The Beginnings of Constitutional Monarchy

The historical remembrances receiving lots of attention in the British press in 2014 include the 100th anniversary of World War I and the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The anniversaries gathering next to no notice are the events of May and June 750 years ago, when the political landscape of England moved briefly beyond absolute monarchy and wouldn’t see anything like it again for centuries to come.
   On 14 May 1264, the disaffected earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, led his army down the heights overlooking Lewes in Sussex and won a spectacular victory against the superior royalist forces of Henry III and his son, the future Edward I. That the battle took place at all is a wonder in itself. Henry had been whittling away at the reforms imposed upon him by his barons several years earlier, always assured in the end that they would never take up arms against him. Montfort, married to Henry’s sister and therefore the king’s brother-in-law, was a wholly different matter. French by birth and upbringing, the son of a famous crusader, he had alienated most of the other barons precisely because he was determined to force Henry to submit. The civil war that broke out at the beginning of 1264 had gone mostly Henry’s way, leaving Simon and his ragtag army bottled up in London. And then, in one of the boldest decisions in English military annals, Montfort led his army in search of the king. The battle that raged in and around Lewes ended with Henry and Edward in captivity and Montfort at the head of a caretaker government.
    That government came into being when a summons was sent out for four knights to be elected in each county and sent to Westminster for parliament. It was an institution that had come a long way from the days, as late as Henry’s own reign, when it was dominated by the baronial and clerical elite. Ironically, it was Henry himself who introduced elected representatives in parliament. In 1254 he was away in France on another of his foreign misadventures, and his barons wouldn’t send him any money. He was a hoping a patriotic appeal throughout the land would win him the tax he needed. Instead, he found he had unleashed a hornet’s nest of local discontent and so didn’t repeat the exercise when he came back.
     This lesson was not lost on Simon de Montfort. He had tried to summon his own elected parliament in 1261, only to watch his fellow peers again lose heart and run for cover rather than stand up to the king. The return of most of the leading barons to royal favour left Montfort the undisputed leader of what became, arguably, the first English political party. Interestingly, the slogan that swept the Montfortians into power resonates as strongly in Britain today as it did then: out with the aliens. While this backlash against the king’s foreign favourites lacked the racial or cultural bias of modern-day movements, it was still a delicate subject, not least because Montfort himself was a foreigner. When Henry’s queen, another foreigner incidentally, proposed to invade from the continent in the summer of 1264, thousands of freemen, yeomen and peasants dropped everything and turned up on the southern coast to protect what they had come to see as a united England.
   The parliament that met after Lewes, the first truly national assembly of its kind in the post-Norman era, understandably didn’t gather merely to rubberstamp Montfort’s initiatives. The knights wanted their own say in the business of government and so were given control over the appointment of sheriffs, then the most contentious issue in the counties. Pleased with this new direction, they approved an ordinance sealed on 28 June 1264 that gave England its first constitutional monarchy. The king was to become a figurehead in a country ruled by council, with parliament summoned at regular intervals to deliberate on the major issues of the day.
   It lasted only fifteen months. Montfort had more than his share of enemies, jealous of his power and the ease with which he reduced the king to a submissive state. When Edward escaped, he had little trouble raising an army and defeating and killing his uncle at Evesham. The future king, who had spent his political apprenticeship under Montfort, adopted many of his precedents, including the permanent role of parliament as the forum for local and national affairs. The extent to which the Montfortian revolution was here to stay could be seen in the week after his death, when royal commissioners were attacked in a village by a group of peasants accusing them of subverting ‘the community of the realm’. Even the peasants realised that a new day had dawn in the scheme of English politics and they were a part of it.