Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE 24 - The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LECTURE 24 - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
State of the Parliament under Richard II. ~ Struggle between absolute royalty and parliamentary government. ~ Origin of the Civil List. ~ Progress of the responsibility of ministers. ~ Progress of the returns of the employment of the public revenue. ~ The Commons encroach upon the government. ~ Reaction against the sway of the Commons. ~ Violence and fall of Richard II. ~ Progress of the essential maxims and practices of representative government.
It is a remarkable fact in the history of England that, during the interval which elapsed between the years of 1216 and 1399, an able monarch always succeeded an incapable king, and vice versa. This circumstance proved very favourable to the establishment of free institutions, which never had time either to fall beneath the yoke of an energetic despotism or to dissolve in anarchy.
The reign of Richard II. does not present, like that of Edward III., the spectacle of the struggle of the Commons in defending their rights, and extending them by the very fact that they were defending them against the royal power, which was incessantly striving to evade those rights because they checked its authority, but which was nevertheless sufficiently acute to perceive that it stood in need of the assistance of the people, and could not afford to quarrel with their representatives. During the reign of Richard, the conflict assumes a more general character; it now involves far more than special or occasional acts of resistance. The question at issue now is, whether the king shall govern according to the advice and under the control of his Parliament, or rule alone and in an almost arbitrary manner. A positive conflict arose between parliamentary government and purely royal government; a violent conflict, full of reciprocal iniquities, but in which the question between liberty in general and absolute power was laid down more clearly and completely than it had ever been before.
The vicissitudes of this struggle are broadly outlined in facts. The reign of Richard II. may be divided into two parts. From 1377 to 1389, the government was parliamentary, that is to say, the Parliament exercised the supreme control and really directed all public affairs, notwithstanding the attempts at resistance on the part of the king and his favourites. From 1389 to 1399, this state of things underwent a change, and the king progressively regained the upper hand. Not that the Parliament abandoned or lost all its rights; for that of voting the taxes, in particular, was boldly maintained, and even respected to a certain extent. But generally speaking, the government was arbitrary, the king had the sole disposal of it, and the Parliament, which had lost its preponderating influence, interfered only as an instrument. This state of things was contrary to the desires and instincts of the country, and it was terminated by a tragical event. Richard was deposed by a proscribed exile who landed in England with sixty men, but found both the Parliament and the entire nation disposed to support him, or at all events, not to oppose him. The deposition of Richard and the elevation of the House of Lancaster were the work of force, but of force supported by that powerful adhesion which the silence and immobility of the public afford to enterprises which tend to overthrow an odious or despised government.
Such was the general aspect of this reign. I shall not linger to detail its events, but merely select and bring to light those facts which relate to the condition of the public institutions of the country, and which prove the truth of that which I have just affirmed.
As you have already seen, during the last years of the reign of Edward III., the influence of the Commons in the government had rapidly augmented; and its further progress was favoured by the minority of Richard II. Sixty years before, the nonage of the king would have placed the State under the control of some faction of barons; but during the latter half of the fourteenth century, the Commons take the initiative in all things, and plainly say how they think the government should be administered.
A first Parliament was convoked in the month of September, 1377. Peter de la Mare, formerly the leader of the opposition, was liberated from prison, and chosen speaker of the House of Commons. Three lords selected by the Commons were appointed to confer with them regarding the public necessities. Three propositions were submitted by the Commons to the king and lords: 1. the formation of a council of government; 2. the appointment of “men of virtuous and honest conversation” to guard the person and conduct the education of the king, and to take care “that the charge of the king’s household should be borne by the revenues of the crown, so that what was granted to the wars might be expended that way only”; 3. the strict observance of the common law and statutes of the realm, “that they might not be defeated by the singularity of any about the king.”* The Lords granted the first proposition, rejected the first part of the second as too harsh and interfering too much with the liberty of the royal person, promised to deliberate upon the second part with the great officers of the king’s household, and gave their unhesitating assent to the third proposition.
