The Medieval Review 11.05.10

Maddicott, J. R. . The Origins of the English Parliament 924-1327. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 526. $55 ISBN 978-0-19-958550-2. .

Reviewed by:

Jeffrey S. Hamilton
Baylor University

Expanded from the Ford Lectures of 2004, this lengthy examination of the origins of the English parliament is both insightful and thought provoking, if at times repetitive, and at least at some points not fully convincing. At first glance the reader might find the choice of terminus a quo with the accession of Æthelstan in 924 rather surprising. Surely the history of parliament goes back no further than the early to mid-thirteenth century? Interestingly, Maddicott makes a strong case for a long evolutionary prehistory for parliament in the councils of the late Saxon kings and their Anglo-Norman successors, even if, in the end, the decisive foundation of parliament as an institution is indeed located in the thirteenth century.

Professor Maddicott is well known for his earlier work in the political history of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and his biographies of Simon de Montfort and Thomas of Lancaster in particular provide a natural lead in to the question of the origins of parliament. Yet he backs up to the coronation of Æthelstan, arguing that the formation of a unified kingdom extending beyond the tribal boundaries of Wessex necessitated the creation of assemblies that were "large in size, geographically and socially diverse in composition, and frequent and regular in occurrence" (4). Among other things, Maddicott suggests, these assemblies functioned as an alternative to royal iteration, no longer feasible in an expanded kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon councils were closely associated with the great feasts of the church, at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, and were the occasion for ceremonial crown-wearing. They were also forums for the distribution of patronage, both land grants and offices, with at least an element of consensual involvement from the great men of the realm. In all these elements, Maddicott sees a precursor to the later institution of parliament.

It is between the coronation oath of Edgar in 973 and Edward the Confessor's return to England in 1041--having agreed to maintain the laws of Cnut--Maddicott claims, that "the origins of the constitutional tradition in England" are to be found (40). The site of assemblies became increasingly fixed in a limited number of towns, most notably London, Oxford, and Gloucester, although Maddicott recognizes that the kingship was not exclusively town-based in this period. He notes a growing institutional sense to the assembly, recognized in the frequent use of the term "witana gemot" in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle between 1035 and 1055, and also in the tendency, clear in the reign of Cnut, to view the witan as representing "all the people of England."

With the arrival of the Normans, Maddicott argues, came a confluence of two different models of governance, what he terms English council and feudal counsel. If prior to 1066 in England law was made by king and witan, in Normandy it had originated in ecclesiastical councils under ducal supervision. Although councils continue after the conquest, elements such as crown-wearing disappear by the reign of Henry I, and the festal court gives way to councils specifically concerned with the business of governance, more often held at rural hunting lodges than in urban centers. Counsel, under the Anglo-Norman kings took on a decidedly feudal flavor, as part of the vassal's obligation to render auxilium et consilium. The councils of the king were attended by his tenants in chief. It is during this period that Maddicott's argument for continuity from Æthelstan to Edward II appears most tenuous.

The heart of the book is to be found in chapters 3-6, which cover the period from 1189 to 1327, what might be called the "long thirteenth century." Maddicott describes 1189-1227 as a period of transformation. Central to the emergence of parliament in this period is a new role and authority for the great council of magnates, occasioned initially by the absences of Richard I, then by the perceived abuses of John, and finally by the circumstances of the minority of Henry III. Of greatest moment, perhaps, was the need for conciliar consent to direct taxation, a necessity occasioned initially by the crusades and embodied in the famous Saladin Tithe of 1188, and then perpetuated by the Anglo-French wars of the following three centuries. Maddicott considers the thirteenth on moveables taken by John in 1207 to have been particularly significant because of its large yield, appearance of having been granted in a great council of magnates, and its distinction of being the last direct tax collected prior to the concession of Magna Carta by the king. Magna Carta would build on this precedent in clauses 12 and 14 to make taxation dependent on a properly constituted assembly. The great council that assembled in London in February 1225 was, Maddicott argues, unlike its predecessor in 1207, a "'model parliament' avant la letter" (109).

