From Absolute to Limited Monarchy: The British Origins of Parliamentary Government

Legal History, Rey Juan Carlos University, Madrid, Spain


[Man]… is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted.—John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). On Liberty (1859)1

11.1 A Peculiar Constitutional History

England and the United Kingdom (which, in addition to England, includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), boast one of the most peculiar and interesting “constitutional” histories of all the western countries. At the center of these histories stand two specific institutions: the Crown and Parliament.

“Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off”. With this phrase the English sum up a disposition, a special spirit that differs profoundly from the rest of Europe. Firstly, for geographical reasons, as it is located on the island of Great Britain, invaded in 1066 by the Norman King William the Conqueror. After defeating King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, William rose to the British throne.2 The Normans, as their name indicates, were men from the north (Norsemen) who in the ninth century had navigated Europe’s largest rivers, attacking the towns located along them, aided by ships which benefitted from their minimal draft. Among these towns was Paris, which was sacked several times. In 911, the Frankish king Charles the Simple, weary of their raids, made a pact with the Norman leader Rollo at Cheptel sur Epte through, which in exchange for peace, he turned the city of Rouen over to him, along with the provinces as far west as Brittany (Crouch 2007, 4). Settled on France’s northwestern coast, the Normans invaded the island of Great Britain in 1066 (incidentally, the last time the island would be successfully invaded: Philip II’s Armada, Napoleon and Hitler would all fail to match this feat).

The history of English public law is one of the West’s most interesting. Many “Continental” legal scholars contend that the UK has no constitution, but in this they err. While it does not have, of course, a written constitution (Jenkins 2003), the British enjoy Europe’s oldest series of political customs and habits, a body of customs and usages called the “conventions” of the Constitution (Chrimes 1970, 7), a legacy which makes their political system extremely stable.3 And the most imitated. The British were the principal architects of Parliamentary government, in which the executive is elected—and controlled—by the legislature (Wintertorn 1976, 591–617). This model of representative government has prevailed in many western countries, beginning with most European democracies, and has become a reference in western constitutional history (Irvine of Lairg 2003, 227–250).

We have already seen how classical absolutism evolved towards an “enlightened” approach, adapting in response to the circumstances of eighteenth-century Europe. The absolute monarchs strove to be more effective, but while respecting the sacred principle that government should be exercised by one person. Their reformist policies surely transformed the realities of their kingdoms, but they also emphasized the authoritarianism of the king, thereby exacerbating his isolation from his subjects. The rigidity and intransigence of the absolutist regimes was gradually overcome in England as the principle of the British Parliament’s control of the monarchy was reestablished in the seventeenth century. Thus did British “constitutional” practice progressively move towards “assembly-based government” during the eighteenth century, developing into a “parliamentary system” in the nineteenth century.4

11.2 The Origins of Assembly-Based Government

11.2.1 From the Germanic Kingdoms to the Feudal Stage

Rome had “popular” assemblies during the Republican period, but they were almost always controlled by the wealthy, and gradually lost their influence and power following the triumph of the imperial monarchy because of the process initiated by Augustus and the establishment of the Principate. In contrast, we have already seen how originally, during their stage as nomads, the Germanic peoples made their most important decisions through assemblies of warriors (mallus), the origin in Anglo-Saxon England of councils known as the witan and moots, held from the eighth to the eleventh centuries.5 In Anglo-Saxon England, for instance, the law forbade men from seeking the king’s justice unless they had failed to have their case heard in the local “hundred courts,6” made up of rich and poor men alike (Pollock and Maitland 2010, 42). The principle of collective justice, however, would endure down to our days in institutions such as the jury (Stanley 2000, 136–145).7

It should be noted that after the various Germanic peoples settled in a particular territory and organized into kingdoms, their popular assemblies tended to become restricted, composed solely of “notables” acting as royal advisers—aula regia in Visigothic Spain or witenagemot (Gneist 2005, 101–103) in Anglo-Saxon England. The “aristocratic” assembly took on special importance during the feudal stage, evolving into the curia regis. Made up of bishops and the most influential noblemen, it was the body of advisers and courtiers who assisted the king and supervised the administration of the realm, the ancestor of the king’s privy council, which later splintered into Parliament and the Privy Council (Baker 1990, 20). The curia became the centerpiece of royal administration in England during the twelfth century, and gradually evolved, as in the rest of Europe, into an assembly of estates (Gneist 2005, 260–263),8 though featuring the peculiarity that the medieval English assembly of “estates”, the Parliament, would play a more important legal and political role than in other European kingdoms.

