BRIT POLITICS, Study, Learn,  Create, Inspire
HOME : Making laws in Parliament : The History of Parliament

The History of Parliament

The History of Parliament

An introduction to the ‘Mother of Parliaments’

Parliament is the supreme law-making authority in the United Kingdom and can legislate for the whole of the United Kingdom or for any of its parts separately. The main functions of parliament are to pass laws, to provide the means of carrying on the work of government and to scrutinise government policy and administration, particularly proposals for expenditure. International treaties and agreements are by convention presented to parliament for ratification.

Parliament emerged in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The officers of the King’s household and the King’s judges were the nucleus of early parliaments, joined by such ecclesiastical and lay persons as the King might summon to form an early House of Lords, and occasionally by the knights of the shires, burgesses and proctors of the lower clergy. By the end of Edward III’s reign the House of Commons began to emerge and the first known speaker of the House of Commons was first elected in 1377.

The modern British Parliament was originally the English Parliament. No one person or event created Parliament. It evolved and developed naturally out of the daily political needs of the English monarch and his or her government at the time. Nor was Parliament developed continuously over time, but instead, went through short periods of rapid growth.

Yet despite its unintentional and haphazard development, the modern British Parliament is one of the oldest continuous representative assemblies in the world often referred to as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

The First Parliaments

The first known official use of the term Parliament was recorded in 1236. It described the consultative meetings of the English monarch with a large group of Earls and Barons and Prelates, who were the Bishops and Abbots. The word Parliament means an event arranged to talk and discuss things, originating from the French word “parler”.

Parliament in its earliest inception was only an occasion and not an institution. It was convened by the monarch and consisted of whoever the monarch wanted to speak with, Parliament was roving it assembled in many places dependent on wherever the monarch happened to be, and could last as long as the monarch wished it to and it had no independent officials of its own.

Throughout the 13th century the Barons were frequently in revolt against the monarchs whom they thought were governing the country and realm badly. In 1215 King John was forced to agree to Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” of legal rights which insisted that he listen to and follow the advice of the Barons.

In 1258 at the meeting of Parliament at Oxford the Barons made clear their dissatisfaction with King Henry III, and attempted to force upon him a set of conditions called the Provisions of Oxford. These proposals were radical in nature and called for regular meetings of Parliament three times a year, which should also include 12 non-noble representatives chosen from the counties of England.

King Henry III refused to agree to the conditions proposed by the Barons and war broke out between him and the leader of the Barons, Simon de Montfort, who was victorious in 1264. In January 1265 de Montfort called his own Parliament to discuss the peace terms.

It is this Parliament that is seen as the founding of the modern Parliament because it included not only the men who made up the Great Council, but also representatives from each county and from the cities and towns, known as burgesses.

De Montfort was killed in battle, only a few months after his Parliament, by King Henry III’s son, Edward. When he became King in 1272, Edward I developed Parliament into an institution for his own purposes.

King Edward I made the meeting of Parliament a more frequent event and over the course of his reign of thirty five years (1272-1307) he summoned Parliament to meet forty six times. In the first twenty years of his reign Parliament met regularly – annually and occasionally twice a year. From 1278 official records were kept of its proceedings and decisions and were written up and sewn together in long scrolls, these became the Rolls of Parliament.

In 1275 King Edward I convened his first Parliament. He summoned nobles and churchmen, but also issued orders (known as writs) for the election of two representatives from each county (the knights of the shire) and two from each city or town (the burgesses) to attend.

Parliament was called on primarily to listen to and approve the King’s plan for a new tax. Over the following years it became an accepted rule that the representatives of those who were going to be most affected by taxation had to give their consent to it in Parliament.

However, the practice of summoning these representatives did not become standard for many years. The next time the burgesses were summoned along with the knights of the shire was in 1295. This was to become known as the Model Parliament, because its representation of two knights from each county and two burgesses from each town became normal for (almost) all future Parliaments.

Parliament developed in the 13th and 14th centuries largely through the desire of King Edward I and his successors to wage war. This needed more money than they had from their own wealth and they had to levy “extraordinary” taxes, with Parliament’s assent, to raise the funds. But each time the King requested assent to a tax from Parliament, it could ask a favour back again and often used the King’s desperation for money to get what it wanted.

Since January 1327 when Parliament removed Edward I’s son, Edward II, from the throne every Parliament has included representatives of the people. The pattern was now set for Parliament always to comprise three bodies: Lords, Commons and the Monarch.

The Parliament of 1376 was called the Good Parliament. This was because the Commons prosecuted before the nobles some of the King’s corrupt ministers, a process known as impeachment. This became a frequent procedure over the following years as Parliament turned against Edward III’s successor Richard II.

In the Parliament of 1386, called the Wonderful Parliament, the Commons forced Richard II to dismiss his Lord Chancellor, whom it then impeached as well.

Two years later the Merciless Parliament condemned to death the former Lord Chancellor and other royal officials, and in October 1399, Parliament (packed with supporters of Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV) deposed Richard II by a trial and process, in an assembly which met at Westminster.

The emergence of the House of Commons and Speaker

King Edward III came to the throne in 1327, and from that point the representatives of the counties (knights of the shire) and of the towns (burgesses) became a permanent part of Parliament. After 1332 they sat together in one chamber and were known as the House of Commons. After 1341 the House of Commons deliberated separately from the monarch and the nobles.

King Edward III also stated his resolution that a Parliament should be summoned annually, and between 1327 and 1485 there were only forty two years in which a Parliament did not meet.

With increasing regularity during the 14th century, the Lords and particularly the Commons acted on a sense that they should have an active say in government, instead of merely consenting to the taxation decisions of the monarch.

By 1376 people were getting tired of the elderly Edward III’s rule, and the influence of his favourites. In the Parliament of that year the Commons chose Sir Peter de la Mare to act as its spokesman before the King in joining its complaints with that of the Lords.

De la Mare was thus the forerunner of the office of Speaker of the House of Commons – a member selected by the Commons to chair its business and represent its views. The following year Thomas Hungerford was the first spokesman to be termed Speaker in the official record.

Parliament was placed in a strong bargaining position when King Richard II’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke overthrew the King in 1399 and looked to Parliament to legitimise his shaky claim to the throne and to provide him with money. In 1401 the new monarch conceded that the Commons did not have to grant taxes until he had adequately addressed their grievances.

Then, the House of Commons objected so strongly when the monarch neglected them in his discussions with the Lords about a tax, that in 1407 he formally affirmed the right of the Commons to initiate all grants of money, a right which it has jealously guarded ever since.

The House of Commons also acquired an equal role in making laws. From its beginning one of Parliament’s roles had been as a forum for the hearing of private petitions – requests for help or favour from the people – submitted to the Monarch and Lords.

Increasingly, the House of Commons became the principal petitioners to this Upper House, submitting common petitions which addressed general problems which could be solved by the King through new laws, known as statutes. Then petitioners began to submit their grievances first to the Commons and, based on these petitions, the Commons wrote draft statutes, known as Bills, to be presented to the Upper House.

In 1414 the House of Commons successfully insisted to King Henry V that the Monarch and Lords should not change the wording of any of the Bills submitted by the Commons without its agreement and that no Bill should become an Act (that is, become statute), without their assent. That the House of Commons were acting at this time as equal partners with the Lords in making legislation is suggested by a written note on a Bill from that reign, which states that the Commons agreed to the Lords’ amendments to it.

By the mid-15th century the House of Commons was in control of granting supply of money to the Monarch and had gone from petitioners to full partners in the formation of statute, the highest law of the land.

