You can trace the origins of England’s parliament’s back as far back as the Anglo-Saxon witan if you have nothing better to do with your life. Clearly, I don’t.
The Anglo-Saxon witan
The witan wasn’t an elected body, but then neither were the earliest English parliaments. It was a council of the country’s nobles and top clergy, and it advised the king on whatever topic he wanted to be advised on. It consented to the laws he proposed and did an assortment of other things that kept the wheels of government creaking onward.
And since it was his council, he set its agenda, chose its membership, and summoned it when he wanted its help. If it sounds a bit like his collie, to an extent it was. The king whistled and it came. If he didn’t whistle, he could take action anyway. He didn’t need its approval.
But the collie also had some power. The king needed the support of the nobles and clergy if he was going to govern. Or to stick with the image we’ve got, the collie could either round up all his sheep or miss a few, so it paid to keep it happy and working hard.
If you’re in the mood, you can call the witan the Witenagemot, which means meeting of the wise men.
Don’t you just love it when people offer you meaningless choices?
Lower down the governmental ladder, each shire held a regular meeting, the shire moot. (A moot was a meeting.) It would’ve involved the local lords, the bishops, the sheriff, and village representatives. Think of it as a collision of a court session and an administrative meeting, because the two weren’t separate at this point.
Lower down still, moots were also held at the town and village level, and the local freemen would’ve attended.
Then the Normans invaded and they established something very much like the witan (and not unlike a structure they were familiar with in Normandy). They called it the commune concilium–Latin for general council, because, hey, they were Normans, they spoke Normish. Or French, actually. And Latin–or enough Latin to get by.
The concilium was made up of the king’s chief tenants–in other words, the top layer of the aristocracy. It was a smaller group than the witan, but it was a permanent one.
In case you’re in need of confusion, though, I’ll be happy to provide it, and this is as good a place as any to toss it in. The commune concilium also seems to have been called the curia regis (the king’s court), or the aula regis. Unless, of course, Lord Google and the entire damn internet are messing with me.
I asked Lord G. to translate aula for me. Court seems to be the best match, but it also means inner court, palace, courtyard, his (confusingly), and (even more confusingly) aula. So aula means aula. It’s hard to argue with that, even if it doesn’t tell us much.
Translation programs are strange beasts. But let’s stick with curia regis, since we have a reliable translation for it. To quote one of the sources I ran to in search of some elusive clarity, “It is difficult to define the curia regis with precision.” So I may be slurring together some things that aren’t exactly the same, but if I am it’s not just me who’s short on precision. Blame history. Blame the Normans. Blame Lord Google.
Hell, blame Boris Johnson. Blame Theresa May. She didn’t say aula means aula, but she did say Brexit means Brexit, which was just about as helpful.
I know. Brexit’s just about upon us. It makes it appealing to write about thousand-year-old chaos.
It seems safe to say that the concilium/curia/aula changed over time. So we’ll say that, then sneak out the door and pretend we were never here.
For the sake of more confusion, though, every so often the king would call together a larger circle, the magnum concilium, or great council, adding earls and abbots, bishops and barons to the smaller group. Also priors, but I can’t find a category that makes a neat a counterweight for them. If I said “priors and pigeons,” you’d understand that the Norman kings didn’t really seek advice from pigeons, wouldn’t you?
The great council was called together when the king needed them to approve his decisions, especially when those decisions involved taxes, because money was always a sore point and he’d need to get the nobles on his side if that was in any way possible.
In the time of Henry I (that’s 1100 to 1135), a smaller council began to serve, unofficially, as a committee of the larger council. It was made up of the royal household’s officials plus the king’s attendants along with all the king’s horses and all the king’s friends. Its authority was as vaguely defined as the king’s, but it took on some financial responsibilities and gradually grew into the court of exchequer. We’ll skip the Latin for that if it’s okay with you.
Its members were called justices, and when the king wasn’t around, the chief justiciar presided over the court.
However vaguely defined, this was turning into a powerful body.
Now let’s leave the Normans behind and skip to Henry II, who was a Plantagenet. In 1178, he took five members of the curia, stirred vigorously, sprinkled dried fruit over the top, and turned them into a special court of justice. Unlike the rest of the curia, they stayed in one place instead of traipsing around the country after him.
Kings (in case you didn’t know this–and if you did, surely someone out there didn’t) traveled a lot of the time, which allowed them to saddle their nobles with the cost of feeding and entertaining their huge and kingly households. It also kept them in touch with their kingdoms at a time when the internet was down.
Other bits and pieces of the original council spun off at different times until the country had the court of king’s bench, the chancery, and the king’s secret council (which eventually became the privy council).
The larger and smaller versions of the curia became clearly separate bodies, and the larger one was first called a parliament in 1236. Parliament’s website (which has some odd and interesting corners) considers the great council the forerunner of the House of Lords.
In 1254, the king (by now we’re up to Henry III) added representatives of the counties to Parliament. You can call them knights of the shire if you like. One site I found does, and it gives you a sense of the layer of society the representatives were drawn from.
Do you have any idea how hard it is not to type “knights of the shirt”?
The next addition came in 1265 (it’s still Henry III who’s plonked on the throne): Representatives of the boroughs (called town burgesses) were poured into the mix.
What was a borough? A town with a charter from the king. The charter allowed it to govern itself and go to the candy store without supervision–sometimes without even asking permission.
