March 26, 2009

Edward III and Parliament

Edward III was king of England from 1327 until his death in 1377. His reign was one of the longest in English history and encompassed a huge amount of administrative and political change- the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, the growth of Parliament as an institution, the transition from judicial eyres as were held by his grandfather Edward I and before him Henry II and the Conqueror to a magistracy based in local communities and the centralisation of the English state. Of course accompanying all of this were famous military victories- Crecy, Poiters, Neville’s Cross and Sluys. Mark Ormerod in his account of Edward’s reign tries to make sense of the period from an institutional point of view: looking at Edward’s reign as a set of transactions between the monarch and his subject- what he reveals I suggest is interesting for the history of medieval kingship and royal power.

For the political theorist the most important growth in Edward’s reign was undoubtedly that of Parliament. It is from Edward’s reign that we can date many of the most important constitutional innovations and peculiarities of the English system: the first Speaker was appointed by the House of Commons in 1341, Parliament’s supremacy over finance evolved over the 1340s and 1350s, its power to present petitions was solidified and those petitions evolved from private documents presented on behalf of the petitioner into petitions of the commons about wider matters. It also became more confident in linking those petitions to its financial demands, and it was in Edward’s reign, that it became an accepted principle that the Lords could only agree new taxes on behalf of their members, the Commons agreed new taxation for the rest of their kingdom. Also the House of Commons itself became more regular in its composition- from 1327, every English Parliament until the great reforms of the nineteenth century, save those in the civil war, included 2 members from each of the English counties (excluding the county Palitinates of Chester and Durham). It was from the 1330s that knights and burgesses started sitting together in sessions- Edward III attempted to summon councils of merchants to vote subsidies, by the 1350s those councils had become merged into Parliament and the Commons had become able to claim that they represented every class.

What Bishop Stubbs and others termed the rise of Parliament, the seizing of the initiative by the House of Commons (a process lasting according to Professor Notestein several centuries until its fulfilment in the 18th Century) was not a process that worked against the crown: rather it was a biproduct of the crown’s increasing strength. Throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries the increasing prestige and power of the House of Commons cemented the increasing prestige and power of the King. Edward III’s reign was also notable for the increasing ability of the King to wage war, to summon soldiers to his standard and levy taxes. Edward levied unimaginable taxes from his subjects: compared even to his grandfather Edward I, Edward III doubled or even tripled the tax load upon England- a load born after the Black Death in 1349 by almost a third fewer people. Not merely that, but Edward governed through a council that under the leadership of Robert Erdington and later William Wyckham Bishop of Winchester had become an administrative instrument of some precision: Edward’s powers were extended to the lowest levels of the government and he might and did interfere in decisions of every level. Edward used Parliaments to raise funds- but he did not listen to them when they threatened his prerogative. Rather what the Commons learnt in the reign of Edward was, as Professor Ormerod puts it, that confrontation produced a short term gain for them which was easily revocable (see for example 1100, 1215, 1258, 1310-11, 1326-7, 1341, 1376 etc.) - cooperation between crown and Parliament led to both organisations (principally the crown) gaining powers. The lesson Lord Manchester sought to teach Oliver Cromwell sounds through English history like a claxon bell, the King was still King whatever his Commons might say.

The rise of Parliament and its growth as an institution fulfilled a need for the crown: it legitimised quite extraordinary collections of taxes, legitimised increasing scrutiny over the control of localities by magnates. It further entrenched the primacy of royal law throughout England- a distinguishing character according to Dr Garnett of English government in the early Middle Ages. The lesson that Professor Ormerod teaches us about Edward III is the same lesson as Dr Graves has taught us about Elizabethan Parliaments: Bishop Stubbs and his followers were wrong. Parliament did not seize the initiative in Edward’s reign (or Elizabeth’s for that matter): what it became was the best royal instrument to demonstrate the consent of the realm to the acts of the crown, Parliament authorised taxes and MPs acting as Justices of the Peace in the localities collected them, Parliament petitioned against ills and the King in his righteousness decided how to redress them. The constitutional story of the late middle ages, culminating with the most fundamental act (to this day) of Parliamentary supremacy- the acts in the Commons that made the English Reformation- was the story not of the triumph of Parliament over the King, but the triumph of the King in Parliament. The road from Edward III’s constitutional experiments leads not so much to Robert Walpole and William Gladstone, but to Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, and the chasm that separates us from the Edwardian and Henrican Parliament is not one of Whiggish evolution but one of war, blood and toil. After Cromwell cut the King’s neck, the Gordian knot of the English constitution was slashed to pieces and the world changed.

Edward III and his councillors did not live in Restoration times- we do.


Crushed said...

Parliaments tended to do as they were told on the bigger issue up until the days of James I, really.

Generally it was a kind of rubber stamp parliament for the most part.

It's members could talk, but then their function was to endorse royal policy.
Perhaps a little like the principle of cabinet collective responsibility.

In some ways, the function of Parliament was far more judicial than legislative, in spite of what Charles later maintained.