The Development of the UK Political System

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From Central Monarchy to Representative Democracy

Timeline of Monarchs

There are many references to various kings of England throughout the next section and to make things even more confusing many of them have the same name. So, to make the whole thing easier to follow, here is a timeline of the all the monarchs who fall into the time period discussed below and the years of their rule. Monarchs refered to directly in the text are shown in bold:

  • Henry III: 1216 - 1272
  • Edward I: 1272 - 1307
  • Edward II: 1307 - 1327
  • Edward III: 1327 - 1377
  • Richard II: 1377 - 1399
  • Henry IV: 1399 - 1413
  • Henry V: 1413 - 1422
  • Henry VI: 1422 - 1461
  • Edward IV: 1461 - 1483
  • Edward V: 1483
  • Richard III: 1483 - 1485
  • Henry VII: 1485 - 1509
  • Henry VIII: 1509 - 1547
  • Edward VI: 1547 - 1553
  • Mary I: 1553 - 1558
  • Elizabeth I: 1558 - 1603
  • James I: 1603 - 1625
  • Charles I: 1625 - 1649

Republic Declared: 1649

  • Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector): 1653 - 1658
  • Richard Cromwell: 1658 - 1659

Monarchy Reinstated: 1660

  • Charles II: 1660 - 1685
  • James II: 1685 - 1688
  • William III and Mary II: 1689 - 1702
  • Anne: 1702 - 1714

The 13th Century - The Beginnings of Representative Democracy

In the 13th century, Simon de Montfort (brother-in-law of King Henry III), put forward the Provisions of Oxford. This document suggested that the country's barons should have a say in the running of the government, and was firmly rejected by the king. Montfort was angered by this and put together a fighting force which, in 1264, captured Henry III. He then forced Henry to allow him to establish a body of advisors, made up of representatives of the counties and boroughs, to aid the king and his council, the Magnum Concilium, in matters of government. This body of advisors was to be called the Curia Regis.

At this time a form of representative democracy appeared in England. Rich and influencial residents of the country's counties voted for who would represent them and their lands in the Curia Regis, although it is likely that the results were influenced considerably by bribery and corruption. Voters were also able to purchase as many votes as they wanted, the exact election proceedures varied from place to place and the whole system was somewhat disorganised but this was a big step for British democracy.

Under the reign of Edward I, Parliament developed from the Magnum Concilium and the Curia Regis. The Magnum Concilium consisted of wealthy and powerful members of the Christian church and various unofficial members of the clergy. The Curia Regis consisted of the king's advisors from the counties and boroughs. When these two bodies came together for meetings they were refered to as 'the king's council in parliament' and at these meetings judicial problems were settled which the ordinary law courts were unable to solve.

It was the king who decided when these meetings were to be held and only those members of the Magnum Concilium and Curia Regis who were specifically called upon by the king were eligible to attend. The king also summoned knights of the realm to these meetings.

The 14th Century - Parliament Develops

During the 14th century the Magnum Concilium and the Curia Regis merged completely to form the basis of what was later to become 'House of Lords'. The knights developed into a separate body, which is now known as the 'House of Commons'. These two 'houses' formed the basis of the two-chamber system of Parliament which is still active in Britain today.

At this time it became common for groups within these two houses to conduct debates. Gradually, activity in Parliament began to move away from the enterpretation of existing laws and towards the creation of new ones, proposals for which were no longer put forward solely by the king. Groups within Parliament were beginning to put forward 'bills' which, if agreed upon by the king, became Parliamentary 'acts'. These acts then became law.

In 1326, after the uprisings of William Wallace and Robert Bruce against the English, the first independent Scottish parliament was created. Two years later the country was granted full independence from the English by Edward III and retained this status for 400 years before joining the United Kingdom.

The 15th and 16th Centuries - Welsh Integration with England

Under the rule of the Tudors, although monarchs could still pass laws by proclamation if they wanted to, they generally didn't bother and almost all political change was conducted by Parliament.

In 1402 Owain Glyndwr led a Welsh national uprising against the rule of the English. The presence of the English in Wales and their control over the country had varied considerably over the last few centuries but Glyndwr was able to hold them off almost completely, at least for a time. He set up a Welsh parliament which remained active until his defeat by Henry IV in 1416. The battles against Glyndwr were led by Henry's son, who would later become King Henry V.

Henry VI, the son of Henry V, proclaimed that all bills would have to agreed upon by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, not just by the king.

Two separate Parliamentary Acts of Union during the 16th century caused Wales to finally become fully integrated with England - administratively, legally, and politically.

The 17th Century - The Great Shift in Power

In 1638 King Charles I of England seriously annoyed the Scots by trying to impose his own reforms upon their church. The two countries came to the brink of war in 1639 but Charles was forced to back down because he did not have enough money to fund a suitably large army. However, relations between England and Scotland continued to be strained and in 1640 Charles called upon Parliament to organise his funding for him. At this time it was still the king who decided when meetings of Parliament were held. Therefore, the institution didn't actually get to meet very often and as a result the first thing the MPs wanted to do was discuss their greivances against the current system of government. What's more, it turned out that most of them were actually opposed to military action against Scotland. King Charles promptly dismissed Parliament and all its members went back home again. He then went on to have an extremely breif war with the Scots without the support of Parlaiment and without his crucial funding. Charles faced several humiliating defeats.

King Charles I, up to his eyeballs in debt, Scots and mud, was forced to call upon Parliament once again for help and advice in November, 1640. Parliament was somewhat annoyed with him by this stage; partly because he was messing them about and partly because when he had dismissed them earlier in the year none of the issues of government had been resolved. Everything finally went completely sour when Charles tried to have five MPs arrested. This was the final straw as far as Parliament was concerned and both they and Charles began assembling their own armies. The English Civil War had begun.

The King officially started the war in 1642. Various battles and smaller skirmishes were fought between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, with neither side appearing more successful than the other until 1649 when Charles was captured, tried for treason and beheaded. This effectively brought the Civil War to an end. For a while Britain became a republic but in 1660 the monarchy was reinstated and Charles II, eldest surviving son of Charles I, became king. However, the English Civil War had been a turning point for the country's political system and considerable power had shifted away from the monarchy and towards the elected Parliament.

One more important reform was to take place in England before the end of the 17th century. The Glorious Revolution, which took place between 1688 and 1689, came about largely as a result of King James II's unpopularity with the public and, although no blood was shed, it resulted in his deposition from the throne. William III, the husband of James II's daughter, was instated as monarch on the condition that he sign the 'Declaration of Right' (later called the Bill of Rights). This bill ensured free elections, frequent meetings of Parliament and made the presence of a standing army during a time of peace illegal. It also stipulated that a Catholic could not become king, and therefore no monarch could be unconditional - this meant that Parliament had full sovreignty. William III ruled England jointly with his wife, Mary II.


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