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LECTURE 20 - François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe 
The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, trans. Andrew R. Scoble, Introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Condition and attributes of the Parliament during the reign of Edward II. (1307‒1327). ~ Empire of favourites. ~ Struggle of the barons against the favourites. ~ Aristocratic factions. ~ Petitions to the king. ~ Forms of deliberations on this subject. ~ Deposition of Edward II.
In order to explain the manner in which the British Parliament was formed, I have found it necessary, up to this point, to follow history step by step—to enter into all the details, and to collect all the facts, that might serve as proofs either of its existence, or of its participation in public affairs. I have now another object to attain, and I must therefore pursue another course. The Parliament is now definitively formed; and if I were to continue to narrate all the facts which relate to it, and to keep a register, as it were, of all its acts, I should write the history of the country, and not that of its institutions. What I am seeking to describe, is the development of representative government; and I shall avoid all questions unconnected with this object. The extension which the Parliament received, the revolutions which it underwent—in a word, its personal and internal life, will constitute the subject to which our attention must be directed.
On considering the reign of Edward I. from a political point of view, it is evident that, notwithstanding the agitations by which it was disturbed, there was, during that reign, some wholeness and unity in the exercise of power. Edward was a firm and capable prince, who well knew how to concentrate and direct the various forces of society; in him, the State possessed a centre and a chief. Under Edward II., the English government lost all solidity and unity: no intelligent and determined will presided over it; the nation had no rallying-point; the string of the bundle was broken; all forces and all passions were displayed at hap-hazard, and came into conflict upon the interests of individuals or factions.
In such a state of things, what could the Parliament be? Nothing, or next to nothing, unless it were an instrument of factions. The body of barons was then, and long continued to be, the preponderant portion of the assembly: the Commons, though strong enough sometimes to defend themselves when their own interests were at stake, were not sufficiently powerful to interfere, in a decisive manner, in public affairs, and to become the centre of the government. All matters were, therefore, arranged between the court and the barons, or rather between the different factions into which the body of barons was divided. The Commons appeared in the train of one or other party, to give their alternate triumphs the appearance of a national adhesion, but without ever determining the course of events, or even modifying them in any effectual manner. The supreme power and the country were a prey to the conflicts and schisms of the high aristocracy.
In order clearly to demonstrate that such was the state of institutions and of the central government at this period, it will be sufficient to refer to the three principal events of this reign.
The first is the conflict which the English barons maintained against the king, with regard to a favourite, Piers Gaveston, whom, in spite of his father’s advice, Edward II. had persisted in retaining in his confidence. The favourite and his creatures absorbed all the power and advantages of the court; and in 1311, the barons, desiring their share of riches and favours, after having attempted all other means for his overthrow, demanded his dismissal with arms in their hands. Their enterprise was evidently intended neither to promote the interests of the people nor those of the king; it was a revolt of courtiers. They fought, not to assert the inviolability of charters or rights, but to obtain the employments and treasures of a favourite. Nevertheless, they attempted to give a national colour to their rebellion. The plans and measures of the great rebel Parliament held at Oxford during the reign of Henry III. were revived; Lords Ordainers were appointed to reform the State; they bid for public favour by the abolition of a few abuses; they enacted that the possessors of landed property alone should be appointed sheriffs; they limited the right of purveyance, which was held by the crown; and they prohibited all grants of royal letters-patent ordering the suspension of the regular course of justice. But these were merely outward appearances intended to conceal the selfish egotism of the great barons; their only object was to make themselves masters of the royal authority, of the right of appointing to the chief offices of state, and of the revenues of the crown. They put Gaveston to death, and seized upon the whole power. The representatives of counties and boroughs, who were present in the Parliament by which these designs were executed, gave their consent; but they were mere followers of the rebellion, and had no influence upon the government. The great barons, who came to Parliament in arms and accompanied by their troops, had the entire management of everything in their own hands.
Edward escaped from the tutelage imposed upon him by the coalition of the barons, only to fall under the sway of two new favourites, Hugh le Despencer, or Spencer, and his son. The elevation of these two courtiers raised up against them a storm similar to that which had overthrown Gaveston. The new rebellion which broke out in 1321 is the second remarkable event of this reign. It was first manifested by a sentence passed against the two Spencers by the great barons of the realm. They passed it by their own authority alone, without the concurrence either of the Commons or of the king, and at the same time compelled the king to grant them an amnesty for themselves and their adherents; shortly afterwards, the civil war began, and the confederated barons were overcome. Edward convoked a Parliament at York, in 1322, at which the Commons attended, and which repealed first the sentence against the two Spencers, and afterwards all the ordinances passed by the Lords Ordainers in 1311 and 1312, as being contrary to the rights of the king, and to the laws and usages of the country. Thus, whether the court or the rebels prevailed, a Parliament always sanctioned their triumph, saving only the ever-ready recourse to civil war, the only true means of decision.
