Constitutional Monarchies


The Modern State

William of Normandy imposed a feudal system on England in which he sought advice from a council of barons and ecclesiastics in making laws for his new conquest. In the Magna Carta of 1215, those barons secured from King John the binding agreement that the king may not levy or collect any taxes save with the consent of his royal council — a council that would slowly develop into a parliament. Over the following centuries, the English Parliament progressively limited the power of the king, a contest that finally led to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. In the restoration under Charles II, and the subsequent Glorious Revolution of 1688, the supremacy of Parliament became a settled principle, and British sovereigns were restricted to the role of constitutional monarchs, with only limited executive authority. {1-4} In the 19th century the upper House of Lords gradually ceded authority to the lower house, the supremacy of the Commons being enshrined in the Parliament Act of 1911. {5}

Medieval Origins

The word derives from the French parlement or Latin parliamentum meaning 'discussion', and was first used by Henry III in 1236. But though the Norman and Angevin kings had always held assemblies or councils to discuss important matters with their nobles, these parliaments gradually evolved to become the only legitimate means of raising taxes for the king. Assent to such impositions had been enshrined in the Magna Carta of 1215, and Henry III was increasingly obliged to include more persons in his parliaments, not only the barons and close advisors, but representatives of the counties, towns and lower clergy (later known as the 'commons'). Parliaments became part of political fabric in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), and could be summoned several times a year, generally at Westminster but also as the king's itinerary required. The clergy stopped attending the lower house in the early 14th century, and the commons did not become a regular or permanent feature until Edward II's reign (1307-1327), when government by barons was replaced by parliament. Barons were reduced to speaking only for themselves, and it was the knights, citizens and burgesses who represented the whole community of England, and who alone could assent to the taxes supporting incessant warfare between England, Scotland and France. {6}

By Edward III's reign (1327-1377) the commons contained two distinct elements: the 'knights of the shire', who represented the counties, and the 'burgesses', who represented towns or cities. The knights were generally landed gentry while the burgesses were mostly rich merchants or lawyers. Two representatives from each constituency were expected to attend each parliament — i.e. 74 knights could be returned from 37 counties, and as many as 170 burgesses from the boroughs. Although outnumbered by the burgesses, the knights remained dominant through their social standing and political connections. Knights were paid handsomely for their services: four shillings a day when a peasant's pay was just two pence. Parliament brought together the broad political community, and all branches of central government, but the business of government devolved on the 'lords', who had grown from a small group of councillors in the 13th century to a larger 'peerage' by the early 14th century — dukes, earls, barons, bishops and abbots. The great officers of state also attended the upper house: the chancellor of the exchequer, the treasurer, the senior royal judges and key members of the royal household. The commons were only regarded as 'petitioners and suitors', and decisions were in the hands of the king and peerage. The king would appoint committees of peers, administrators and judges to decide on such petitions, drawing on their advice in general matters of policy. Records were kept by royal clerks, the 'parliament roll', of which there exists an unbroken series from early in Edward III's reign. {6}

The king gave the sheriffs 40 day's notice to organise the county and borough elections, but MPs were usually selected by the constituency's elite, a process clearly open to corruption. But though far from democratically elected, members of parliament were generally sensible, mindful of the consequences of bad decisions — the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, for example, resulted from parliamentary consent to a poll tax of one shilling a head. Parliament from the first was conceived as the superior court of the realm, with powers to address any grievance or request brought to it by the king's subjects. In the early 14th century a new type of 'community' petition, or common petition, appeared: complaints presented by the commons concerning the realm as a whole. Such petitions formed the basis of new statutory legislation: laws made with the assent of parliament that related to the kingdom's trade, commerce, defence, law and order. One such was the famous 'Statute of Labourers' of 1351, setting a national scale of wage-rates to protect landlords from the adverse economic effects of the Black Death (1348-1349). MPs varied in their effectiveness, but cooperation between lords and commons could be fatal to royal policies and favourites. The combined opposition of the commons and the lords overwhelmed Richard II in 1388, and brought down one of Henry VI's most favoured courtiers, William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who was charged with eight counts of treason. {6}

