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Magna Carta and the Development of Parliament

In the United States House of Representatives Chamber, there are twenty-three marble relief portraits over the gallery doors depicting historical figures that influenced the principles underlying the American legal system. Alongside the images of Moses, Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson is King John’s son-in-law, Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (c. 1208-1265). Montfort is little known today but he may be considered a father of representative government for his leading role in drafting the Provisions of Oxford (1258) and expanding public participation in parliament during the Second Barons War (1264-1267).

A generation after King John affixed his seal to Magna Carta, his son, King Henry III, and his son-in-law, Montfort, came into conflict over the legacy of the Great Charter. Like his father, Henry assumed that he could ignore Magna Carta when it conflicted with his interests. In contrast, Montfort viewed a broad representative government as a necessary counterweight to the King’s arbitrary rule to ensure that the ideals of Magna Carta would outlast the unique political circumstances of its creation.

Montfort was born around the year 1208 in Montfort-l’Amaury, which is now a south-western suburb of Paris. His father, Simon de Montfort the elder, participated in the 4th Crusade, dying at the Siege of Toulouse in 1218. John’s military defeats and arbitrary rule undermined the fortunes of the Montfort family. When John lost Normandy to Philip II of France, he was unwilling to allow the French Montfort family to keep their English earldom. John confiscated Leicester from the elder Montfort in 1207 and bestowed it on Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester in 1215. Blondeville was one of England’s most powerful and influential barons. He was present at Runnymede Meadow for the engrossment of Magna Carta and remained loyal to the King throughout the First Barons War.

The younger Montfort saw Henry III’s coming of age as an opportunity to regain the earldom. During the early 1230s, Montfort traveled to England to swear homage to the King. At Henry’s court, his intelligence, charisma and political acumen made an immediate impression on the King and his barons. Henry did not restore the Earldom but he granted him Leicester lands worth £500 per year. Between 1236 and 1237, Montfort was a regular witness to Henry III’s charters and played a prominent role at the King’s wedding to Eleanor of Provence in 1236.

Having become a member of Henry’s inner circle, Montfort devoted his efforts to making an advantageous marriage. In January 1238, Simon quietly married Henry’s youngest sister, Eleanor, a twenty-three year old widow who had taken a vow of perpetual chastity upon the death of her first husband. Although the King was one of the few witnesses present at the ceremony, he later claimed that he had only consented to the union because Montfort had seduced Eleanor.

England’s barons also objected to Montfort’s marriage because they had not been consulted about this sudden elevation of a foreign commoner. Despite the reservations of the King and his barons, the marriage allowed Montfort to achieve his ambitions. The Pope granted a papal dispensation formally releasing Eleanor from her vow of chastity and Henry granted Montfort the Earldom of Leicester in 1239.

Montfort’s prominence made him a natural leader of the opposition when Henry’s policies became unpopular with the nobility. Henry did not share John’s reputation for personal villainy. He was a deeply religious man and an enthusiastic patron of art and architecture. His building projects included the modern Westminster Abbey, the Great Hall at Winchester Castle and extensive renovations to Windsor Castle and the Tower of London. Henry was also a devoted husband and father, known for his generosity toward his family and friends.

In the political realm, however, Henry’s indecisiveness and willingness to be influenced by his favourites incurred the distrust of his barons. Like John, Henry was often dismissive of the grievances of his barons and ignored the provisions of Magna Carta. Barons in conflict with the King’s favourites did not receive the justice dictated by the Great Charter. In April 1258, John fitzGeoffrey, Lord of Shere manor in Surrey sought redress from the King when Aymer de Lusignan, Bishop-elect of Winchester sent armed men to Shere during a dispute, killing one of fitzGeoffrey’s servants. Since Lusignan was the King’s half-brother, however, fitzGeoffrey found that the King “did not wish to hear him” and made light of the dispute.

