ANCIENT BRITAIN, THE MOTHER OF PARLIAMENTS?

St George’s Day seems an appropriate moment to invoke John Bright’s famous, and much misunderstood, statement of 1865 that ‘England is the Country of Parliament… England is the Mother of Parliaments’. But to some in the seventeenth century and before, as British Academy and Wolfson Research Professor at the History of Parliament, Paul Seaward, explores, it was the ancient Britons who had invented parliaments, in the centuries that preceded the arrival of the peoples that would later be called English.

In an eclectic, rambling and confused survey of the evidence for parliamentary election of the English kings published in 1649, John Sadler wrote confidently about parliament in the days of King Arthur. On the death of his father, Uther Pendragon, he wrote, a parliament agreed to bury the old king in the ‘Gyant’s Dance or Stonehenge, which himself had gotten by Merlin’s help out of Ireland, fixing it so near to Salisbury for a monument of that Parliament, which was thereabout Destroyed by the Saxons. A Parliament I call it, so I may: In Nennius they are Seniores Vortigirini Regis, but in Monmouth (and those that follow him) they are Principes & Consules, (that is, Comites) & Barones & Cives, called by the Kings Command, Edict, or Writ of Summons’.

Stonehenge
Photo via Good Free Photos

The chaotic passage is characteristic of Sadler, an academic (fellow of Emmanuel College, and master of Magdalene College, Cambridge), a civil servant and twice an MP. His book, The Rights of the Kingdom, is probably the most comprehensive and least scholarly collection of eccentric theories about the early parliaments of England ever written, but he did not invent the story about Stonehenge, nor the idea that parliaments existed in early Britain. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his hugely popular History of Britain, written in the twelfth century, invented, embroidered or popularised a series of mythical tales. They included stories about the founding of Britain by Brutus, a princely refugee from the fall of Troy; the creation of the great city of Troynovant, which would become London; the giant Gogmagog King Lud, who renamed the capital; and Uther Pendragon, Merlin, King Arthur and his struggles against the Saxons. When historians of the late middle ages retold many of these stories they would use the contemporary language of parliaments to refer to the councils of early kings described in them. The debunking of many of these cherished myths by the great Italian Renaissance historian Polydore Vergil in his Anglica Historia in the early sixteenth century caused irritation among some English scholars, though it was eventually largely accepted; they seem to have been less disturbed by his statement that parliament had originated with Henry I, in 1116, which quickly became the conventional view.

It managed to co-exist, though, with a belief that there had been plenty of earlier assemblies, even if they were not called parliaments (a possibility that Vergil had not completely closed off). The most serious pre-Civil War discussion of the dating of parliament came in a famous series of papers written by members of the Society of Antiquaries around 1604, provoked by the prospect of an Anglo-Scottish union being promoted by James I. Many of them recognised the existence of quasi-parliaments before 1116, and two of them traced them back to the ancient Britons. One, the eminent judge Sir John Doddridge, in an otherwise sober assessment, mentioned that the ancient Druids had held parliaments of a sort, which they called, apparently, Kyfrithin.

Most of these had some sort of connection to reality, albeit tenuous; none were quite as batty as Sadler’s invention of entirely mythical assemblies. Sadler was writing almost half a century after the Society of Antiquaries discussion and in a very different context: his work, published in June 1649, was a defence of the trial and execution of Charles I, an extended argument that it had always been within the power of parliaments to choose their kings. But The Rights of the Kingdom is a peculiar work. Always breaking through the text is his unusual but powerful interest in the readmission of the Jews to England – Sadler was close to the great Dutch rabbi, Menasseh Ben Israel – as well as his urgent millenarianism. Sadler’s text ends with the prayer ‘All the Creation groaneth; and the Spirit and the Bride saith, come Lord Jesus, come quickly’. He may in fact have been suffering from mental illness: in 1655 he was said to have joined ‘those that have communion with angels’, and to have ‘had a vision and trance for three days together’. In January 1657 the diplomat Samuel Morland (who had been a fellow at Magdalene) wrote that Sadler was ‘distempered more than you can imagine’, adding that ‘you would wonder to hear some discourse which I have heard come from him’.

Sadler died in 1674 and is largely forgotten, and the idea of the ancient British origins of parliaments survived only as a passing reference here and there. The idea that Stonehenge was some sort of parliament did have a second wind in the work of the antiquary and physician to Charles II, Dr Walter Charlton. Charlton dismissed the idea that Stonehenge was built by ancient Britons: it was, he argued exhaustively, constructed by the Danes as a place ‘for the election and inauguration of their kings’. The ‘ultimate scope of my so laborious enquiry; the point in which all the lines of this long discourse concentre’, he wrote, was that Stonehenge was one of the ‘Ancient Courts of Parliament’ where kings were chosen and great matters debated. But I’m not sure that anyone else believed it.

P.S.

Paul is currently researching his forthcoming book about the cultural history of Parliament. Keep up with Paul’s research over on his blog, Reformation to Referendum: Writing a New History of Parliament.

You might also be interested in our series on Patron Saints, which is available here.

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