The January Parliament: marking 750 years of British democracy

From The Week

The January Parliament: marking 750 years of British democracy

This year is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the treaty which limited the power of the monarchy and laid the foundation for British democracy. But today marks another, less well remembered anniversary: 750 years since the January Parliament.

What was the January Parliament?

On 20 January 1265, knights, burgesses and aldermen met in London for the first real parliament in British history. Of course, the representatives were ‘elected’ in a far less democratic way than they are now, but the meeting is still seen by academics as the birth of British parliaments.

Why isn’t the January Parliament better known?
The BBC suggests the gathering has been eclipsed in history by the signing of the Magna Carta, fifty years previously. Magna Carta limited the power of the monarch and, after some teething troubles, changed history – but it did not institute anything resembling a parliament.
Who called the meeting?
The January Parliament was summoned by French-born noble Simon de Montfort”, says the Daily Telegraph. He had beaten and taken prisoner both Henry III and his heir – later Edward I – at the Battle of Lewes the previous year, becoming de facto monarch, though ruling in Henry’s name.

Why did Montfort institute a parliament?
Montfort’s position was tenuous – he had risen to the top as one of a group of barons and could expect to be unseated at any moment. He wanted the backing of “as wide a section of society as possible”, the BBC says. But his motive wasn’t purely self-interest: as a Christian, Montfort was advised by the church he should work for the good of the poor.

Who were the first ‘MPs’?
Montfort ordered each county of England to send two knights, says the Telegraph. Towns were asked to send two burgesses and two aldermen. The delegates were ‘elected’ locally – in some cases chosen by lot.

Was it really the first parliament?

There had been parliaments before – but in a more limited sense. They were “elite gatherings between the king and his chosen advisors”, says the BBC, to which knights were occasionally invited – but only to discuss taxation. The January Parliament discussed wider affairs of state, was not called by the king, and included burgesses from the towns. ·

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