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Tuesday, 19 May, 1998, 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK
The first 400 years

The Royal Palace of Westminster

From its earliest origins Parliament has been associated with Westminster, once a village on the outskirts of the London but now situated right in the heart of the capital.

The first royal palace was built in Westminster by Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century.

William Rufus
William Rufus
Westminster Hall, the subsequent venue for Parliament, was built by William Rufus, William the Conqueror's son, in 1097 and then rebuilt by Richard II in the 1390s.

The meetings of the King's Great Council were first referred to as Parliament in 1236. It was at these Parliaments that the bishops and barons of the realm met to discuss the issues affecting the kingdom, in groups numbering between 40 and 50 members.

At this time, and for many centuries after, the power of the Monarchy went more or less unquestioned.

Parliament spoke only when it was spoken to. It did not decide policy, but was merely consulted on it. When and where Parliament was summoned, and who was called to attend was solely in the hands of the King.

De Montfort's parliament

One of the first steps on the long road to democracy took place in 1265, when the rebel Simon de Montfort summoned a Parliament of his own. He called two knights from each shire or county and two representatives from each borough or town.

In doing so de Montfort was attempting to give legitimacy to his uprising against the King, but although his attempt at placing checks on the power of the monarchy ultimately failed, he had unknowingly set a precedent.

By calling the knights and burgesses to Parliament de Montfort had sown the seeds of what would become the House of Commons.

The Model Parliament

Edward I
Edward I
Summoning representatives of the Commons to Parliament was a practice reinforced by Edward I in his "Model Parliament" of 1295.

To this body the King called bishops, barons, members of the clergy, two knights from each shire and two burgesses from 110 boroughs. The assembly totalled nearly 400 people - making it much larger than the old Great Councils which rarely saw more than 50 delegates.

By now Parliament and the emerging Commons were beginning to see themselves as key components of the government of the land.

By the1350s the Commons were beginning to sit separately from the Lords. The fact that they had begun to see themselves as a body separate from the aristocrats in the upper house was reinforced in 1376 when the Commons elected from their body an official 'Speaker' to represent their concerns to the King and the Lords.

The growing power of Parliament

The painted Chamber
The painted chamber in St Stephen's Hall where the Commons sat from 1547 to 1834
By the beginning of the 1400s the Commons began to have a hand in the framing of legislation. But one of the first acknowledgements of what would become the mainstay of the power of the Commons came in 1407 when Henry IV declared that laws on taxation must originate in the Commons.

As the power of the monarchy dwindled under the weak and indecisive Henry VI, the struggle for power between rival factions of barons was played out on the battlefields and the influence of Parliament dwindled.

But other important additions were made to the power of Parliament during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Henry V accepted the principle that for a Bill to become law it had to have the consent of both Houses and not just the King.

The idea of free speech within Parliament was first established by one Thomas More, a Commons Speaker in 1523. And in 1536 the principality of Wales was absorbed into Westminster, extending Parliament's powers out of England for the first time.

A change of tone

Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I
It was towards the end of the sixteenth century that Parliament began to push the boundaries of its relationship with the Monarchy when it dared to suggest policy to Queen Elizabeth instead of merely assenting to hers.

The Commons suggested the Queen should marry in order to secure the succession. It was a suggestion she roundly rejected. But on other matters, including the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the Queen's cousin, Elizabeth proved more willing to listen to Parliament's advice.

By the time of Elizabeth's death in 1603 it was the Monarch's decision whether or not Parliament's advice was listened to or even tolerated.

However some of Elizabeth's successors found choosing to ignore Parliament could prove dangerous - and in some cases fatal.

Links to more Talking Politics stories are at the foot of the page.


Links to more Talking Politics stories