Tudors and Stuarts

The modern structure of the English Parliament began to appear under the Tudors, who were strong monarchs but needed to raise money through taxation without causing dangerous unrest. Parliaments were therefore called as needed, the monarchs making their case through supporters in both houses. From the 1540s the presiding officer in the House of Commons became formally known as the 'Speaker' and had the unenviable task of making the views of the House known to the monarch. A member of either house could present a 'bill' to Parliament, and majorities in both houses were needed for the bill to become law. A royal veto could also be exercised, if only rarely. Though Charles I accepted the Commons' Petition of Right, restoring their liberties, he later dissolved Parliament and ruled without it for eleven years. He was nonetheless forced to recall Parliament to levy taxes after the disastrous Scottish Bishops' Wars (1639-1640): the Short Parliament of 1640 and the Long Parliament, which sat (with several breaks) between 1640 and 1660. Relations between king and the House of Commons deteriorated during the Long Parliament, and troops raised to quell uprisings in Ireland turned against each other in the English Civil War. Victory was eventually secured by the Parliamentarians. The New Model Army purged Parliament of opponents, and had Charles tried and executed in 1649.

The English Republic of 1649-60 did much to shape the House of Commons. Members first became known as Members of Parliament. Cromwell afforded the House a good deal of freedom, though dissolving it when it became too troublesome. Nonetheless the Rump Parliament (1649-1653) was to demonstrate that Parliament could survive without a monarchy, and a House of Lords if necessary. The Second Protectorate Parliament of 1658 proposed an elected House of Commons as the Lower Chamber, a House of Lords containing peers of the realm, and a constitutional monarchy, subservient to parliament and the laws of the nation — which indeed was the basis of the 1688 Glorious Revolution and all future Parliaments.

Hanoverians and Later

It was under Sir Robert Walpole that Cabinet government began to take shape, i.e. rule through collective responsibility and common public statements. {7} Though Parliament held the purse strings, British governments in the eighteenth century generally pursued their own foreign policies. Walpole indeed cautioned against giving Parliament too much power in this area, and treaties were usually communicated to Parliament after they had been ratified. {8} It was also under Walpole that the Cabinet rule began to take shape, with its collective responsibility and common policy in public. The king could also prove a stumbling block, for both the government and Parliament. George III's antipathy to Fox prevented him from forming an alternative when a financial crisis and naval mutiny beset Pitt in 1797, for example, and Pitt's own administration foundered in 1801 with the royal veto on Catholic relief. The difficulties of the protracted Napoleonic Wars saw many coalitions and political manoeuvrings, but Parliament largely returned to a two-party system in 1807. The matrimonial tangles and extravagances of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, also had their parliamentary consequences, but the great Reform Act of 1832 extended representation to fast-growing industrial towns like Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds, and redrew boundaries to exclude 'rotten boroughs'. Suffrage was restricted to men, however, and to men of property, which excluded 6 out of seven. {9} The second Reform Act of 1867 gave suffrage to only 2 in every 5, and even the third Reform Act of 1884 only enfranchised all male house owners and added 6 million people to the voting registers. {10} Universal male suffrage had to wait to 1918, and female suffrage to 1928. {11} There are now calls to replace the enfeebled House of Lords by an elected senate. {12}

George II Guinea

geroge ii guinea obverse


Until the sovereign re-appeared in 1817, the guinea was the prime gold denomination of British milled coinage. It was first coined by Charles II in 1663, and owes its name to Guinea, what Europeans called the kingdoms of west Africa, where much of the gold originated. The denomination was last struck in 1814 , but until decimalisation the term was still used in  professional fees and payment for land, horses, art, bespoke tailoring and other luxury items to give an aristocratic tone to the grubby nature of making money. {1}

Britain. Au one guinea. Obverse: Laureate Old Bust of George II facing left. Georgius II Dei Gratia. (George II By the Grace of God.) 26 mm. 8.4 g.

