Change &Amp; Continuity in 17th Century English Parliaments: David L. Smith Provides an Overview of Parliamentary History during the `Century of Revolutions'. (Talking Points)

Article excerpt

The seventeenth century has long been recognised as a crucial period in the history of English Parliaments. For Whig historians, it was a vital stage in England's development towards modern parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. In the later nineteenth century, S.R. Gardiner called the English Parliament `the noblest monument ever reared by mortal man'. More recently these ideas have been fundamentally challenged, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century the old Whig assumptions look decidedly shaky. It nevertheless remains clear that, despite evident elements of continuity, the English Parliament was in some ways very different by the end of the seventeenth century compared with the beginning.

In 1603, Parliament still resembled, in broad lines, the institution of the medieval and Tudor periods. It remained primarily a mechanism of royal government, part of the apparatus of a personal monarchy, rather than a counterbalance to the Crown. The monarch summoned and dissolved Parliaments at will, and Parliaments were often referred to as the monarch's High Court and Great Council. Parliaments met sporadically--for about 33 months in the 22-year reign of James VI and I, for example--and were, `an event' rather than `an institution'. By the 1690s, however, this picture had changed fundamentally. Parliament met for at least part of every year, and was now much more of a permanent institution of government, with far greater financial and constitutional controls over the Crown. The monarch could no longer dissolve Parliaments at will, and they constituted a far more central and constant political forum than at the beginning of the century.

How, then, had these changes come about, and what was the balance between change and continuity in the parliamentary history of this turbulent and dramatic period?


Parliament had evolved from the thirteenth century onwards as part of the machinery of royal government, and its dependence on the monarch was reflected in the fact that until 1641 there was no serious challenge to the monarch's right to summon and dissolve Parliament at will. The Triennial Act of that year marked a departure by requiring the monarch to summon a Parliament at least every third year. Consciously designed to prevent any repetition of Charles I's eleven-year Personal Rule (1629-40), this Act remained in force until 1664, when it was replaced by a modified (and rather weaker) Act. The 1664 Act's lack of teeth was glaringly revealed in 1684 when Charles II failed to summon a Parliament when one was due, and proceeded to govern without Parliament for the remaining year of his life.

In the wake of the Revolution of 1688-9, this situation changed considerably. It is a remarkable fact of English history that a Parliament has met for at least part of every year since 1689. There were two main reasons for this watershed. The first was the passing of a much more effective Triennial Act in 1694. The second, and more important, was that a lengthy period of warfare against France during the reigns of William and Mary and then Anne left the Crown utterly dependent on parliamentary sources of revenue. Mindful of the disastrous consequences of James II's financial independence in the years 1685-88, the parliamentary architects of the Revolution Settlement consciously established new fiscal arrangements which left the Crown reliant on parliamentary grants. As one member of the Commons, Paul Foley, observed in 1690: `If you settle such a revenue as that the King should have no need of a Parliament, I think we do not our duty to them that sent us hither.' William complained that Parliament treated him `like a dog', but his commitment to waging war against Louis XIV left him in no position to refuse the price that Parliament exacted. The Crown's financial need was the best guarantee of all for regular Parliaments. …