Stages in Political Development of England. At the start of the Middle Ages, England was ruled by a king. The 19th century saw the political world begin to change. The United Kingdom is a unitary state with devolution governed within the framework of a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch.
Stages in Political Development of England
(a) Tribal-Communai Society:-
To understand England’s political development in modern times, it is necessary to know its historical antecedents. The Iberian and the Alpine tribes wore the British Islands’ first settlers, who owned their land and cattle in common and normally led a peaceful life. Celtic tribes invaded Britain in the 7th century B.C. and assimilated the original inhabitants into their own tribal structures while reducing some of them to slavery. They also introduced agriculture and carried on some trade with the Gauls in France.
(b) Roman Colonial Rule:-
Julius Ceasar, Roman Emperor, invaded England in 52 B.C and converted the country into a colony of the Roman Empire. The English people suffered from colonial rule for about four centuries. The Romans developed commerce and transport and granted municipal status to five English cities. The Imperial rulers also introduced the system of agricultural estates owned by landlords.
The British upper classes became completely Ramanised and were transformed from Celtic tribal chiefs into Roman landowners and officials. Thus, they lend, which was formerly under collective ownership of the tribal clans, was converted into a few British and Roman aristocrats’ private property. As the Roman economy depended on a large class of slaves, tribal democracy and equality gave way to class rule and racial inequality and exploitation.
The British slaves were recruited in the army, worked on the farms, and carried to Italy and other parts of the empire to be sold in the open market. When the Celtic incursions put an end to Roman rule in 450, tribal-communal social structures partially reappeared and destroyed the Roman social and political Innovations to 8 great extents—this implied revival of tribal democracy, collectivism, and equality to a limited extent.
(c) The Anglo-Saxon Political System:-
The invasions of the Anglo-Saxon tribes began in the latter half of the fifth century and continued until the sixth century. Their social structure was partly tribal and partly feudal. After destroying the tribal communal democracy of the Celts, the Anglo-Saxon conquerors laid the Celts, and the Anglo-Saxon conquerors laid the foundations of territorial kingdoms in Britain, which were half-feudal and half tribal, a cross between tribalism and feudalism.
These Teutonic tribes-Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Danes had come from Germany and Denmark. The present English language has evolved from the Anglo-Saxon dialects. The defeated Celts’ dialects are still represented in the spoken tongues of the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish peoples but have left no imprints on modern English.
As the Anglo-Saxon tribes, like the Celts, lived on agriculture, the Romans’ urban and commercial civilization vanished from Britain. Unlike the colonizing Romans, the Anglo-Saxons did not create large agricultural estates to be worked with a slave army’s help.
Britain again became a land of small villages and nomadic tribes. Slowly the social organization of the Anglo-Saxon tribes was feudalized. The entry and propagation of Roman Catholicism in the 7th century expedited the process of feudalization in England.
The first important social division arose in England between the warriors and peasants. The bonds of kinship loosened, and successful warriors put forward claims for territorial sovereignty. As a result of continuous warfare, the victorious tribal leaders emerged as territorial feudal rulers. In this way, seven kingdoms of Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria were established.
The land originally allotted to clans and families on a collective basis was seized s private property by the ambitious clan leaders. Big farmers were named thanes, and small peasants were called the ceorls. Gradually, barons’ social class arose from the thanes, and all other peasant cultivators were reduced to serfdom. However, feudal political rule in the real sense began in England with the Norman conquest in the 11th century.
Wales and Ireland had accepted Christianity earlier than England, but this did not affect their tribal living mode. The life of the Celtic Christian monks was simple and ascetic, and the Celtic Church did not own any land or property. The Anglo-Saxon conquerors were polytheistic and regarded Celtic Christianity with contempt as a religion of their defeated subjects.
Therefore, the Roman Church, whose messenger Augustine entered England in 597, represented European feudalism’s rising social forces. The Queen of Kent had already embraced Christianity, and the King was converted to the new faith on Augustine and his queen’s insistence.
Gradually, all other royal households and Anglo-Saxon ruling chiefs were converted from paganism to the Roman religion. This was the second victory of Rome over England. Thus, a new social elite of the priests played a significant role in British society and polity’s feudalization. The priests soon rose to the position of civil servants and ministers of their royal superiors. They explained to the king the value of Roman laws and written charters.