George II Issues

The guineas of George II are a handsome and complex series that employ eight obverses and five reverses through a reign of 33 years. Coins appear  in all years of the reign except 1742, 1744, 1754, and 1757. The pieces weighed 8.3 - 8.4 g, and were 25 - 26 mm in diameter — except for some of the 1727 coins, which were 24 - 25 mm. The average gold purity was 0.9140. The exchange rate of the guinea with respect to silver coinage was at the mercy of precious metal prices set by the market and the generally poor state of British silver coinage throughout the period. Indeed the guinea had previously  varied  from 20 to 30 shillings and back down to 21 shillings and sixpence, but was fixed by royal proclamation of December 1717 at 21 shillings.  {1, 3}

Gold Sources

Gold occurs as primary deposits in the Archaen basement of west Africa, in the so-called greenstone belts (metamorphosed  volcanics and sediments), and in later quartz veins. {4} Until modern times, much of the gold came from secondary alluvials, however, and widespread gold production supported many flourishing native kingdoms. Slavery was endemic: the kingdoms used slave labour to extract the gold, and sold slaves to the  Islamic world from the 8th century onwards, and to the European powers later for work in the mines and plantations of the Americas. Transportation and working conditions were horrific in both periods, but the Islamic world used slaves from many sources and allowed promotion to the highest levels of government in Egypt (Mamluks), Turkey (Ottomans) and India (Delhi Sultans). {5-9}

george ii one guinea reverse

Tripartite Pattern of Trade

West Africa supplied slaves, gold and ivory to the European traders. The slaves were shipped to work in sugar plantations (Brazil and West Indies) and cotton fields (southern USA). The cotton was shipped to Britain where part was woven into cheap textiles. Those textiles, plus guns and trinkets, served to acquire the west African products: one of the early tripartite patterns of world trade.  {10}

Britain. Au one guinea. Reverse: single large crowned shield with the quarters containing the arms of England, Scotland, France, Hanover, and Ireland. 1752 M B F ET H REX F D B ET L D S R I A T ET E (By the Grace of God, King of Great Britain France & Ireland, Defender of The Faith, Duke of Brunswick & Luneburg, High Treasurer and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire.) {2}

Georgian Coinages

Britain's gold coinage was kept plentiful and in good condition over much of the eighteenth century, but the silver coinage, in contrast, was generally deplorable; clipped, worn out, (in Ireland) badly debased and lost in trade with the far east. Copper coins were struck occasionally and grudgingly, as an unwanted social duty. {3}

A protracted battle had indeed been fought  on the new gold issues in 1696. Should they be struck to the original standard in weight and purity or to the apparently accepted level the coins had been reduced to by the wear and tear of circulation?  Mindful of what debasement does to that all-important constituent of trade, confidence, not to mention armies that demanded immediate payment in sound money, the government sensibly opted to maintain the old level of purity. About the weight of the new coinage there was much more debate — recoinage costs were high, and the country was at war — but  those in favour of restoring the full weight, ably led in pamphlets by the philosopher John Locke, won the day. {3}

With the gold recoinage came a new silver coinage, some £6.8 million being minted over three years. But that largely disappeared in the years following and was not replaced. Over the whole of the eighteenth century only £1.25 million of silver coinage was minted, whereas the gold issues, from 1695 to 1740 alone, amounted to £17.0  million. In fact Britain was drifting towards a gold standard, which became official in the nineteenth century when the emergency paper money of the Napoleonic wars period had to be redeemed. {3}

Behind the Politeness of the Age

Just as milled or machine struck coinage produces the regular and substantial pieces we recognise as money today, so Britain slowly evolved into a modern country in the eighteenth century, helped considerably by growing agricultural wealth, industry, and trade promoted and protected by naval power needed in age-old wars with France. Milling was invented in the sixteenth century but only finally displaced the older hand-struck methods in England with the accession of Charles II. {11} By the Georgian period, however, coins have settled into a regular series with the monarch's head on the obverse, and insignia of royal authority on the reverse.  

Since the days of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when a Dutch king and Dutch business methods came to England, the country had evolved into a constitutional monarchy, power being shared between king and two houses of Parliament. In many respects, the guinea is also a transitional piece. In style and iconography, it resembles many a continental coin of the period, especially one of the small principalities of Europe, where the monarch did indeed rule without hindrance from others. But in England he did not. George I's continuing interest in the kingdom he left behind, and his poor grasp of English, allowed Parliament to assume more power, though the king's will could not be disregarded, and there were still struggles between king and Parliament through to the nineteenth century. But this guinea of George II is a beautiful example of the moneyer's craft. The elaborate shield on the reverse displays the monarch's claim, as does the legend, though the last French territory had been lost long ago by Mary Tudor. {11-13} 