The earliest known use of the word parliamentum in an official document dates to November 1236, and it subsequently appears in the Chronica Maiora of Matthew Paris in 1239, and in the chancery rolls in June 1242. The word appears to refer to exceptionally large assemblies conducting a broad range of business, and it may be that the term gained acceptance as a means to distinguish the body from the increasingly well-defined king's council. The acceleration of the growth of parliament was tied to the loss of the crown's continental holdings and the end of Anglo-Norman peripatetic kingship, along with the emergence of Westminster as the seat of government. Maddicott posits 54 meetings of parliament between 1235 and 1257, 39 of which met in Westminster/London. The timing of parliaments was increasingly tied to the law terms, particularly Michaelmas, Hilary, and Easter. The need to obtain consent to taxation transformed parliament into a venue in which the king's actions could not only be examined and discussed, but opposed. As early as 1237 a request for taxation in parliament resulted in demands that went beyond the confirmation of Magna Carta and called for specific remedies. But who was present at these parliaments? The higher clergy and lay magnates, who also served on the council from which parliament was now differentiating itself, but also, Maddicott argues, the lesser tenants-in-chief as established by Magna Carta, not initially as elected knights of the shire. Occasionally burgesses from the towns and representative of the lower clergy were also in attendance. By 1258, a variety of forces and factors had created a genuinely representative body, one that could be identified with the "community of the realm."

The year 1258 saw the culmination of the reform movement in the Provisions of Oxford, which while placing governance in the hands of a baronial council, nonetheless provided for the meeting of parliament three times per year. It was the Michaelmas parliament of 1259 which issued the Provisions of Westminster, effectively establishing parliament as a legislative body. During the ascendency of Simon de Montfort, both knights of the shire and burgesses made more regular appearances at parliament. More significantly, Maddicott argues, the knights saw their role extended beyond taxation to the larger world of politics and government. The Marlborough parliament of November 1267, following Henry III's recovery of power, in enacting the Statute of Marlborough, a diversified reforming code, confirmed the legislative function of parliament that would prove so significant in the reign of Edward I.

Throughout the first twenty years of his long reign, Edward I generally held two parliaments per year rather than three, at Easter and Michaelmas, frequently, but not exclusively, at Westminster. Other venues were occasionally dictated by his military or diplomatic activity. This period saw the bulk of the parliamentary legislation that has earned Edward the nickname the English Justinian, legislation the moved from the king and his council to parliament, rather than up from the commons as would become the case in the fourteenth century. Only two of the thirty parliaments of these first two decades were attended by knights and burgesses, with two others attended by knights alone. Nevertheless, this period saw the emergence of the written petition, seeking remedies to grievances or injustices, or the granting of favors. The latter part of the reign, dominated by wars necessitating heavy taxation, led Edward to constitute parliament more broadly. Eleven of twenty parliaments between 1294 and 1307 had some form of representation from the commons, whether knights, burgesses, or both. Edward's government was confronted with the Confirmatio Cartarum in 1297, and the Articuli Super Cartas in 1300, the king conceding to address specific written demands in return for a parliamentary grant of taxation. Even so, Maddicott argues that the parliaments of Edward I resembled a gathering of continental estates rather than a single representative body.

The reign of Edward II, for all its troubles, proved a watershed in the evolution of parliament. Of 27 parliaments during the twenty-year reign, 17 were attended by knights, burgesses, and the lower clergy, with the knights and burgesses at two more, and the knights alone at still two more. The commons' presence may be accounted for by the desire of both the king and his opponents to legitimize their positions, giving the commons an increasingly less fiscal (tax) role. Many of the MPs were repeatedly re-elected, and the parliaments of Edward II were relatively long in duration. The coalescence of these factors likely contributed to a sense of corporate identity in the commons previously unknown. This may explain the emergence of the common petition. It may also explain the emergence of the usage of "peers" for the magnates in parliament which appears between the publication of the Ordinances in 1311 and their revocation in 1322.

The final chapter, "English Exceptionalism? The Peculiarities of the English Parliament," argues that while there are certainly comparisons to be made with continental Europe in terms of the development of representative institutions, there are nonetheless significant divergences. First of all, Maddicott argues that England did not possess the semi-independent principalities that led to a regionalization incompatible with a national conciliar government. Another distinguishing factor, particularly with regard to France, was the recurrent pattern of disputed royal succession. This, he argues, strengthened the role of political assemblies, and allowed an association with restraint on royal power. Another point of divergence with the French model is the limited extent to which Parliament in England evolved into a court, a consequence of England's professionally staffed central courts. Most important of all, however, was the impact of national taxation in England, a burden that also fell on the nobility. Additionally, the primary unit of representation in parliament was the shire, rather than the towns as commonly on the continent, and indeed in Scotland.

J. R. Maddicott has provided us with a very thorough and thoughtful discussion of the evolution of the English Parliament. Readers are likely to find the tenth- through twelfth-century material interesting, as well as the arguments for English exceptionalism. The heart of the book, however, and the material that will be most closely studied by students and scholars, remains the three chapters covering the century from 1227 to 1327.