The House of Lords

The Lords sitting in the medieval House of Lords were of two types, the Lords spiritual and the Lords temporal.

Lords spiritual

The Lords spiritual were the Bishops and Abbots. Not many Abbots, the heads of religious houses, were ever summoned to Parliament and most who were never attended. After King Henry VIII abolished all the monasteries between 1536 and 1539 these posts no longer even existed. But the two Archbishops and nineteen Bishops, later increased to twenty four Bishops, were all summoned to every Parliament from 1305 until they were excluded from Parliament in 1642, only to be restored there in 1661. They still sit in the House of Lords today.

Lords temporal

In the early Middle Ages the Lords temporal consisted of only a small number of Earls and a much larger number of Barons, of whom only about a third were summoned to any individual Parliament. The first reference to the nobility as peers comes from 1321 and suggests that already by that time they saw themselves as a coherent group, accountable only to each other. By the middle of the 15th century the Lords had been further divided into five ranks, in descending order: Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons.

The Wars of the Roses

From 1422, when the infant King Henry VI came to the throne, the realm descended into civil war, the Wars of the Roses, as rival groups of great nobles and their followers fought for power. These peers, at the height of their influence, were able to exclude the many non-noble officials – judges and royal administrators – who previously had often been part of the King’s Great Council from voting in the House of Lords.

Lords and noble status

The peers also insisted that a summons to the Lords was an honour due to their noble status, not just an expression of the Monarch’s will, which should be transferable to their heirs in perpetuity. By the time King Henry VII claimed the crown in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, a House of Lords consisting exclusively of the Lords spiritual and every member of all five ranks of the hereditary peerage, was well in existence.

Knights of the shire

The composition of the House of Commons, and the way in which its members were elected, underwent important changes in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The most prominent members in the House of Commons were the Knights of the Shire. During the Middle Ages two Knights were elected for each of the thirty seven counties under royal jurisdiction. In 1536 the twelve counties of Wales were incorporated into English rule by statute and they gained the right to return one member each to Parliament. Later two counties long seen as outside royal jurisdiction, the county palatines of Chester and Durham were also able to return two members each to Parliament, from 1543 and 1673 respectively.

When a new Parliament was summoned, writs were issued from the Chancery (the royal secretariat) to the county’s sheriff to call a County Court for an election of Knights of the Shire, and in the early days of Parliament all freemen, that is those who were not serfs, had the right to vote for their representatives.

The 40 shilling franchise

The rules were changed by a statute of 1429 which, finding that elections had recently been crowded by people of “low estate” decreed that only freemen who owned freehold land (that is, not leased from the land’s owner) worth 40 shillings had the vote. This restricted the vote to a much smaller group of landowners, and the 40 shilling franchise was only abolished in 1832 by the Great Reform Act.

Aristocratic strife

During this period of aristocratic strife, the Wars of the Roses, the leading peers of the different factions tried to build up the number of their followers in the Commons and they took advantage of the opportunity to restrict the elections, in both voters and candidates, to landowners like themselves. From this point the Knights of the Shire largely came from and primarily expressed the interests of the landed elite, known as the gentry, and were often brought into Parliament by the influence and efforts of the peers in the Lords

The Burgesses

The larger group in the Commons were the 222 burgesses, two from each town allowed to return representatives, known as a borough. Another 12 joined after 1536 when Wales was united to England.

Burgess selection

The selection of burgesses depended on the will of the Monarch. He could make a town into a parliamentary borough through a royal charter. This could be granted to any settlement, regardless of its size or importance, and also set out the ways in which representatives were elected for each borough: that is, who had the franchise. In some, only the mayor and town governors, perhaps only ten people, would elect the representatives, while in others the right to vote was extended to all the many inhabitants who had been given the freedom of the city.

Pocket boroughs

A statute of 1413 stated that burgesses should inhabit the boroughs for which they were elected. Already by that time this law was of little use, for, just as peers and landowners influenced the selection of knights of the shire, so they were also invading the boroughs, and tried to get their own followers elected, even if they had no connection with the place. By 1422 one-quarter of the burgesses did not live in the borough for which they were elected and over the centuries aristocrats increasingly influenced elections, sometimes choosing members for both seats themselves.

This system, which could give tiny villages the right to return Members to Parliament while the huge growing cities of the industrial revolution had no representation, provided for inconsistent methods of election, and allowed aristocrats to place their non-resident followers in parliamentary seats. This was one of the principal targets in the agitation for reform of Parliament in 1832.

Records of Parliament

During the 15th and 16th centuries there were important institutional developments in Parliament, especially in its record keeping.

From its earliest days the Clerk of the Parliaments who recorded its proceedings for the Rolls of Parliament was an official of the Chancery, the principal administrative department of the Monarch. The Clerk, as a royal official, formally worked for the Upper House, but with its increasing influence, the House of Commons soon acquired its own Clerk, in about 1363.

Start of an Institution

By the late 15th century, Parliament had become such an important institution that it gained its own independent officials and organisation. From 1497 the Clerk began to keep the copies of the Acts passed in Parliament in his own possession at Westminster instead of returning them to the Chancery archives in the Tower of London.

The rolls on which the texts of these statutes were recorded, known as the Original Acts, were known to have been kept from at least 1621 in the Jewel Tower, one of the few surviving buildings of the old Palace of Westminster. Today these parchment rolls, with the more modern Acts of Parliament printed on parchment too, are kept by the Parliamentary Archives in the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster.

The Journals

The records of Parliament also underwent change. The business, votes and decisions of each day in the House of Lords have been recorded since 1510, though with a few omissions in the early years, and this official daily account, known as the Lords Journal, is still produced today.

The official record for the Lower House, the Commons Journal, was not started until 1547. The Journals of the two Houses of Parliament have been widely available since they were printed in the 18th century, and now some can be read online. They remain the official record of Parliament.

The Reformation Parliament

King Henry VIII’s Reformation Parliament, which sat from 1529 to 1536, fundamentally changed the nature of Parliament and of English government. The King summoned it in order to settle what was called his ‘great matter’, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, which the Papacy in Rome was blocking.

Power shift

In only a few short years, Parliament – under the direction and impetus of King Henry VIII – made laws affecting all aspects of national life, especially in religious practice and doctrine, which had previously been under the authority of the Church alone. With the ground-breaking statutes of the 1530s Parliament became omnicompetent, that is, no area involved in the government of the realm was outside its authority.

Pope to the English Crown

Parliament passed laws which transferred religious authority from the Pope to the English Crown, gave the Crown control over the wealth and buildings of the old Church, settled official religious doctrine, altered the succession by declaring various of the King’s children illegitimate, and inaugurated a wider programme of social, religious and economic reform. King Henry VIII’s successors all equally used Parliament to pass their own legislation changing the nature, doctrine and authority of the Church in England.

Constitutional change

The Reformation Parliament thus asserted the supreme authority, or sovereignty, of Parliament in making statute, or more precisely the sovereignty of Crown-in-Parliament, the royal authority embodied in law passed by the Monarch, Lords and Commons. As King Henry VIII himself told the Parliament: “We be informed by our judges that we at no time stand so highly in our estate royal as in the time of parliament”. He realised that royal power was at its strongest when it was expressed through parliamentary statute.

Crown and Parliament

Parliament still existed only by the Monarch’s will, but King Henry VIII and his immediate successors knew that they could best effect their will through the assent of Parliament in statute. A century later the country was thrown into turmoil when the co-operation between the Monarch and the other two parts of Parliament catastrophically broke down.

Elizabethan Parliaments

There are several ways of approaching our understanding of Parliament during its development in the 16th century, and there have been many debates between historians, especially concerning the Parliaments of Elizabeth I.