The second of these propositions contains the germ of the distinction between the civil list and taxes voted for the public expenditure. A subsidy was voted by the Commons, after the establishment of the administration. It was agreed that moneys thus raised should be lodged in the keeping of special treasurers, who should give an account of their receipts and disbursements, in such manner as the king and council should order. Two London merchants, William Walworth and John Philpot, were appointed to this office by the king.
Several other petitions were presented by this Parliament. 1. That the evil councillors of the late king Edward might be removed from the royal councils—which was granted. 2. That, during the king’s minority, all the ministers and other great functionaries of State, might be appointed by Parliament; and that if an office fell vacant, while Parliament was not sitting, it should be filled up by the king’s council, subject to the approval of the next Parliament—which was granted in the case of the greater officers, but refused in respect to those of less importance. 3. That Parliament should be holden once a year—in reply to which it was promised that “the statutes made for that purpose shall be observed and kept.”* It is clear that, in all these matters, the initiative and general direction of the government belonged to the Commons.
On the 25th of April, 1378, a second Parliament met, and voted a poll-tax, as the king had involved himself by loans. The chancellor concluded his speech by saying that, for all past and probable expenditure, the treasurers were prepared to give account.
On the 20th of October, 1378, a third Parliament met, and a fresh subsidy was demanded. The Commons maintained that the king ought not to be in want of one, and that a promise had been made that no further imposts should be levied for a long time. The chancellor, Richard le Scroop, denied that any such promise had been made; and long and violent debates ensued upon this question. The Commons demanded that an account should be given them of the way in which the last subsidy had been spent. The chancellor asserted that they had no right to require this, but finally yielded, under protest that it should not be considered a precedent. The Commons accordingly examined the accounts.
The Commons next requested that five or six lords or prelates should be deputed to confer with them respecting the public charges: thus aspiring to make their own body the centre of deliberation, and affecting to regard the lords only as a part of the king’s council. The lords refused their request, and proposed that, according to ancient usage, each house should appoint certain of its members to confer together. This suggestion was adopted, and a subsidy voted. The Commons further demanded the appointment of special treasurers to receive and disburse its proceeds; which was granted.
On the 15th of January, 1380, a fourth Parliament was held, for the purpose of demanding fresh subsidies, rendered necessary by the wars with France and Scotland, the revolts in Gascony, and other causes. The chancellor concluded his speech by saying “that the lords of the great council were ready to lay before the Commons the receipts of the last subsidial grants, and the disbursements of the same.”
The Commons demanded: 1. That the counsellors given to the king at his accession, should be dismissed (probably because they suspected them of unfaithfulness in the management of the public revenue); 2. That the five chief officers of State should not be changed until the next Parliament; 3. That a commission should be formed to survey and examine, in all his courts and palaces, the state of the king’s household, and the expenses and receipts in all the offices—which was granted, and the commission composed of six lords and six members of the House of Commons; 4. That some of the most discreet barons should be placed about the king, in order to give wise answers to foreign ministers. One baron only, the Earl of Warwick, was appointed for this purpose. A subsidy was then voted.
In November, 1380, a fifth Parliament met to vote further subsidies; and a long discussion arose between the Commons and the Lords regarding the amount. A fixed sum of £ 16, 000 was required; to meet which the Commons voted a poll-tax of 15 groats on every individual above 15 years of age, mendicants alone excepted; and annexed to their vote the condition that the rich should help the poor to pay the tax. The Commons moreover voted that “no knight, citizen, or burgess of the present Parliament should be collector of this money”; apparently in order to avoid every suspicion of partiality in its assessment. A violent popular insurrection broke out in consequence of this tax; and in order to quell it, the king was obliged to make promises of general enfranchisement.
On the 14th of September, 1382, a sixth Parliament assembled; but was adjourned on account of a quarrel between the Duke of Lancaster and the Earl of Northumberland, who had both come thither in arms, with a numerous retinue. The importance of these great barons was such that the Parliament could not meet until the king had succeeded in reconciling them. Great agitation was felt in this Parliament, as it did not know how to calm the disturbance in the country. The charter of manumission which had been extorted from the king was revoked. The Commons accused the bad government of the king of having caused the insurrection, and drew a melancholy picture of the deplorable state of the people. A committee of inquiry was appointed in consequence. The Commons refused to grant a subsidy, basing their refusal upon the disposition of the country to revolt. The king declared that he would not grant his amnesty for all the offences committed during the late insurrection, unless a subsidy were granted; and under the influence of this threat, the Commons yielded.