The king granted land to the Church by these charters and used them to confirm the land’s proprietary rights under their possessions. Thus the land collectively owned by the peasants became the private property of the bishops and feudal landlords.
Free peasants living under a trial democracy were converted into slaves, serfs, or workers attached to the land of their masters. The feudalizing process, which had reached an advanced stage in Europe, was slowly maturing in England. Scandinavians attacked Britain in the ninth century and later settled in the north-eastern parts of the country. They founded new towns and developed commerce with other -European peoples. But they also collected huge tributes, which further impoverished the peasants.
In 1018, King Canute of Denmark proclaimed himself as the Emperor of Norway and England. After his death, England became a free country again. But in 1066, William, who was the Duke of Normandy owing allegiance to the French King, invaded and conquered England.
The Witan proclaimed William as the new king of England. According to Frederick Ogg, the Witan was an assembly of the most important men of the kingdom, lay and ecclesiastical. It had no fixed membership but consisted of such persons the king chose to summon to three or four meetings commonly held each year. According to some writers, the Witan could be regarded as the forerunner of the English Parliament.
Feudal Political System:-
George B. Adams says that the English constitution’s history upon English soil began with the Norman conquest. William, the founder of the Norman dynasty, had consolidated his sovereign power upon the whole of England by 1069. He confiscated the property of the Saxon, the members of the royal family, and Norman nobles.
He adopted the same pattern of the feudal organization as had. Already existed in France. A new aristocratic class was created in England based on French descent, language, and culture, whose descendants still own large landed estates on the dawn of the 21st century and are proud of their noble origin.
During the Norman rule, the British constitution operated based on a balance of power between the king and his barons. The king governed in consultation with his barons. All power was based upon ownership of the land in this feudal polity, and the essential political feature of feudalism was the downward delegation of power. The king was the sole, and ultimate owner of all the fund in his kingdom and granted it to his feudal vassals in return for military and political services and payment of customary dues and tribute.
The feudal lords administered the regions under their control and adjudicated their subjects’ disputes in their private courts. They also collected taxes and received services from their tenants. The main obligation of the barons was to support their king in war.
Some of the prominent barons advised the king to run the administration. In England, the conquerors had imposed feudalism on a defeated people from above. Therefore, the feudal system reached a higher regularity and completeness than in most other countries. In Europe, the king’s ownership of all the laud was a legal fiction, and the feudal lords obtained rights over their land by force.
William himself was technically the feudal vassal of the French king in Normandy, but Paris had ne control over the actions of the Duke of Normandy. In England, he owned the land effectively and allocated it to barons on very harsh terms. No baron was allotted such amount of land to make him a contender for the king’s power.
The king retained a vast estate for himself to successfully compete against the combined power of all the barons. Therefore, though dependent on the barons in certain ways, the British monarch could exercise autocratic powers from the beginning of Norman rule.
But despite the absolutist character of the king’s authority, the Saxon peasantry regarded the Norman King as their protector from the oppression of their barons and sided with their king in his conflict with a baron. The king recruited the Saxon soldiers in his army and could rely on their perfect loyalty. England, therefore, had a constitutional development that was unique in European history. From the start, the state’s power was greater, and the power of the feudal aristocracy was less.
The king’s supremacy was evident from the fact that William could hold a national census of the families and evaluate their property just twenty years after coming to power. The commissioners were sent to each town and village to measure the land. This was not possible in Saxon England and equally impossible in any other feudal country of Europe.
The survey revealed that 91% of the English people were agriculturists who could be divided into the following social classes slaves: 9%; serfs -70%; freemen -12%; and others, living in towns 9% only. This showed that about 80% of England’s total population of two million consisted of slaves or serfs at the eleventh century’s close.
The Normans introduced a body of written and rigid rules in England, which tended to force all cultivators into a uniform class of serfs with no legal rights against the lord of the manor. The Pope Innocent Ill, a contemporary of King John, narrated the miserable condition of the serfs as follows:
The serf serves; he is terrified with threats, wearied by corvettes (forced services), afflicted with blows, despoiled of his possessions; for if he possesses naught he is compelled to earn, and if he possesses anything he is compelled to have it not; the lord’s fault is the serf’s punishment; the serf’s fault is the lord’s excuse for preying on him…..0 extreme condition of bondage! Nature brought freemen to birth, but fortune hath made bond servants. The serf must suffer, and no man is suffering from feeling for him, he is compelled to mourn, and no man is permitted to mourn with him. He is not his own man, but no man is his.
