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De Montfort’s Parliament, 1265


The Second Baron’s War turned against King Henry III in 1264 when the royal army was destroyed by baronial rebels at Lewes, Sussex, and the King and his son, Edward, were captured.  A temporary truce, the Mise of Lewes, was signed by Henry.  The details of the truce are not known, but what is known is that Simon de Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester, took it upon himself to call a parliament to form a new constitution.

This parliament was the first elected parliament in England.

De Montfort was born in 1208.  He came from a powerful Norman French family originating in Flanders, who had served the heirs of William the Conqueror loyally, and had a strong military heritage.  Simon’s father, also called Simon, had served in the Fourth Crusade.  His relations with the King blew hot and cold throughout his lifetime, and he married the King’s sister, Eleanor, to avoid a scandal.  De Montfort was the leader of the Barons during the civil war, and after the Battle of Lewes set up an administrative troika of himself, the Earl of Gloucester and the Bishop of Chichester.

De Montfort’s motives, as Dr David Carpenter observed, were a mixture of idealism and outright personal interest.  He was concerned about the nature of government, as evidenced by his supposed discussion of Aristotle’s definition of tyranny with Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln – that the just ruler concerns himself with the interests of his subjects, while the tyrant merely consults his own.  But at the same time his grievances against the King stemmed from dissatisfaction with royal patronage – he had received too little, namely a meagre endowment of land upon his marriage to Eleanor.  The attempted creation of a new way of government in 1265 was blackened by the fact it was achieved through violence and not through consent.  Therefore it was necessary to make the regime popular and well supported.

De Montfort’s parliament stipulated that all representatives of the Communitas, or Commons, be elected.  Their presence, however was short-lived, as Henry III promptly condemned the illegal parliament and renewed the war against de Montfort.  With his star waning, de Montfort was captured and killed at the Battle of Evesham.  His body was cut up and portions displayed over city gates throughout England.

The men of 1258 and 1265 turned parliament from an occasion into an institution, an institution which they used as the fundamental source of authority for the government of England.  Parliament moved from being a meeting which received judicial pleas and consider fiscal matters, into one in which the King met with his subjects and together considered the needs of himself and his realm and people.  Parliament was the seat of discussion and decision, and the source of all reform.  The ramifications of the short-lived event were enormous.

Sources:

Carpenter, D (1994) From King John to the first English Duke: 1215-1337 in Smith, R (ed, 1994) The House of Lords: A Thousand Years of British Tradition, Smith’s Peerage Publications.

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