At the opening of this Parliament, the Commons demanded that the prelates, the lords temporal, the knights, the judges, in a word, the various estates of the realm, should examine, each for their own class, the charges which should be brought; and should report the same to the Commons, who would deliberate upon it. This was an attempt to make themselves a sovereign and undivided assembly; but the king maintained the ancient usage, which required that the Commons should deliberate first of all, and communicate their propositions to the king and lords.
This Parliament was twice prorogued; from the 15th of December to the 15th of January, 1383, and again from the latter date to the 7th of May.
Seven sessions of the Parliament were held from the 7th of May 1383, to the 1st of October 1386. The king endeavoured to free himself from the control of the Parliament. In 1383, he dismissed a very popular chancellor, Richard le Scroop, because he had refused to seal some inconsiderate gifts of property which had become confiscated to the crown. During the same year, the clergy obtained from the king a violent statute against the Lollards or disciples of Wickliffe. The Commons complained of this, saying that the statute was surreptitious; that it had never received their consent, and that “it was not their meaning to bind themselves, or their successors, to the prelates, any more than their ancestors had done before them.” They, therefore, demanded and obtained the revocation of the statute; but after their departure, the act of revocation was set aside, and the statute maintained.
In 1383, also, the Commons having demanded to confer with a committee of lords whom they mentioned by name, the king consented to their request, but added that it belonged to him alone to appoint the lords whom he thought fit to send to such conferences. In the same Parliament the Commons prayed the king “to place the most discreet and valuable officers about his person,” and to regulate his household in such a way that his revenues might be well administered, and prove sufficient to meet his wants. The king answered that he would summon to him the persons who suited him, and that he would regulate his household by the advice of his council. In 1386, the Commons petitioned that the state of the king’s household should be examined every year by the chancellor, the treasurer, and the keeper of the privy seal; and that they should be authorized to reform its abuses. The king replied that he would order such an examination when it pleased him. The Commons next inquired who were the ministers and chief officers of State whom the king intended to place at the head of affairs. The king replied that he had officers sufficient at present, and would change them at his pleasure. All these facts indicate an effort on the part of the king and his council to free themselves from the control of Parliament. In proportion as this desire became apparent, the Commons became, in certain respects, more timid and reserved. In 1383, the king consulted them as to whether he should march in person at the head of his army against France; and they replied that it was not in their province to decide upon such a question, but that it should be referred to the council. In 1385, they were consulted on the question of peace or war with France: and refused to give an opinion. The king insisted upon having an answer, but all that he could obtain from them was that “if they were in the king’s place, they would prefer peace.” Every circumstance, on both sides, indicates an imminent separation, or at least a progressive estrangement. The king was desirous to escape from the guidance of the Parliament; and the Parliament refused to share the responsibility of the king’s council.
Richard was under the sway of two favourites, Robert de Vere, Marquis of Dublin, and Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk. Hence the government was courtly, capricious, destructive, and laid claim to an insolent and frivolous exercise of arbitrary authority. The haughty tone of the chancellor Suffolk was extremely offensive in the speeches with which he opened the Parliaments of 1384 and 1385. The Commons could endure the government (though often tyrannical) of a council of barons with much greater willingness than that of a pack of court favourites. The great feudal aristocracy were deeply rooted in the associations of the country; but the arrogance and frivolity of favourites were unspeakably offensive to the people. The storm broke out in the Parliament which met on the 1st of October, 1386. The Commons, “with one accord,” impeached the Earl of Suffolk. The king withdrew to Eltham. The two Houses sent to him to demand the dismissal of the lord treasurer and of the chancellor, relating to whom, they said, they had matters to treat of which could not be safely done whilst he remained in his office. The king sent an evasive answer; and the Parliament declared that it would do nothing so long as the king continued absent, and the Earl of Suffolk remained minister. The king proposed that they should depute forty knights of their number to confer with him. The Parliament refused. After a long and singular correspondence, the king was constrained to yield and to choose new ministers.
