The Anniversary of Anglo-American Constitutional Liberty

Today is the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes (1264), at which Simon de Monfort, an Anglo-French lord, defeated King Henry III against the odds and imprisoned him. Shortly afterwards, he summoned an elected English Parliament, the first of its kind, with representatives chosen from each county and select boroughs in England. Henry eventually escaped, defeated de Montfort and executed him, but the precedent had been set. Henry’s son Edward I, often regarded as a British Caesar, adopted the principle of election when he summoned his Model Parliament in 1295.

So the anniversary of the Battle of Lewes is often regarded as the birth of democracy in the Anglo-American tradition. As my friend Helen Szamuely has pointed out, however, it is much more an anniversary of an event that cemented liberty and constitutional rule in England. As I have pointed out elsewhere, popular assemblies like de Montfort’s Parliament were not legislatures as we understand them today, empowering the executive by passing laws for them to implement. Instead, they stood as brakes on the executive’s power, telling him what not to do.

We do not know what de Montfort’s Parliament did, beyond the names of various provisions agreed to by the King. The records were likely destroyed by Henry’s royalists after de Montfort’s defeat, but we can get an inkling of what they might have done by looking at the Provisions of Oxford (1258) and Westminster (1259), which were all about defining (if not enumerating) the King’s powers and duties. De Montfort has been characterized by some historians as a Cromwellian military dictator, but it is quite possible that any powers he exercised were constrained by Parliament (just as Cromwell’s were, to some extent, by the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice).

In any event, today is a day that any constitutionalist or friend of liberty (on either side of the Atlantic) should celebrate.