“William the king extends friendly greetings to William the bishop and Geoffrey the port-reeve and all the citizens of London, both French and English. And I declare to you that I wish that you to have all the laws of which you were worthy in King Edward’s time. And I want every child to be his father’s heir after his father dies. And I will not tolerate that any man harms you. God preserve you.”
King William the Conqueror was able to rule his lands virtually unchallenged, but even he was but human. His lands spread from the Scottish border to deep into France, and he couldn’t know the ins and outs of every problem. His court, the Curia Regis, could only do so much. Therefore Great Councils, the Magnum Concilium, was born.
The Magnum Concilium was born out of a need to represent the strongest interests of the realm before the King to address grievances, hear judicial pleas, and discuss matters of public concern. From this, parliament eventually grew.
William’s sons continued this practice, but as time went on, the interests of the Barons and the clergy increasingly differed from that of the King; worse, the country, gradually getting wealthier after the civil wars of the tenth and eleventh Centuries, rankled and revolted under taxation decreed from above. Eventually, as some point in the early twelth Century, the communitas, or communities of the realm were permitted to take part in fiscal discussions.
When summoning a Concilium, the King would issue Writs of Summons, as the Queen still does, requiring law officers, such as High Sherriffs, to nominate representatives of the communitas, the towns and countryside, in the form of knights and burgesses, to attend. Some High Sherriffs preferred to allow their regions to elect their representatives from among the few wealthy men that existed – though most didn’t.
The communitas would meet with the King, the clergy and the nobles to discuss matters of finance and taxation (the meetings often timed to coincide with sessions of the Court of Exchequer), but would be dismissed when the agenda moved to matters of high policy, legislation, and waging war.
Magna Concilia were frequently used as councils of war before a major battle, with evidence in some surviving Writs of knights being summoned ‘with arms’. Over time, kings increasingly saw Magna Concilia not only as a means of gaining advice on policy and to inform their subjects of their will, but as a means to quieten discontent and encourage cooperation against powerful foes. A king who seeks to involve, engage and compromise will not be labelled a tyrant so easily, and could undermine the power base of a strong subordinate.
At some point, the term ‘parliament’ arose to coexist with that of ‘Concilium’ and also ‘colloquy’, as is evidenced in the numerous Pipe Rolls (a certain form of Treasury record) dating from the late twelth Century. The significance of the Magnum Concilium’s role in the heart of English political life was reflected in this change – the word ‘Council’ was fast ceasing to adequately reflect its import and purpose. Technically, the Magnum Concilium (i.e. a meeting purely of nobles, clergy and the Sovereign) was never abolished, and indeed, its last summons occurred in 1640 under Charles I, in the wake of his catastrophic defeat in the Covenanters War.
In 2008, Lord Glanusk, most likely tongue-in-cheek, proposed the reconvening of a Magnum Concilium, following the ejection of almost all the hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
It is unusual that in England, unlike other countries, such as France and Scotland, the term ‘Estates-General’ never really caught on and ‘parliament’ became the term. Englishmen’s views of the word ‘parliament’ were that of a fundamentally political assembly; this is probably why it did not, unlike the Estates-Generals, eventually become reduced to a mere court of law. That, and the achievements of Simon de Montfort.
“No man can make himself king, but the people has the choice to choose as king whom they please; but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke off their necks.” – Ælfric of Eynsham
Pre-Conquest England gathered together ‘meetings of wise men’ – Witenagemots – which were essentially extensions of the ancient Germanic ‘folkmoots’, or general assemblies of tribes.
From the coming of the English after the fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest, English kings used these meetings to address urgent problems and to raise money for wars, representing nobility and the early English Church. A Witenagemot ratified England’s first ever written constitution, that for the Kingdom of Kent, around 600.
It seems that the powers of the Witenagemots were never really properly defined, but generally they had elective powers for the early Anglo-Saxon kings. The modern ceremony for the coronation of the British monarch echoes this practice, whereby the newly crowned monarch is presented to the people of the kingdom on all sides of Westminster Abbey.
Interestingly, the Witenagemot’s members could not be dismissed by the king, and the Witenagemot could, in some circumstances, impeach the King, and indeed did. Nonetheless, Witenagemots were not democratic or national legislatures, and many tended to be composed on a regional basis until the Conquest of 1066, as the Anglo-Saxon nobles possessed strong regional power bases.
The last Witanegamot proclaimed Edgar Ætheling Harold Godwinson’s successor after his defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings. Within days, however, the Witan, knowing that William of Normandy’s advance on London was unstoppable, parlied and proclaimed him king instead. Edgar fled to the continent and attempted to foster popular revolts against William, which never succeeded.
Thus ended the Royal line of Wessex. William’s conquest of England was absolute, and within a few short years he and his Norman benefactors all but liquidated and superseded the resident Anglo-Saxon nobility. William secured the Crown for himself from rival nobles by parcelling out these lands piecemeal to his Norman allies, ensuring that rebellions would be difficult to sustain as their lands would be scattered throughout the country.
William ruled with an absolutism and a tyranny which was not repeated nor attempted until Charles I. He had no need of Witans to control his power, but he did on occasion summon advisory councils.