European Parliamentary Government
European Parliamentary Government
Beginnings. The evolution of parliamentary government in Europe directly influenced the political structures that emerged in North America. Parliaments, or legislative assemblies, developed out of the feudal monarchies during the medieval period. The kings of Europe during that era often turned to their vassal underlords and court clergy for advice and counsel. These discussions between the king and his advisors were called parleys. In these meetings the king asked his vassals to support his policies for the country, requested their financial support, and listened to grievances from around the realm. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries some European monarchs began inviting representatives from the towns and villages of their kingdom to important parleys. These assemblies of local representatives, noblemen, and clergy developed into formal parliaments, assemblies devoted to representing the interests of the different estates of a nation. During the early stages of parliamentary government, these different classes of representatives consulted as separate group. The monarch often called these assemblies together for the purpose of imposing new taxes on the people of the realm. Kings recognized that taxes would be easier to collect if they were approved by the representatives of the people. Eventually in England the parliament acquired enough power to force the king to obtain its consent before he imposed new taxes.
Representatives. The origins of the English Parliament can be traced to the Witenagemot, a body of men who performed important administrative, legislative, and judicial functions for the Anglo-Saxon kings. This body was replaced by the curia regis, or great council, when William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. In the late thirteenth century the king of England called a meeting of national representatives. He ordered his sheriffs to “cause two knights from [each] county, two citizens from each city in the same county and two burgesses from each borough ... to be elected without delay, and to cause them to come to us at the aforesaid time and place.” This was perhaps one of the earliest meetings of the modern English Parliament. At the early stages of parliamentary government in England, the individual representatives did not have the right to take part in the consultations about the king’s course of action. Instead they could only respond to questions from the royal court or announce their consent through their representative. This man was called the speaker of the house. The English Parliament was originally composed of four major social classes: the feudal lords and high clergy, the lower clergy, the knights, and the burgesses. The Parliament thus represented a wide range of political, military, and economic interests and could often force the king to abide by its wishes. These four estates originally sat in groups in different parts of the assembly hall in London. Each estate provided its own grant of money to the king for the expenses of the national government. Over time the lower clergy ended its participation in the Parliament. In addition the knights and the burgesses joined together to form a single house of Parliament. This body became known as the House of Commons because it represented the interests of the common people. The House of Commons became the body of government responsible for initiating legislation. The feudal lords and the high clergy also united, as the House of Lords. Thus, by the end of the fourteenth century, the English Parliament had reached its modern form. Occasionally, English monarchs attempted to ignore or overpower the national assembly. By the eighteenth century, however, Parliament had become the most influential base of political power in Britain.
Estates General and Cortes. Parliaments had also developed in France and Spain by the thirteenth century. In France the national assembly was known as the Estates General. Like the English Parliament, the Estates General developed out of the king’s council. In 1302 King Philip IV began calling representatives of the city merchant classes, the clergy, and the nobility to Paris to obtain their consent and advice on decisions of national consequence. The Estates General did not initiate laws; it simply gave its consent to the monarch’s wishes or provided him with grievances from the public or the nobility. The Estates General never accumulated as much political power as the English Parliament. Essentially this is due to the fact that the French assembly never acquired control over the financial affairs of the nation. The Estates General also never held any official authority (like the Magna Carta) to force a king to abide by its wishes, but it was able by unofficial means to draw royal attention to local problems. Unlike the English Parliament, which met fairly regularly, the French monarchs only called the Estates General into session in times of war or when they wanted to impose extraordinary taxes. In fact the Estates General did not meet between 1614 and 1789. Since this representative body was relatively weak, the monarchy and nobility retained formal political power far longer than they did in England. The political situation in Spain was quite similar to that of France. In that Catholic state the parliamentary assembly was known as the Cortes. The Cortes originated in the kingdom of Castile and was comprised of representatives of the upper and middle classes. Like the French Estates General, the Cortes only occasionally limited the power of the monarchy during the age of European exploration. In sum the national assemblies of Europe varied in their power relative to the monarch. In England Parliament obtained considerable political power and limited the authority of the Crown. The rulers of France and Spain, however, did not suffer from an intrusive parliament. As a result, by the end of the sixteenth century these latter two nations were moving toward an age of absolute monarchy.
J. R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970).