On this date in 1265 Simon de Montfort called a parliament that, for the first time in English history, included commoners as well as nobles. Many historians date the formation of the House of Commons from this moment. Things are a lot murkier than that, of course. Historians can be a bit over the top from time to time. Nonetheless, it was a significant turning point in the way that English kings viewed their subjects, and de Montfort is often spoken of as the founder of the House of Commons, even though that’s a bit of a stretch. Prior to de Montfort’s parliament, the nobility ruled their lands without any concern for the opinions or desires of the common people. Over the centuries, the situation completely reversed itself – but it took time.
In 1258, Henry III of England faced a revolt among the English barons. Anger had grown about the way the king’s officials were raising funds, the influence of his Poitevin relatives at court (bloody foreigners !!), and his unpopular Sicilian policy (he wanted to control the kingdom as a gift for his son, Edmund). Even the English Church had grievances over its treatment by Henry. Within Henry’s court there was a strong feeling that the king would be unable to lead the country through these problems. On 30 April, Hugh Bigod marched into Westminster in the middle of the king’s parliament, backed by his co-conspirators, including Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, and carried out a coup d’état. Henry, fearful that he was about to be arrested and imprisoned, agreed to abandon his policy of personal rule and instead govern through a council of 24 barons and churchmen, half chosen by the king and half by the barons.
The pressure for reform continued to grow unabated and a parliament met in June. The term “parliament” had first appeared in the 1230s and 1240s to describe large gatherings of the royal court, and parliamentary gatherings were held periodically throughout Henry’s reign. They were used to agree upon the raising of taxes which, in the 13th century, were single, one-off levies, typically on movable property, intended to support the king’s normal revenues for particular projects. During Henry’s reign, the counties had begun to send regular delegations to these parliaments, and came to represent a broader cross-section of the community than simply the major barons – but they were still nobles.
The new parliament passed a set of measures known as the Provisions of Oxford, which Henry swore to uphold. These provisions created a smaller council of 15 members, elected solely by the barons, which then had the power to appoint England’s justiciar, chancellor and treasurer, and which would be monitored through triennial parliaments. Pressure from the lesser barons and the gentry present at Oxford also helped to push through wider reform, intended to limit the abuse of power by both the king’s officials and the major barons. More radical measures were passed by the new council the next year, in the form of the Provisions of Westminster.
The disagreements between the leading barons involved in the revolt soon became evident. De Montfort championed radical reforms that would place further limitations on the authority and power of the major barons as well as the Crown. Others promoted only moderate change, while the conservative barons expressed concerns about the existing limitations on the king’s powers. Over the next 4 years, neither Henry nor the barons were able to restore stability in England, and power swung back and forth between the different factions. By early 1263, what remained of Henry’s authority had disintegrated and the country slipped back towards open civil war. De Montfort convened a council of rebel barons in Oxford to pursue his radical agenda and by October, England faced a likely civil war. De Montfort marched east with an army and London rose up in revolt. De Montfort took Henry and Queen Eleanor prisoner, and although he maintained a fiction of ruling in Henry’s name, the rebels completely replaced the royal government and household with their own, trusted men.
De Montfort’s coalition began to fragment quickly. Henry regained his freedom of movement, and renewed chaos spread across England. Henry appealed to his brother-in-law Louis IX of France for arbitration in the dispute. De Montfort was initially hostile to this idea, but, as war became more likely again, he decided to agree to French arbitration as well. Initially de Montfort’s legal arguments held sway, but in January 1264, Louis announced the Mise of Amiens, condemning the rebels, upholding the king’s rights and annulling the Provisions of Oxford. The Second Barons’ War finally broke out in April, when Henry led an army into de Montfort’s territories. Becoming desperate, Montfort marched in pursuit of Henry and the two armies met at the Battle of Lewes on 14 May. Despite their numerical superiority, Henry’s forces were overwhelmed. Captured, Henry was forced to pardon the rebel barons and reinstate the Provisions of Oxford, leaving him a figurehead only.
Simon de Montfort claimed to be ruling in the king’s name through a council of officials. However, he had effective political control over the government even though he was not himself the monarch, the first time this had happened in English history. De Montfort successfully held a parliament in London in June 1264 to confirm new constitutional arrangements for England; four knights were summoned from each county, chosen by the county court, and were allowed to comment on general matters of state – the first time this had occurred. De Montfort was unable to consolidate his victory at Lewes, however, and widespread disorder persisted across the country. In France, Eleanor made plans for an invasion of England with the support of Louis.
In response, and hoping to win wider support for his government, de Montfort summoned a new parliament for 20th January 1265 which continued until mid-March that year. It was held at short notice, with the summons being issued on 14th December, leaving little time for attendees to respond. He summoned not only the barons, senior churchmen and two knights from each county, but also two burgesses from each of the major towns such as York, Lincoln, Sandwich, and the Cinque Ports, the first time this had been done. Due to the lack of support for de Montfort among the barons, only 23 of them were summoned to parliament, in comparison to the summons issued to 120 churchmen, who largely supported the new government. It is unknown how many burgesses were called. The event was overseen by king Henry, and held in the Palace of Westminster in London, the largest city in England, whose continuing loyalty was essential to de Montfort’s cause.
