both in composition and function.  Hindsight gives to a nascent institution a definition and form that flirts with anachronism, and what historians identify as its central and indispensable parts may have had a much less substantial appearance to contemporaries. 

So it is with Parliament and the significance assigned to the date 1295 in its evolution by the great Victorian historian, William Stubbs (1825-1901), regius professor of history at Oxford University and later bishop of Oxford.  In using the term ‘model’ to describe the Parliament of the November of that year he was giving expression to a theory of parliamentary development that, although derided in works of modern scholarship, retains an attractive explicatory simplicity.  For him, the history of Parliament was to be understood in linear terms, as the steady but remorseless advance of an institution that had come in his time, as it had always been destined to do, to guarantee the rights and express the will of the people (in other words, ‘a beacon for democracy’ as the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees Mogg, described the Victorian Commons on 25 July

William Stubbs (1825-1901); photo credit: Bodleian Libraries.

The moment that the representatives of local communities won their place as an essential component of Parliament was crucial in this line of development, and it is this moment that Stubbs located in the assembly of November 1295.  In an oft-quoted phrase, he described it as ‘a model assembly … a pattern for all future assemblies of the nation’. In this, of course, he was wrong.  The representatives of both shires and boroughs had been present, as Stubbs himself knew, in the Parliament summoned by Simon de Montfort in January 1265.  Even if this precedent can be disregarded as marking a rebel rather than a royal assembly, other precedents unknown to Stubbs cannot be similarly discounted.  Knights and burgesses were present in the Parliaments of April 1275 and September 1283, and loss of evidence may conceal other instances.  

Further, if the 1295 Parliament was a model it was a very imperfect one.  Not until 1325 did the representatives of local communities become an intrinsic parliamentary component, invariably summoned to every assembly, and there were thus several Parliaments in the intervening 30 years that did not conform to the model (although none of these, and Stubbs would have rightly considered this an important point, made a grant of taxation).  Moreover, just as the representatives of the local communities were making themselves indispensable, the representatives of the lower clergy, whom Stubbs identified as an important component of his ‘model’, were doing the opposite, effectively withdrawing from Parliament to Convocation to give their consent to clerical taxation.   There are, in short, reasons enough for rejecting his use of the term ‘model’ to describe the 1295 Parliament. 

Yet, on the other hand, there are reasons why 1295 should retain its place as a landmark one in parliamentary history.  It was then that the writs which summoned the local representatives reached the form they were to retain until 1872, including that most important assertion of the representative principle, namely that the MPs were to come with ‘full power (plena potestas)’ to bind their constituencies not simply, as had been the case before, ‘to what shall be agreed on by the magnates’ but to do what ‘by common counsel shall be ordained (ad faciendum quod tunc de communi consilio ordinabitur)’. 

For the prosoprographical study of Parliament, so central to the work of the History of Parliament Trust, the Parliament of 1295 is the first for which the names of a significant number of MPs are known, nearly 300, against about 70 for all previous assemblies (most from that of 1290 to which only the county but not borough representatives were summoned).  More broadly, although it might be to overemphasis its distinctiveness to single out the 1295 Parliament, there can be no doubt that it fell in a period of great importance in parliamentary history.  The financial strain on Edward I’s government occasioned by the wars of the last years of his reign gave the representatives of the local communities a new importance.  Although they did not win a permanent parliamentary place until they end of the next reign, it is not only with the benefit of hindsight that their role in the raising of direct taxation meant that they were on their way to doing so.

SJP

Further reading:

  • D.A. Carpenter, ‘Origins of the Commons, Magna Carta to 1307’, in The House of Commons, ed. R. Smith and J.S. Moore, pp. 26-47.
  • J.R. Maddicott, The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327.

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