Law and Order

Georgian society was one of wealth, elegance and security for the aristocracy and expanding middle classes, but of brutal justice for others. Some twenty offences carried the death penalty: trials were held at Newgate (later the Old Bailey) or the quarterly assizes and tended to be brief as no defence counsel was automatically provided. For lesser crimes, offenders could be publicly flogged or branded. Those of previously good character might be offered transportation for life. For owing as little as two pounds, debtors could be incarcerated in debtor's prisons, run for profit, and not unpleasant for those who could pay for food and entertainment, but distinctly so for those who could not: filthy conditions and a starvation diet, all continuing for years or perpetuity as the interest continued to mount up. Law maintained the status quo, with no attempt at rehabilitation. There was no police force as such, but order was maintained through magistrates, a local constabulary, paid watchmen and the Bow Street Runners in London, from 1749, who largely replaced the previous 'thief takers' recruited from the criminal classes. {15-19}

Only some 3% had the vote. Elections were public events, and voter bribery was expected. The two parties, Whigs and Tories, were more in the nature of factions, rewarding supporters with offices of state or one of the many 'rotten boroughs'. Robert Walpole, corrupt but the architect of cabinet responsibility and many features of Parliament even today, achieved law and order at home and sensible policies abroad, keeping both king and electorate on amicable terms. However venal, the system worked. {15-19}

Georgian Country House

The Georgian period is one expanding commercial interests under a veneer of royal ceremony. The wealthy built themselves country mansions on the Palladian style, featuring an imposing entrance hall, generally reached by ascending flights of steps, and flanking rooms, all generously lit by large windows. Exterior decoration was restrained, but the interior could be lavishly modelled in balustrades, plaster ceilings and walls lined with expensive Chinese wall paper. In town, the better-off lived in terraced houses, generously  proportioned and made regular by the widespread use of patterns: such terrace houses still make extensive areas of London, Bath, Edinburgh, Bristol and Dublin. {20-21} Throughout, the emphasis was on restraint, balance, decorum and good-breeding, and that politeness extended to manners, literature, dress and architecture. {22} Beneath the surface so lovingly depicted by the novels of the slightly later (Regency period) novels of Jane Austen, and recreated in many popular film adaptations, matters were very different, however. The admired British navy relied on press-gangs to recruit sailors, and ferocious discipline to keep them in line. {23} Punishment on land was just as summary and brutal. {24} Resentment at the Protestant takeover festered in Ireland. {25} Many model citizens drew their income from large slave plantations in the west Indies. {26} Alexander Pope {27} gave Augustan society a polished glitter, but Jonathan Swift, {28} George Crabbe, {29} Henry Fielding {30}  and William Hogarth {31} provide a darker view.

Women in Georgian Society

Pope's picture of Belinda, the society beauty in The Rape of the Lock, is one of compelling loveliness, but beneath the glittering surface is pungent sexual innuendo, which not all have relished, especially not the family of the day on whom the mock epic was modelled. But the invention wasn't Pope's. {32} Women were not the natural, virtuous and independent creatures that polite society insisted they appear. Land enclosure and swelling urbanisation brought many young women to London and other cities with no means of support other than selling their sexual favours. Hygiene was elementary, moreover: women didn't wash any more than did men, and clothes, wigs and underwear were often filthy, fetid and lice-infested. {33-35} (Worse indignities surrounded African female slaves, of course, who were often raped and stripped naked {36}  on arrival at auctions in the Americas.) Georgian society placed great emphasis of decorum, but the politeness covered many social ills and injustices.

The coin is a beautifully designed piece. The king's head fills the obverse flan very naturally, with the curls of the wig forming apt terminations to the legend. The reverse shield is particularly magnificent, and gives an air of opulence to the extensive coats of arms and abbreviated titles, a difficult feat in a small coin. All portrayed was true, but only to the more fortunate in society.


Few nineteenth century politicians envisaged universal suffrage, and even further from their thoughts were democracies on the American model. {49}

To nineteenth-century law-makers, the property qualification seemed eminently sensible. Those of independent means were likely to be better educated and less subject to mob rule. They had a stake in the country's future. Indeed the qualification had a symbolic value. Man is a territorial creature, and land ownership is not only an echo of the old feudal order but a physical share of the country. Universal suffrage came to Britain only when socialism agreed to give up some of its principles and work within the parliamentary system, and then as a casualty of war — when the horrific slaughter on the western front raised troubling questions. What were the masses dying for, if not democracy? {50} And just as Roman had to admit Italian allies in the Carthaginian wars to full citizenship, {51} so Parliament was obliged to grant suffrage to men prepared to lay down their lives for their country. With universal suffrage came universal education. 'We must educate our masters', realized Parliament, and so began modern schooling with its mix of the uplifting and practical, as much to foster national pride and loyalty as train the workforce for an increasingly competitive world.