The King’s behaviour ignored Magna Carta’s guarantee of equality before the law. The ambitious Montfort found that the King’s favouritism toward his half-siblings and their supporters threatened his own interests. At the time of the fitzGeoffrey suit, Montfort was embroiled in a dispute with William de Valence, a member of a Lusignan faction, over the lordship of Pembroke, which Eleanor claimed as part of her dower lands.

Montfort and his fellow barons decided to introduce checks and balances on the King’s power to ensure respect for their rights under Magna Carta. On April 30, 1258, Montfort and six other powerful barons, accompanied by dozens of knights and other small landowners arrived at the great hall at Westminster to present the King with the terms that became known as “The Provisions of Oxford” after the location of the parliament that met in June of that same year. Montfort and his supporters left their swords outside the hall but they wore full armour, implying that they would use force if the King did not accept limits on his power.

Like Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford developed from existing conventions. Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, monarchs had summoned “Great Councils” consisting of senior members of the clergy and nobility to discuss key decisions. By the time Montfort arrived in England in the 1230s, these councils had become known as parliaments after the French word “parlement” for judicial bodies that served as courts of appeal. The Provisions decreed that the summoning of parliament would occur at fixed times rather than taking place at the discretion of the monarch.

The Provisions of Oxford began with a demand for an elected judiciary that would guarantee equality before the law, stating, “It has been provided that from each county there shall be elected four discreet and lawful knights who, on every day that the county [court] is held, shall assemble to hear all complaints touching any wrongs and injuries inflicted on any persons by sheriffs, bailiffs, or any other men…” A council of twenty-four, twelve chosen by the King and twelve chosen by the barons would oversee appointments to important offices, administration of the counties and the management of royal castles. Parliament would meet three times per year to oversee the activities of the council. In 1259, Simon and his allies developed the Provisions of Westminster, which further refined the Provisions of Oxford, introducing inheritance and taxation reforms intended to prevent arbitrary measures by royal officials.

Henry appeared to accept both sets of Provisions but he did not have any intention of accepting lasting limits on his power. Just as John’s repudiation of Magna Carta sparked the First Barons War, Henry’s rejection of the Provisions provided the impetus for a Second Barons War. In June 1261, Henry announced that Pope Urban IV had released him from his promise to uphold the Provisions. Negotiations between Henry and Montfort broke down by 1264 and the King went to war against his own subjects as his father had done nearly fifty years before.

Montfort achieved a significant victory at the Battle of Lewes on May 14, 1264, defeating the King’s forces and taking Henry and his heir, the future Edward I, prisoner. With the key members of the royal family in his custody, Montfort was free to expand his program of reform. He summoned parliament without royal authorization that year, making an unprecedented call for representatives from the urban burgesses in addition to the landed nobility. This assembly became known as “the Commons.” The unprecedented scope of Montfort’s reforms alarmed a number of his allies amongst the nobility and his faction began to splinter.

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The war turned against Montfort in 1265 when Edward escaped from his custody. The young Prince was already a formidable soldier who would become famous during his reign as “the Hammer of the Scots.” Edward defeated Montfort at the Battle of Evesham on August 4 1265. Montfort and his eldest son died on the battlefield. Without Montfort’s leadership, opposition to the Crown dissipated and the Second Barons War came to an end in 1267.

In victory, Henry and Edward rejected the Provisions of Oxford. However, Montfort’s death in defense of his beliefs was not in vain as his reforms had a lasting impact on the policies of Henry and Edward. Henry continued to summon “the Commons” to parliament after the Second Barons War. When Edward I became King in 1272, he required a united England to support his expensive military campaigns in Wales and Scotland. To maintain a united England, Edward swore to uphold the provisions of Magna Carta throughout his reign and his 1295 “Model” parliament had a broad composition similar to the Montfort parliaments.

Even though Montfort was defeated and his Provisions were repudiated, his determination to develop Magna Carta’s principles into a system of representative government endures to the present day.

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  1. Pingback: Magna Carta and the Development of Parliament | Carolyn Harris: Royal Historian

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