Friday, October 14, 2011

The Rise of Constituent Assemblies

In Search of the Republic--11

Europe in the Middle Ages witnessed the rise of heredity monarchs. These monarchs emerged when some greater landholding lords increased their military power vis-a-vis other lords. In some cases, the lesser lords acquiesced to the shifting imbalance of power by electing a greater lord to kingship and subordinating themselves to him as his vassals.

The new monarchs used the vassals as  instruments to propagate his laws and execute his will throughout the realm. The lesser lords also established themselves as advisers to the king and attempted to set limits to his authority. Eventually all across Europe, nobles developed permanent constituent bodies representing the nobles. These bodies bore different names in different places. They were called estates in France, diets in the German provinces, cortes in Spain, and parliaments in England. The monarchs and aristocratic bodies often conflicted, however, over the limits of authority. In some countries such as France and Russia, the kings overawed the nobles to establish themselves as absolute monarchs. In England, however, the struggle resulted in a different outcome.

In England, landed nobles successfully asserted themselves against King John to limited his power. He was politically weak because he had lost most of the continental provinces that had been part of the realm. Now the English coast became directly exposed to attacks from Normandy. A costly navy had to be built. And his treasury was depleted. Much of the nation's treasury had been spent on continental wars.

John issued new taxes on property, rents, fines to raise money. Moreover, after a quarrel with the church over who possessed the power to appoint the archbishop of Canterbury, John seized the revenues of the see of Canterbury. The pope responded by ending all ordinary services and ceremonies in England and excommunicating the king. He responded by seizing more church property. He finally reconciled with the pope, acceptin  Stephen Langton as the archbishop.

The military situation improved when the English defeated a French navy near Bruges.  But as he prepared for a new counteroffensive against France, he learned that many of the Barons opposed him. He invaded France anyway and suffered defeat, confirming the loss of Normandy and other English provinces in France. He went home more weakened than ever before.

In 1215, the great Barons forced King John to accept the Magna Carta, or Great Charter of Liberties.( It  dealt for the most part with the liberties of the nobles. He later repudiated it).  Its immediate import was that the barons forced John to at least acknowledge the traditional customary relations between a monarch and the nobility. And it called for a Great Council to be summoned to decide taxation. The barons did not know that they had formed the basis for a limited constitutional monarchy. John died the following year.

John's successor, Henry III also faced a revolt from the nobles. Again, he needed money for war. When he appealed to the greater nobles for aid in1258, they instead presented him with the Provisions of Oxford. It demanded the creation of a council of 15 to advise the King and required the meeting of the Great Council--or parliament-to take place three times each year.

Henry faced a greater revolt in 1263. His brother in law, Simon de Montfort demanded strict observance of the Provisions of Oxford. He wanted a government dominated by the aristocracy rather that the king and his ministers.  A short civil war erupted in which Simon de Montfort defeated royal forces and captured the king. Simon de Montfort ruled for a year in the king's name. During that time he called a parliament that included representation of two knights elected from each shire (county) court and two citizens, or burgesses, from each of the larger towns.

A second civil war broke out in which Simon de Montfort was killed.

The Great Council continued to meet, however, and eventually included regular representation from the knights and burgesses. Later, the Great Council separated into two bodies--the House of Lords that included the great nobles, and  the House of Commons, that included the lesser gentry from the shires and the burgesses from the cities.

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