Parliamentary Prospects

The annual James Ford Lectures in British History have long been Oxford’s blue riband lecture course in History, attracting some of the most distinguished scholars in their fields.  The lecturer in 2003–4 was Dr John Maddicott, Fellow of Exeter College, who here describes something of the process of preparing this year’s lectures.  His theme was ‘The Origins of the English Parliament c. 900–1327'.

Nearly four years ago, when I was honoured and taken aback by being asked to give the Ford Lectures for 2004, I was already engaged on what I hoped would be a short book on the origins of the English parliament. My choice of subject for the lectures –the scope of which is formally defined only as ‘British history’ – grew from what was already on the stocks. Naturally there were other less immediate and more substantial reasons for the choice. Having taught English medieval history for a good many years, I had always been struck by the surprising lack of any modern survey of parliamentary origins and the consequent difficulty which undergraduates found in approaching this central topic. It was necessary to tell them what they could not find in books. So in one sense research and writing grew out of needs revealed by teaching and, as is often the case, the two activities interlocked and fertilized each other. On this particular subject there was predictably an enormous literature, but most of it took the form of narrow and specialised studies or short and dated syntheses or longer works whose authors’ bonnets buzzed with various bees. Some thought that the doing of justice was parliament’s essential role, others that the theoretical concepts of Roman law had exercised a controlling influence on its development. Most previous writing too began with the years after 1215, when the word ‘parliament’ first appears in the records and chronicles. The institution’s more distant origins in the Anglo-Saxon witan and in the councils of the Norman and Angevin kings had hardly for some general view of the whole field, which took account of these distant origins, linked them to the better known parliaments of the thirteenth century, and at the same time both synthesized and added to modern scholarship. Ideally such a view would also take account of continental parallels, so that listeners and readers could judge whether the appearance of the English parliament was simply part of a pan-European ‘age of the estates’, as is often fashionably asserted, or whether its local peculiarities were so marked as to justify the revival of ancient claims to ‘English exceptionalism’.

To turn these preliminary thoughts into the substance of six or seven lectures seemed a tall order. Some grounding in the subject had come to me from my own researches, but these were partial. I had worked for a long time on local society in England, on the role of the commons in parliament, and on the contacts between centre and provinces which the parliamentary assembly of local representatives epitomised. Much of this work had concentrated on the fourteenth century and so was largely beyond the limits of lectures intended to terminate in 1327. But I was also interested in the earlier parliaments of the previous century, an interest which had largely grown out of my writing the life of Simon de Montfort, still popularly (but quite erroneously) seen as the founder of the English parliament. I had been fortunate enough to discover in the British Library the names of the earliest known county MPs, who attended the parliament of 1254, and I had also been able to trace the attendance of small landholders back to the twelfth century, when the lesser crown tenants, often themselves knights or very minor barons, had occasionally been summoned to royal councils. This was to be one of the chains of causation which took my arguments on the origins of parliament back beyond what had become their traditional post- 1215 starting point.

So I had some familiarity with the local roots of parliament, and this was a factor which, almost insensibly, changed the direction of the lectures as I had originally conceived them. My first intention had been to produce an analytical account, not just of parliament’s most distant roots, but of its composition and functions during its first heyday under Henry III. But this intention was partly subverted by my own growing interest in the local representatives of the shires and boroughs and in the role which they came to play in the politics of the period. I suspect that the result is – and I write this before the lectures have been delivered – a view of parliament which will be open to justifiable criticism for its silent and unintended depreciation of the routine and workaday elements in parliament’s making: the administrative and judicial functions of parliament, the place of royal ministers and officials, the central role of the king’s council. But in what I hope is a less questionable way I have also tried to trace the long continuities of assemblies from the tenth century onwards and to show how the central thread in the prehistory of parliament lies in grafting of Norman and feudal ideas about counsel, and the obligatory role of the king’s great men in providing it, on to the original English conciliar stock. Without the imposition of the Norman Conquest on the evolution of the Anglo-Saxon witan, parliamentary development would have taken an entirely different turn.

Writing the Ford Lectures has proved to be a peculiarly taxing exercise. The constraints of the hour’s performance impose a tight discipline upon each one: each has to present a theme and an argument within a strictly defined time and in a kind of prose which differs from that of written scholarship. The need to put across the material in shortish sentences, without long qualifying clauses or too much in the way of artifice, and in a manner which follows the natural rhythms of speech means that lectures in their presentation offer a very different kind of challenge from that of an article, intended, say, for the E.H.R. The Ford Lectures pose particular difficulties because of the nature of the audience: partly one’s medievalist colleagues, partly historians of other periods, partly undergraduates, and partly a few interested outsiders. To say something which professional medievalists will find stimulating and perhaps even novel, but which will also prove comprehensible and helpful to undergraduate historians, is daunting. The level at which to talk is not easy to get right (it is perhaps a bit like teaching an unset class in a comprehensive school). Whether the effort as been successful only the audience will be able to judge. Since parliament has been, almost from the start, one of the central institutions of an exceptionally powerful state, it was one certainly worth making.


- John Maddicott

Exeter College