Crown, Woolsack and Mace: The Model Parliament of 1295

By Nash, Michael L. | Contemporary Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Crown, Woolsack and Mace: The Model Parliament of 1295


Nash, Michael L., Contemporary Review


All anniversaries this year have been overshadowed by VE day and VJ day, but this should not obscure the calling, seven hundred years ago, of that very Parliament, representative of the liberties secured in 1945.

A state which has no visible, single document called the Constitution. making it unique in the developed, Western world, is bound to rely heavily on symbols. These symbols themselves represent an evolved partnership between the three authorities we find in Parliament. The Queen in Parliament, our legislative authority, is represented by the potent symbols of the Crown, the Woolsack and the Mace. To an outsider they must seem, like much that is English, strange and dissonant objects of authority.

When Edward I called the Parliament, now known as the Model Parliament, on November 13, 1295, he felt secure in his own authority. The point of calling Parliament then was primarily to obtain money, certainly not to make laws; that authority belonged essentially to the Crown. The king was anxious to enlist the financial help of all classes of authority, not only the nobles. Simon de Montfort's Parliament, summoned by a rebel lord thirty years earlier, cannot be regarded as a representative assembly, but King Edward's was. It gives us, as the great Victorian historian F. W. Maitland wrote, the model for all future Parliaments. The Archbishops and Bishops are directed to bring the heads of their chapters, their Archdeacons, one proctor for the clergy of every cathedral, and two for the clergy of each diocese. Every sheriff is to cause two knights of each shire, two citizens of each city and two burgesses of each borough to be elected. Seven earls and forty-two barons are summoned by name. The clergy and baronage are summoned to treat, ordain and execute; the representatives of the Commons are to bring full powers from those whom they represent to execute what should be ordained by the common council. A body constituted in this manner is a Parliament; what the king enacts with the consent of such a body is a statute. The importance of this moment in our history cannot be underestimated.

Very soon indeed, as Maitland said, usage becomes fixed: a parliamentum is a body framed on the model of 1295, it is frequently, habitually summoned and with its consent the King can make statuta, eventually to become the most important source of law.

The Model Parliament begged the whole question of what a Parliament is for. The original word of course signifies `a conference, a meeting at which there is to be talk, debate, deliberation'. Already, by the time of the Model Parliament, the granting of funds was considered to be its most important immediate function. As it developed, four functions were assigned to Parliament: the power to legislate, to discuss grievances, to criticise the details of administration, and to provide money. Only the last of these functions was assigned to it by Edward I in 1295. The elected members were far more anxious to establish the second function: to discuss grievances. A kind of quid pro quo was looked for: money for the Scottish campaign of 1296 would be forthcoming if certain grievances were addressed. This consciousness was growing, even if all was still in an embryonic state.

Parliament in 1295 was assembled for a deep political purpose. The formal language of the writs summoning the wide range of representatives to Parliament reflected this. `Inasmuch as a most righteous law of the emperors', wrote Edward I, `ordains that what touches all should be approved by all, so it evidently appears that common dangers should be met by remedies agreed upon in common'.

Edward I was a most persuasive ruler. Despite his striking appearance and charismatic personality, which persisted into old age, [and at the time of the Model Parliament he was already 56] he had a speech impediment and was known for his distressing stutter. However, whenever any issue set him on fire, his eloquence reduced his audience either to tears or dogged devotion. …

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