How old is democracy in the British Isles?

Well it is parliament’s 750th anniversary on January 20th (that’s Tuesday of next week)
The modern UK Parliament can trace its origins all the way back to two features of Anglo-Saxon government from the 8th to 11th centuries. These are the Witan and the moot. The Witan was the occasion when the King would call together his leading advisors and nobles to discuss matters affecting the country. It existed only when the King chose and was made up of those individuals whom he particularly summoned. Thus the peasants (you and me) had no say in the matter!

But what of our ‘modern’ parliament? Well this goes back to January 1265 and the Baron’s Wars when Simon de Montfort defeated King Henry the Third and his heir Edward at the battle of Lewes in May 1264. The King and his son were virtual prisoners and De Montfort ruled the land. Yet he craved respectability and acceptance of his cause and so a mere 750 years ago this very month Montfort called the very first inclusive parliament – the word is derived from the French (parlez) ‘to talk’.

I had included this in Book One of “The King’s Jew” Historical Faction but like any work of literature certain elements end up on the metaphorical cutting room floor. Although the battles of Lewes and Simon de Montfort’s shocking defeat at Evesham in August 1265 are covered.

De Montfort had become de facto ruler of the country, and the fear and jealousy of the nobility who had aided him in defeating the King meant that the great of the kingdom deserted his cause, forcing him to seek support from the gentry. The middle classes were developing economically, and offered the rebellious and ambitious de Montfort a potential financial and popular power base.

Thus on December 14th 1264 de Montfort summoned a representative Parliament (as usual the nobility and senior figures in the Church were called) and Knights of the Shires were invited too. But for the first time two burgesses from each borough were summoned, some of whom were chosen in a roughly democratic method by their peers.

This Parliament met at Westminster Hall on January 20th 1265, sitting until February 15th that year.
Although Edward I is often credited with calling the first representative Parliament in 1295 (the so-called Model Parliament) Simon de Montfort was its true architect. Not through true democratic zeal but forced on him as a necessary power play in a land riven with opposing forces. Thus the concept of the Commons was established by him, and endures to this day.

Here’s a link to a basic little movie that will give you a brief outline of Simon de Montfort. But if you really what to get to know how he thinks – try my book!


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