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History of the British Parliament

What’s in a name? Martin Hickes examines  British Parliamentary History – the Long and Short of it.

BRITISH politics might be enduring its worst political crisis in modern times, but when it comes to Parliamentary storms, it’s perhaps comforting to learn that there’s nothing new under the sun.

Our current so-called ‘Rotten Parliament’ – inspired by the rolling MPs’ expenses crisis – has, in nomenclature at least a dozen other illustrious Parliamentary cousins.

Britain  - or  England - has had ‘Mad’, ‘Long’, ‘Rump’ and ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ , ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Merciless’ Parliaments among curious others to add to the current less-than-complimentary collective phrase.

The Oxford Parliament (1258), also known as the "Mad Parliament" and one of the first English Parliaments assembled during the reign of Henry III.

Established by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, de Montfort led the Parliament and the whole of England for 18 months, from 1264 until his death at the Battle of Evesham.

Parliaments, - in those days literally informally assembled as a "parley"  - were scenes of negotiations between the king and the barons.

In this so-called ‘Mad’ parliament, the barons and de Montfort’s disaffection with the King reached absolute boiling point: shortly after the Parliament adjourned, a group of them, led by de Montfort, forced Henry III to accept a new form of government, laid out in the so-called Provisions of Oxford in which power was placed in the hands of a special Privy Council.

De Montfort is best known for effectively calling the first directly elected Parliament in Western Europe at that time -  but was chopped to pieces after his defeat at Evesham, and his remains unceremoniously parceled out to his rivals in all quarters of the kingdom  His name has since become a symbol for democracy worldwide.

Edward (Longshanks) I’s  ‘Model’ Parliament gave way years later to the Good and Bad Parliaments.

The ‘Good Parliament’ is the name traditionally given to the Parliament of 1376, the longest such up until that time.

With significant modern day parallels, taking place during a time when the English court was perceived by the public to be corrupt, its traditional name was due to the sincere efforts by its members to reform the government.

It had a formidable enemy, however, in John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III and the effective ruler of England at the time.

Parliament had not met since November of 1373, two and a half years previously, because Edward III and his councillors recognised the danger of calling parliament during a period of intense public dissatisfaction. However, the need for funds was so pressing in 1376 that another Parliament was necessary.

Hence, the Bad Parliament sat until March 1377. Influenced by John of Gaunt, it undid the work done by the Good Parliament to reduce corruption in the Royal Council. It also introduced a poll tax which led to the Peasants' Revolt in 1381.

Richard II is well known to Shakepeare enthusiasts as the tragic Plantagenet king murdered at Yorkshire’s Pontefract (or Pomfrey) Castle, but is less known is his so called Wonderful Parliament.

Richard had many ‘favourites’ in his entourage and despite fierce opposition from the King himself, the Wonderful Parliament resulted in the appointment of fourteen commissioners to oversee Royal expenses, which were running out of control.

Not to be outdone, Richard reposted with attempts to convict its promoters of treason, which ultimately led to the open conflict and the ‘Merciless Parliament’ of 1388.

In suvh, Richard’s whole court was convicted of treason by his own Parliament and Lords.

After this virtual coup d'état, the Lords continued to dominate English politics for the next year. Richard was effectively their puppet until the return of John of Gaunt from his Spanish campaigns in 1389, but he was weakened enough to trigger Henry Bolingbroke’s (Henry IV’s)  well-documented usurpation.

A swathe of other curiously-named Parliaments have existed including the Convention Parliament, the Lawless Parliament, the Useless Parliament,  the Parliaments of Bats and Devils, and even the Fire and Faggot Parliament under Henry V, but it’s perhaps Oliver Cromwell’s speech to the Long/Rump Parliament in 1653 that has most resonance in these times.

The Long Parliament, which commenced the ill-fated Charles I’s reign, had the longest term and the most complex history of any English Parliament.

Although it rebelled against Charles and continued to exist long after the king's death, it was a Parliament he originally summoned.

Unusually it enacted its own law providing that this Parliament could not be lawfully dissolved without its own consent, but this was thrown into confusion when Charles raised his standard under Royalist troops to start the English Civil War.

As the storm clouds gathered, the Long Parliament became the Rump Parliament  - the Parliamentary (non Royalist) residue ensconced in Westminster, while Charles and his supporters shifted to Oxford.

After Charles’ execution in 1649, Cromwell took charge but angrily dismissed the Rump Parliament in 1653 when is started to prevaricate over setting election dates, and when it even tried to pave the way for a new parliament.

In doing such he is alleged to have said:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money. 

“Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter'd your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? 

“Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil'd this sacred place, and turn'd the
Lord's temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked
practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you who were
deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, are yourselves

“So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name
of God, go!”

Allegedly, throwing down the Mace or ‘bauble’, both he and the Rump/Long Parliament passed into history until Charles II’s Restoration.

On the 29 April 1707, the Parliament of Great Britain was constituted. The members of the 2nd Parliament of Queen Anne became part of the 1st Parliament of Great Britain.

While history might absolve those close to the current crisis, and its current suggested epithet, today’s ‘Rotten’ Parliament’s name, linguistically at least, has propelled it into a very special members’ club.