Scotland’s powerful parliament

Monday 4 March 2002

Researchers exploring the history of the Scottish Parliament believe that the Parliament of the Middle Ages and beyond was one of the most argumentative and powerful parliaments in the world.

A book recently published by a member of the Scottish Parliament Project (SPP) team at the University of St Andrews attempts to overthrow the traditional history-book opinion that the Parliament of the past was ineffective.

Moreover, it is suggested that the medieval Scottish Parliament wielded a surprising amount of power over the Scottish Kings of the period, often resulting in their public humiliation.

‘The Late Medieval Scottish Parliament: Politics and the Three Estates, 1424-1488’, is the first book to be written entirely on the subject of the medieval parliament. Written by Dr Roland Tanner, a Research Fellow for the SPP, it is the first book to be published from the fruits of the Project, a 6 year study to revise and correct previous records of parliamentary history in Scotland.

The book is a ground-breaking study of the medieval parliament, which examines the actions and motives of those who attended. It overturns the long-held view that the Scottish Parliament was a weak and ineffective institution damned because of its failure to be more like its English counterpart.

“The old picture of weakness is far from accurate. In its very different way, the Scottish Parliament was every bit as powerful as the English institution. The Three Estates (the clergy, nobility and burgh representatives who attended Parliament) were able to wield a surprising degree of control over the Crown during the fifteenth century. For instance, they threatened to lock James I s taxation in a box to which he, the King, would have no access; made James II swear not to alter acts of Parliament, and prevented him from using his own lands and wealth as patronage for his supporters; and forbade James III to leave the country,” said Dr Tanner.

“My research has shown that the Parliament of the late medieval period, and indeed right up to 1707, played an absolutely central part in Scottish political life. It was called more often than the English parliament, and was at least as powerful and influential. It passed many acts, and saw numerous events, where the Scottish kings were forced to abandon policies and even face humiliation in parliament. It was certainly one of the most powerful parliaments in Europe, and therefore the world, at the time,” he said.

For much of the 20th century the Scottish Parliament of the past has been described as a weak and powerless body. According to this argument it had no power to overrule kings, or really do anything of use, particularly when compared with the Westminster ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

The dearth of knowledge on the history of the Scottish Parliament before it voted itself out of existence in 1707 did not allow for these opinions to be revised, as the only historical records of the Scottish Parliament were available in a 19th century text, which was not accessible to everyday people. In 1997, the St Andrews historians set about creating a history which could be understood by everyone. In addition to correcting mistakes made in the 19th century book, the group have been recovering lost texts, which have been discovered in archives and family records over the last 25 years.

In his book about the Parliament of the Middle Ages, Dr Tanner has sought to bring the old Parliament to life through the people who attended, the reasons why they attended, and the complex interactions which occurred when all the most wealthy, powerful and ambitious people in the kingdom gathered in one place.

‘The Late Medieval Scottish Parliament: Politics and the Three Estates, 1424-1488’, by Dr Roland Tanner is published by Tuckwell Press, priced £20, ISBN 1 86232 174 4.

Weblinks: Scottish Parliament Project website


Funded by the Scottish Records Office, the Scottish Parliament Project, which covers parliamentary history and the great political events in Scotland from the 13th century to 1707, is thought to be one of the biggest historical studies of its kind.

Researchers so far have found a number of new parliaments not previously known about. The centuries-old legislation they are editing and translating covers all aspects of Scottish life, from farming, taxes, law and order, education, and religion, to pursuing wolves and crows and medieval dress codes.

During 2003, the project will culminate with the publication of three volumes, and a cd_rom or web- based tool, depending on the technology available at the time.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email [email protected] Ref: Scottish Parliament book pr 210202 View the latest University news at

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