Okay, like most things, the charters varied, but that’ll get us close enough.
And what’s a burgess? An inhabitant of a town who had full citizenship rights. You’ll notice, if you peer into the cracks of that definition, that not everyone who lived in a town did have citizenship rights, and that those who did were citizens of the town, not the country. It would make an interesting post.
As usual, Henry needed the burgesses to consent to taxation.
That was always the king’s weakness. Not just Henry’s. Any king’s. Kings needed money, especially if they wanted to fight a way, and to get it they needed–well, I was tempted to say the consent of the governed, but at this point we’re still talking about the consent, or at least semblance of cooperation, of a very thin but powerful layer of people just below the king. The rest of the governed had to either put up with things or rebel. In between those two choices, they didn’t have a lot of space to maneuver.
Voting comes into the picture
From 1290 onward, representatives of the counties were summoned to parliament regularly, and a bit later on borough representatives were as well. Each county and borough generally sent two members. And at this point, I suppose I have to break down and capitalize that: two Members, as in Members of Parliament.
In 1295, voting comes into clear focus with the Model Parliament summoned by Edward I. It included two knights from each country, two burgesses from (almost) each borough, and two citizens from each city–all of them elected instead of nominated.
Why “(almost) each borough”?
A House of Commons research paper says, “There was no single definition of or agreement on what constituted a borough in this period. The issuing of a writ was a royal prerogative and those boroughs that became Parliamentary boroughs were usually the county town of each ancient county and a number of other important boroughs. The actual number of Parliamentary boroughs in early Parliaments fluctuated.”
Did you follow that?
Don’t worry about it.
So who got to vote?
Not everybody. In fact, not a whole lot of people. But, like most elements in this tale, it was hazy.
Everywhere, only men could vote, but that was by custom, not by law. This is a country with an unwritten constitution, remember, so that sort of haziness feels like home and family. In practice, women who met the qualifications sometimes transferred their right to vote to a male, who’d vote for them.
In the counties, voters were people with a property freehold worth 40 shillings, and that wasn’t restricted to land. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s enough to know that if you didn’t have a fair chunk of property, you didn’t vote.
In the boroughs, though, it varied from one to the next but usually depended on residence, on owning property, on being a freeman, or on some combination of those. In some it was restricted to members of the corporation running the borough. Again, if the details are slipping through your fingers, don’t worry about it. Same as above: The vote was restricted by wealth and status.
Oxford and Cambridge universities each sent two Members to Parliament, and they were elected by the senates of each university.
What about the other universities?
Trick question. They didn’t exist yet.
In 1341 (Edward III’s on the throne by now), the Commons (knights, burgesses, and citizens) and the Lords (barons and clergy) began to meet separately.
More about the vote
Who got to vote was one issue, but it wasn’t the only one. The king’s writ required sheriffs to hold free elections for county representatives, but sheriffs sometimes skipped the election part and declared themselves the winners.
It’s a system I’m sure some modern politicians would envy.
In 1406, a statute specified that county elections had to be held in full view of the participants. My largely useless high school classes taught me that the secret ballot was the standard by which you could measure a fair election. Ha. At this stage, having people cast their vote in public was an attempt to prevent corruption. If you held the election in public, everyone would at least know it happened.
Elections could be raucous, with feuds and factions, and in 1429, the Commons petitioned the king to restrict the vote further, saying elections involved “too great and excessive number of people . . . of whom the greater part are by people of little or no means” and that these people “pretend[ed] to have an equivalent voice . . . as the most worthy knights or esquires dwelling in the same counties.”
In response, in 1430 leaseholders lost the right to vote, no matter how much the land they leased was worth. The franchise was now limited to what one paper calls “40 shilling resident freeholders,” and I’m quoting because if I mess around with the wording so that it sounds more accessible I’m afraid I’ll change the meaning. What they’re saying, I think, is that you had to own the property, not just rent it.
This was the first time the rules for who could vote in the counties was formalized, and they stayed fixed–more or less–until the Reform Act of 1832. For a bit about the Reform Act, allow me to refer you to that noted non-historian, me. If you follow the link, it’s toward the end of the post.
Under Oliver Cromwell (he was Lord Protector–which is to kingship as margarine is to butter–from 1653 to 1658, and for the time he was in power you can add a few years to allow for a Civil War and assorted chaos if you like)–
Can we start that over? Under Cromwell, they tinkered with the rules on who could vote, but the changes were reversed when he died and the monarchy was restored, so we’ll skip them.
In the seventeenth century, someone came up with a nifty way to game the system. They subdivided large landholdings into smaller ones worth 40 shillings each, creating groups of people who’d vote the way the primary landowners wanted them to. The smaller landowners were called faggot votes.
No, I’m not sure either. It’s a word with an odd history, and in modern Britain it doesn’t have anything to do with insulting a gay man. A faggot’s a sausage. And no again: As far as I know any relationship is purely accidental.
At the end of the seventeenth century, Church of England clergymen got the vote.
In 1831, just before the Reform Act of 1832, an estimated 1.35% of the English population could vote, although the percentage would have varied from county to county. In Herefordshire, it was an estimated 3.6%, but in Middlesex it was 0.22%.
And with that in place, next week we go to another post about the history of British voting rights, the Peterloo Massacre. I’ve been threatening to write about it for a while, and it’s now in the queue. Sorry this one ran so long, and if you got this far, thanks for your patience.