Parliament, British

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PARLIAMENT, BRITISH. Although not the oldest legislative body in history, the British Parliament has been the model, both positive and negative, for the legislative branches of most Western countries, including the Congress of the United States of America.

The Anglo-Saxons had a legislative assembly called the witenagemot, but this institution was suppressed by the Norman invasion of 1066. The genesis of the House of Lords occurred in the thirteenth century, with the Curia Regis, the king's feudal council, more commonly called the great council, to which he summoned his tenants in chief, the great barons, and the great prelates, to serve primarily as a judicial and executive body.

The House of Commons originated in the thirteenth century in the occasional convocation of representatives of other social classes of the state—knights and burgesses—usually to report the consent of the counties and towns to taxes imposed by the king. Its meetings were often held in conjunction with a meeting of the great council, for in the early thirteenth century there was no constitutional difference between the two bodies; the formalization of Parliament as a distinct organ of government took at least another century to complete.

During the Barons' War, Simon de Montfort summoned representatives of the counties, towns, and lesser clergy in an attempt to gain support from the middle classes. His famous Parliament of 1265 included two representative burgesses from each borough and four knights from each shire, admitted, at least theoretically, to full standing with the great council. Although Edward I's so-called Model Parliament of 1295 (which contained prelates, magnates, two knights from each county, two burgesses from each town, and representatives of the lower clergy) seemed to formalize a representative principle of composition, great irregularities of membership in fact continued well into the fourteenth century.

The division of Parliament into two houses did not coalesce until the fourteenth century. Before the middle of the century the clerical representatives withdrew to their own convocations, leaving only two estates in Parliament. The knights of the shires, who, as a minor landholding aristocracy, might have associated themselves with the great barons in the House of Lords, nevertheless felt their true interest to lie with the burgesses, and with the burgesses developed that corporate sense that marked the House of Commons by the end of the century.

The Growth of Parliamentary Sovereignty

The constitutional position of Parliament was at first undifferentiated from that of the great council. Large assemblies were called only occasionally, to support the king's requests for revenue and other important matters of policy, but not to legislate or consent to taxation in the modern sense.

In the fourteenth century, Parliament began to gain greater control over grants of revenue to the king. From Parliament's judicial authority (derived, through the Lords, from the judicial powers of the great council) to consider petitions for the redress of grievances and to submit such petitions to the king, developed the practice of withholding financial supplies until the king accepted and acted on the petitions. Statute legislation arose as the petition form was gradually replaced by the drafting of bills sent to the king and ultimately enacted by Commons, Lords, and king together. Impeachment of the king's ministers, another means for securing control over administrative policy, also derived from Parliament's judicial authority and was first used late in the fourteenth century.

In the fourteenth century, through these devices, Parliament wielded wide administrative and legislative powers. In addition, a strong self-consciousness on the part of its members led to claims of parliamentary privilege, notably freedom from arrest and freedom of debate. However, with the growth of a stronger monarchy under the Yorkists and especially under the Tudors, Parliament became essentially an instrument of the monarch's will.

The House of Lords with its chancellor and the House of Commons with its speaker appeared in their modern form in the sixteenth century The English Reformation greatly increased the powers of Parliament because it was through the nominal agency of Parliament that the Church of England was established. Yet throughout the Tudor period Parliament's legislative supremacy was challenged by the Crown's legislative authority through the privy council, a descendant of part of the old feudal council.

With the accession (1603) of the Stuart kings, inept in their dealings with Parliament after the wily Tudors, Parliament was able to exercise its claims, drawing on precedents established but not exploited over the preceding 200 years. In the course of the English civil war, Parliament voiced demands not only for collateral power but for actual sovereignty. Although under Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate, parliamentary authority was reduced to a mere travesty, the Restoration brought Parliament back into power—secure in its claims to legislative supremacy, to full authority over taxation and expenditures, and to a voice in public policy through partial control (by impeachment) over the king's choice of ministers. Charles II set about learning to manage Parliament, rather than opposing or circumventing it. James II's refusal to do so led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which permanently affirmed parliamentary sovereignty and forced William III to accept great limitations on the powers of the Crown. During the reign of Queen Anne even the royal veto on legislation disappeared.

The Ascendancy of Commons

Despite a general division into Whig and Tory parties toward the end of the seventeenth century, political groupings in Parliament were more inclined to form about a particular personality or issue. Although members had considerable freedom to make temporary political alliances without regard to their constituencies, control over members was exercised by the ministry and the Crown through patronage, which rested on the purchase of parliamentary seats and tight control over a narrow electorate. As members were paid no salaries, private wealth and liberal patronage were prerequisites to a seat in Commons; as a result, Parliament represented only the propertied upper classes, and private legislation took precedence over public acts throughout the eighteenth century. The parliamentary skills of Sir Robert Walpole, in many respects the first prime minister, both signified and contributed to the growing importance of Commons. The Crown retained the theoretical power to appoint a ministry of its choice, but the resignation (1782) of George III's minister Lord North established, once and for all, a tendency that had developed gradually since the Glorious Revolution—that the prime minister could not function without the support and confidence of the House of Commons.

The part played by Parliament in the administration of the colonies before 1763 was very small, for North America was regarded as an appurtenance of the Crown and governed by ordinances of the privy council. Only in matters of combined domestic and colonial interest, or involving the welfare of the empire as a whole, did Parliament legislate for the colonies, as in the Molasses Act of 1733, designed to promote trade between New England and the British West Indies and to benefit West Indian planters.

Not until the firm establishment of the principle of parliamentary supremacy in England, concurrent with the close of the French and Indian War (1763), did Parliament seriously set itself to the direction of colonial affairs (see Colonial Policy, British). It quickly made itself odious to Americans by asserting its authority in regard to colonial taxation and appropriation, which the assemblies had long looked upon as their exclusive domain. Americans felt that Parliament had no right to assume powers that the Crown had formerly been unable to make good, and the uncompromising attitude of the ministry of George Grenville concerning the Stamp Act (1765) precipitated a crisis in which colonial opinion everywhere stiffened against Parliament. Two years later, the passage of the Townshend Acts widened the breach, and in 1773 the resolution of the British prime minister, Frederick, Lord North, to "try the issue [of taxation] in America" led directly to the Revolution.


Bank, Dina Citron. How Things Get Done. 2d rev. ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979.

Cruikshanks, E. Parliamentary History. 4 vols. 1985.

Jones, Ossie Garfield. Parliamentary Procedure at a Glance. Enl. and rev. ed. New York: Hawthorn, 1971.

Mackenzie, Kenneth R. The English Parliament. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1950, repr. 1963.

Namier, Lewis, and John Brooke. The House of Commons, 1754– 1790. Published for the History of Parliament Trust. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Pollard, A. F. The Evolution of Parliament. 2d ed. rev. London: 1964.

Sayles, G. O. The King's Parliament of England. New York: Norton, 1974.

Ryan, M. Stanley. Parliamentary Procedure: Essential Principles. New York: Cornwall, 1985.


See alsoColonial Policy, British .