Contemporary Problems

Writing of Queen Victoria, Lytton Strachey could eulogise the parliamentary system:

'The English Constitution — that indescribable entity — is a living thing, growing with the growth of men, and assuming ever-varying forms in accordance with the subtle and complex laws of human character. It is the child of wisdom and chance. The wise men of 1688 moulded it into the shape we know, but the chance that George I could not speak English gave it one of its essential peculiarities — the system of a Cabinet independent of the Crown and subordinate to the Prime Minister. The wisdom of Lord Grey saved it from petrifaction and destruction, and set it upon the path of Democracy. Then chance intervened once more; a female sovereign happened to marry an able and pertinacious man; and it seemed likely that an element which had been quiescent within it for years — the element of irresponsible administrative power — was about to become its predominant characteristic and to change completely the direction of its growth. But what chance gave chance took away. The Consort perished in his prime; and the English Constitution, dropping the dead limb with hardly a tremor, continued its mysterious life as if he had never been.' {52}

Today the picture is less rosy. Democratic systems aim to engender trust, efficacy, confidence and satisfaction in electorates. Strict party discipline ensures strong governments and clear choices for voters, but can also frustrate those wanting representation on local or more complex issues. The first- past-the-post systems results in a smaller number of parties than does proportional representation, avoiding the need for coalitions, but no British Government in the twentieth century managed to break through the 50% threshold and represent the majority of the electorate. {53} Surveys indicate citizens are generally satisfied with the parliamentary democracy as a system — more so in the Scandinavian countries than in former Soviet states {54} — but there is widespread {55} and mounting {56} distrust of politicians. Though disputed by academic study, {57} there may indeed be a terminal decline in British democracy as corporation power grows, politicians become less representative of their constituencies, and disillusioned citizens stop voting or even discussing current affairs. {58} Parliamentary democracy has become a competitive struggle for the people's vote, where the people are motivated by class interests and the politicians by power, becoming the 'elected dictatorship', as George Bernard Shaw put it.

Nor until the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader has there been an alternative to the neoliberal model introduced by Margaret Thatcher, which handed over to the market what had previously been expected of the state. {59} Many assumptions accompanied the model, not all of which were reasonable: enlightened self-interest of consumers, truth-telling of marketing, respect for traditions and moral codes that bind a society together. {60}

Parliamentary democracy at Westminster is largely unchanged from its 19th century form, itself the inheritor of Whig absolutism. The government is not accountable to Parliament, and so not to the electorate directly, even at election time as money buys opinion. The public does not trust politicians, and ministers have ceded power to pressure groups — the banks and big business, formerly the trade unions. The Civil Service is not responsible for its actions — only ministers are — and its advice is for government eyes only. Power in Britain has been centralised, emasculating local councils, and making little use of referendums. In short, to properly represent the electorate, British parliamentary democracy needs to govern not by misrepresentation and voter bribery, which serves only short-term and sectional interests, but more by changing the electorate's understanding of society, and hence its character and perspectives. {24} Essential here is the role of the mainstream media, but their coverage generally serves tribal interests, and is regarded by the alternative press as partisan, shallow and untrustworthy on key issues, indeed controlled. The internet has empowered the alternative media, but the internet itself is under threat as government officials equate uncomfortable views with subversion and potential terrorism. In fact, the government itself, through its surveillance programs and assistance to USA drone programmes, is acting outside the law. Most still believe Parliamentary democracy remains the best form of government, but also that Westminster needs to be more intelligent, representative and accountable. {61}

The British are a conservative people, still largely proud of their institutions and traditions, but Parliament seems increasingly unfit for purpose. Companies survive by serving their customers, and conspicuously absent from Westminster are anything like contemporary management approaches: overall goals, detailed board briefs, costed proposals, pilot studies, progress monitoring, market surveys, clear chains of responsibility, and rapid promotion of talent. Parliament assumed the power of the monarchy it subverted, but its executive abilities remain primitive, faction-bound and feudal. {62}

References and Further Reading

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