Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

consequent quarrels between town oligarchies and town democracies do not, however, justify the
common assumption that there had once been an era of municipal democracy which gradually gave way

to oligarchy and corruption. Nevertheless, these local bodies were English, and legally their members

had been villeins; and their experience in local government prepared them for admittance to that share in

national government which the development of taxation made almost necessary.

Henry II's scheme of active and comprehensive administration, indeed, led by a natural sequence to the
parliament of Edward I and further. The more a government tries to do, the more taxation it must impose;

and the broadening of the basis of taxation led gradually to the broadening of the basis of representation,

for taxation is the mother of representation. So long as real property only - that is to say, the ownership of

land - was taxed, the great council contained only the great landowners. But Henry II had found it

necessary to tax personalty as well, both clerical and lay, and so by slow steps his successors in the

thirteenth century were driven to admit payers of taxes on personalty to the great council. This

representative system must not be regarded as a concession to a popular demand for national

self-government. When in 1791 a beneficent British parliament granted a popular assembly to the French

Canadians, they looked askance and muttered, "C'est une machine anglaise pour nous taxer"; and

Edward I's people would have been justified in entertaining the suspicion that it was their money he

wanted, not their advice, and still less their control. He wished taxes to be voted in the royal palace at

Westminster, just as Henry I had insisted upon bishops being elected in the royal chapel. In the royal

presence burgesses and knights of the shire would be more liberal with their constituents' money than

those constituents would be with their own when there were neighbours to encourage resistance to a

merely distant terror.

The representation people had enjoyed in the shire and hundred moots had been a boon, not because it
enabled a few privileged persons to attend, but because by their attendance the mass were enabled to stay

away. If the lord or his steward would go in person, his attendance exempted all his tenants; if he would

not, the reeve and four "best" men from each township had to go. The "best," moreover, were not chosen

by election; the duty and burden was attached to the "best" holdings in the township, and in the thirteenth

century the sheriff was hard put to it to secure an adequate representation. This "suit of court" was, in

fact, an obligatory service, and membership of parliament was long regarded in a similar light.

Parliament did not clamour to be created; it was forced by an enlightened monarchy on a less enlightened

people. A parliamentary "summons" had the imperative, minatory sound which now only attaches to its

police court use; and centuries later members were occasionally "bound over" to attend at Westminster,

and prosecuted if they failed. On one occasion the two knights for Oxfordshire fled the country on

hearing of their election, and were proclaimed outlaws. Members of parliament were, in fact, the

scapegoats for the people, who were all "intended" or understood to be present in parliament, but enjoyed

the privilege of absence through representation. The greater barons never secured this privilege; they had

to come in person when summoned, just as they had to serve in person when the king went to the wars.

Gradually, of course, this attitude towards representation changed as parliament grasped control of the

public purse, and with it the power of taxing its foes and sparing its friends. In other than financial

matters it began to pay to be a member; and then it suited magnates not only to come in person but to

represent the people in the Lower House, the social quality of which developed with the growth of its

power. Only in very recent times has the House of Commons again included such representatives as

these whose names are taken from the official returns for the parliaments of Edward I: John the Baker,

William the Tailor, Thomas the Summoner, Andrew the Piper, Walter the Spicer, Roger the Draper,

Richard the Dyer, Henry the Butcher, Durant the Cordwainer, John the Taverner, William the Red of

 

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