The Origins of the English Parliament, 924 - 1327

The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327
J.R. Maddicott
Oxford University Press   526pp   £30
ISBN   978 0 19 958550 2

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Tracing the origins of Parliament is like penetrating the thickets to the centre of a wood: the trail narrows and widens, breaks up and re-forms and at the end you’re never quite sure whether you’ve reached the middle or not.

It is the twists and turns of such a trail that John Maddicott traces in this book – taking as his starting-point not, as usually is the case, the 13th century, but the Anglo-Saxon era, specifically the reign of Æthelstan. In the lengthy witness lists to Æthelstan’s charters Maddicott finds evidence of large national assemblies, modelled on the Carolingians, at which legislation was published and in which the king sought counsel on war, justice and appointments. Eschewing the term ‘witan’ for such assemblies, he nonetheless sees them as linked to later parliaments, to the extent of the idea that those who attended spoke for the whole country.

The Normans, he argues, added remarkably little to the institutional inheritance of the Saxons because they were unfamiliar with the idea of national assemblies. Their feudal assumptions, however, were crucial to parliamentary development in that the duties of ‘counsel’ and ‘aid’ owed by vassals transformed attendance at councils from a matter of royal selection to an obligation placed on tenants by landholding. This process contributed both to the enlargement of assemblies and the insistence of those attending on the right to advise and criticise the king. It was the strength of the Old English conciliar tradition, preserved and adapted by the Normans, that helps to explain Parliament’s later strength and its acquisition of further powers. Of particular significance was the power to assent to or to withhold taxation, a consequence of clause 12 of Magna Carta, which required common consent to such subventions.

So rich and subtle are the arguments of this book and so wide-ranging its scope that it is difficult to do justice to its many insights. Those unfamiliar with parliamentary history, indeed, may not immediately appreciate its originality because of the absence of any historiographical discussion at the beginning. Maddicott’s preference is to engage directly with the evidence rather than with historians’ interpretations of it. Earlier scholars offered a variety of explanations for Parliament’s origins, some seeing it as a court of law, others a forum for publicising the king’s policies and others again as a channel of communication between centre and localities. Maddicott alludes to these theories as occasion demands but firmly imposes his own agenda on the material. It is especially notable that he sees the lesser tenants summoned to pre-13th-century assemblies acting in much the same capacity as the later elected knights of the shire.

Maddicott offers a broadly empirical approach to the story of the origins of Parliament. He is sceptical of grand over-arching theories, such as the idea that acceptance of the Roman law doctrine of necessity explains why Parliament became entrenched, preferring instead the role of accident and contingency. He places particular emphasis on the premature death of King John and the long minority of Henry III in creating the conditions in which habits of consensus and consultation could take root at a time crucial for parliamentary development.

Much of the institutional history that Maddicott traces here was, he admits, common to all the main European polities: the king’s summoning of meetings of counsellors and great men, the transformation of those meetings into larger bodies and the working-out of a doctrine of representation are developments found in France, Spain and elsewhere. Against this background, however, Maddicott sets a story of English exceptionalism, in which the peculiar strength of the English assembly and its claim to omnicompetence are seen as products of a uniquely English process of development. In arguing on these lines, he is persuasive, but avowedly controversial. The sheer authority of this book can easily blind the reader to the originality and sometimes provocative nature of its arguments. It counts as one of the masterpieces of historical writing of our time.

Nigel Saul is the author of For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066-1500 (The Bodley Head, 2011).

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