Such was the law of feudalism. It was very harsh for the peasants, and some lords enforced it strictly. But the serf could retain a certain amount of personal freedom basing it on custom and ancient tradition.
After doing the lord’s work, he could claim a little time for himself. The lord could not sell his serf or a member of his family. He could even appeal against his lord in the king’s court; the lord could not take his life without proving him .guilty for an offense that required a death sentence.
The serf of medieval England was different from the slave of the Roman empire. He was a person and human being who could claim for himself certain customary rights. The English serf enjoyed a better social status than his counterpart in contemporary feudalized Europe. The absolute monarchy placed certain limits on the tyrannical power of the English barons.
Revolt of the Barons and Magna Carta:-
When Queen Matilda ascended the English throne after the death of Henry I, a section of the English barons raised their banner of revolt. The civil war of the barons continued for two decades. They built their fortresses and followed the European feudal lords’ example in exploiting and oppressing the peasants. But Matilda’s son, Henry H, succeeded in suppressing this rebellion, destroyed their fortresses, and prohibited the barons from fortifying their manors. He dismissed a large number of the sheriffs and prohibited all illegal exactions from the peasants.
The English Crow’s fiefs never became rival sovereignty to be absorbed one by one in the process of national unification as in France, until all were gone and only royal absolutism was left. The English barons were administrative subordinates of the Crown, dangerous to weak kings through casual combinations, but never able to act in opposition to the Crown save by joining their forces and appealing for general support, a process which involved terms and conditions, the setting forth of which produced constitutional documents.
The power of the Church increased during the Norman rule. The competition began between the King’s Courts and the tribunals set up by the Church. The bishops claimed exclusive jurisdiction over the cases involving the priests and awarded them lighter punishment!s as compared to those awarded to other citizens in the king’s courts. The laws enforced by the Church were based on the Roman system of jurisprudence.
The royal courts enforced the Common Law based on usages and customs followed by England’s Saxon people. The Pope not only intervened in the bishops’ appointment but also claimed a share of the revenues and income of the Church.
Henry succeeded in claiming jurisdiction over the civil cases involving the priests who could now be tried in the King’s Courts. He also started the convention of the Circuit Courts trying cases in different manors as mobile representatives of the King’s authority.
This practice brought down the influence of the courts set up by the barons, The trial by jury began, but members of the jury were not as yet impartial adjudicators. Their object was to assist the court in punishing the accused and presumed from the start that he was guilty and acted as the King’s witnesses.
French continued as the Language of the royal court and Norman aristocracy until the thirteenth century. The Norman lords also participated in the feudal wars of France on the continent. London emerged as a great center of trade for the English and French merchants; foreign traders arrived to settle in London from all parts of Europe. When the third Crusade began, England was trading with commercial centers as far as Italy.
When King Richard demanded money from the rich bankers and merchants to raise an army to fight in the third crusade, they asked for the charters granting them civic autonomy with return for the financial contribution. The merchants in small towns demanded similar charters of civic autonomy from the local barons. Traders’ Guilds came into existence in several English cities and towns.
Free cities thus emerged in a feudal environment. Richard’s brief reign has acquired great constitutional significance due to adopting those charters for civic freedom. Richard’s departure to Europe further proved that the King’s administration could be successfully carried on by other persons in his absence, exploding the myth of the monarch’s indispensability.
Magna Carta, or the great charter, is regarded as the greatest event of the Norman era. Some writers like Keith regard it as one of the basic documents of the British Constitution. But the contemporary significance of the great charter was minimal.
It does not mention the democratic rights at all but merely reiterates the customary privileges of the barons or feudal lords. King John, an efficient and strict ruler, violated some customary privileges of the English barons. He raised a few new taxes, deprived some barons of their manors’ ownership, and completed others to publish rents for the land they possessed.
The merchants, who had grown accustomed to civic autonomy, Were asked to pay higher taxes to increase profits. John refused to recognize the appointment of Archbishop Langston by the Pope. France deprived John of his dukedom in Normandy and confiscated the Norman barons’ land settled in England.
