If we turn from the stirring but barren annals of foreign warfare to the more fruitful field of constitutional progress, we are at once struck with a marked change which takes place during this period in the composition of Parliament. The division, with which we are so familiar, into a House of Lords and a House of Commons, formed no part of the original plan of Edward the First; in the earlier Parliaments, each of the four orders of clergy, barons, knights, and burgesses met, deliberated, and made their grants apart from each other. This isolation, however, of the Estates soon showed signs of breaking down. While the clergy, as we have seen, held steadily aloof from any real union with its fellow-orders, the knights of the shire were drawn by the similarity of their social position into a close connexion with the lords. They seem, in fact, to have been soon admitted by the baronage to an almost equal position with themselves, whether as legislators or counsellors of the Crown. The burgesses, on the other hand, took little part at first in Parliamentary proceedings, save in those which related to the taxation of their class.
But their position was raised by the strifes of the reign of Edward the Second, when their aid was needed by the baronage in its struggle with the Crown; and their right to share fully in all legislative action was asserted in the famous statute of 1322. Gradually too, through causes with which we are imperfectly acquainted, the knights of the shire drifted from their older connexion with the baronage into so close and intimate a union with the representatives of the towns that at the opening of the reign of Edward the Third the two orders are found grouped formally together, under the name of "The Commons"; and by 1341 the final decision of Parliament into two Houses was complete. It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of this change. Had Parliament remained broken up into its four orders of clergy, barons, knights, and citizens, its power would have been neutralized at every great crisis by the jealousies and difficulty of co-operation among its component parts. A permanent union of the knighthood and the baronage, on the other hand, would have converted Parliament into a mere representative of an aristocratic caste, and would have robbed it of the strength which it has drawn from its connexion with the great body of the commercial classes.
[Authorities. - As in the last period. An anonymous chronicler whose work is printed in the "Archaeologia " (vol. 22) gives the story of the Good Parliament; another account is preserved in the "Chronica Anglian from 1328 to 1388 " (Rolls Series), and fresh light has been recently thrown on the time by the publication of a Chronicle by Adam of Usk from 1377 to 1404].
The new attitude of the knighthood, their social connexion as landed gentry with the baronage, their political union with the burgesses, really welded the three orders into one, and gave that unity of feeling and action to our Parliament on which its power has ever since mainly depended. From the moment of this change, indeed, we see a marked increase of parliamentary activity. The need of continual grants during the war brought about an assembly of Parliament year by year; and with each supply some step was made to greater political influence. A crowd of enactments for the regulation of trade, whether wise or unwise, and for the protection of the subject against oppression or injustice, as well as the great ecclesiastical provisions of this reign, show the rapid widening of the sphere of parliamentary action. The Houses claimed an exclusive right to grant supplies, and asserted the principle of ministerial responsibility to Parliament. But the Commons long shrank from meddling with purely administrative matters.
Edward in his anxiety to shift from his shoulders the responsibility of the war with France, referred to them for counsel on the subject of one of the numerous propositions of peace. "Most dreaded lord," they replied, "as to your war and the equipment necessary for it, we are so ignorant and simple that we know not how, nor have the power, to devise: wherefore we pray your Grace to excuse us in this matter, and that it please you, with advice of the great and wise persons of your Council, to ordain what seems best to you for the honour and profit of yourself and of your kingdom; and whatsoever shall be thus ordained by assent and agreement on the' part of you and your lords we readily assent to, and will hold it firmly established." But while shrinking from so wide an extension of their responsibility, the Commons wrested from the Crown a practical reform of the highest value. As yet their petitions, if granted, were often changed or left incomplete in the statute or ordinance which professed to embody them, or were delayed till the session had closed. Thus many provisions made in Parliament had hitherto been evaded or set aside.
But the Commons now met this abuse by a demand that on the royal assent being given their petitions should be turned without change into statutes of the realm, and derive force of law from their entry on the rolls of Parliament.
The political responsibility which the Commons evaded was at last forced on them by the misfortunes of the war. In spite of quarrels in Brittany and elsewhere, peace was fairly preserved in the nine years which followed the treaty of Brétigny; but the shrewd eye of Charles the Fifth, the successor of John, was watching keenly for the moment of renewing the struggle. He had cleared his kingdom of the freebooters by despatching them into Spain, and the Black Prince had plunged into the revolutions of that country only to return from his fruitless victory of Navarete in broken health, and impoverished by the expenses of the campaign. The anger caused by the taxation which this necessitated was fanned by Charles into revolt. He listened, in spite of the treaty, to an appeal from the lords of Aquitaine, and summoned the Black Prince to his Court. "I will come," replied the Prince, "but helmet on head, and with sixty thousand men at my back." War, however, had hardly been declared before the ability with which Charles had laid his plans was seen in his seizure of Ponthieu, and in a rising of the whole country south of the Garonne. The Black Prince, borne on a litter to the walls of Limoges, recovered the town, which had been surrendered to the French, and by a merciless massacre sullied the fame of his earlier exploits; but sickness recalled him home, and the war, protracted by the caution of Charles, who forbade his armies to engage, did little but exhaust the energy and treasures of England. At last, however, the error of the Prince's policy was seen in the appearance of a Spanish fleet in the Channel, and in a decisive victory which it won over an English convoy off Rochelle. The blow was in fact fatal to the English cause; it wrested from Edward the mastery of the seas, and cut off his communication with Aquitaine. Charles was roused to new exertions.