11.2.2 The Westminster Parliament Appears From the Assize of Clarendon to the Magna Carta

Following the Norman invasion England was ruled by a series of authoritarian kings, such as William I himself, and his descendant Henry II Plantagenet, who in 1166 had the curia regia approve the historic legislative text known as the Assize of Clarendon,9 which limited the purview of feudal jurisdictions and laid down the foundation for the expansion of royal justice (Caenegem 1988, 40–42). It became the first step towards the unification of legal practice throughout the kingdom (common law).10 His son John I—a brother of Richard the Lionhearted—ruined all that his father had achieved. His reign was so disastrous for England that he was called “John Lackland” because the French king, Philip Augustus, wrested from him all his domains in France. This, coupled with his voracious fiscal policy, so enraged the nobles that they forced the king to accept the Magna Carta in 1215, a document limiting the king’s power (and granting them more, of course).11

There after the English kings began to consult the most eminent members of the nobility before making the most important decisions for the kingdom. In fact, these nobles began to meet with the king in the city of Westminster—at that time separated from London—to discuss affairs of state. (The term Parliament 12 would evolve from the French verb parler,13 meaning “to talk”.) These meetings of the king with his nobles constituted the origins of the English Parliament (Maddicott 2012). From the Council of Nobles to the Assembly of Estates

In 1258, an English nobleman named Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and a brother of King Henry III, weary of the monarch’s weakness and misrule, rebelled against him, and imposed upon the monarch the “Provisions of Oxford”, a document which left power in the hands of a restricted council of nobles and was considered, until 1264, the law of the land by the barons (Valente 2005, 40). At the Battle of Lewes in 1264 (Sadler 2008, 55–70) Monfort defeated Henry III and imposed upon him the presence in Parliament of representatives from every county and the most important cities, in addition to its nobles and bishops (Maddicott 2001, 284–289). The citizens’ representation at Westminster was consolidated by Edward I (1272–1307), who as of 1295 relied upon knights and town representatives to counter the influence of the nobility, and to finance his military campaigns.14 This explains as well why he was extremely active legislating, to the point that Frederick W. Maitland considered him the “English Justinian” (Maitland and Montague 2005, 2).15

11.2.3 The Political Consolidation of Parliament

In 1307, the successor to the energetic Edward was his son, Edward II who, unlike his father, was an utter disaster, so inept that in 1327 Parliament forced him to abdicate in favor of his son Edward III (Raban 2000, 149–151). This was the first time that Parliament succeeded in such a decisive political intervention, but it would not be the last.16

Edward III reigned for 50 years and proved to be one of England’s finest kings. It should be noted, however, that he was responsible for involving his kingdom in the Hundred Years War in 1346, after his resounding victory at the Battle of Crecy (Ormrod 2011, 277–284). The ensuing conflict would be a long one and take a heavy toll on the English monarchy, forcing its kings to summon Parliament often to ask for money. Over the course of its gatherings the current bicameral structure of the English Parliament developed, with one body made up of nobles (House of Lords), and another composed of the representatives of the cities (House of Commons).17 This was a unique structure as compared to the assemblies of estates in the various European kingdoms,18 as in England the underprivileged classes, the commoners, enjoyed 50 % of Parliamentary representation, rather than the one third they wielded in Spain’s Cortes, or France’s Estates General, where the other two thirds were controlled by the privileged classes: the clergy and the nobility. By the final years of Henry III’s reign the Commons would play a decisive political role in English politics (Harris 2006, 437–443).