Thus, King John antagonized the barons and bishops of England, the Pope, and the French monarch simultaneously. Even the merchants of London and the Saxon militia refused to cooperate with its King. Therefore, John had to accept the Magna Carta’s terms reluctantly, presented him by the barons on 15 June 1215.
The historical value of the Magna Carta is that the feudal lords of England united with the merchants of London to place certain limits On the autocratic powers of the Norman monarchy. But the reduction in the authority and jurisdiction of the King’s courts was a reactionary step. A committee of 25 barons was formed to safeguard the terms of the great charter.
The Magna Carta, thus, was a mutual contract confirming the rival claims end privileges of various sectors in the feudal establishment such as the monarch, the barons, and the church hierarchy. How could it safeguard the liberty of the English people? The majority of the British nation still consisted of the serfs impressed by this feudal establishment.
Growth of Parliamentary Power:-
When the powers of Parliament increased in England during the succeeding centuries, the Magna Carta’s importance was also enhanced. The process of the decline of feudalism started during thy thirteenth century. New social classes emerged in British society. They saw new meanings in the Magna Carta’s words and pleaded to recognize their new rights disguised as ancient customs.
The evolution of Parliament began, which was used first by the British aristocracy and later by the bourgeoisie to achieve its own political supremacy. Nobody remembered the Magna Carta during the Tudor rule. Shakespeare did not even allude to the great Charter in his play entitled King John.
However, the long-forgotten document was dug out of the government archives, and Parliament then used it in support of certain new rights claimed by it. Over time, the Magna Carta was converted by bourgeois liberal mythology into a symbol of the struggle between Royal Absolutism and Democratic Freedom.
Professor Adams claims that there were two fundamental doctrines proclaimed by the Magna Carta. The first doctrine asserted that certain essential laws form the basis of every political system. which ought to be adhered to by a king or his government. The second doctrine stipulated that if these basic laws are violated, the nation will either compel the government to recognize them or overthrow them and set up a new regime in its place.
The evolution of Parliament began in the thirteenth century. The Norman kings abolished the Saxon Witan, a council of their tribal chiefs, and created two new councils of the Mormon barons. They were known as Great and small Councils. Parliament arose from the Great Council, and the Privy Council and Cabinet emerged from the small Council at a much later stage in British constitutional history.
To begin with, the Great Council was an assembly of the barons, who owned large estates. Small landlords, merchants, and priests were added to it during the thirteenth century. Originally, the barons, knights, burgesses, and clergymen sat together in the same assembly. Later the king asked them to deliberate separately, asking them to divide into two or three separate groups based on their status and wealth.
The king summoned the Council according to his own needs. Its most important act was to approve the taxes proposed by th monarch. Parliament normally obeyed the king’s orders. Its power, therefore, was minimal. But the fact that the merchants and small landowners were represented in Parliament was a revolutionary change. It signified the declining prestige and power of the English feudal class.
Gradually Parliament was ed into two chambers on a definite basis. The representatives of nobility constituted the House of Lords. The traders and small landowners formed the House of Commons. Some priests were also included in the House of Lords, but most of them lost contact with Parliament. If we compare these changes with the development of the medieval councils in Europe, we note two significant differences. In Europe, the medical council was divided into three segments, i.e.,
- The big and small landowners,
- The clergymen, and
- The merchants or burgesses.
On the other hand, in England, Parliament had only two segments from which the priestly class was almost excluded. The small landlords, escaping their aristocratic superiors’ tutelage, rubbed their shoulders with their socially inferior burgesses or traders. In Europe, the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church hierarchy remained closely united and created a common reactionary front against the rising bourgeois. In England, the city bourgeois and pall landlords combined under the monarch’s leadership to destroy the feudal aristocracy’s political sovereignty and the allied Church hierarchy.
The decline of Feudal Government:-
The feudal political system declined and disintegrated in England owing to the following reasons :
(1) In England, a section of the landlords realized that a free agricultural worker’s productive capacity was greater than the enslaved serf. Thus arose a new social class of enterprising landowners and a class of liberated peasants working together to enhance agricultural productivity.
(2) Some serfs migrated to towns and became industrial workers. Commercial agriculture and growing trade created a prosperous middle class of merchant manufacturers and bankers exerting greater influence on politics.
