Democracy, Westminster Hall & 20th January.

As I sit and write this, the view from my window is of a winter wonderland. Which makes me wonder how people survived before the time of 15tog duvets and central heating, let alone made history.

 

The 20th of January is an important anniversary for two events that have helped Britain become the democratic and free country that we live in today. These 2 events are four century’s apart but both very important.

 

Simon De Montford First Leader of Parliment in 1265, Westminster Hall

Simon De Montford First Leader of Parliment in 1265, Westminster Hall

The earliest of these two events was the first English Parliament held 20th January 1265. The Parliament was called after the Battle of Lewis, 14th May 1264. This battle was part of the Second War of the Barons. The ring leader was the Simon De Montfort, Earl of Leicester. During the battle, the heir to the throne Prince Edward, later Edward I, was captured. This was what triggered De Montfort to call a gathering of representatives from the boroughs, shires and counties. What makes this calling of representatives different from other gatherings is that De Montfort insisted that the representatives were elected.

 

These elections of course would not be like our elections today, it would have been noble males voting for other noble males but it was a good first. The parliament or gathering of elected representatives was held in Westminster hall on 20th January 1265, however it was not approved by the reigning king, Henry III, but as the gathering was of elected men so it fulfils the dictionary definition of Parliament. It is widely thought to be the first elected meeting of its kind in Europe as well as Britain. It was 50 years after Magna Carta.

 

Westminster Hall place of the First parliment and trial of Charles I

Westminster Hall place of the First parliment and trial of Charles I

In away the Barons war was a kind of civil war and that links us nicely into the second of these important democratic anniversaries that fall on 20th January for it is also the anniversary for the start of the Trial of King Charles I. After the ravages of Civil War, that turned brother against brother, father against son and neighbour against neighbour, many men died on English soil either defending their King or the new idea of democracy. Charles lost after a noble effort to keep his throne but eventually the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell was better trained and equipped as well as offering a better future to the everyday man than under the autocratic Charles Stuart.

 

Now that Charles was arrested what were the Rump Parliament going to do with him. The ending of a reign of a monarch was not a new idea. Edward II was asked to abdicate as he was a poor ruler. Richard II requested to abdicate. A regency council was established to rule for Henry VI in his name effectively ending his rule. Queen Jane of nine days, was found not to be the rightful Queen and later found guilty of High Treason. Then there was Mary Queen of Scots, an other Stuart who was forced to abdicate, imprisoned, escaped claimed refuge, held under house arrest and later tried for High Treason and executed.

 

Carving of the Trial of Charles I

Carving of the Trial of Charles I

There was however big differences to this case. In those other cases there was a monarchy established after the monarchs reign ended through parliament. In this situation Cromwell and his puritan cronies wanted to create a republic and change the way the country was ruled after thousands of years.

 

So the Rump Parliament created the High Court of Justice in Order to Try Charles I for High Treason against the People of England. The trial began on 20th January 1649 in the very same Westminster Hall as the very first Parliament held by Simon De Montford in 1265. The trial lasted 7 days and the King was found guilty of High Treason a Capital Punishment. Three days later he was beheaded outside Banqueting House in Westminster, London.

 

As a royalist I see this as a dark day in history, however the start of the trial and eventual execution of Charles I and the brief period of republicanism that fell on Britain, has helped shape the democracy of Britain. Charles II was the last king to attempt to hold on to the old way to rule, and after his brother, James II, was forced off the throne by the Glorious Revolution, monarchy has stepped away and parliament has ruled our country.

 

So Westminster Hall and 20th January have played important roles in the democratic and free world we are lucky to live in today. I only wish that other parts of the world that are struggling find a way to a free, democratic, liberal society and have their own 20th January moments.

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