Doubt has been cast upon several of these facts, and especially upon the king’s correspondence with the Parliament. Knyghton is the only historian who records it, but there is reason to believe it authentic. The Earl of Suffolk was impeached and condemned. The charges brought against him were of little weight as legal crimes, but of great importance as abuses in the government. A committee of eleven lords was appointed by Parliament to regulate all public affairs, and to govern in concert with the king. The Parliament enacted the penalties of high treason against any person who should advise the king not to follow the counsels of this committee, and constrained the king to confirm these resolutions by letters-patent. The king, on his part, made protestation in full Parliament, with his own mouth, “that for any thing which was done in that Parliament he would not any prejudice should come to him or his crown; but that the prerogative and liberties of it should be safe and preserved.”
In 1387, the king travelled through the west and north of England; and assembled at Nottingham a council composed of partisans of his favourites. He inquired of the sheriffs of the neighbouring counties what forces they could raise for his assistance, if he should find it necessary to oppose the committee of eleven lords. The sheriffs replied that the people were convinced that the lords were friends to the king, and desired the welfare of the country, and that therefore few persons would be found willing to take up arms against them. The king then commanded the sheriffs to elect to the next Parliament those persons only whom he should nominate. They answered that they could not undertake to secure the election of any persons but those who were to the people’s liking. The king then summoned the judges to Nottingham, and proposed to them various questions concerning the rights and prerogatives of the crown. The judges, either intimidated or guided by Sir Robert Tressillian, gave answers tending to establish the arbitrary power of the king and to free his government from the control of the Parliament. This was the evident object of the whole of this struggle.
Dissension now broke out between the king and the lords. A Parliament was convoked. The king inserted in his writs an order to return those persons who were debatis modernis magis indifferentes;1 but he was soon obliged to erase this clause, and to declare it illegal in new writs. The Parliament met on the 3rd of February, 1388, and took precautions to ensure that it should alone decide upon all great public matters, and that it should not be dissolved after having voted a subsidy. An accusation was lodged by five lords, called appellants, against the favourites of the king, and the judges. This accusation really conceals a great party conflict beneath the forms of judicial procedure. The Upper House declared that, on such grave occasions, the Parliament alone could judge, and was bound by none of the laws which regulate the proceedings of other courts. Eighteen persons were condemned, most of them to death, and many by default. The Parliament separated after having sat five months. It was called the Wonderful Parliament, and also the Pitiless Parliament. It had been careful to declare that the condemnation of the favourite councillors and judges, did not in any way throw discredit upon the king himself.
The authority of the committee of eleven lords over the government was exercised without opposition for a year. In May, 1389, the king assembled his council, and declared that, being now of full age, he was capable of governing his inheritance himself, and that it was not fitting that he should be in a worse condition than every subject in his dominions who could freely dispose of his goods. “It is well known,” he said, “that for several years I have lived under your guardianship, and I thank you for the trouble you have taken on my account; but now that I have reached my majority, I am determined to remain no longer under tutelage, but to take in hand the government of my kingdom and to appoint or revoke my ministers and other officers according to my pleasure.” He changed the chancellor and other great officers, and dismissed from his council several of the eleven lords.
