During the Middle Ages, most European kings believed they had been given the right to rule their subjects by God. The first serious challenge to this was presented to King John of England in 1215, when several of his barons presented him with the Magna Carta, which placed limits on the king's power and demanded that he seek the consent of the lesser noblemen over whom he governed before he could tax them. In the early 14th century, the need to consult the noblemen for their consent in an organized fashion had led to the development of a permanent Parliament.

On to Democracy

The establishment of Parliament allowed a few high ranking noblemen to vote, but did little for the average English subject. By 1780, fewer than 3 percent of the English population was allowed to vote. The right to vote was granted to larger segments of the population three times in the 19th century as the result of the Reform Acts. The first, in 1832, granted greater representation in Parliament to England's growing cities and urban centers. It didn't specify who could vote, but the privilege was generally reserved for the upper-middle class.

On to Suffrage

The Second Reform Act gave voting rights to all male homeowners who met income requirements in 1867. The Third, in 1884, further opened voting rights to all male property owners. The right to vote was not offered to women or to men who did not own property until 1918, with the passage of universal suffrage laws.