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Change & Continuity in 17th Century English Parliaments

David L. Smith provides an overview of parliamentary history during the 'century of revolutions'.

The seventeenth century has long been recognised as a crucial period in the history of English Parliaments. For Whig historians, it was a vital stage in England's development towards modern parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. In the later nineteenth century, S.R. Gardiner called the English Parliament 'the noblest monument ever reared by mortal man'. More recently these ideas have been fundamentally challenged, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century the old Whig assumptions look decidedly shaky. It nevertheless remains clear that, despite evident elements of continuity, the English Parliament was in some ways very different by the end of the seventeenth century compared with the beginning.

In 1603, Parliament still resembled, in broad lines, the institution of the medieval and Tudor periods. It remained primarily a mechanism of royal government, part of the apparatus of a personal monarchy, rather than a counterbalance to the Crown. The monarch summoned and dissolved Parliaments at will, and Parliaments were often referred to as the monarch's High Court and Great Council. Parliaments met sporadically - for about 33 months in the 22-year reign of James VI and I, for example - and were, 'an event' rather than 'an institution'. By the 1690s, however, this picture had changed fundamentally. Parliament met for at least part of every year, and was now much more of a permanent institution of government, with far greater financial and constitutional controls over the Crown. The monarch could no longer dissolve Parliaments at will, and they constituted a far more central and constant political forum than at the beginning of the century.

How, then, had these changes come about, and what was the balance between change and continuity in the parliamentary history of this turbulent and dramatic period?


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