Peter Wentworth became a famous Member of Parliament in the reign of Elizabeth I after he was arrested on three separate occasions for arguing that the Commons should have the freedom to discuss whatever it wished, especially on the controversial topic of religion, without fear of reprisal from the Queen.

Some historians have been fascinated by characters such as Wentworth and see in them an indication of a rise in importance of the House of Commons which was maturing, becoming more self-confident and developing an organised oppositional stance to the Crown.

Other historians have detected in this view of the 16th century Parliament a tendency to read history backwards from the 17th century conflict between Monarch and Parliament, an outcome already known but still with murky origins. These historians have looked more carefully at the daily business of Parliament and do not see it full of opposition, organisation or ideology. Parliament, even under Elizabeth I, was summoned by the Monarch and was a branch of royal government, and it would have been failing in its duty if there were constant disagreement with the monarch.

The Restoration of the Monarchy

After years of failed political experiments, most people turned with relief to the old ideas of what constituted a proper Parliament and government.

The assembly elected in March 1660 consisted of both a House of Commons and a House of Lords and was called the Convention, and not a Parliament. This was because it had not been summoned by the head of the parliamentary trinity, the hereditary Monarch.

The assurances of King Charles II, the late king’s exiled heir, that he would submit any settlement to the decision of Parliament, convinced the political nation in May 1660 to invite King Charles II to return to claim his father’s throne.

Many people hoped, particularly in the early years of the Restoration, that government could function with the same structures and attitudes as it had done before 1641. However, memories ran deep and the Parliaments of King Charles II and his brother James were soon to be as turbulent as those of their father.

Civil War once again?

Within thirty years of Kings Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1660, England was once again on the verge of Civil War. In 1688 the country was invaded by a foreign army and King James II fled, as the Crown was offered by Parliament to his own nephew and son-in-law.

These events are usually called the Glorious Revolution. They are often considered a turning point in the development of parliamentary democracy and civil liberties.

Catholics and Protestants

Restoration England was afflicted by religious conflict. A series of Acts of the early 1660s restored the Church of England and enforced harsh penalties against those who refused to be members. Those Nonconformists, along with many of those who did conform, were concerned that the Church was dangerously close to Catholicism in both its government and ceremonies.

Catholicism had long been associated among Protestants with religious ‘superstition’. By this period it was also thought to lead inevitably to the absolutist and persecuting rule by which (it was believed) most contemporary Catholic countries, and especially France, were governed.

The Declaration of Indulgence and the Test Act

King Charles II’s proclamation in 1672, suspending by his royal prerogative the penal statutes against Nonconformists (known as the Declaration of Indulgence), was seen by many Members of Parliament as evidence of both the King’s sympathy for Catholicism and his preference for absolutist rule.

Their opposition was so fierce that King Charles II was forced to cancel it in 1673 and instead to agree to Parliament’s Test Act. This required all those wishing to hold office to swear an oath to the King and the Protestant English Church and to sign a declaration denying the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

King Charles II’s younger brother and the heir to the throne James, Duke of York, made his Catholic faith publicly known later that year and resigned all his offices under the terms of the Test Act.

The Popish Plot

In late 1678 flimsy allegations that there was a ‘Popish Plot’ to murder King Charles II inspired Parliament to pass another Test Act. This made all Members of Parliament take the required oaths and sign the declaration before they could take their seats.

A special exception was made for the Duke of York who was able to continue sitting in the House of Lords. The Duke may have been able to survive this attack on his rights, but he was to undergo much worse over the following few years. There were calls to exclude him, and all Catholic successors, from the English throne and the governance of the Church of England.

In January 1679 King Charles II dissolved what was known as the Cavalier Parliament, which he had first summoned in May 1661, and summoned another one for May 1679. For the last years of the Cavalier Parliament a loose grouping of Members, known as the Country party, had opposed the Court’s influence in Parliament, particularly its attempts to secure votes through bribes and patronage.

From 1679, in the wake of the Popish Plot allegations, a section of this opposition took on a more obviously religious dimension. Those who fought most vigorously against the Court’s corruption and its foreign policy also strongly opposed the Church’s persecution of Protestant Nonconformists and the possibility of the Catholic Duke of York’s succession to the throne.

This group became known as the Whigs, and they showed their flair for organisation and propaganda through their overwhelming victories in the elections for the three ‘Exclusion Parliaments’ of 1679-81. In reaction, a ‘Tory’ ideology had developed by 1681 which equally loudly supported the monarchy and the Church.

The exclusion crisis

Each of the three Exclusion Parliaments saw the progress in the House of Commons of a Bill which aimed to prohibit the Duke of York from succeeding to the throne.

In November 1680 the Bill was rejected by the House of Lords, and the following Parliament, held at Oxford in March 1681 to avoid the turbulence of the Whig London (and the last Parliament to be held outside of the capital), was dissolved within a week, just as the House of Commons was preparing to vote on the Bill.

King Charles II never called another Parliament and in the following years he carried out a campaign against the leading Whigs. Two were executed, many went into exile, and even more were removed from town and local government. The success of this ‘Tory reaction’ was able to ensure James II a smooth succession when King Charles II died in February 1685.

The Whigs and Tories of 1679-85 are seen by some as embryonic political parties in England. Although each group’s relation to government and political power changed over time, they continued to fight for dominance in Parliament over the next centuries.

The reign of King James II

King James II’s Parliament of May 1685, predominantly Tory, was initially obedient and generous. But when it resisted his wishes to exempt Catholics from the restrictions of the Test Act, King James II adjourned it in November. He then continuously prorogued it for more than a year and a half until he dissolved it in July 1687.

Contemporaries feared that without Parliament the King was using his prerogative to circumvent statute in order to promote Catholicism. He issued certificates dispensing individuals from the Test Acts. In 1687 he issued a Declaration of Indulgence which suspended the penal laws against all Nonconformists.

Many Protestant Nonconformists gratefully accepted its offer of religious liberty, but others joined the Tory Anglicans in worrying that this was a ploy to encourage conversions to Catholicism and a dangerous abuse of the prerogative.

The seven bishops

Many of the Tory Anglicans also became concerned by what they saw as the King’s attacks on the English Church and its Bishops. The Bishop of London was suspended from office, and in 1688 King James II prosecuted seven bishops for their refusal to have his Declaration of Indulgence read in their churches. The public rejoicing when the bishops were acquitted greatly angered and embarrassed the King.
From late 1687 King James II and his advisers made plans to ‘pack’ the next Parliament, scheduled for October 1688. They asked leaders in the counties a series of questions to assess whether they would vote for, or would support somebody who would vote for, the repeal of the Test Acts and penal laws.

Those who answered against the King’s wishes could find themselves deprived of office, which only further alienated support among the political elite on whom he relied for the governance of the country.

A new Catholic heir

The crisis for many came with the birth of King James II’s son in June 1688. This changed the succession to the throne, which up to that point would have passed to his two adult Protestant daughters – Mary, married to the Protestant ruler of the Netherlands, (William of Orange, also James’s nephew), and Anne.

Invasion and desertion

In response to an invitation of seven peers (the so-called Immortal Seven) to invade England in order to preserve Protestantism, to investigate the true parentage of King James II’s child, and to call a ‘free’ Parliament, the Dutch ruler William of Orange landed at Torbay with an invasion force on 5 November 1688 and proceeded to march on London.

King James II, shocked by the desertion of many of his military officers and of his own daughters to William’s side, was so disheartened that he tried to flee to France – only to be discovered and returned to London. The King left the capital again, and this time made it successfully to France, just before the arrival of William in London on 18 December.

