August 22, 2010

The Origins of the English Parliament 1 The Witan and the Council

John Maddicott's volume on the Origins of the English Parliament covers such a vast swathe of English history that any review needs to be split up between several posts. The ultimate origins of Parliament are uncertain and mysterious. It doesn't take much for an enterprising historian to suggest that they might lie deep in the Germanic forest (many Victorians did) or for his sceptical colleague to argue that they the first Parliament was the first event so called (in a court roll of 1236). Maddicott, a distinguished Oxford historian, takes neither view. The first chapters of his book cover what he views as the real antecedent to Parliament- the Great Council- which began meeting as a Witan under Athelstan in the 920s and whose importance continued through the West Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet Kings right down until the reign of Richard I (1189-99) at which point it fundementally changed its character. Over that two hundred and fifty year period, England was ruled by a succession of Kings and dynasties, first the West Saxon Kings (924-1016, 1042-1066), then Cnut and his sons (1016-42) and then the Normans (1066-1189). Throughout this entire period though the form of the council remained important to Kingship- to what it meant to be an English King and an English subject.

There are several reasons that Kings preferred to use council rather than other means to govern their state. Council swere places in which feasting, gifts, complaints, patronage and appointments were performed. They were opportunities to bind together a political nation- Maddicott's account starts with Athelstan because he increased the size of the council, it became a council of the English nobility. England's unstable political history demonstrated the worth of such councils: in 1014, the 1020s, 1042, 1086 and 1100 such councils were used by Kings to legitimate their rule, to make an offer to the political nation and to have that offer accepted by that nation. When Ethelred the Unread made his attempt to regain the throne in 1014 he did so by telling a council that he would reform abuses within the state and obtained their allegiance. In 1100, Henry I outbid his brother Robert Curthose for the crown by making a similar offer to the barons in his so called charter. Such moments allowed the King to claim that he had the support of the nation in his claim to the throne. By the 970s, under Edgar the Peaceful, Englishmen and women knew about the existance of such an institution- the Witan of the English people- and whereas under the Normans it became more of a feudal great council the fundemental point remained the same. Kings used council because it demonstrated consent. It also extended the King's reach. It isn't a surprise to see the council evolve first under Athelstan into a large body. Athelstan was the first King to penetrate the northern borders of England and one of the first councils that we see him hold was to exact homage from Constantine of Scotland. Councils were mechanisms through which power could be extended throughout the state- not merely residing with the King but spreading through the tendrils of the feudal body.

Maddicott uses two main sets of sources in his discussions of these early councils. On the one hand he uses the signatory lists of charters- what we have here are decisions that the great noblemen of the day acceded to by fixing their signature to them. On the other he uses chronicle sources- in particular the Anglo Saxon chronicle and later monastic chronicles. These sources obviously do not record the contents of the meetings but they allow us to make guesses about those contents. They record the decisions taken. The chronicles record as well the imperative upon the King to take counsel with his noblemen. Counsel taking was a moral imperative for an Anglo Saxon King. Ethelred in 1014 promised to take advice from his noblemen. One key change brought in by the Norman Conquest was the concept that counsel was a feudal duty from the nobleman to the King as well. The King might demand his noble attended council and gave him advice- thereby involving the nobleman in any decision taken there. A further key Norman development goes back to the conquest itself. As Dr Garnett has explained the conquest made a radical change in the structure of English land holding: it created a bond between Kings and tenants-in-chief and their sub-tenants. Knights were not merely the feudal tenants of their noblemen, but also of the King. The oath of Salisbury in 1086 seems to have included knights as well as Dukes and Counts and from the 12th Century they too were being summoned to Council.

Maddicott's first chapters sketch out a realistic scenario for why and how council developed. Curiously English instability put council on a higher footing than it might have been. Instability meant that Kings competed as rival claimants at various points and attracted nobles and others too them through using the mechanism of offers made in council. Furthermore such offers (such as the Coronation Charter of Henry I 1100) became key moments in constitutional history. The Council though by the 12th Century could have fallen into abeyance. This is not a teleological history at all: indeed Maddicott leaves us in no doubt that during the reigns of William I and William Rufus the council fell back as an instrument of government. Its function changed as well in the 12th Century with a decline in royal crown wearing in council. Furthermore by the 12th Century the structure of English society was changing fundementally: we can see that councils started granting taxes (the 'Saladin tithe' of 1188 is perhaps the best evidence for this) and that they did so in a culture that was increasingly legalistic. As the council became established, its role also became established within political culture. The Abbott of Battle in 1140 might argue that 'although the king could at will change the ancient rights of the Kingdom for his own time' he could not do so for posterity 'except with the common consent of the barons of his realm'.

What's so interesting about this early period is in part the wealth of data that does survive and in part the degree to which Maddicott is able to avoid both the Whiggish and the revisionist dangers. Something was happening in England but that something could potentially have led to other things than the Parliament of the 14th Century. Most interesting perhaps is the degree to which he shows us the challenges that Councils met for Kings. The scholarship on Elizabethan Parliaments has long moved in the same direction: an expanding power in the Commons was demanded by the crown as much as by the Commons. The initiative was not seized by Parliament but was handed to it by a crown that perceived a strong Parliament or Council as being in its own interest. In a sense what Maddicott describes is not so much a prehistory of Parliament- as a context of revolt, rebellion and size which drove forward the development of council and then of Parliament as an instrument to cope with that size and instability. I'll move on to the later sections of the book later, but I think this point about the context of conciliarism is crucial to understanding why and how royal power and conciliar power developed.


Anonymous said...

It still amazes me in English History, one of the reasons actuallly why I want to study more further, the importance of Parliaments or in this case the importance of Council so different from other countries of Europe at the time.

Gracchi said...

Well Maddicott's book is one of the best places to start! I agree wtih you it is a feature- one of the things he points out is that the instability of the realm definitely contributed to Parliamentary power- also curiously the insignificance of England- Richard I's reign when the King was hardly in the country contributed greatly for example.