My schoolbook history gave Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, credit for founding Parliament. English kings had been advised by a council of their principal tenants since before the Conquest, but de Montfort was the first – in 1262 to summon commoners to join the assembly.
Starting from that belief, it’s not hard to find irony in the fact that de Montfort’s father (also named Simon) was one of the military leaders of the crusade against the Albigenses, perhaps the first action in European history that deserves to be called genocide.
If this sort of historical irony displeases you, then you will be pleased, as I was, to find that the received story is not quite right. According to Hume’s History of England (Chap. XIII) , de Montfort did indeed summon representatives of the boroughs as part of his attempt to usurp the powers of Henry III, but that usurpation and de Montfort’s abuses of power left a bad taste in English mouths, and the idea of adding commoners to the Great Council was rather discredited than legitimized by its association with de Montfort’s scheme.
As Hume tells it, the origin of the Commons was the need of the monarchy for revenue. Henry’s son Edward I, finding himself in fiscal straits due both to structural changes unfavorable to the monarchy and to his aggressive campaigns in Wales, Scotland, and Poitou, found that his best source of new revenue were the boroughs, towns given a measure of local self-government under royal charter. While the king had the legal authority to tax the boroughs, he lacked the force to collect such taxes unless the burghers were more or less willing to pay them. Instead of negotiating the amounts borough-by-borough, he preferred to summon representatives of all the boroughs at once, lay out the sums he needed, and get them to agree as a group to supply his wants: “As,” he proclaimed, “it is a most equitable rule that what concerns all should be approved of by all, and common dangers be repelled by united efforts.” [Alas, the extant record does not include the critical press releases no doubt issued by Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth, explaining that Edward’s ideas would inevitably lead straight to Socialism.]
Edward’s innovation did not cause the House of Commons – combining the borough representatives with two knights from each shire – to spring into existence full-grown and fully armed. Edward’s Parliaments did include the shire knights, in addition to the barons who had traditionally made up the Great Council and the newly-summoned burgesses. But the burgesses plus the knights did not constitute a separate body from the House of Lords. The barons and the knights deliberated jointly on matters of national concern, while the burgesses met only to approve their own taxation. The legislative powers of the commoners accreted slowly, starting from the practice of presenting petitions (“bills”) for redress of grievances as an implicit exchange for the supply of revenue.
On behalf of David Hume, I am happy to offer comfort to the .01% of you who were distressed about owing your political freedom in some measure to the son of a mass murderer, and to the possibly larger number who prefer structural to “great-man” explanations for important changes.