A History of English Government

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Government

The Saxons laid The foundations of the English government. They divided England into shires. (The Normans called them counties). Each shire was divided into areas called hundreds. (Originally a hundred was one hundred families or one hundred hides, the amount of land needed to support a family). Hundreds were abolished in 1867. Each shire was ruled by a noble called an Earldorman (elder man).

The Saxons also had a council called the Witangemot or Witan made up of great nobles and senior clergymen. The Witan had considerable power.

English Government in the Middle Ages

The Normans replaced the Earldorman with the Sheriff (shire-reeve). From the late 14th century appointed magistrates called Justices of the Peace became increasingly important in local government.

In the Middle Ages, the king ruled by divine right. In other words, people believed that God had chosen him to be king, and rebellion against him was a sin. However, that did not stop rebellions! Kings had limited power in the Middle Ages and rebellion was easy. A great deal depended on the personality of the king. If he was a strong character he could control the barons. If he were weak or indecisive the barons would often rebel. Warrior kings who fought successful wars were the most powerful as they were popular with the nobility.

In those days the church was rich and powerful and the king needed its support. When he conquered England William I replaced senior Saxon clergymen with men loyal to himself. William was a ruthless man. However, a writer of the time did say this about him; ‘he kept good law’. The eleventh century was a lawless age when a strong ruler who kept order was admired.

King John (1199-1216) alienated many of his subjects. They claimed that he ruled like a tyrant ignoring feudal law. He was accused of extorting money from people, selling offices, increasing taxes, and creating new ones whenever he wished. Matters came to a head after John tried to recapture his lost lands in France in 1214 but failed. The baron’s patience was exhausted. Finally in 1215 civil war broke out. In June 1215 John was forced to accept a charter known as Magna Carta at Runnymede.

The charter was meant to stop the abuses. It stated that the traditional rights and privileges of the church must be upheld. It also protected the rights and privileges of the aristocracy. Merchants who lived in towns were also mentioned. However ordinary people were overlooked.

However, the Magna Carta did uphold an important principle. English kings could not rule arbitrarily. They had to obey English laws and English customs the same as other men. Furthermore, the Magna Carta laid down that no free man could be arrested, imprisoned, or dispossessed without the lawful judgment of his peers or due process of law.

Henry III began to rule in 1227 and he soon alienated the barons by ignoring their traditional rights and privileges. Worse, in 1254 the pope was fighting in Sicily. Henry III offered to fund the pope’s wars if the pope agreed to let his son, Edmund, become king of Sicily. The pope agreed but Henry failed to provide the promised money.

In 1258 he turned to his barons for help. They were infuriated by his scheming and refused to do anything unless Henry agreed to a new charter known as the Provisions of Oxford.

At first, Henry reluctantly agreed but in 1260 he renounced the provisions. Civil war resulted and in 1264 rebels led by Simon de Montfort defeated and captured the king at the battle of Lewes. They also captured his eldest son Edward. Simon de Montfort called a parliament made up of representatives from each county and each borough. It was the first English parliament.

However, Edward escaped and in 1265 he defeated the barons at the Battle of Evesham in Worcestershire.

Edward I called the model parliament in 1290. As well as lords it contained 2 knights from each shire and 2 representatives of each borough.

In 1337 Edward claimed the throne of France. War began in 1338. To finance his wars the king had to raise taxes and to do that he needed parliament’s co-operation. As a result, parliament became more powerful during his reign. In 1340 the Commons and the Lords began meeting separately.

In the Middle Ages, most towns were given a charter by the king or the lord of the manor. It was a document granting the townspeople certain rights. Usually, it made the town independent and gave the people the right to form their local government.

English Government in the 16th and 17th Century

In the 16th century, the parish became the basis of local government. The leading figure was an appointed magistrate called the Justice of the Peace.

In the 16th century, the power of the monarchy increased. During the Middle Ages, the barons held castles, which were very difficult to capture so it was easy for them to rebel. Cannons changed all that. (Guns were invented in the 14th century and they gradually became more efficient).

Henry VII also strengthened government by creating the Court of Star Chamber (so-called because it met in a room with stars painted on the ceiling). The court dealt with ‘unlawful maintenance, giving of licenses, signs and tokens, great riots, unlawful assemblies’. The Court of Star Chamber was abolished in 1641.

The 17th century was dominated by the struggle between the king and parliament. The question was: ‘Who was the ultimate authority in the land?’.

King James I (1603-1625) believed in the divine right of kings. In other words, God had chosen him to rule. James was willing to work with parliament but he believed ultimate authority rested with him.

Like his father, Charles I (1625-1649) was a firm believer in the divine right of kings. From the start, he quarreled with parliament.

Matters came to a head in 1642 when Charles raised his standard and a civil war began. The first civil war ended in 1646 and Charles was captured. However, Charles managed to start another civil war in 1648.

