UK government in the Middle Ages

King John signing the Magna Carta.
King John signing the Magna Carta

  • When he came to power in 1066, William the Conqueror was hugely powerful. Under the feudal system, he owned all the land, and all the barons swore obedience to him as their liege lord (their superior).
  • This didn't stop the barons rebelling when a king was weakened, and in 1215 the barons forced King John to agree to the Magna Carta. This was not – as was claimed in the 1600s – a declaration of people's rights. It was just a peace treaty by which the barons tried to force the King to do as they wanted. Nevertheless, the right not to be imprisoned without a trial dates back to the Magna Carta.
  • The Norman kings called a Great Council of barons and bishops three times a year – at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, which is the Sunday 50 days after Easter. These meetings came to be called 'parliaments'. The word 'parliament' comes from the French word 'parler', meaning 'to speak'.

During the 13th century, these parliaments slowly grew in power:

  • The Model Parliament: In 1295 Edward I called two knights from each county and two burgesses from each town to the Model Parliament. It was called 'model' because this became normal. After 1327 they became a permanent part of Parliament, and after 1332 they sat in one chamber and became known as the House of Commons.
  • The Speaker: In 1376, the Good Parliament elected Peter de la Mare as their Speaker to demand reforms.
  • Richard II: In 1388, the Merciless Parliament condemned a number of the king's ministers to death. In 1399 there was a rebellion, and Richard resigned his throne in Parliament – a sign of how important Parliament had become.
  • Freedom of debate: In 1407, Henry IV promised not to interfere in Parliament's debates, or take taxes without their agreement.
  • Laws: In 1414, Henry V promised Parliament that he would not make any new law without its agreement.

By 1500 Parliament had acquired powers and rights:

  • Parliament had the right to meet.
  • Commoners, as well as lords, had the right to attend Parliament.
  • Parliament had the right to debate whatever it wanted, and to tell the king its demands.
  • Parliament controlled taxes.
  • No law could become law without Parliament's agreement.
  • Parliament could punish the king's ministers if they were corrupt.
  • England was ruled by "the king in his council in Parliament".