The Glorious Revolution

The fact that William, upon arrival with his army in the English capital, did not claim the throne by conquest, but summoned a Convention of Members of Parliament (not called a Parliament, as it was not summoned by the King) to devise a political settlement has made him the great hero of Whig historians such as Macaulay.

These events were, in Macaulay’s view, the Glorious Revolution because they saw great constitutional change and parliamentary supremacy definitively asserted with little bloodshed in England – forgetting that the Revolution became very bloody in Ireland and Scotland.

This confident Whig view has long been challenged by other interpretations. William’s opponents then, and revisionist historians now, have suggested that, rather than being a defender of parliamentary liberty, William had always desired no less than the English throne for himself. They argue that this episode was merely a ‘palace coup’ where one branch of the Stuart family supplanted another with the approval of a compliant political elite in the Convention, which William only summoned to give his usurpation legitimacy.

Changes to Parliament

Whatever William’s motives, Parliament and the way it functioned did change substantially after 1688 – but not as a result of the events of the Revolution of late 1688 and early 1689, but over the course of a number of years as the Houses of Parliament and their chosen King worked out their new relationship.

The Convention and Bill of Rights

The Whigs and Tories in the Convention argued for days over whether James II had abdicated and had thereby made the throne vacant or whether he had temporarily deserted the throne, by which a Regency in his name should be established.

William of Orange cut the debate short by threatening to abandon the country if he was not made King. On 6 February 1689 Parliament resolved that King James II had abdicated by his departure and that the Crown should be offered jointly to William and his wife Mary, the actual successor of King James II.

A Declaration of Rights

When Parliament formally made this offer of the Crown on 13 February 1689 it also read aloud to William and Mary the Declaration of Rights. This was a statement of the rights of the subject and, particularly, the liberties of Parliament (such as frequent Parliaments and freedom of speech) which it was claimed the last Stuart monarchs had infringed.

Contrary to common belief, Parliament did not present the Declaration to William and Mary as a condition which they had to accept to be made King and Queen. The rights affirmed in the Declaration did, however, take statutory effect in December 1689 when the Convention, with William and Mary’s royal assent, passed the Declaration as an Act of Parliament, now known as the Bill of Rights.

Though it is not a revolutionary statement of universal liberties, being mostly concerned with the specific misdeeds of King James II, the Bill of Rights stands as one of the landmark documents in the development of civil liberties in England – and a model for later, more general, statements of rights, such as the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution.

Joint monarchs

The new Monarchs’ recognition of the sovereignty of Parliament was more clearly stated in the wording of the revised oath written by Parliament for their coronation on 11 April 1689. King William III and Queen Mary II had to swear to govern according to “the statutes in Parliament agreed on” instead of by “the laws and customs … granted by the Kings of England”.

The Financial Revolution

In May 1689, Parliament declared war on France, following the wishes of the new King, William III. For the next 25 years, with only one truce of five years, England was engaged in a long and expensive war with its neighbour across the Channel.

At the end of this war England emerged as the leading European power – and Parliament more powerful than before because of its increased control over the Crown’s finances.

Raising money for war

The House of Commons, which had been in charge of initiating supply Bills since the 15th century, deliberately kept King William III underfunded, ensuring that he and later his successor Queen Anne had to keep Parliament almost continuously in session to get the money necessary to run a war. The cost of about £5.5 million a year in its early stages rose to about £8.5 million a year by its end.

During the war royal ministers and servants, most often sitting in the House of Commons, developed innovative new taxes which were actually paid because they were seen by the public as legitimate, if burdensome, owing to their parliamentary origins. Through these an average of nearly £5 million a year was raised.

Commission of Public Accounts

In 1690 the Commons established a Commission of Public Accounts to monitor how the revenue was being spent by the Crown and began inserting appropriations in its supply Bills, directing how the revenue it raised was to be used for specific purposes.

This increased parliamentary control of revenue helped to ensure the success of the Bank of England, created by statute in 1694, for investors in the Bank could be confident that their loans to the Government would be repaid by parliamentary taxation appropriated for that purpose.

Civil List

Another piece of this so-called ‘Financial Revolution’ which fundamentally altered the relations between Crown and Parliament was the creation of the Civil List in 1698. This was how Parliament granted the Crown revenues of £700,000 a year to meet the costs of running the Government and royal establishment. From this point, the Crown was reliant on Parliament’s control of revenue for its day to day running.

The Act of Settlement

King James II’s flight in 1688 had given Parliament the opportunity to alter the succession to the English throne and to elect a King. Having once used this power to offer the throne to King William and Queen Mary, Parliament was not hesitant in exercising its influence over the succession again.

Apart from enacting as statute the rights of the subject, the 1689 Bill of Rights legislated that the succession to the throne would pass first to any children of James II’s two daughters Mary and Anne before going to any children born to William by a second marriage. Furthermore, it stated that Catholics or those married to Catholics could not succeed to the throne.

The Protestant Succession

There was little concern in 1689 that the Protestant Succession was in danger, but there was unease when Queen Mary died in December 1694 without leaving any children.

This turned to great concern when the Duke of Gloucester, the only surviving child of Princess Anne, died aged 11 in July 1700. This left Anne’s half-brother James, the infant whose birth in June 1688 had spurred William of Orange to invade.

The Hanover Connection

In June 1701 Parliament hoped to resolve this problem by passing the Act of Settlement. It confirmed the provision of the Bill of Rights that no Catholic or person with a Catholic spouse could sit on the throne.

The Act also legislated that, to preserve the Protestant Succession in case neither Anne nor William had any more children, the Crown would pass at Anne’s death to a Protestant relation. This was Sophia, the electress of Hanover in Germany, the granddaughter of King James I by his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, and first cousin to King Charles II and King James II.

Sophia’s son King George I succeeded to the throne upon Queen Anne’s death in 1714, and his descendants, including the current Queen, have ruled Britain ever since – all because of a decision of Parliament in 1701 to alter the succession and to choose its own monarch.

Next in line to the throne

The Bill of Rights in 1689 had declared that William and Mary would be succeeded by Mary’s sister Anne, but it made no provision for the succession if Anne died childless.

William and Mary had no children, but the birth to Anne of a son – Prince William, the Duke of Gloucester – seemed to make the succession safe. But his death, aged 11 in 1700, changed that.

Westminster decision

The English Parliament at Westminster eventually declared in the Act of Settlement 1701 that after Princess Anne – James II’s younger Protestant daughter – the succession would pass in the Protestant line to Sophia of Hanover and her heirs.

The Scottish Parliament chose to do nothing and it seemed as if they might well offer the Scottish crown to the exiled Stuarts.

Act of Union 1707

Until the early 17th century England and Scotland were two entirely independent kingdoms. This changed dramatically in 1603 on the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Because the Queen had died unmarried and childless, the English crown passed to the next available heir, her cousin King James VI, King of Scotland. England and Scotland now shared the same Monarch under what was known as a union of the crowns.

The idea of a union between England and Scotland was aired in February and March 1689 during the deliberations of the Convention Parliament in Edinburgh. King William III wrote to the Convention of his pleasure that so many of the Scots nobility and gentry favoured the proposal, especially since both nations shared the same landmass, language and attachment to the Protestant religion.


As a result of this encouragement, the Convention appointed commissioners to negotiate with the English but met with a wall of disinterest.

A proposal for union was made in the House of Lords in 1695, but that, too, received short shrift.

In Scotland, however, the case for union found much favour among the political elite during the 1690s, mainly because of the poor state of the economy.