Moreover, it is evident that the riches which were amassed by court favours and the exercise of royal power were a constant subject of jealousy and faction. The petition presented to the king in 1322 by Hugh Spencer the elder against the barons who had condemned him, sets forth that they had devastated sixty-three of his manors or domains in fifteen different counties—that they had carried off 28,000 sheep, 22,000 head of cattle, two harvests, one from his barns and granaries, and one of standing corn, 600 horses, a great quantity of provisions of all kinds, and complete suits of armour to equip 200 men—and that they had moreover done damage, in his castles and lands, to the amount of more than 30, 000 l. sterling. Such was then the wealth of a great English baron; and herein resided an inexhaustible source of rebellions.
A third event, the deposition of Edward II., presents a spectacle of the same character as the two preceding occurrences. This was the result of a new confederation of the barons, at whose head the queen, Isabella, had placed herself. A Parliament, convoked at Westminster, on the 7th of January, 1327, declared the incapacity of the king, then a prisoner in Kenilworth Castle. A deputation, composed of four bishops, two earls, four barons, three deputies from each county, and several burgesses of London, of the Cinque Ports, and of other cities, was sent to acquaint him with the resolution of the Parliament, and formally to renounce the oath of fidelity. This deputation received from Edward II. his abdication in favour of his son Edward III., then fourteen years of age, under whose name the dominant faction expected to wield the supreme power to its own advantage.
Notwithstanding the interference of the Commons in this and the preceding acts, it is clear that the whole affair was managed between aristocratic factions influenced by personal interests, and profiting by the king’s incapacity to appropriate to themselves the government and all its advantages. There is nothing to indicate any progress of political institutions and triumph of national liberties. The government of the barons, after such scenes, was even more arbitrary and oppressive than that of the king.
It is, nevertheless, a remarkable fact that, in all these occurrences, the sanction of the Parliament was always regarded as necessary, and as the only means of terminating and legalizing the works of violence. The Parliament, or at least the House of Commons, was merely a passive instrument in the matter; but it was already thought impossible to dispense with its concurrence. Now, as it is part of the nature of this instrument to serve the cause of public liberties and to lead, sooner or later, to their extension, every circumstance that augmented its importance and established its necessity may be considered as a progress of the representative system.
I will now bring under your notice the principal parliamentary facts of this period, and inquire in what respects the principles of a free government were manifested or introduced in them.
It was at this time that the Parliament decidedly became the centre towards which all demands for the reform of abuses, the redressing of grievances, the modification of laws, in a word, all petitions, were directed; it had possessed this character from its origin, but in a less extended measure. When the Parliament, or rather the body of barons in Parliament assembled, had begun once more to act as the great council of the king, a host of applications which had previously never been made, or had been addressed to the king alone, were addressed to the king in Parliament, and became a subject for deliberation at its meetings. Thus, in the Parliament held at Westminster, in 1315, we find that 268 petitions were presented.
These petitions were of two kinds. Some were presented by the Commons to the king in council, and had reference to demands or complaints of general interest. Others were presented by individuals, corporations, or towns, and had reference to private or local interests. The former class gave birth to the right of initiative; the latter to the right of petition. Both classes were addressed to the king, in whom the actual power resided; and upon whom, on this account, it devolved not only to provide for the general necessities of the State, but also to do justice to special interests.
On the opening of each Parliament, a certain number of days were fixed for the reception of petitions. A certain number of persons, chiefly judges or councillors of the king, were appointed to receive them, to investigate their nature, to classify them according to their objects, to set aside those which were to form the subject of discussion in the Parliament itself, and finally to present them to Parliament. This discussion was almost confined to the House of Barons, who were supposed to form a great intermediary council between the privy council of the king and the entire Parliament. The barons, when assembled in the privy council, deliberated and decided upon the demands of the Commons relative to matters of general interest. If these demands referred to certain complaints against abuses of the exercise of the royal power, or against the conduct of the sheriffs, for example, the king answered them in his own name alone, after having taking the advice of his privy council, of the judges, or of the barons, according to circumstances. If the petitions prayed for some interpretation or declaration of the existing law, the answer was given in the same manner. If they suggested the enactment of a new law, the king, when he judged it convenient, proposed this law to the Parliament; but in early times, this was very rarely the case; and when the petition had once been presented, the Commons ordinarily had nothing further to do with the matter than to receive the answer of the king.
