How Did 13th Century Events Lead to the Establishment of the House of Commons ?

Emma Irving

4 mins

23 Jul 2018

The events of the 13th century paved the way for the representation of lay people in parliament. The Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford and Simon de Montfort’s parliament established that even kings were not beyond the reach of the law, and that they had a duty to their subjects as well as to their own interests.

The Magna Carta

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Originally issued as a practical solution to the political crisis King John faced in 1215, the Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.

Although nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within 10 years, it became a cornerstone of the British constitution and paved the way for subjects interrogating royal rule.

The charter attempted to provide protection of Church rights, defence for the barons from illegal imprisonment, faster access to justice and it placed a limit on feudal payments demanded by the crown. It was to be implemented by 25 barons who formed a council for its administration.

Calls were made for more radical reform

Although the Magna Carta had regulated the operation of royal government, in the reign of Henry III there were calls for more radical reform.

Henry III was criticised for being too generous to his close friends and family, handing out important jobs to them and protecting them from the law.

provisions of Oxford

King John signs the Magna Carta James William Edmund Doyle, 1864.

The idea grew up after Magna Carta that the king could only gain extra taxes by asking the barons first. As the king needed money, he called the barons to parliament much more frequently than ever before.

In return for giving taxes, the barons asked for reforms in government in return. In particular, they wanted to be able to choose the king’s ministers for him, and they wanted him to follow their advice, which he did not agree to.

Desire for further reform

Tensions between factions at the royal court, widespread famine, military failure in Wales, and enormous debts the king had accrued with the Pope by agreeing – privately and without consent of parliament – to pay for an army to conquer Sicily resulted in urgent desires for further reforms.

A group of leading barons, including Richard de Clare, earl of Gloucester, Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk and Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, acted jointly to force reform on the king.

The Provisions of Oxford

Peter Snow in front of Dover Castle.

Castles were a symbol of power for barons during the Middle Ages. Peter Snow discovered the history of Dover Castle. Watch the documentary Peter Snow’s Dover Castle With English Heritage on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

The Provisions of Oxford placed the king under the authority of a Council of Fifteen, to be chosen by 24 men made up of 12 nominees of the king, and 12 nominees of the reformers.

The chief ministers – the Justiciar and Chancellor – were to be chosen by and responsible to the Council of Fifteen, and ultimately to the community of the realm at regular parliaments to be held 3 times a year.

This was revolutionary. It was the most radical scheme of reform undertaken before the arrest and execution of King Charles I in the 1640s.

Responses to the Provisions

By 1261, the king had regained power and had the Provisions of Oxford condemned by the Pope. He had regained power by exploiting divisions in the reforming group of earls. Montfort withdrew to France, but by 1263 other barons had become disaffected and they called Montfort back to England.

In January 1264, King Louis, having heard the cases of both sides, quashed the Provisions of Oxford completely, perhaps having realised the revolutionary implications they could have for all monarchs.

Simon de Montfort and his allies refused to accept King Louis’s judgement and a civil war began. In May 1264 his army captured the King, and Montfort started ruling in the king’s name.

The death of Simon de Montfort.

Simon de Montfort’s parliament

Simon de Montfort held two parliaments during his time in power.

The second of these took place at Westminster between January and March 1265, and was the first parliament at which representatives of the cities and boroughs were present alongside knights representing their counties to discuss matters of national concern as opposed to granting taxation.

Montfort would eventually be overthrown by Henry’s son, Edward, at the Battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265. But his rulership had a lasting impact. It formed the basis of a more representative democracy – something that foreshadowed the House of Commons’s formation in the 14th century.