In 1699, there were discussions between politicians in London and Edinburgh and the English side acknowledged that a union might be in both nations’ interest. The Scots hoped for a union of trade with vital access to English colonial markets.

Bill proposed

By early 1700 these talks had hardened into a legislative proposal backed by the King. At Westminster a bill for negotiating a union passed the House of Lords, but was thrown out by the House of Commons. This example of continuing English inflexibility did little to dispel the intense anti-English attitudes that were rife in Scotland.

In February 1702 William III sent a message to both houses at Westminster urging consideration of “a firm and entire union” – a union of the two kingdoms with a single parliament.

King William III did not live to see his proposal take shape. Early in March he suffered complications after breaking his collarbone when he was thrown from his horse in Richmond Park. He died on 8 March 1702 and his sister-in-law, Princess Anne, became Queen.

However, Parliament appointed commissioners to negotiate a union between the two countries, and talks were scheduled for later in the year.

In November 1702 the union commissioners convened at the Cockpit, one of the government buildings in Whitehall. But it turned out to be pointless. The Whig politicians who had promoted the idea when King William III was alive were now out of power, and had been replaced by Tories who showed little interest in union with Presbyterian Scotland.

Trade, taxes and religion

An incorporating parliamentary union – meaning the Scots would give up their own parliament – was agreed in principle, as was the Hanoverian succession. But the English commissioners were unwilling to give Scotland access to trade with its colonies until other matters had been resolved.

They also expected the Scots to pay the same taxes as the English, but the former claimed poverty, and didn’t want England’s taxation system extended to Scotland.

Religion was a further, fundamental stumbling block. Should the Scottish Episcopalians be re-established as the Scottish national church? Should they be granted toleration – which they did not have currently? Should the Episcopalians be left unprotected and therefore dependent on the goodwill of the Presbyterian Kirk – the Church of Scotland?

Darien derails the talks

The talks eventually foundered on the question of whether the large numbers of Company of Scotland shareholders should be compensated by the English for losses incurred in the Darien scheme, an unsuccessful attempt by Scotland to establish a colony called – New Caledonia – in Panama in the 1690s.

The commission was adjourned on 3 February 1703 until October, but never reconvened.

Lord Godolphin, the Lord Treasurer – the Queen’s chief minister – and his colleagues in England had hoped that the succession issue had been settled as part of a union agreement. But the Scots remained uncommitted on this crucial matter.

Elections were held in Scotland during 1702, and the new Scottish Parliament assembled in Edinburgh on 6 May 1703 and quickly proved a fractious and unpredictable body.

The Duke of Queensberry, as Lord High Commissioner – the Queen’s personal representative to the Parliament of Scotland – led the Court (government) party, a minority administration, which struggled to steer a course between the opposition parties, the Cavalier (Episcopalian) and Country parties.

Parliament fails to co-operate

Queensberry’s priority was to get Scotland to help fund England’s war with France which had just recently begun. But the Scots were angry about English arrogance and obstruction during the recent union negotiations, especially over the vital issues of trade and the ill-fated Darien enterprise, and these increasingly stormy arguments dominated the proceedings.

There were repeated digressions from the all-important measures that were necessary to provide funds to fight France. Leading members of the opposition put forward legislation – an Act of Security – to preserve the Kirk, trade and the gains of the 1688 Revolution in Scotland. On 16 July the Earl of Roxburghe caused uproar when he proposed adding a distinctly anti-English clause to the Act of Security.

Queen’s successor

It specified that the Queen’s successor in Scotland would not be the same person as that in England, unless Scotland was guaranteed the independence of its Crown, the freedom and power of its Parliament, and the liberty of its religion and trade from outside intrusion.

Scotland was expressing its deepest anger about its negligent treatment in the 1690s by King William, and by the high-handed action of the English parliament in determining the succession in 1701 in the Act of Settlement without consulting the Scots.

Queensberry had now completely lost control of the Parliament.

Another clause was later added to the Act of Security stating that there should be no joint monarch unless Scotland was granted unrestricted access to English colonial trade. The Act was passed after nineteen stormy sittings on 13 August by a majority of fifty nine.

Westminster passes the Alien Act 1705

At Westminster on 29 November 1704, Lord Godolphin, the Lord High Treasurer, explained to the House of Lords why Queen Anne had approved the Scottish Act of Security – which preserved the Kirk, trade and the gains of the 1688 Revolution in Scotland.

He said the Act contained some undesirable elements, but it was essential that any Scottish threat to England’s safety should be neutralised.

Economic pressure

The Tories wanted to censure Godolphin for allowing the Act to pass, but the Whigs said that would antagonise the Scots even more by implying that their legislature was inferior to the English. It was far better, they said, to bring union upon the Scots through economic pressure.

Over the next few days Godolphin was deep in negotiations with the dominant group of Whigs – known as the Junto Whigs – in the English House of Lords, the first step towards the conclusive negotiations of 1706.

Two new Bills

When the House of Lords resumed their deliberations on Scotland on 6 December, two bills were proposed by Lord Somers, one of the Junto leaders, with Godolphin’s support.

One offered fresh negotiations for a full incorporating union, with a single parliament and unified free trade area.

The other, an aliens bill, threatened that unless Scotland agreed to negotiate terms for union and accepted the Hanoverian succession by 25 December 1705, there would be a ban on the import of all Scottish staple products into England.

Scots would also lose the privileges of Englishmen under English law – thus endangering rights to any property they held in England.

Both bills became law early in 1705.

Negotiating the Articles of Union 1705 – 1706

The Scottish Parliament assembled in Edinburgh on 28 June 1705, but for nearly a month did nothing to consider the question. On 23 July Queen Anne impatiently urged the Duke of Argyll, the new Lord High Commissioner, to make progress. A week later, Lord High Treasurer, Godolphin, was speculating on having to take direct action to bring the Scots into line.

However, after seemingly endless manoeuvring during August, the Scottish Court party managed to obtain enough support from the Squadrone – a group of young Presbyterian Whig nobles – to secure the Scottish Parliament’s agreement for Scots participation in fresh negotiations for a union treaty.

Who should choose the new commissioners?

Having agreed to negotiate a treaty, the next task was to appoint the commissioners. Should they be chosen by parliament or the Monarch?

If chosen by parliament, the opposition would almost certainly be able to appoint many opponents of union who would try to sabotage negotiations.

On 1 September, one of the chief opposition figures, the Duke of Hamilton, having done his best to obstruct the introduction of a treaty act, proposed that the commissioners be nominated by the Monarch.
Stunned by Hamilton’s inexplicable behaviour, most of the opposition leaders left the chamber in dismay, and the motion was passed by eight votes.

Godolphin had at last secured what he needed, a treaty, plus the power to nominate the Scottish commissioners. But there was also the beginning of a political sea-change among the Scottish political elite.

Ruthless execution

The ruthless execution in March 1706 of Captain Green, whose English ship, the Worcester, had strayed into Scottish waters, showed how delicate the relationship was between England and Scotland.
If there was armed conflict, Scotland might well come off worse. The Duke of Hamilton admitted privately that “our independency is now a jest”, and that Scotland stood to gain more from a negotiated union than simple agreement on the succession, or war.

The 1706 negotiations

Negotiations between the English and Scottish commissioners were held at the Cockpit, one of the government buildings at Whitehall in London.

The commissioners did not carry out their negotiations face to face, but in separate rooms. They communicated their proposals to each other in writing. There was also a news blackout.