The growing power of Parliament was evident in 1399, when the two chambers acted to remove Richard II and usher in a new dynasty, the House of Lancaster, installing Henry IV on the throne (Dodd 2007, 324–325). The new king would reinitiate hostilities with France (prolonging the 100 Years War), which would reinforce Parliament’s political importance, as the monarchs once again required large sums of money to finance their military campaigns. Parliament’s power was further bolstered by the fact that England eventually lost the lengthy conflict, which left the crown’s prestige badly tarnished.19 The defeat also led to the outbreak of a bloody civil war: the War of the Roses (1455–1485), in which the houses of Lancaster and York grappled for the throne. In the end it was Parliament which served as the arbitrator designating a new dynasty: the Tudors.20

11.3 Parliament and the Absolutism of the Tudors

The War of the Roses, in addition to plunging the kingdom into anarchy, decimated the nobility, making it possible for the new king, Henry VII (1485–1507), to restore royal authority (Hicks 2003, 90–91), which would ultimately be shored up by his son, Henry VIII, who reigned until 1547, and his granddaughter, Elizabeth I (1558–1603). These three Tudor monarchs were able to reassert royal prerogative and prevail against Parliamentary power, which certainly did not disappear, but was held in check during this period, during which there were long intervals without a session (Maitland and Fisher 2001, 248–251).21

It must be said that, despite their authoritarian tendencies, the Tudors demonstrated undeniable political skill. Specifically, they astutely favored a bourgeoisie which had become richer by acquiring many of the assets of the nobles who had perished in the War of the Roses, and others expropriated from the religious orders, abolished by Henry VIII after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his break with Rome (Law of Supremacy, 1534). Thanks to these events, England grew from a country of herders and farmers into an industrial and mercantile power. Thus emerged a powerful class of merchants who rubbed shoulders and eventually merged with the old landed nobility, giving rise to a new ruling class in England: the gentry.22

With such a wide and solid social background, Henry VIII firmly consolidated his authority over the “Reformation Parliament” (Lehmberg 2009),23 creating a strong government and an efficient administration in what Geoffrey Rudolph Elton called the “Tudor Revolution”.24 As Crossman (1969, 51) points out, the Tudor era was essentially one of action and of expansion; men were so busy forging the new state that they had little time to speculate about it. Therefore, neither Henry nor Elisabeth explicitly claimed Divine Right for their sovereignty, nor did they explicitly demand passive obedience. Rather, they ruled as secular autocrats, in a way that Machiavelli himself would have endorsed, and were prudent enough to often placate their supporters and submit to their wishes.25

11.4 Dynastic Change and the Triumph of Parliament: The Two English Revolutions of the Seventeenth Century

11.4.1 The Kings of Scotland on the English Throne: The Stuarts

Elisabeth I died without leaving an heir.26 Thus, after her death, a Scottish dynasty came to occupy the English throne: the Stuarts, descendants of Queen Mary, who Elizabeth I had ordered beheaded. The arrival to the English throne of the kings of Scotland, in the person of James VI of Scotland and I of England (1603–1625), allowed the two kingdoms to be united.

The new kings of England and Scotland sought to wield the same authority as their predecessors, but the Stuarts lacked the Tudors’ charisma. James I, although writing several books on the divine right of kings, such as The True Law of Free Monarchies and the Basilokon Doron (literally “royal gift”), a kind of guide for princes,27 was relatively moderate and did not square off against Parliament.28

11.4.2 The First English Revolution: Oliver Cromwell and the Only “Republic” in English History

James I’s successor, however, Charles I (1625–1649), would soon collide head on with Parliament as a result of the initiative of Sir Edward Coke and his Petition of Right, of 1628 (Ryan 2005, 9–16). Besides having an authoritarian disposition—which he revealed by dissolving both Houses in 1629 and governing alone for 11 years—he was married to a Catholic princess: Henrietta Maria of France, Louis XIII’s sister. As most members of the House of Commons defended the independence of the Church of England, declared by Henry VIII and consolidated by Elizabeth I, civil war soon broke out.29 The conflict was won by the Parliamentary leader Oliver Cromwell (1649–1658) who, in addition to supporting the king’s beheading for treason (along with 59 other deputies), established a “republic” over which he declared himself “Lord Protector” (Seel 1999, 73–90). In reality what he established was a dictatorship which, following his death, his son could not sustain. Thus, weary of Cromwellian tyranny (Woolrych 2003, 61–89), the English chose to restore the Stuarts to the throne in the person of Charles II (1660–1685).