In January 1649 Charles was put on trial for treason. He was found guilty on 27 January 1649 and he was beheaded outside Whitehall on 30 January 1649.

On 17 March 1649 parliament passed an act abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords. However, it proved very difficult to find something to put in their place. Finally, Cromwell died on 3 September 1658.

Oliver Cromwell appointed his son Richard as his successor. However, Richard resigned in May 1659. Finally, in February 1660 General Monck marched to London. Monck recalled the surviving members of the Long Parliament, which first met in 1640.

The Long Parliament voted to disband and hold fresh elections for a new parliament. This one became known as the Convention Parliament.

The Convention Parliament declared that the government of England should be King, Lords, and Commons. In 1660 Charles II became king.

James II followed him in 1685 and he promptly alienated the people by appointing Catholics to powerful and important positions.

Worse in June 1688, James had a son. The people of England were willing to tolerate James as long as he did not have a Catholic heir. However, his son would certainly be brought up a Catholic and would, of course, succeed his father.

Seven powerful nobles then stepped in. They invited the Dutchman William of Orange, husband of James’s Protestant daughter Mary, to come to England with an army and promised to support him. William landed in Devon in November and in December James II fled to France.

Parliament declared that the throne was vacant. William and Mary were declared joint monarchs. (Although Mary died in 1694).

The Bill of Rights (1689) said that no Catholic could become king or queen. No king could marry a Catholic. Furthermore, the king could not suspend laws or levy loans or taxes without the parliament’s consent. Afterward, parliament was the ultimate authority in England.

English Government in the 18th Century

The Act of Union of 1707 joined England and Scotland. They now had a common currency and Scottish MPs sat in the Westminster parliament.

Two kings George I (1714-1272) and George II (1727-1760) spent a great deal of time in Hanover (Germany) so the government was often left in the hands of the king’s ministers, the Cabinet.

In 1721 Horace Walpole (1676-1745) became First Lord of the Admiralty and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Because he was the chief minister people began calling him the Prime Minister. After he resigned in 1742 the practice of having a chief or prime minister continued.

However, things changed little during the 18th century. Britain was an oligarchy with power in the hands of wealthy landowners and rich merchants.

George III 91760-1820) tried to control the government more directly than his predecessors. However, he lost support after the North American colonies were lost and later he went mad.

English Government in the 19th Century

In 1806 Thomas Hansard began producing reports of parliamentary debates in a journal published by William Cobbett called Parliamentary Debates. Hansard bought out Cobbett in 1811 and continued to publish the debates.

In the early 19th century there were two types of constituency, country areas and towns or boroughs. In the countryside, only landowners could vote. In boroughs, the franchise varied but was usually limited. However, the constituencies had not been changed for centuries and they no longer reflected the distribution of the population. Industrial towns like Birmingham and Manchester did not have MPs of their own. On the other hand, some settlements had died out but they were still represented in parliament! In ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs there might be only one or two voters!

In the early 19th century there were increasing demands for reforms. Most people wanted constituencies distributed more fairly and they also wanted the franchise extended but Wellington’s party, the Tories, resisted.

However, in 1830 the Whigs formed a government and they tried to introduce reform. The House of Commons eventually voted for a reform bill but the House of Lords rejected it. The King, William IV, warned that he would create more peers, who favoured the bill unless the Lords agreed to accept it. Eventually, the House of Lords backed down and passed the Great Reform Bill. It received the royal assent on 7 June 1832.

The franchise was only extended slightly but much more importantly the new industrial towns were now represented in parliament. Before 1832 Britain was ruled by an oligarchy of landowners. After 1832 the urban middle class had an increasing say.

Further reform eventually followed. In 1867 more men were given the vote and in 1872 the Ballot Act introduced voting by secret ballot. By 1884 the majority of men in Britain could vote. However, not all men in Britain could vote until 1918.

Meanwhile, in 1835, the Municipal Corporations Act reformed town governments. A uniform system of town government was formed. In 1888 another act created county councils.

English Government in the 20th Century

In 1918 in Britain, women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. In 1928 all women were allowed to vote at the age of 21 (the same as men). In 1919 Nancy Astor was elected an MP. She was the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. In 1929 Margaret Bondfield became the first female cabinet minister. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of Britain.

Meanwhile, in 1909, the House of Lords rejected Lloyd George’s budget. In response, the Liberals passed the Parliament Act, which stated the House of Lords, could not interfere with financial bills. The Lords could no longer veto any bills but only delay them for two years. In 1949 that was reduced to one year. In 1999 most hereditary peers in the House of Lords lost their seats.

The Houses of Parliament

In 1974 some British counties were reorganized. In the 1990s many English cities became unitary authorities.

Last revised 2024