As to those petitions which originated from individuals or from bodies unconnected with the Parliament, and which related only to matters of private interest, the meeting of Parliament was merely chosen as the occasion of their presentation, because it was more favourable than any other period for obtaining a reply. The royal council decided upon all those petitions which did not require the intervention of the barons or of the entire Parliament.
The presentation of petitions at this period is, therefore, a very complex fact with which are connected not only the right of petition to the Houses of Parliament, but also the right of petition to the government generally, the right of initiative, the jurisdiction of the Houses of Parliament, in short, a host of institutions essential to the representative system, and each of which it is necessary to consider separately. They all existed, but in a confused and embryo state, in this a ﬄ uence of petitions of all kinds, which called into action very different powers, then exercised indiscriminately. This original confusion was, undoubtedly, one of the principal causes of the universality of the power of the British Parliament. We cannot now examine into all the institutions which sprang from this source, and progressively disentangled themselves, assuming a distinct form. The question of the right of petition, in the sense which is attached to it at the present day, is in itself deserving of our careful examination, and will form the subject of our next lecture.
One particular fact attests the progress which the Commons were beginning to make in the comprehension of their power and rights. It is beyond doubt that, originally, the voting of supplies always furnished them with an opportunity of obtaining some concessions or the redress of their grievances; this is proved by the history of English charters. But, in 1309, when granting Edward II. a twentieth part of their moveable goods, they expressly attached the condition that “the king should take into consideration, and should grant them the redress of certain grievances of which they had to complain.”* These grievances had existed for a long while, and were perpetuated for a considerable period afterwards; but the Commons had begun to look them full in the face, and to insist year after year upon their redress, as the only condition upon which they would grant the supplies.
A statute passed in 1322, by the Parliament at York, which revoked the sentence against the two Spencers, declared that “thenceforward all laws respecting the estate of the crown, or of the realm and people, must be treated, accorded, and established in Parliament by the king, by and with the assent of the prelates, earls, barons, and commonalty of the realm.” This is a formal recognition of the right of the Commons to interfere in the legislation of the country, and in all great public affairs.
Many English publicists attach great importance to this statute, and regard it as the first act which officially sanctioned the fundamental principle of the British government. This importance appears to me to be exaggerated. The principle enunciated by this statute had been put into practice on many previous occasions, and a sufficiently clear knowledge was not then possessed of that which constituted matter of legislation and general interest to obtain conformity to it in practice. It is, therefore, far from being the case that the Commons, from this time forth, always exercised the power allotted to them by this statute. Nevertheless, the official exposition of the principle indicates progress in the ideas of the times.
Such are the principal facts of the reign of Edward II., with regard to the condition and action of the Parliament. They contained no very important innovation, but they announce the consolidation and natural progress of the institutions definitively established under Edward I. Tory writers, taking their stand upon the preponderant influence exercised by the great barons during the reign of Edward II., have attempted to cast doubts even upon the presence of the Commons at several of the Parliaments of this period. Whig writers, on their side, endeavour to deduce, from the proofs which are extant of the presence of the Commons, an argument for their great importance and decisive participation in events. The former are mistaken when they deny the presence of the Commons in Parliament, from their having been unable to find any writs of convocation addressed to the sheriffs; for the writs which order the payment of the salaries of the representatives are extant for nearly all the Parliaments of this period. The latter deduce too extensive results from the presence of the Commons in the Parliament: it is beyond all doubt that the high aristocracy, who sat in the House of Lords, then managed and directed affairs almost entirely alone. The progress of liberty is not so rapid; the most important point is, that it be certain. Thenceforward it was certain, and it received great development during the two following reigns.
[* ]These grievances were eleven in number, viz: 1. That the king’s purveyors took all kinds of provisions without giving any security for the payment; 2. That additional duties had been imposed on wine, on cloth, and on other foreign imports; 3. That by the debasement of the coin, the value of all commodities had been advanced; 4. That the stewards and marshals of the king’s household held pleas, which did not fall under their cognizance; 5. And exercised their authority beyond the verge, that is, a circuit of twelve leagues round the king’s person; 6. That no clerks were appointed, as they had been under the last monarch, to receive the petitions of the Commons in Parliament; 7. That the officers appointed to take articles for the king’s use in fairs and markets, took more than they ought, and made a profit of the surplus; 8. That in civil suits, men were prevented from obtaining their right by writs under the privy seal; 9. That felons eluded the punishment of their crimes by the ease with which charters of pardon were obtained; 10. That the constables of the castles held common pleas at their gates without any authority; and 11. That the escheators ousted men of their inheritances, though they had appealed to the king’s courts.—Rot. Parl. i. 441.