11.4.3 The Appearance of Political Parties

Parliament soon clashed with the new king, not only because they believed him to be unduly lenient with Catholics, but because he forged an alliance with Louis XIV, the personification of absolutism in Europe at the time. Parliament reacted by unilaterally adopting two very important laws: the first forbade Catholics from serving as Parliamentary representatives or holding public through the Test Act of 1673 (Harris 2006, 74–75), while the second declared arbitrary arrests to be illegal (Habeas corpus, 1679).30

Parliament’s belligerence also had another momentous consequence in British constitutional history, as it favored the formation of two political groups in the House of Commons: the Tories (conservatives) and Whigs (liberals). The former were Anglicans loyal to the king, and the latter, were essentially members of the bourgeoisie who opposed the Stuarts. This organization of representatives into ideologically homogeneous groups greatly facilitated the formation of majorities, enabling Parliament thereafter to pressure the king much more effectively.31 Thus, for the first time in the constitutional sphere there appeared political parties which, beginning with the French Revolution, would become one of the decisive instruments in the government of the contemporary state.32

11.4.4 The Second (and Last) English Revolution (1688)

Charles II was succeeded by his brother James II (1685–1688). Although the new king was a devout Catholic,33 he was tolerated by the Parliament because he had two daughters married to Protestant princes: Mary to William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland; and Anna to the King of Denmark. James II, however, was widowed and married a Catholic Italian princess who bore him a son. Faced with the threat of a Catholic dynasty occupying the throne, a number of Tory representatives allied with the Whig majority in 1688, with Parliament then asking William of Orange,34 the husband of the king’s eldest daughter, to occupy the English throne (Nenner 2003, 83–94).

When William sailed for England, James, rather than confronting him, chose to flee. As the throne was left vacant, the Parliament assembled without being summoned by the king in a “Convention”,35 a sort of “constituent assembly”36 formed to transfer the Crown from James II to William III and his wife Mary, imposed upon the two a Declaration of Rights (Maitland and Fisher 2001, 281–288). This essential constitutional document, later reenacted in statutory form37 as the Bill of Rights in 1689, was a stipulation of liberties that had been partially recognized in the Carta Magna and subsequent laws.38 This second English revolution, dubbed the “Glorious Revolution”, was shorter and less spectacular than Cromwell’s, but much more pivotal.39

11.4.5 The Religious Issue and the Transformation of England’s Constitutional Framework

One last point is essential to understand the political transformation England underwent during the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts: the religious question. We know that the consolidation of the major European monarchies came at the expense of the papacy, as kings asserted their power and rejected the principle of Christian universalism, which had previously made the popes the supreme political authorities. In England, Henry VIII’s break with the Church, motivated by his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, led to the clergy’s submission to the monarchy and the king’s establishment as the head of the English (Anglican) Church in what is called the “Reformation Statutes” (Bernard 2007, 68). This policy would be sustained by his daughter, Elizabeth I, who undid the work done by her predecessor to the throne, her half-sister Mary Tudor.40

The consolidation of a state religion was not easy, however, as the kings had to fight against Papist Catholics, many of whom took refuge in Ireland, and Protestant extremists, principally Puritans, Baptists and Presbyterians. In this sense, the Cromwellian Revolution triumphed largely because Charles I was married, as we know, to a Catholic princess, and James II had to flee England, in large measure because he was Catholic (Clifton 1971, 23–55). In fact, his daughters Mary and Anne sat on the English throne because they were married to Protestant princes. Parliament not only came to prevent the Catholics from serving as kings of England, through the Act of Settlement (1701),41 but also banned them from holding any public office in the kingdom, a prohibition not lifted until well into the nineteenth century.42