(3) The Hundred Years War in France weakened the feudal system, awakened a sense of English nationhood, and anglicized the French-speaking Norman nobility and monarchy. Joan of Arc became the symbol of French resistance to the English invasion of France.
(4) Peasant uprisings grew in number and intensity during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in England. They developed political consciousness and inspired the struggle for basic human rights. The feudal class became frightened of the potentialities of a peasant revolution.
(5) Instead of looking after their estates, the English nobles became more interested in London’s politics, participating in palace intrigues and provoking internal factional struggles. In 1455, the Wars of Roses began in which the nobles fought on both sides, either supporting the House of York or that of the House of Lancaster. The victory for the House of York signified the strengthening of the monarchy and further weakening of the baronial power.
(6) Although the aristocrats’ leadership of both the warring factions was provided only, merchants’ sympathy and landowning agriculturists lay with the House of York exclusively. The supporters of the House of Lancaster came from the nobles of frontier regions who wanted to restore rigid feudalism on English territory. Therefore, the House of York’s victory represented the first political success of England’s new rising social classes. Edward IV ascended the throne who followed policies that were later carried forward by the Tudor rulers. He confiscated the land of hostile nobles and concluded new agreements with London’s merchants, thus increasing the kings’ treasury’s income.
(7) The monarch thus secured financial independence as he was no longer dependent exclusively on Parliamentary grants. Therefore, his rule may be regarded as a preamble to the new chapter of Tudor rule in British constitutional history. Though still autocratic in substance, the Tudor administration sought legitimacy by seeking and obtaining the middle class’s support, especially the commercial bourgeoisie.
Middle-Class Revolution in England:-
The modern age began in England with the foundation of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of a middle-class social revolution. To fix a definite date for the middle ages’ closure may arouse controversy for any other country. Still, it is now universally agreed that the inauguration of the reign of Henry VII marked the end of the medieval period in England. The military and political power of the nobles was destroyed.
The king confiscated the old aristocracy’s lands, expanded the royal estates, and created a new social class of landowners drawn from the upper middle classes. The Tudor monarchs used Parliament for ratifying the policies which were in essence formulated by them. According to A.L. Morton, the Tudor monarchy rested on the fact that the bourgeoisie was strong enough in the sixteenth century to keep in power any government that promised them elbow room to grow rich but not yet strong enough to desire direct political power as they did in the seventeenth.
Henry, VII married the princess of the House of York and persuaded Parliament to approve the Tudor dynastic succession. Henry VIII laid the foundations of the National Church of England and liberated England from the Roman Catholic Church; when the king wanted separation from his Spanish queen Catherine, the Pope disallowed it. As a result, Henry VIII himself bed the Protestant government in England. He confiscated the estates of the Church and resold them to small landowners.
Thus a new social class of the landowning squires was created. The squires worked as Justices of the Peace and constituted honorary officials of the new regime. Parliament approved Henry’s reforms about the Church supporting them enthusiastically. All those who got a share in the monastery’s confiscated lands of the monasteries became ardent admirers of the Tudor monarchy and loyal followers of the Anglican Church.
The King was recognized as the Chief of the English State and as the Head of the Anglican Church. When Queen Mary ascended the throne, she tried to revive Cathol1cism in England but failed to restore the monasteries’ confiscated estates. During the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I, England became a Protestant nation irreversibly. Like her predecessors, Elizabeth was an absolute ruler, but she was very efficient and talented as a Queen. She, too, received minor exceptions, like other Tudors, the support of Parliament for her policies.
The sixteenth-century is regarded as a period of transition in European history. In England also important changes took place in agriculture, industry, and commerce. The landlords enclosed the public lands and claimed them as their private property.
Some landlords took possession of the lands belonging to free peasants. New types of capitalist traders replaced the medieval trade guilds. The craftsmen’s guilds also came to an end. The owners of small workshops reorganized production by employing wage workers.
Many peasants, artisans, and unemployed retainers of the old nobility became beggars, thieves, and vagabonds belonging to the lumpen-proletariat. While Capital was accumulating in the favored few’s hands, the majority was facing starvation and unemployment. The law provided that a citizen could arrest a vagabond, force him to work as his slave and could even whip him.