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Introduction: Constitutional Government

Today there are over one hundred and eighty countries in the world. Nearly all of them have a Constitution. This is a set of rules which each country's leaders must follow.

In the twentieth century we believe that those who govern us, (whether King, President or Prime Minister), should be subject to laws and restrictions like anyone else. By selecting our leaders, we give them permission to govern us.

Constitutional government is a very important idea that took a long time to emerge and that involved much bloodshed and hardship in England, America, France and other countries.

The Steps toward Constitutional Monarchy in England

The English Parliament can be traced back to the Magna Carta in 1215. It is made up of two Chambers. One of these Chambers, called the House of Lords is made up of Lords and Bishops, either hereditary or appointed. The other Chamber, the House of Commons is made up of Members of Parliament (MPs) who are elected by the British people. The Houses are similar in function to the American Senate and the House of Representatives in Washington D.C., or the French Sénat and Assemblée Nationale in Paris.

Queen Elizabeth and Parliament

It was during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) that Parliament began to increase its power and influence. More and more MPs in the House of Commons were "new men" of the Tudor period. In a way they formed a new middle class. They were either rich country gentlemen (called landed gentry), or wealthy merchants, such as cloth merchants, from the growing towns. They occupied a middle position between the old medieval barons and the ordinary people. The landed gentry, or landed middle class, were those who had bought land which had been confiscated after the dissolution of the monasteries. The landed gentry formed a class in society which was unique to England.

Henry VIII

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein c. 1536

Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII (1509-1547) had used Parliament to pass his Acts against the Pope to create the Church of England. Although it was not his intention, this encouraged MPs to think of themselves as the king's equals and partners.

By the end of her reign, Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, needed all her skill to keep Parliament in its place. During the 16th century, the Tudor century, Parliament's attitude had changed from willingness to let the monarchy direct to wanting a real share in the power of government. This meant that two problems in particular needed to be resolved: money and religion.

Elizabeth I

Portrait of Elizabeth I by George Gower c. 1588

The Problem of Money

Elizabeth I desperately needed money, particularly since England was at war with Spain. Since the 13th century, it had been the tradition for monarchs to ask Parliament for permission to raise taxes. In theory this was not necessary, except in time of war. To run the country, Elizabeth received about £140 000 a year, but this was not enough, even for a thrifty monarch.

Elizabeth had to raise money from any source available. She was able to squeeze money out of privateers who raided Spanish ships, or she sold noble titles or bishoprics. Sometimes, the queen sold her own property rather than going to Parliament to ask for a grant, and sometimes she managed to sell a monopoly (e.g. the exclusive right to sell wine in a certain region) to a favourite courtier.

The House of Commons finally but reluctantly granted the queen taxes but was determined to use its "power of the purse" to the full. In 1597, for example, it took 24 days of debate to obtain a war tax from Parliament. Towards the end of the queen's reign, it became possible for the first time to speak against royal policies without being sent to the Tower of London or dying a traitor's death.

The Problem of Religion

Although Henry VIII had created his own Church, the Church of England, he was not at all a Protestant. It was Elizabeth who made the Anglican Church moderately Protestant. Nevertheless, she kept a Prayer Book that would be acceptable to Catholics. She hoped that both Protestants and Catholics would feel at home in her Church.

The Puritans (English Calvinists), however, were not satisfied with the Church of England. They considered it too much like the Church of Rome. They were loyal to Elizabeth (perhaps because all the other claimants to the throne were Catholic) but wanted her Church to be made simpler, stripped of ornamentation, and the power of the bishops reduced.

In Parliament more and more MPs were Puritans; some of them were extremely wealthy and powerful.

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2014

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.