Concerning non-Anglican Protestants, in principle they were also excluded from political activity—at least until Parliament passed and William and Mary approved the Bill of Rights in 1689. The Bill of Rights, however, only applied to dissident Protestant sects; Catholics and Jews did not benefit from the protection offered by this civil rights law.43

11.5 The Emergence of the United Kingdom and the Consolidation of Parliamentary Preeminence

When Mary and William died without leaving heirs, the throne passed to James II’s other daughter, Anne (1702–1714), who was also a Protestant. During her reign the union between England and Scotland was fortified, giving rise to the United Kingdom with the “Acts of Union”.44 It was at this point when the Union Jack flag appeared, representing the union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland.45

From the standpoint of public law the momentous development in British constitutional history was that Anne I (1702–1707), accepted the legislative preeminence of the Parliament of Westminster. Following the custom established by her sister and predecessor, Mary II, she never opposed a law passed by both houses, thereby establishing a precedent and custom which has since been respected by all the kings of England—even though it has never been placed in writing. She did not, however, accept the principle of Parliamentary government. As Gregg (2001, 403) points out, Queen Anne was fully conscious of the fact that she was a constitutional monarch and, therefore, never attempted to challenge the supremacy of Parliament or of statute law. At the same time, she jealously guarded the prerogatives of the Crown and interpreted the constitution as she saw fit. This is why she personally attended Cabinet meetings (Somerset 2012, 216) and always refused to concede that majorities in both houses of Parliament gave either a party an inherent right to dominate the executive councils of government. All this would change, however, under Anne’s successors: the Hanover dynasty.

11.6 The Rise of the Hanover Dynasty and the Formation of the Parliamentary Regime

Queen Anne I, like her sister Mary I, also died without heirs, making her closest relative, the Elector of Hanover, another Protestant prince, the king: George I of England (1714–1727). The change of dynasty was because of the aforementioned 1701 Act of Settlement, which forbade a Catholic from becoming His Gracious Majesty. George I was succeeded by George II (1727–1760) and George III (1760–1820). This dynastical change would have crucial consequences for British constitutional history.

11.6.1 Robert Walpole and the Linguistic Origins of the Parliamentary Regime

When they ascended to the British throne, neither George I nor George II spoke English, which prevented them from presiding over meetings with their ministers. The result was that for 46 years English monarchs did not attend the deliberations of their governments, leaving this task to their ministers. Thus arose the custom of one of the ministers informing the kings (in French or Latin) about affairs discussed at the ministerial cabinet’s meetings and, reciprocally, conveying to his colleagues the sovereign’s point of view (Maitland and Fisher 2001, 394–400).

This state of things was facilitated by the circumstance that for over 20 years (between 1721 and 1742), this role of intermediary was played by Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford (1676–1745), then the leader of the Whig party. Such longevity in office proved to be crucial, as it ended up ingraining Walpole’s character and political ideas into English political practice. With a naturally authoritarian disposition, he gradually managed to have the king remove all those ministers who did not share his ideas, thereby coming to head up a homogeneous cabinet. As he presided over the government, he became the “Prime Minister”.46 Walpole believed that ministers ought to enjoy not only the king’s confidence but also—and this was profoundly novel—that of the Parliament. Thus, when most of the Westminster representatives reproached him for his policy of peace with France, he resigned, even though he enjoyed George II’s confidence (Pearce 2008, 418). Thus did Parliamentary government arise by way of “constitutional tradition” in what can be called the power shift from Monarch to Prime Minister (Wicks 2006, 59–62).

