20 January 1265: England’s first parliament is held at Westminster

Mediterranean islands don’t come cheap – that’s as true today as it was in the 13th century. And King Henry III wasn’t after just any island for his younger son, Edmund. He wanted the biggest of them all – Sicily.

Sicily was ruled by the son of the late Holy Roman Emperor, who had fallen out with the Pope. If Henry would lend a hand in turfing out the troublesome Germans, said the Pope, the island was his. Just so long as Henry didn’t mind covering the Papal expenses incurred in the quarrel.

Henry summoned his barons, and told them to come up with the £90,000 to buy Sicily. It was a colossal sum, and the barons baulked. They were getting a little fed up with the king and his expensive projects. So, in 1258, they got Henry to agree to a council of 15 barons who would appoint the king’s ministers – an agreement known as the Provisions of Oxford.

Appealing to the Pope in 1261 and Louis IX of France in 1263, Henry had the agreement annulled. But one of the barons refused to let matters lie. His name was Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester.

Years of brutal civil war ensued. Then, at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, Henry was bested. He could keep his crown. But from now on, it was de Montfort who called the shots. But de Montfort lacked legitimacy. So, on 20 January 1265, he held a parliament in Westminster to drum up some popular support.

The usual suspects were invited: the barons and the bishops. A handful of knights and lay magnates were in attendance, as were representatives from the Cinque Ports, which supplied the realm with the semblance of a navy.

De Montfort’s master stroke was to also send invitations to the “citizens of York, Lincoln and other boroughs of England that they should send… two of their most prudent, law-worthy and honest fellow citizens or burgesses”. For the first time, de Montfort could at least claim that his government drew support from a cross section of England.

It wasn’t enough. The fighting continued, and in August, de Montfort was hacked to bits at the Battle of Evesham. Yet, when Edward I came to the thrown in 1272, he decided to invite back the burgesses to his parliaments. The seed of what would one day grow into the House of Commons had survived after all.

Also on this day

20 January 1841: Britain takes possession of Hong Kong

On this day in 1841, Hong Kong island was ceded to Britain following the Chuenpi Convention, along with a resumption of the opium trade. Read more here.