Business commenced on 22 April 1706 when Cowper, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, presented the Scots with the proposal that:

“the two kingdoms of England and Scotland be forever united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain; that the United Kingdom of Great Britain be represented by one and the same parliament; and that the succession to the Monarchy of Great Britain be vested in the House of Hanover.”

Agreement in just three days

Within three days, both sides had secured what they most wanted: England had a guarantee that the Hanoverian royal dynasty would succeed Queen Anne to the Scottish crown; and the Scots had their long sought-after access to English colonial markets as the route to an improved economy.

Speedy agreement on these fundamental points came about because much of the groundwork had been done during the preceding months in informal meetings.

Wide range of issues

The commissioners worked amicably through a wide range of issues with little difficulty: the union flag and the standardisation of weights, measures and coinage; the preservation of private rights, and of heritable offices and jurisdictions; and the number of Scottish peers and Members of Parliament to sit in Westminster.

Taxes and laws

The Scottish commissioners’ particular concern was taxation. Since the Scots could not afford to pay taxes at English levels they agreed a series of exemptions on taxable items such as paper, windows, coal, salt and malt.

It was also agreed that the fundamentals of Scottish civic society should be preserved including the legal system, and the rights and privileges of the Royal Burghs of Scotland.

The Scottish Kirk

There was, however, one highly sensitive area where the negotiators were not permitted: the Scottish Kirk or church. Any mention of it in the Articles of Union would almost certainly have meant that Tory supporters of the Church of England at Westminster would have blocked ratification of the treaty.

The Articles, constitution and trade

There were 25 Articles of Union which formed the basis of the two separate Acts of Union passed by the Parliaments at Westminster and in Edinburgh.
Those relating to the constitution were:

Article 1: From 1 May 1707 the kingdoms of Scotland and England were to be “united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain”. The flags of St George and St Andrew were to be combined.
Article 2: The succession to the Monarchy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain was to pass to the Princess Sophia, the Dowager Electress of Hanover, and her heirs. All Catholics, and people marrying Catholics, would be excluded from the succession.
Article 3: The people of Great Britain were to be represented by one Parliament, known as the Parliament of Great Britain.
Article 22: Scottish representation at Westminster would be 16 Scottish peers in the Lords, and 45 MPs in the Commons. A separate Act of the Scottish Parliament would determine the method of election.
Article 23: Scottish and English peers were to have the same privileges. All peers of Scotland were to be deemed peers of Great Britain.
Article 24: The Great Seals of England and Scotland were to be replaced by a Great Seal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The Scottish crown jewels, parliamentary and other official records were to stay in Scotland.

Fixing the date for union

The commissioners’ final session took place on 11 July when they fixed 1 May 1707 as the date for the union.

The written Articles of Union with the commissioners’ personal seals, were presented to Queen Anne at St James’s Palace on 23 July 1706. The ceremony was witnessed by courtiers and foreign ambassadors.
The English copy of the Articles was presented by William Cowper, the Lord Keeper, and the Scottish copy by the Earl of Seafield, the Lord Chancellor of Scotland.


Cowper made a speech from memory which, was reported, as “miserably mangled”, before resorting to notes, while Seafield by all reports spoke fluently and without notes.

The Queen expressed her hope that the Articles would “meet with approbation in the parliaments of both kingdoms”, and urged the Scots to ratify them quickly.

Ratification, October 1706 – March 1707

In contrast to the abortive negotiations for union of 1702-3, the English this time had gone out of their way to accommodate Scottish demands, particularly over access to English trade.

Next the Scottish Parliament had to agree to the Articles of Union. This turned out to be arduous and was accomplished against a background of protest, often violent, in many parts of Scotland.

Support and opposition

The new session of the Scottish Parliament began on 3 October 1706. Its main business was to agree the Articles of Union.

Queensberry was appointed the Queen’s High Commissioner for the session and was responsible for a successful outcome. Honours, appointments, pensions and even arrears of pay and other expenses were distributed to clinch support from Scottish peers and MPs.

About 100 of the 227 members of the single-chamber Scottish Parliament were court supporters – on the side of the Queen and her government – and thus in favour of union.

Extra votes

For extra votes the court was able to rely on the 25 or so members of the Squadrone Volante led by the Marquess of Montrose and the Duke of Roxburghe.

Opponents of the court, generally known as the Country party, were a loose grouping of factions and individuals. They included leading anti-unionists, such as the Duke of Hamilton, Lord Belhaven and Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, who spoke forcefully and passionately against the union.

However, as Country party members were not ordered to attend and vote as was the case with the Court party, the latter was able to maintain a steady majority over its opponents.

Approval and royal assent

The 25th and last Article was approved on 14 January 1707. The next day the draft of an act for ratifying the Articles as “enlarged, explained and amended” was introduced.

On 16 January it was ordered that the Act for guaranteeing the Presbyterian Kirk be made part of the Act of Ratification.

The Act of Ratification was then put to a vote. In effect this was a final vote on the Articles of Union. The Court-Squadrone Volante majority achieved a comfortable 110 to the Country party’s 67 votes.

The Act was then touched with the royal sceptre by Queensberry, the usual manner of signifying the sovereign’s approval of acts of the Scottish Parliament.

Westminster debates the Articles

On 28 January 1707, 12 days after Edinburgh ratified the Articles of Union, the Queen formally presented them for ratification to Parliament at Westminster.

The House of Commons debated the Articles from 1 – 11th February 1707. Only two sittings of the committee of the whole house were needed to go through all 25 articles.

Concern that the Queen’s ministers were hurrying the proceedings for proper consideration provoked sarcastic shouts of “post-haste, post-haste!” from MPs.

Proceedings in the Lords began on 15 February, and the Tories, though no match for the combined forces of the Court and the Junto, were determined to dig in.

Although they generally favoured union, they found fault with many of the provisions, and voiced fears about the safety of the constitution and of the Church of England.

There were objections to almost every Article and votes were held on several but the opposition vote was never higher than twenty three. The House of Lords finished scrutinising the Articles on 27 February.


In the meantime, the House of Commons approved a bill to ratify the Articles. It was debated in the House of Lords on 1 March, which provided a further opportunity for Tory peers to debate the wisdom of confirming the Scottish Kirk Act as part of the Union.

A last-minute attempt to have the Act removed from the Treaty was unsuccessful, and on 6 March 1707 the Queen attended the House of Lords to give her assent to the English bill ratifying the Union.

The English Act of Union was now law. Technically it was dated the Act of Union 1706, as England still used the Julian calendar, who’s New Year’s Day was 25 March.

England and Scotland were now, as described in the Act, “United into One Kingdom”.

Developing the Hanoverian state

The Act of Union of 1707 merged England and Scotland into a single state of Great Britain and created a single Parliament at Westminster.

But little thought had been given to how the Union would actually work in practice, or how Scotland would be governed in its new relationship with England. This had to be worked out in practice in the decades that followed.

By the late 18th century a British identity had been forged in the wider world.

Any remaining tensions in the relationship between England and Scotland were overshadowed by differences with other parts of the empire.

Both the American Revolutionary War, which broke out in 1775, and perennially troubled Anglo-Irish relations, underlined the relative strength of Scottish loyalty to the Union.

Many of the harsh laws imposed on the Highlands in the aftermath of Culloden were repealed in the 1770s and 1780s.

Industrial transformation

Scotland was also becoming a fast-growing part of the British economy and contributing substantially to the state’s prosperity. Scotland’s traditional strength in textile production thrived enormously under boom-time conditions during the Napoleonic Wars.

A shift to the factory-based production of textiles from the late 18th century had spurred Scotland’s own industrial revolution, and began its transformation from a mainly agrarian and rural society to a mainly urban and industrial one.

