Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

750 years of the House of Commons

Today is being celebrated as the 750th anniversary of the first meeting of an English parliament that included the Commons - Parliaments had already met earlier in the reign of King Henry III, but had been more like the later Great Councils, consisting of the nobles alone gathered around the monarch to give advice and consent. 

The 1265 Parliament was essentially called by Simon de Montfort, Earl ofc Leicester and brother-in-law to the King, who had been in his power since the Battle of Lewes the previous year. Earl Simon may well have thought having representitives of the knights of the shire and the towns would strngthen his regime, which was to collapse at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265. However the idea was not new - that noted constitional innovator and reformer King John had had a similar plan in 1212, even if the assenbley never actually met.

Most meetings of the Commons were in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey until the mid-sixteenth century,when the Commons were given the Chapel of St Stephen in the palace of Westminster for their meetings in 1547. 

This had an effect on how the House worked. In the Anonimalle Chronicle of St Mary's Abbey York is a detailed insider's account of what occurred during the Good Parliament of 1367. The Knights sat on the floor, the townsmen behind them along the wall. The member speaking addressed the assembly from the lectern. In other words, something rather like a continental Parliament today with a half-moon of seats, reflecting the political spectrum - hence the "left" and the "right". By moving into St Stephen's in the time of King Edward VI and occupying the choir stalls facing each other across the floor, and with the Speaker sitting where the altar had been, the modern adversarial arrangement came into being, favouring a two party system of Government and Opposition.

The Chapter House of Westminster Abbey
Some of the glass dates from Sir George Gilbert Scott's restoration 1866-72, which revealed medieval encaustic floor tiles in excellent condition. On the walls are early fifteenth century paintings, including a scene of the Last Judgement. 


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