For: ESLG 3150 course
Topic: The history of England can be defined as the gradual process of
Parliament asserting its authority over the monarchy.
Term: Spring I, 2000
The political history of British Isles over the past 800 years has
been largely one of reducing the power of the monarchy and transferring
authority to a London-based Parliament as the sovereign legislative body
for all of Britain. This development has resulted in political, social and
religious conflicts, as well as evolving governmental and constitutional
The early political history of the British Isles is the story of four
independent countries (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), but a
dominant English political and military expansionism over the centuries
resulted in a united country (United Kingdom).
The last England’s invader Duke William promptly set out to establish
firm control over his English kingdom. He reorganized the government by
making the old Saxon witan into a “Great Council”, which included the great
lords of the realm and met regularly under William’s direction, and by
establishing Curia Regis, a permanent council of royal advisers.
William’s youngest son Henry I ruled the country for 35 years and
during his reign he won the support of barons by singing a “Charter of
Liberties”, which listed and guarantees their rights (individual
Early English monarchs had considerable power, but generally accepted
advice and some limitations on their authority. Powerful French-Norman
barons opposed King John’s dictatorial rule by forcing him to sign Magna
Carta in 1215. This document protected the feudal aristocracy rather then
the ordinary citizen, but it came to be regarded as a cornerstone of
British liberties. It restricted the monarch’s powers; forced him to take
advice; increased the influence of the aristocracy; and stipulated that no
citizen could be punished or kept in prison without a fair trail.
Such developments encouraged the establishment of parliamentary
structures. In 1265, Simon de Montfort called nobles and non-aristocrats to
form a Council or Parliament to win the support of people. To it were
invited not only the great barons and clergy, but also representatives of
the knights of shires and from the towns. This initiative was followed in
1295 by the Model Parliament (because it served a model for later
Parliaments) of Edward I, which was the first representative English
Parliament. Its two sections consisted of the bishops, barons, two
representatives of the knights of each shire and two representatives from
each important town. In this way Parliament won the “power of the purse”:
by refusing to agree to new taxes, it could force kings to do as it wished.
As Parliament became more influential it won other rights, such as the
power of impeach and try royal officials for misbehavior. From here we can
conclude that by the end of Edward’s reign the peculiarly English concept
of government, in which a strong king with powerful royal officials is
still limited by the common law and by Parliament, was complete.
However, the Parliament was too large to rule the country effectively.
A Privy Council, comprising the monarch and court advisers, developed. This
was the royal government outside Parliament, until it lost power to
parliamentary structures in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
Although parliament now had some limited powers against the monarch,
there was a return to royal dominance in Tudor England in 1485. Monarchs
controlled Parliament and summoned it when they needed to raise money.
Parliament showed more resistance to royal rule under the Stuart
monarchy from 1603 by using its weapon of financial control. Parliament
began to refuse royal requests for money. It forced Charles I to sign the
Petition of Rights in 1628, which further restricted the monarch’s powers
and prevented him from raising taxes without Parliament’s consent. Charles
attempted to arrest parliamentary leaders in the House of Commons itself.
His failure to do meant that the monarch was in future prohibited from
entering the Commons. As the result of it civil war broke out in 1642. The
Protestant Parliamentarians under O. Cromwell won the military struggle
against the Catholic Royalists. Charles was beheaded in 1649 and thee
monarchy was abolished. But it didn’t last long in 1660 they restored the
Stuart Charles II to the throne. Parliament ended his expansive wars and
imposed further restrictions, such as Habeas Corpus Act in 1679, which
stipulated that no citizen could be imprisoned without a fair and speedy
In the early and mid sixteenth century country was ruled by King Henry
VIII (king 1509-1547) who had made Parliament his willing tool and had
replaced Catholicism with the Church of England. Henry was succeeded by
three of his children (Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I) in succession. But
only Elizabeth made a great contribution during her reign (1558-1603). She
allowed any form of worship that fit into the rather loose framework of
ideas that Parliament had established for the Church of England. But she
would accept none that conflicted with her authority as the head of that
church. After the pope excommunicated her in 1570, she had Parliament
declare that Catholicism was treason. Parliament lost power during her
reign. It did not meet often, as she needed to ask it levy taxes for her.
In theory Parliament continued to have all of the powers it had won during
the Middle Ages.
The Elizabethan reign later was called “The English Renaissance”. And
this is right. She did a lot to her Kingdom. On of it was the opening of
the trade routs to Russia, trade companies like the East India Company, the
Muscovy Company and the Virginia Company.
The Stuart monarchs who succeeded Elizabeth try to impose absolutism
and to rule by “divine right”. But the English Parliament, asserting its
ancient rights and privileges, challenged them. The result was a struggle
that lasted through the better part of the seventeenth century, culminating
in the victory of Parliament over the kings. In the age when absolutism
triumphed almost everywhere, England was the striking exception of the
rule. Growing opposition to the Stuarts centered in Parliament. The Stuarts
disliked Parliament, but were dependent upon it because only the House of
Commons had the right to levy taxes. The Stuarts insisted they had absolute
authority to follow whatever policies they chose. The conflict between
Parliament and the king came to a climax under Charles I (king 1625-1649).
In 1626 Charles found himself at war with both France and Spain. Parliament
refused to grant new taxes until it had had “redress of grievances”. Led by
Sir John Eliot, the members of Commons finally forced Charles to sign the
“Petition of Right” in 1628. This pact guaranteed certain rights of
Parliament and of individual Englishmen against their king.
The first Parliament of 1640, the so-called “Short” Parliament, mat
less then a month. But soon after Charles was forced to call another
Parliament, which came to be called the “Long” Parliament because it met
off and on for twenty years (1640-1660). In 1641 the Long Parliament set
out to dominate the government. More important, it passed a series of acts
to make absolute monarchy impossible.
From 1642 to 1645 the civil war broke in England. It was between
Supporters of King Charles (Cavaliers) and the supporters of the
Parliament (Roundheads) under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. The
“Roundheads” won in this war and the members who remained from the previous
Parliament come to be called the “Rump” (sitting part of Parliament). In
1649 Charles was beheaded and later Oliver Cromwell became the King of
England. After his death in 1658 his son Richard took control over the
country. But he was a poor ruler and soon resigned. In 1660 the surviving
members of the Long Parliament were called back into session to invite
Charles Stuart to become King Charles II of England.
Charles II had his problems with Parliament, but he was usually able
to surmount them, and he always knew when the time had come to back down.
The growing power of Parliament against the monarch in the seventeenth
century was reflected in the development of more organized political
parties. Two groups (Whigs and Tories) became dominant, and this feature
was to characterize future British two-party politics, in which political
power has shifted between two main parties. The Whigs didn’t accept the
Catholic sympathizer James II as successor to Charles II and wanted
religious freedom for al Protestants. The Tories generally supported
royalist beliefs, and helped Charles II to secure James’s right to succeed
He (James) attempted to rule without Parliament and ignored his
laws. His manipulations forced Tories to join Whigs in inviting the
Protestant William of Orange to intervene. William arrived in England in
1688, James fled to France and William succeeded to the throne as England’s
first constitutional monarch. Since no force was involved, this event is
called the Bloodless or Glorious Revolution. Royal powers were further
restricted under the Declaration of Rights (1689), which strengthened
Parliament and provided some civil liberties.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights of 1689
established Parliament once and for all as the equal partner of the king.
This division of power was soon to prove itself a far more effective means
of government than the absolute monarchies of the continent, and it assured
that the constitutional development of England would continue.