This parliament was a populist, tactical move by de Montfort in an attempt to gather support from the regions, and was made up of selected, partisan representatives. It was not some kind of proto-democratic representative body. The business of the parliament focused on enforcing the Provisions of Westminster, in particular its restrictions on the major nobles, and promising judicial help to those who felt they were suffering from unfair feudal lordship.
The parliament bought temporary calm, but opposition grew once more, particularly as de Montfort and his immediate family began to amass a huge personal fortune. Prince Edward escaped his captors in May and formed a new army, resulting in a fresh outbreak of civil war. Edward pursued de Monfort’s forces through the Welsh Marches, before striking east to attack his fortress at Kenilworth and then turning once more on the rebel leader himself. De Montfort, accompanied by the captive Henry, was unable to retreat and the Battle of Evesham ensued. Edward was triumphant. De Montfort was killed, and his corpse was mutilated by the victors.
The rebellion dragged on in pockets and was not fully crushed until July 1267. Henry III ruled England until his death in 1272, continuing to summon parliaments, sometimes including the county knights and on one occasion including burgesses from the towns. After 1297 under Edward I’s reign, this became the norm, and by the early 14th century it was normal to include the knights and burgesses, a grouping that would become known as the “Commons” of England and, ultimately, form the “House of Commons.”
Simon de Montfort’s parliament of 1265 is sometimes referred to as the first English parliament, because of its inclusion of both the knights and the burgesses, and de Montfort himself is often regarded as the founder of the House of Commons. This is certainly a case of overreach, or, at best, looking at history in hindsight. The House of Commons did eventually develop into a fully representative and democratically elected body, so historians can look back to how it evolved, and where it started. By looking backwards from what developed later, historians can mark de Montford’s parliament as the first body that involved commoners, and, by that standard, peg it as the beginning of the House of Commons. But the burgesses at the court were chosen by de Montfort, and, although they were free to speak on matters beyond taxation, they could not initiate nor pass laws. Whether this was the beginning of the House of Commons seems a stretch, but you can decide.
De Montfort’s parliament met in the palace of Westminster, and parliaments still do, although the buildings have changed considerably in the interim. The current building was built in 1834, after a fire destroyed large sections of the old one.
Back when I posted about Big Ben I mentioned HP sauce, because HP stands for Houses of Parliament: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/big-ben/ Now we are not talking about the Houses of Parliament in general, but the House of Commons, which meets in a chamber of the palace of Westminster. Therefore, we should focus on another recipe. The House of Commons once put out a cookbook of favorite recipes by MPs, so you could check that out if you want.
I am going to give a recipe (not from the book) for House of Commons pudding. It’s a bit like spotted dick except that the pudding is sponge cake and crumbled ratafia biscuits (or almond macaroons), infused with egg custard, mixed with raisins, and steamed.
House of Commons Pudding
2 oz/50 g seedless raisins
2 tbsp/30 ml medium-dry sherry
4 trifle sponges, cut into ½ inch dice
9 ratafias or 2 almond macaroons, crumbled
14 fl oz/400 ml milk
1 oz/25 gm caster sugar
angelica, cut in strips
butter (for greasing)
Put the raisins in a small bowl with the sherry and macerate overnight.
Grease a pudding basin with butter and line it with greaseproof paper. Decorate the bottom with glace cherries and angelica.
Place the diced sponges in a mixing bowl. Mix in the crumbled ratafias (or macaroons).
Drain the raisins and discard the sherry.
Place a layer of the sponge mixture in the pudding base, being careful not to disturb the cherries and angelica. Sprinkle in a few of the raisins. Repeat the layering until the basin is filled.
Bring the milk to just below boiling point over medium heat in a saucepan. Take off the heat. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a mixing bowl, then pour in the scalded milk. Add a few drops of vanilla essence.
Slowly strain the custard mix on to the sponge mix in the pudding basin, so that it seeps down through the layers. Let it rest for 1 hour.
Meanwhile prepare a steamer setup. You can either use a conventional steamer with boiling water in the bottom, and a perforated top part to hold the pudding basin. Or you can invert a saucer in the bottom of a saucepan and add one or two inches of water, and set the pot to boil. The saucer will keep the pudding basin off the bottom of the pan.
Cover the pudding basin with greaseproof paper, and secure it with string. You can also add a layer of aluminium foil.
Place the basin in the top of the steamer or on the saucer, cover the pan and steam for 1 hour.
Carefully remove the basin from the steamer, place a plate over the top, invert the basin and plate, and unmold the pudding carefully. Serve with egg custard.