Evolution of Parliamentary Democracy in England

parliament and big ben


  • Describe the major events involved in England’s evolution from absolute monarchy to a Constitutional monarchy and, later, to a representative democracy
  • Speculate how England’s shift effected other European nations

England, like other European countries became an absolute monarchy—when the government is headed by a king or queen that has total control of the country—after the Crusades.  These monarchs claimed that they had been given this power by God, using the Divine Right of Kings theory to make people accept their sovereignty.  But the power of these absolute monarchs was challenged, eventually leading England to become the first representative democracy in the modern world.

The first step away from absolutism was the signing of Magna Carta in 1215.  Nobles forced King John to sign this document limited his power and saying he was not above the law.  If he didn’t, they were going to kill him.  He signed, but he and monarchs after him felt that Magna Carta didn’t really count because he was forced to sign under duress.

In 1295, the next step away from absolute monarchs developed.  It is called Model Parliament, or the evolution of a body that consulted the king.  This happened because nobles had power over the king by controlling his ability to raise taxes (kings would ask the nobles for money and they would raise it from the peasants).  In an effort to get the nobles to give them money, English kings started a tradition of pretending to ask them for advice.  When the nobles would tell the king that they thought he should go to war with another country, for instance, then they would gladly give him the money to fight it because they felt like they had a say.  The kings were really using this forerunner to modern Parliament as a way to manipulate the nobles, but it backfired.  This caused the development of an expectation by the nobles to have a say in government and the meeting led to the development of the demand for a representative body to advise the king over the years.

Then, in 1628, King Charles I needed money for a war and asked the nobles in Parliament for help.  They agreed to give him money if he signed a document called the Petition of Right, which granted the people certain rights and limiting his power.  Charles signed it in order to get the money he wanted, but he didn’t follow it.  Parliament attempted to enforce it.  This caused the English Civil War (also known as the Puritan Revolution), which took place from 1642-1649.  Because of Charles I ignored the Petition of Right, Parliament raised an army and fought against King Charles I’s army to force him to follow the agreement.  Parliament won and put Charles I on trial for treason.  He was found guilty and beheaded in 1649.

With the king dead, Parliament had to decide how to run the country.  They decided to allow Oliver Cromwell, the leader of Parliament’s army, to take over the country in an era known as the Commonwealth Government.  He ruled as a dictator from 1649-1659 and became unpopular.  People wanted to go back to a king when he died.

This led to the Restoration in 1659.  Charles I’s heir, Charles II, was “restored” to the throne, with the understanding that he must share power with Parliament. Since his father was executed by Parliament, he played ball.  But future kings were not as eager to share their power and attempted to take it back.

King James II was to become king and people were upset.  James had converted to Catholicism (England had broken away from the Catholic Church since Henry VIII’s infamous fight with the Pope) and people feared that he would expect the country to do the same.  In 1688, fearing a revolt, James chose to abdicate—or give up power—and flee the country.  James didn’t have a male heir.  His daughter, Mary, was married to King William of the Netherlands. Parliament offered to give William and Mary the throne as long as they agreed to sign the English Bill of Rights, guaranteeing Englishmen rights and limiting their power.  This bloodless shift from one ruler to another is called the Glorious Revolution.  England was a constitutional—or limited—monarchy, where the king (or queen) shared power with Parliament.

Since the Glorious Revolution the political power of the royal family continued to decline to the point where the king or queen is only a figurehead today.  Instead,  England is a representative democracy, ruled by Parliament.

Practice Multiple-Choice on the Evolution of Parliamentary Democracy in England


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