Here began the second epoch in this reign—the epoch of reaction against the Parliament. Great obscurity prevails as to the causes which placed Richard II. in a position to effect such a revolution; but he was most probably emboldened to do so by division in the committee of eleven lords, and by the bad use which some of them had made of their power. The king and his new council governed at first with prudence, and manifested great respect for the Parliament. On the 16th of January, 1390, a Parliament was convoked. The new ministers resigned their offices, and submitted their conduct to its scrutiny. The Parliament declared that it found no cause for complaint, and the ministers resumed their functions. Seven Parliaments were held from 1390 to 1397. They became more and more timid and docile, and the king’s authority assumed an increasingly extended and arbitrary character. These are the principal facts which characterize this reaction:—
In 1391, the Parliament assured the king that the royalty and prerogatives of his crown should ever remain intact and inviolable; that if they had in any way been infringed, it should be reformed; and that the king should enjoy as large liberty as any of his predecessors ever did: “which prayer seemed to our lord the king honest and reasonable,” and he consented to it. In 1391 and 1392, the Parliament admitted the king’s power to dispense with the observance of certain statutes in ecclesiastical matters, on condition that these statutes should not be held to be thereby revoked. In 1392, the king, being off ended with the city of London, withdrew from it its liberties and imprisoned its magistrates; but shortly afterwards he restored its liberties to the city, and imposed on it a fine of £ 1000 sterling. In 1394, the judges who had been banished to Ireland by the Parliament of 1388, were recalled. In 1397, a bill was brought forward in the House of Commons, proposing that all extravagant expenditure should be avoided in the royal household; and that those bishops and ladies who had nothing to do at court should not have permission to reside there. The king was incensed at this bill before it was presented to him, and said in the Upper House, “that it was directed against those liberties and royalties which his progenitors had enjoyed, and which he was resolved to uphold and maintain.” He ordered the Lords to inform the Commons of his resolution, and directed the Duke of Lancaster to command Sir John Bussy, the Speaker of the Commons, to inform him what member had introduced the bill into Parliament. The Commons became alarmed, and humbly besought the king’s pardon. At a conference, they placed the bill in the king’s hands, and delivered up to him its proposer, Thomas Haxey. The king forgave them, and the Parliament itself declared Haxey guilty of treason. The clergy saved his life by claiming him as a clerk—which proves that at this period ecclesiastics were not excluded from Parliament.
In September, 1397, Richard II. at length judged himself in a position to assume the plenitude of his power, to annul all that had been done in 1388 to limit his authority, and to avenge his injuries.
A Parliament was convoked. Every precaution had been taken to ensure its docility. The sheriffs had been changed; and all sorts of practices had been put in force to influence the elections. Numerous bodies of troops formed the royal guard. The Parliament was opened with great solemnity. The chancellor, the Bishop of Exeter, took as the text of his speech: Rex unus erit omnibus.2 Subsequent events fully corresponded with these preliminaries. All the acts of the Parliament of 1388 were revoked, and their authors accused of treason; five of them were condemned to death. The principal leader of the opposition, the Duke of Gloucester, was assassinated in prison at Calais, after having been constrained to acknowledge his past crimes in a confession in which he formerly accused himself of having “restrained the king of his freedom.” After these condemnations the same Parliament held a second session at Shrewsbury, in which the answers of the judges in 1387 were declared good and legitimate, and precisely the same measures were taken to render these new decisions inviolable, which had been employed by the Parliament of 1388 to ensure the observance of its own resolutions. These two sessions lasted sixteen days. In less than two years afterwards, Richard was dethroned.
He thought himself, however, well secured against such a contingency; for he had taken all sorts of precautions firmly to establish the power which he had just regained. The Parliament had granted him, for his lifetime, the duty upon wools and hides, upon condition only that this concession should not be regarded as a precedent by the kings his successors. As several of the petitions and other matters laid before the Parliament during its last session had not been fully terminated, the Parliament at its dissolution appointed a permanent committee of twelve lords and six members of the House of Commons, to whom it transferred its powers to regulate and decide, in concert with the king, all affairs of public business. Richard thus remained surrounded by the men who had just assisted him to regain arbitrary power; and although the mission of this committee was limited to the settlement of those affairs only which the Parliament had not had time to arrange, it did not hesitate to take possession of the entire government. In concert with the king, it issued ordinances, and declared the penalties of high treason against any person who should attempt to resist its authority; and it imposed on all the lords the obligation, under oath, to respect and maintain all that it should enact. All the powers of Parliament were thus usurped by this committee. Private vexations were added to this general usurpation; in spite of the amnesty which had been proclaimed, even by the last Parliament, Richard continued to wreak his vengeance upon the adherents of the Parliament of 1388. He extorted money from seventeen counties under the pretence that they had taken part in the rebellion; and he forced wealthy citizens to sign blank cheques in order to ransom themselves from prosecutions for treason, which blanks he filled up at his pleasure.
