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The Mad Parliament of 1258

‘There shall be parliaments three times a year…(and) to these parliaments there shall come the elected of the king, to review the state of the realm and to deal with the common needs of the realm and the king together’

The first Magna Carta had been proclaimed in 1215 by King John.  This document was testament to the growing power of England’s Barons, who increasingly desired inclusion in the realm’s government, but also signified the growing contradictions within English policymaking.

Throughout the Thirteenth Century, the government of Henry III, who had succeeded King John in 1216, came under increasing criticism.  Long and incompetently-managed campaigns in France in 1230 and 1242 drained England’s blood and treasure, combined with perceived abuses of the King’s domestic powers, and his own extravagant lifestyle, undermined the authority of the Crown.

Throughout the middle of the Century the list of grievances piled up, and many Barons sought to restrain the King’s power.  On  May 2, 1258, Henry III swore an oath to re-order the government of the kingdom.  A month later, he agreed (or was forced to consent to) the Provisions of Oxford – England’s first written constitution.

The Provisions stipulated that the King’s government would be scrutinised by a council of 24 barons, 12 chosen by Henry, 12 by the Barons.  This council would meet with Parliament three times a year to discuss national affairs.  Additionally, the Sheriffs and the Great Offices of State would hold office for one year only and submit details of their accounts to Parliament upon termination of their office.

Henry signified his assent to the Provisions on October 18th, 1258.  The Provisions failed to address the grievances of the Barons, and the Provisions of Westminster were also passed in the following  year to amend inheritance and tax law.

Sadly no text of the Provisions remain, and what we know comes from later historical accounts.  Significantly the Provisions were the first time in which the laws of England were deliberately altered in the King’s courts.  They were also the first pieces of English legislation promulgated in English, as well as French and Latin.  The Provisions of Westminster have survived, however; they can be seen here.

Subsequent divisions among the Barons allowed Henry to repudiate the Provisions – helped by a Papal Bull condemning such restrictions on the powers of the King – in 1261.  Two years later, a vicious and drawn-out civil war engulfed England, known as the Second Baron’s War.

It’s little wonder that the 1258 Parliament is remembered as the Mad Parliament.

Categories: History
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