11.6.2 The Consolidation of the “Parliamentary System” The Case of William Pitt the Elder and the Emergence of “Public Opinion”

Walpole’s resignation proved pivotal to the consolidation of the parliamentary system, as thereafter kings considered the opinion of Parliament’s two chambers about government affairs. Not only that of the representatives in Parliament, but also “public opinion”, which would begin to acquire political clout as a result of the diffusion of England’s first newspapers (Harris 1993).47 This, for instance, was the case in 1757, when British public opinion, after a war in which England had been resoundingly defeated by France, in an outburst of patriotic fervor, forced George II to appoint the Whig leader William Pitt “the Elder”, also known as Lord Chatham (1708–1778), as Prime Minister (Black 1990, 172–173).48 George III Seeks to Tame Parliament

With the arrival to the throne of George III (1760-1820), the Crown’s attitude towards Parliament radically changed. The new king was of an authoritarian bent, and immediately locked horns with William Pitt, who the monarch forced to resign in 1761 (Watson 2001, 74). One must keep in mind that, unlike his predecessors, George III had been born in England and spoke English perfectly. Thus, he strove to rule by himself and to impose his royal will upon his ministers.49 Initially, however, he was unable to do so in his dealings with the Westminster Parliament, and had to readmit Pitt as Prime Minister between 1766 and 1768 (Thomas 2002, 180–196). After devoting himself to unabashedly buying off electors and representatives, George III ended up achieving a docile Parliament over which he was able to place Lord North as Prime Minister.50 This attempt to fully restore royal prerogative, however, would fail for two reasons: the Wilkes Affair and the War of Independence against the American colonies (1776–1783). The Wilkes Affair and the Consolidation of Public Opinion as a Political Force (1770)

The Wilkes Affair marked the emergence of public opinion as a political force in England. John Wilkes (1727–1797) was a member of the House of Commons who began to attack the king’s policies in his newspaper The North Briton (Melton 2001, 31). George III reacted by ordering his arrest. British public opinion, however, found the king’s response unfair, a violation of Parliamentary immunity and the freedom of the press. In 1768, Wilkes was reelected as a representative but, by order of the King, Parliament invalidated his election. Elected again, his appointment was again overruled by the Houses. This time, however, the public was incensed and there appeared a large number of pamphlets vehemently reproaching the king and the House of Commons for their disrespect for the rights of voters to freely choose a candidate.51 The pressure was effective. As a result of it, Parliament adopted a law allowing the press to publish the contents of its sessions.52 The Independence of the American Colonies and the End of Absolutism in England (1783)

George III’s authority, quite undermined by the Wilkes Affair, was further weakened when the English colonies in North America achieved independence from the British Crown after a rebellion which began in 1776 (McConville 2006). Public opinion blamed the monarch for defeat in a conflict which had been brought about by the king’s intransigence, as he had refused to make any concessions to the American colonists (Thomas 1985, 16–31). Thus, when in 1782, George III was forced to recognize the independence of the 13 colonies, the general discontent forced him to accept as prime minister one of the leaders of the opposition, who dared to form his government without consulting the monarch regarding its composition.53 King George’s Madness and Its Constitutional Implications

To make matters worse, at the end of his reign George III went insane. Exhibiting the first symptoms of madness in 1788, he was definitively deranged by 1811.54 This situation provoked a constitutional crisis in 1788, in which the question arose as to whether the heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales, could unilaterally declare himself regent, or if it was Parliament’s prerogative to appoint one (Derry 1963, 67–119). In 1811, the Parliamentary option prevailed and the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, was invited by Parliament to exercise the regency by virtue of a law that was not sanctioned by the king—who was incapacitated—but by a commission named by the Parliament.55 This would prove to be a crucial precedent. Victoria: The Queen Who Did Not Govern

Beginning with the reign of Victoria I (1837–1901), the English monarchy ceased to assert a political role and began to limit itself to functions of institutional representation. In fact, the exercise of royal prerogative ever since has been defined by the constitutional precept that “the king reigns but does not govern” (Arnstein 1990, 178–194). The long Victorian period allowed for the normalization of the alternation between the two major parties, thanks in large part to the liberal Gladstone and the conservative Disraeli, the era’s political giants, especially after the election reform of 1867, which helped to establish a tradition of political debate (Matthew 1979, 615–643). In large part, this explains why the Victorian Age marked the zenith of British power and prestige.