Such acts as these could not fail to produce general hatred and indignation; and an accidental cause led to their manifestation. A quarrel existed between the Dukes of Hereford and Norfolk; and the last Parliament had left the dispute to the decision of the king and his committee. A single combat between the two dukes was appointed to take place at Coventry; but the king anticipated the duel, and banished both the dukes, one for ten years, and the other for life. By letters patent, he expressedly authorized the Duke of Hereford to sue, during his banishment, for the livery of any lands that might be bequeathed to him. In 1399, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and father of Hereford, died. The king and his committee annulled the letters-patent, and confiscated the property of the Duke of Lancaster. Richard then set out for Ireland. On the 4th of July, 1399, the Duke of Hereford, who had become Duke of Lancaster by the death of his father, landed in England. He made rapid progress, and when Richard returned to England, he soon found himself abandoned and taken prisoner. A Parliament was convoked in his name on the 30th of September. Richard abdicated. An accusation in thirty-three articles was drawn up against him; and his deposition was pronounced by the Parliament. Henry of Lancaster claimed the crown in virtue of a pretended right of birth. It was granted to him on the 6th of August, 1399, and new writs were issued for the convocation of a Parliament within six days. This was impossible: so the same Parliament met again, and became the Parliament of Henry IV. Richard, who had been kept prisoner in Pomfret Castle, was put to death on the 23rd of October, 1399.
This royal catastrophe was the work of force, just as the deposition of Edward II. had been; but public opinion and public passion had a much greater share in it. efforts were made to impart even to these acts of violence an appearance of constitutional regularity, and the progress of parliamentary government may be discerned even in its tragical excitements.
Such were, in a political point of view, the character and progress of this reign. A few particular facts are worthy of notice.
1. The extension of the practice of forced loans. In 1378, a petition was presented that no man should be constrained to lend money to the king; and it was granted. Nevertheless, in 1386, a writ addressed to several inhabitants of Boston enjoins them to make every person possessing property of more than twenty pounds in value contribute to the loan of £ 200 which the town had promised to grant to the king, and which would be received in deduction from the subsidies of the present Parliament.
2. The principle of the appropriation of subsidies becomes increasingly prevalent.
3. The Commons make efforts to ensure that their petitions should not be altered when passed into statutes. In 1382, they requested the communication of one of the king’s ordinances before it was registered: and desired that some of their members should be present during the preparation of the rolls. The affair of Thomas Haxey gives us reason to believe that the practice commenced, during this reign, of proceeding in the form of bills discussed and adopted by both Houses before they were submitted for the sanction of the king. Nevertheless, in 1382, the House of Commons having requested the opinion of the House of Lords on a question which then occupied their attention, the Lords replied that ancient usage required that the Commons should first communicate their opinion to the king and assembled lords. This very fact, however, proves that the present form of initiative was about to introduce itself.
4. In 1384, the town of Shaftesbury addressed a petition to the king, lords and commons, against the sheriff of Dorsetshire, who had made a false return of an election, and left out the name of the person really elected. We are not aware of the result of this petition, but this is the first instance of the official intervention of the Commons in the matter of contested elections. Only three examples of analogous petitions are to be met with in previous times, viz. under Edward II. in 1319, under Edward III. in 1363, and under Richard II. in 1384. Until then, the king alone had examined the petition, and referred its judgment to the ordinary tribunals.
5. In 1382, a statute ordains, under penalty of fine or other punishment, that all the lords and deputies of the Commons shall repair to Parliament when they are summoned; and that all the sheriffs shall cause all due and accustomed elections to be made, without omitting any borough or city.
These particular acts, as well as the general course of events, attest the progress of constitutional maxims and practices.
[* ]Parliamentary History, vol. i. p. 160.
[* ]Parliamentary History, vol. i. pp. 161, 162.
[1. ]Who were in present debates indifferent.
[2. ]There will be one king among all.