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The Beginnings of Parliament
When the king was in residence in Westminster so was his court. There, not only Royal Councils of bishops, nobles and ministers assembled, but also that very special form of Council later known as a Parliament. At first, Parliaments did not necessarily contain representatives of the local communities in addition to the other nobles and magnates. From the time of Simon de Montfort’s Parliament in 1265, however, became increasingly usual to summon to Parliament representatives or ‘knights’ of the shires and also representatives or ‘burgesses’ from many towns. In 1332 these two groups of knights and burgesses began to meet together, and at about this time a separate representative House originated. The name of the ‘Commons’, by which it is called, does not signify the ‘common people’, but the local ‘communities’ in counties and towns – the House of Commons explicitly represents every local community of the kingdom.
During the Middle Ages it was possible for Parliament, if summoned to Westminster, to be accommodated easily within the domestic apartments of the royal palace, with the help of some extra space in the adjacent abbey. The opening ceremony of a Parliament customarily took place in the king’s presence in the Painted Chamber. The Lords then retired to the White Chamber for their separate discussions, while the Commons, unless they remained in the Painted Chamber, crossed Old Palace Yard to hold their debates in either the Chapter House or the Refectory of Westminster Abbey.
The palace was used as both a royal and a parliament house until King Henry VIII ceased to reside there in 1512. Almost at the same time the Palace of Westminster also lost its other non-parliamentary residents, the canons of St Stephen’s, for in 1547 the college of canons was dissolved and the chapel abandoned. This left many empty chambers in the medieval palace, and members and officers of both Houses began to occupy them in the course of the 16th century. By 1550 St Stephen’s Chapel had become the permanent home of the House of Commons, and the White Chamber served continuously as the House of Lords until 1800.
By the beginning of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign the Commons were firmly established in the midst of the Palace of Westminster. But they were soon to enter on the crucial conflict with the monarchy. In 1621 they claimed – and inscribed it in their Journal – that they had a right to deal freely with all matters of grievance or policy. This claim was challenged by James I, who tore out with his own hands the pages on which this Protestation had been recorded.
In January 1642 Charles I came to St Stephen’s to arrest and impeach five Members on a charge of treason. The Civil War between King and Parliament that followed resulted in the triumph of the Parliamentary army, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell.
It was not until 1688, however, when James II had fled from the country, that the conflict between King and Parliament was finally resolved. In 1689 William and Mary accepted a ‘Declaration of Rights’ made by the two Houses, which stated the supremacy of Parliamentary law, and Parliament then proclaimed them King and Queen. Under the Bill of Rights, passed later in the year, Parliament became the supreme and only law-maker and by the Act of Settlement of 1701 regulated the succession to the throne. All England’s sovereigns have since reigned in accordance with these provisions.
Parliament now entered on the classic period in its history. The Commons continued to meet in the former St Stephen’s Chapel. This was enriched with oak panelling designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Accommodation was restricted – the Chamber was only 18 m by 9 m – but galleries supported on pillars were added by Wren. During the 18th century it was this room that echoed to speeches of the elder Pitt, Burke, Fox and other masters of Parliamentary oratory.