11.6.3 The Democratization of the Parliamentary System (1832–1928)

While the Parliamentary system established since the first half of the eighteenth century did curtail royal prerogative, it did not turn the British political system into a democratic regime per se. In fact, until the essential Lord Grey’s electoral reform of 1832, Parliament was controlled by a very small oligarchy: the gentry.56 Only thereafter was the electoral map reorganized, with the elimination of 143 “rotten” or “pocket” boroughs: areas that had elected representatives ever since the Middle Ages even though they were practically devoid of any population. Rotten boroughs had survived because they made it possible to control elections through patronage, the purchasing of votes and electoral fraud. Moreover, the reform created electoral districts with their corresponding parliamentary representatives in the new industrial cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, which until then had no MPs in Westminster (Wicks 2006, 76–81).57 The “democratization” of the English electoral system took shape by expanding the system of censitary suffrage, requiring increasing incomes for one to vote or be elected through the successive reforms of 1867, 1873 and 1884 (Smith 2004, 156–173.)58

The British parliamentary system would not be fully democratized until after the First World War, when the requirement of being a property owner, or at least a lessee in one’s own name, was lifted to vote. Then, the only requisite was to meet certain age requirements: 21 for males and 30 for women. Though unfair, this nevertheless marked a great victory for women, as it came after more than half a century of struggle for women’s suffrage (Kent 2005, 191–228)59 in a movement that started with the Parliamentary debates that led to the approval of the Second Reform Act of 1867 (Bolt 2000, 34),60 and required the brave determination of courageous women like Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928)61 to succeed. British women finally achieved voting equality in 1928, when the age at which they could vote was made the same as that of men (van Wingerden 2002, 172–180).62

11.6.4 The Consolidation of the Legislative Superiority of the House of Commons: The Parliament Act (1911)

Another important step towards the democratization of the British Parliamentary regime was the approval of the Parliament Act on August 18, 1911, a consequence of the constitutional crisis provoked by the rejection of the Budget Law in November 1909 by the Conservative-dominated House of Lords. After two ensuing general elections (January and December 1910), the Liberal Government of Herbert Henry Asquith approved a Bill that deprived the House of Lords of its ability to reject funding bills, and replaced their veto power over other public bills, with a power to delay them for up to 2 years.63 The result of the 1909–1911 conflict between the two Houses, left the House of Commons in a dominant position within Parliament, which meant that the legislative authority of Parliament came to be based on the electorate’s political support, as holding a majority of seats in the Commons became the source of true political power (Bradley and Ewing 2007, 54).

11.6.5 The Legislative Recognition of the Prime Minister (1937)

The figure of the “prime minister”, and even of the Cabinet itself, however, retained an unofficial status for much longer, as it would not be until 1937 that a law officially created the position: the Ministers of the Crown Act (1937), which also assigned the office remuneration (Brazier 1997, 90).


Roman Period

43–409 ad

Roman occupation of Great Britain.

Anglo-Saxon Period


Battle of Dyrham. Decisive victory of Angles and Saxons. Beginning of Anglo-Saxon rule. England is divided into several kingdoms (Heptarchy).


Reign of Aethelbert, King of Kent (c. 600 Aethelbert Code).


Reign of Alfred the Great, first king of the Anglo-Saxons.


Reign of Cnut II the Great, king of England, Denmark and Norway.


Reign of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king.

Late Middle Ages


Battle of Hastings. End of the Anglo-Saxon period, beginning of the Norman period.


Completion of the “Domesday Book” ordered by William I the Conqueror (1066–1087).


Reign of Henry II Plantagenet. Expansion of Royal justice.


Assize of Clarendon


Assassination of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.


Henry II appoints Ranulf of Glanville Chief Justiciar of England. Author of the first treatise on English Law (Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae), he was decisive in consolidating Henry II’s judicial reforms, which led to the establishment of a “Common Law” for the realm.


John I Lackland is forced by nobles to sign the Magna Carta Libertatum.


“Provisions of Oxford”. An in-law of the weak and unpopular Henry III (1217–1272) rebels against the king and imposes a council of 15 nobles, assigned all powers.


Simon de Montfort defeats Henry III at Lewes and summons a Parliament in which, together with two nobles per county, for the first time sit two representatives of the bourgeoisie for each city.