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House of Commons - Origins

The modern UK Parliament can trace its origins 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. The Witan's main duty was to advise the King, but its assent was not necessary for the King to take action. Also, under the Anglo-Saxons there had been regular meetings, or moots, for each county (or shire) where cases were heard and local matters discussed. The 'shire moot' was attended by the local lords and bishops, the sheriff, and most importantly, four representatives of each village. After the Conquest, this meeting became known as the County Court and it introduced the idea of representative government at the local level.

In the Magna Charta of King John issued in June 1215, there was a distinction had been made between the greater barons and the smaller freeholders. The King declared "To hold the common Council of the realm, we shall cause the Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Earls, and the greater barons, to be summoned individually by our letter, and besides, we shall cause all those who hold of us in chief, (in capite) to be summoned, in general, by our Sheriffs and Bailiffs."

It has been a great controversy amongst antiquarians whether there was any representation of counties, cities and boroughs, before the 49th year of Henry III. The friends of the Royal prerogative, in order to treat the House of Commons with less respect, and to diminish its dignity, contend that it owes its origin to the rebellion of the Earl of Leicester, in the 49th year of Henry III [ie, 1265], and consequently that it was an innovation in government; and when the attendance of the Commons was ordered in the next reign by Edward I, that the authority and existence of the Lower House emanated from the prerogative of the Crown.

Those who contend that this representation did not commence at that time, maintain that it must necessarily have existed before the Conquest. In any event, the deviation of the House of Commons from the House of Peers, or the great Council, appears to have been so easy and gentle, and so consistent with former principles, that it occasioned at the time no surprise or wonder at all.

The period of uncertainty, which begins with the permanent incorporation of the representative members in the famous parliament of 1295, ends with the definite and final division of parliament into two houses in the reign of Edward III. The difficult matter is to determine why the knights of the shire, selected from the lesser landholders, who in continental lands would have belonged to the estate of the nobles, should have withdrawn from the baronage in order to unite upon equal terms with the representatives of the towns in the formation of the house of commons. So rapidly did this happy coalition advance that by 1322) the constitutional status of the lower house seems to have been definitely recognized.

Edward III came to the throne in 1327, and from that point the representatives of the counties (knights of the shire) and of the towns (burgesses) became a permanent part of Parliament. After 1332 they sat together in one chamber and were known as the House of Commons. After 1341 these Commons deliberated separately from the King and his nobles. Edward III also stated his resolution that a Parliament should be summoned annually, and between 1327 and 1485 there were only 42 years in which a Parliament did not meet. With increasing regularity during the 14th century, the Lords and particularly the Commons acted on a sense that they should have an active say in government, instead of merely consenting to the taxation decisions of the King.

The Parliament of 1376 was called the Good Parliament. This was because the Commons prosecuted before the nobles some of the King's corrupt ministers, a process known as impeachment. This became a frequent procedure over the following years as Parliament turned against Edward III's successor Richard II. In the Parliament of 1386, called the Wonderful Parliament, the Commons forced Richard II to dismiss his Lord Chancellor, whom it then impeached as well. Two years later the Merciless Parliament condemned to death the former Lord Chancellor and other royal officials, and in October 1399, Parliament (packed with supporters of Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV) deposed Richard II by a trial and process, in an assembly which met at Westminster.

The most prominent members in the Commons were the knights of the shire. During the Middle Ages two knights were elected for each of the 37 counties under royal jurisdiction. In 1536 the twelve counties of Wales were incorporated into English rule by statute and they gained the right to return one member each to Parliament. Later two counties long seen as outside royal jurisdiction, the county palatines of Chester and Durham, were also able to return two members each to Parliament, from 1543 and 1673 respectively.

The rules were changed by a statute of 1429 which, finding that elections had recently been crowded by people of "low estate", decreed that only freemen who owned freehold land (that is, not leased from the land's owner) worth 40 shillings had the vote. This restricted the vote to a much smaller group of landowners, and the 40 shilling franchise was only abolished in 1832 by the Great Reform Act.

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Page last modified: 24-02-2016 20:03:00 ZULU