The King returns to Scotland

At about the time the clearances (mass evictions and emigration of Highland populations) entered a new and more intense phase in the 1820s, the high point of what was known as Highlandism was reached when King George IV made a state visit to Scotland in August 1822.

This visit, the first by a British Monarch since King Charles II in 1650, was deliberately contrived to reaffirm the bond between the Scots and their Monarch, which had been challenged so repeatedly in the past.

Changes in the political landscape

Before the later 19th and early 20th century only a small minority of men were entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Parliament was dominated by rich landowners and reflected their interests.

Their priorities were to defend their property rights against taxation and state interference. Social disorder was not tolerated. Women did not have any right to vote at all.

Effects of industrialisation

The growth of industry in the 18th century brought great change to the country, its people and their aspirations. Towns and cities increased in population as factories grew in number and people were drawn to work in urban areas as agriculture declined.

This led to further inequalities in representation in Parliament. Urban areas such as Birmingham and Manchester had no Members of Parliament while small villages which had once been important in the Middle Ages sometimes sent two representatives to Parliament.

American and French revolutions

A sense of injustice and a growing political consciousness outside the landed classes, as well as the influence of revolutions in America and France, contributed to a small but growing demand for parliamentary reform.

The violence of the French Revolution entrenched the ruling elite’s belief that the lower orders should be kept in their place but as the 19th century progressed, it was less easy for calls for change to be ignored.

The Reform Act 1832

As the 19th century progressed and the memory of the violent French Revolution faded, there was growing acceptance that some parliamentary reform was necessary. The unequal distribution of seats, the extension of the franchise and ‘rotten boroughs’ were all issues to be addressed.

The Tory Prime Minister in 1830, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, was resolutely opposed to parliamentary reform. However, there was growing support for limited change within his party, primarily because partially extending the franchise would allow the wealth and influence of Britain’s growing middle class to be exploited.

Lord Grey

When the Tory government was ousted later in 1830, Earl Grey, a Whig, became Prime Minister and pledged to carry out parliamentary reform. The Whig Party was pro-reform and though two reform bills failed to be carried in Parliament, the third was successful and received Royal Assent in 1832.

The Bill was passed due to Lord Grey’s plan to persuade King William IV to consider using his constitutional powers to create additional Whig peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the Bill’s passage. On hearing of this plan, Tory peers abstained from voting, thus allowing the Bill to be passed but avoiding the creation of more Whig peers.

Parliamentary Reforms

The first Reform Act

The Representation of the People Act 1832, known as the first Reform Act or Great Reform Act:

  • disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales and reduced another 31 to only one MP
  • created 67 new constituencies
  • broadened the franchise’s property qualification in the counties, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers
  • created a uniform franchise in the boroughs, giving the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and some lodgers

Limited change had been achieved but for many it did not go far enough. The property qualifications meant that the majority of working men still could not vote. But it had been proved that change was possible and over the next decades the call for further parliamentary reform continued.

Second Reform Act 1867

The 1832 Reform Act proved that change was possible. The parliamentary elite felt that they had met the need for change but among the working classes there were demands for more. The growth and influence of the Chartist Movement from 1838 onwards was an indication that more parliamentary reform was desired.

The Chartist Movement had peaked by the 1850s but there was an acceptance among Members of Parliament that there was more work to be done to remove anomalies in the system that the first Reform Act had not addressed.


However, the call for universal manhood suffrage or ‘one man, one vote’ was still resisted by Parliament and the second Reform Act, passed in 1867, was still based around property qualifications.

There was no question of campaigning for the right to vote for women too. They were still excluded.

The 1867 Reform Act:

  • granted the vote to all householders in the boroughs as well as lodgers who paid rent of £10 a year or more
  • reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land

Men in urban areas who met the property qualification were enfranchised and the Act roughly doubled the electorate in England and Wales from one to two million men.

Third Reform Act 1884

Parliament’s resistance to ‘one man, one vote’ was partly overturned in 1884 with the third Reform Act which:

  • established a uniform franchise throughout the country
  • brought the franchise in the counties into line with the 1867 householder and lodger franchise for boroughs

Redistribution of Seats Act

The following year, the Redistribution of Seats Act redrew boundaries to make electoral districts equal. As a result of this Act, most areas returned only one Member to Parliament, although 23 seats, including the City of London and Bath, continued to return two Members until 1910.

Parliament and the political landscape changed greatly over the 19th century, beginning with a small ruling elite in Parliament and gradually increasing to be more democratic and representative.

The pre-eminence of the House of Commons

The powers of the House of Lords are limited by a combination of law and convention.

The Parliament Acts, although rarely used, provide a way of solving disagreement between the Commons and the Lords.

Parliament Acts: background

Until the early years of the 20th century, the House of Lords had the power to veto (stop) legislation.

However, this arrangement was put under pressure when the House of Lords refused to pass David Lloyd-George’s ‘people’s budget’ of 1909. Eventually, the budget was passed after a general election in 1910; a second general election was then fought on the issue of reform of the House of Lords.

Parliament Act 1911

The result was the Parliament Act 1911, which removed from the House of Lords the power to veto a Bill, except one to extend the lifetime of a Parliament. Instead, the Lords could delay a Bill by up to two years. The Act also reduced the maximum lifespan of a Parliament from seven years to five years.

Votes for women

However, one section of society was still completely excluded from the voting process – women. To be truly representative, Parliament still had changes to make.

The modern campaign to secure the right to vote for women began in the mid-19th century. This aim was partially achieved with the Representation of the People Act 1918.

The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act followed later the same year and allowed women to stand as Members of Parliament.

It was not until the Equal Franchise Act was passed in 1928 that women won the same voting rights as men.

Those campaigning peacefully for women’s suffrage were called suffragists. From the early 20th century some women who pursued militant methods of campaigning were known by the initially derogatory term ‘suffragettes’, a description first used by the Daily Mail in 1906.

However, the term was adopted by women themselves and became widely used.

Right to vote

Women felt they should have the right to vote for many reasons, particularly because they had to pay taxes and abide by the law, just as men did. They believed they had an equal right to influence Parliament and government by voting.

During the 19th century, the franchise was extended to include more men both in the Second Reform Act 1867 and the Third Reform Act 1884.

Working class men could vote

Many working class men could now vote. Many women who were denied the right to vote were in similar circumstances to these men, being rate-payers and subject to the same laws of the land.

There was a growing sense of injustice and from the mid-19th century onwards groups of women joined together to campaign for the vote. They were known as suffragists.

Suffragist groups

Suffragist groups existed all over the country and under many different names but their aim was the same: to achieve the right to vote for women through constitutional, peaceful means.

There were regional groups, especially in urban centres like Manchester, which held public meetings and petitioned at local level. At national level, key individuals included Millicent Fawcett and Lydia Becker.


The suffragists believed in achieving change through parliamentary means and used lobbying techniques to persuade Members of Parliament sympathetic to their cause to raise the issue of women’s suffrage in debate on the floor of the House.

Between 1870 and 1884 debates on women’s suffrage took place almost every year in Parliament. This succeeded in keeping the issue in the public eye as Parliamentary proceedings were extensively covered in the national and regional press of the time.

Parliamentary activities

There was some criticism that by concentrating so heavily on activities in Parliament, the movement sacrificed opportunities to mobilise mass support throughout the rest of the country.


The use of petitions was another tactic employed by the suffragists to demonstrate support for their cause. These petitions were presented to Parliament.

First petition

The first petition to Parliament asking for votes for women was presented to the House of Commons by Henry Hunt MP on behalf of a Mary Smith, on 3 August 1832. The same year, the Great Reform Act expanded the electorate, but to ‘male persons’ only.

