Seven Men: A recurring force in the rise of Parliament: 1258 and 1688

It’s recently come to my attention (via David Crowther’s History of England podcast series) that the thirteenth century emergence of the English Parliament (which included Wales, and became the British parliament from 1707, when Scotland gave up its own parliament and became part of a state union with England, not just a union of royal possessions, something which is still the case though Scotland has its own parliament again) included a decisive meeting in 1258 when seven barons presented demands to Henry III for the loosely structured  ‘parliament ‘ of discussion about advice to the crown, to become a more structured and broadly representative body with clear authority regarding laws and taxes. I cannot find a full list of names right now, but the group of seven was led by Simon de Montford,  who had baronial authority in Leicester, but as his name implies came from France. This way typical of the lords of the time, going back to the Norman Conquest which led to centuries of such connections.

The event which really finally secured the work of 1258 was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, followed by the Bill of Rights of 1689. Ever since parliament has sat regularly and has been regarded as the body that represents the nation, and is able to pass laws as well as raise taxes.  The seven of 1688 are known as the Immortal Seven, and their names are: Charles Talbot, First Due of Shrewsbury; William Cavendish, First Duke of Devonshire; Thomas Osborne, First Duke of  Leeds (commonly known as Lord Danby); Richard Lumley, First Earl of Scarborough; Henry Compton; Edward Russell; Henry Sidney, First Earl of Romney. They sent a letter in June of 1688 assuring William, Prince of  Orange (a Dutch aristocrat with a semi-monarhical role in the Netherlands) of their desire to see him take over from James II as King of England (along with Scotland and Ireland). William was married to James’ sister  Mary, who was heir to the throne in the event of James’ death or incapacity. The Immortal Seven assured William that an invasion would meet wit support within England, but should taken place soon to prevent James reinforcing his hold on state and military power. William did invade on November 5th, the English military were not eager to fight him, and James II fled into exile.

Like the seven of 1285, the Immortal Seven were among the most powerful and wealthy men in the nation, whose families were prominent before and after the period in question. Their reasons for rebellion on behalf of parliamentary constraints on the crown included a great deal of self-interest and a desire to preserve privilege. Their were religious aspects which are unpleasant for us now. Simon de Montford’s family played a large part in the Crusade against Cathars in southern France, in which a religious ‘heresy’ as destroyed with great cruelty, Simon de Montford himself expelled Jews from his personal lands soon after starting his career as an English aristocrat. The Glorious Revolution was as much about keeping the state church in England Protestant and limiting the civil rights of Catholics, as it was about representative political institutions.

The reasons we should not present the Seven of 1285 and the Immortal Seven as  heroes of pluralist liberal democracy as we understand it now are clear. Still we should remember what they did, and remember that they would not have seemed intolerant or cruel by the standards of their time. Whatever privileges they were defending, it is to their enormous credit that they recognised that such privileges could only be legitimate under laws agreed by a body representing the nation, when they could have sought advantageous individual deals with the crown.

Seven has a history as a number with special significance, as a number with something sacred or mystical about its powers. A tradition that goes up to Akira Kurosowa’s Seven Samurai film, the story of 7 wandering swordsmen of gentry class who elect to defend a village of persecuted peasants for no reward. We should not turn history into a romantic pageant of ideal heroes, like Kurosawa’s band of self-sacrificing misfits, but it is surely a fascinating detail of English and British history, that on two occasions seven men of aristocratic station risked all against royal power.  With all their faults they surely command some great respect for their achievements, and deserve to be remembered for their contribution to the growth of political self-government.


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