Another early petition was presented by John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, political economist and Member of Parliament, in 1866.

Challenging received opinions

There were other men inside and outside Parliament who also supported women’s suffrage, challenging the received opinions of the time.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the suffragist movement lost momentum and some members, such as Emmeline Pankhurst who was to form the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 and would lead a more militant campaign, were frustrated at the lack of progress. The impact of peaceful tactics seemed to have been exhausted. It seemed to some campaigners that a different, more radical approach was needed.

Start of the suffragette movement

The Pankhurst family is closely associated with the militant campaign for the vote. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and others decided more direct action was required and started the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the motto ‘Deeds not words’.

Women only

Membership of the WSPU was limited to women only. Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, were committed members.

WPSU members were determined to obtain the right to vote for women by any means and campaigned tirelessly and sometimes violently to achieve this aim.

Militant action

Their militant campaigns included attacks on property and politicians, which resulted in imprisonment and hunger strikes.

These tactics attracted a great deal of attention to the campaign for votes for women. Other organisations that campaigned included the Women’s Freedom League, formed in 1907 by Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard in a break from WSPU.

Not all those campaigning for women’s right to vote favoured militant action.

Legal and constitutional support

Moderate women’s organisations, such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett, were instrumental in building up the legal and constitutional support for the enfranchisement of women but their contributions were often overshadowed by the high profile actions of the suffragettes.

‘Deeds not words’

Imprisonment for their actions became an important tool for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and led to another important tactic, hunger striking.

The first hunger strike was undertaken by Marion Wallace-Dunlop in 1909 as a protest when she was not given political prisoner status in prison. She had been arrested for damaging a wall in St. Stephen’s Hall in the Houses of Parliament.

When imprisoned, suffragettes would go on hunger strike, leading to the authorities force-feeding women in prison, a dangerous and humiliating treatment which provided the suffragettes with powerful propaganda.

‘Cat and Mouse Act’

The Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, also known as ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’ was passed in 1913. This permitted the early release of women who had become so ill as a result of their hunger strike that they were at risk of death but required that they return to prison when their health was better to continue their sentence. The hunger strike/force feeding process then began all over again.

Conciliation Bill

In 1910, a Conciliation Bill was read in Parliament. The bill was written to extend voting rights to women but failed to become law. Following its failure there were violent clashes outside Parliament. There were further Conciliation Bills proposed in subsequent years but they failed to resolve the situation.

Emily Wilding Davison

Emily Wilding Davison was particularly committed to ‘deeds not words’, notably hiding in the House of Commons on a number of occasions, including on Census night in April 1911 when she spent the night in a cupboard near the Crypt Chapel in order to state ‘House of Commons’ as her address on her census return.

She was imprisoned eight times for offences including assault and stone-throwing. Her final, and most dramatic, act was to step out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. It is unclear whether she intended to commit suicide, but she died soon afterwards of her injuries.

Suffragettes in wartime

At the outbreak of the First World War, Emmeline Pankhurst suspended the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union and concentrated her efforts on helping the government recruit women into war work.

The involvement of women in the war effort did much to change perceptions of the role of women in British society.

During the war years women undertook jobs normally carried out by men and proved they could do the work just as well. Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment, resulting in an increase in the proportion of women in total employment from 24 per cent in July 1914 to 37 per cent by November 1918.

It had been proved that women were capable of jobs beyond those in traditionally ‘female’ roles, such as domestic service. However, employers still deemed that women’s work was worth less than men’s and their wage packets did not match men’s even for the same jobs.

However, it was not just that women proved themselves equal to men in the workplace that the arguments for the right to vote were strengthened.

Women get the vote

During 1916-1917, the House of Commons Speaker, James William Lowther, chaired a conference on electoral reform which recommended limited women’s suffrage.

The ongoing work of the suffragist movement and the commitment of the growing Labour Party movement to widening the franchise were also factors.

An influential consideration, in addition to the suffrage movement and the growth of the Labour Party, was the fact that only men who had been resident in the country for twelve months prior to a general election were entitled to vote.

This effectively disenfranchised a large number of troops who had been serving overseas in the war. With a general election imminent, politicians were persuaded to extend the vote to women at long last.

Representation of the People Act 1918

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed which allowed women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification to vote. Although eight and half million women met this criteria, it only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK.

The same act extended the vote to all men over the age of 21. The electorate increased from eight to twenty one million but there was still huge inequality between women and men.

In 1918 some women over the age of 30 got the vote. It was also the year that, a separate law was passed – the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act – which allowed women to stand as candidates and be elected as MPs.

The following year the first woman MP took her seat in the House of Commons.

The first woman MP

The first woman to be elected to the Commons was a Polish Countess, Constance Markievicz, in the general election of 1918. However as a member of Sinn Fein, she did not take her seat.

The first women to take her seat was Nancy Astor (Viscountess Astor), after a by-election in December 1919. She was elected as a Conservative for the Plymouth Sutton constituency after her husband, Waldorf Astor, the former MP, was elevated to the peerage.

She held the seat until she stood down in 1945. Although she had never been involved in campaigns for women’s suffrage, she was a great supporter of the women’s movement once in Parliament.

Her husband also worked to promote the admission of women to the House of Lords during the 1920s.

Equal Franchise Act 1928

It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 were able to vote and women finally achieved the same voting rights as men. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote to fifteen million.

Women and the House of Lords

Women were given the right to stand for Parliament in 1918 but still could not become members of the House of Lords.

The Rhondda Case

Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda (1883–1958) was the daughter of David Alfred (‘D.A.’) Thomas, first Viscount Rhondda (1856–1918), a member of the House of Lords. As he had no sons he had made a special request for her daughter to be able to take his title after he died. However this did not entitle her to take his seat in the Upper House.

One of the leading equalitarian feminists of her day, Lady Rhondda founded a pressure group called the Six Point Group and a feminist journal called ‘Time And Tide’. She had been a militant suffragette in her youth, and had been jailed for setting fire to a post-box. In prison she went on hunger strike.

She was determined to take her father’s seat in the Lords and based her claim on the Sex Disqualification Act 1919 which stated that “a woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function”.

Her case was referred to the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and was heard in 1922. Initially the Committee found in her favour but this decision was soon reversed following opposition from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead (F. E. Smith).

Private Members Bills

Between 1924 and 1928 in the aftermath of the Rhondda case, various Bills were introduced into the Lords proposing that hereditary women peers should be able to sit in the Upper House.

Viscount Astor, the husband of Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, also introduced a series of motions in the Lords to allow Peeresses to sit in the House, all of which were unsuccessful.

After the Second World War, there was renewed interest in the subject. A pressure group was formed, chaired by Edward Iwi, which collected a petition of 50,000 signatures, although it was never presented to Parliament.

On the 2 March 1948 another petition was presented to the House of Lords which bore the signatures of Lady Rhondda and Lady Ravensdale. The latter – formerly Irene Curzon – would become one of the first women to sit in the Lords.

The Lords vote in favour

On the 27 July 1949 the Lords voted on its composition. Although no legislation followed, this vote established for the first time that the House of Lords was in favour of admitting women.

Life Peerages Act 1958

But it was not until the Life Peerages Act 1958 that women were finally allowed to sit in the Upper House as life peers. Viscountess Rhondda lived to see the passage of the Life Peerages Act, but died on 20 July 1958, before the first women took their seats as life peers in the Lords in October.

Hereditary women peers were finally allowed to sit in the House of Lords after the Peerage Act 1963.