Charles I and Parliament, 1625-29
In March 1625, the ailing King James I died. He was succeeded to the throne of the Three Kingdoms by his eldest surviving son Charles. After securing his marriage to the French princess Henrietta Maria, Charles I was duly crowned King of England, Scotland and Ireland on 2 February 1626.
King Charles' first Parliament assembled in June 1625, before his coronation had taken place. It met against the background of an outbreak of plague in London so virulent that the second session of Parliament was held at Oxford. The King's principal objective was to raise money for war against Spain, which he believed would indirectly help his sister Elizabeth and brother-in-law Frederick to regain the Palatinate.
Members of Parliament complained that the terms of the marriage contract between Charles and Henrietta Maria included unacceptable concessions to English Catholics. There were also rumours that the Duke of Buckingham, as Lord High Admiral, was about to authorise English warships to assist Cardinal Richelieu of France in subduing the Protestant Huguenot rebels. Suspicious of Charles' religious and foreign policy, Parliament was reluctant to grant him funds. In an unprecedented measure, it was proposed to grant the customs levy "tonnage and poundage" — traditionally one of the monarch's main sources of revenue — for one year only instead of for life, as had been usual since the 15th century.
Opposition MPs discussed precedents for Parliament choosing the King's ministers for him and also for the impeachment of those who had gained undue influence over him. Realising that a parliamentary attack on Buckingham was building, Charles dissolved his first Parliament on 12 August 1625 in order to protect his friend.
After the ignominious failure of an English expedition against the Spanish port of Cadiz, Charles and Buckingham turned their attention to the plight of the Huguenots of La Rochelle, who were threatened by the forces of Catholic France. Intent on making war with both Spain and France, Charles urgently needed funds to re-equip the fleet and re-arm his troops. Reluctantly, he decided to call another Parliament.
In an attempt to manage the elections, Charles made his leading opponents from the 1625 Parliament into county sheriffs because, as officers of the Crown, they became ineligible for membership of the House of Commons. He also tried to prevent Lord Arundel and Lord Bristol — avowed enemies of the Duke of Buckingham — from attending the House of Lords.
Despite the King's attempts at manipulating Parliament, fierce criticism of Buckingham's mismanagement of the Cadiz expedition was heard, spearheaded by Sir John Eliot. The House of Commons tried to impeach Buckingham for high treason and threatened to delay all votes on taxation until the House of Lords had delivered its verdict on the impeachment. Under pressure from the Lords, Charles was unable to prevent Arundel and Bristol from taking their seats. Realising that a parliamentary majority against Buckingham seemed likely, Charles ordered the dissolution of Parliament in June 1626.
Having abruptly dissolved the Parliament of 1626 before it had granted any subsidies, King Charles found himself desperately short of money. News of Imperial victories in Europe and recriminations over his own failure to act made him more determined than ever to strike a blow for the Protestant cause. To finance his war plans, the King borrowed money on the security of the Crown Jewels, collected customs duties that Parliament had not sanctioned and imposed forced loans on his wealthier subjects. Nobility and gentry of every shire were appointed to act as commissioners for the collection of the loan. More than £250,000 was raised within a year, but the loan was deeply unpopular.
Seventy-six prominent gentlemen were imprisoned for refusing to lend money and for obstructing the work of local collectors. They were not charged, however, for fear that magistrates might decide against the King. In the past, English monarchs had sometimes imprisoned people without bringing charges or showing cause, but only in exceptional cases where state security was threatened. Charles' use of the power for political ends was unprecedented.
Late in 1627, five imprisoned gentlemen applied for writs of habeus corpus, which called into question the legality of their imprisonment. Judges found in favour of the King and the five were returned to prison, but the case became a focus of opposition to the King's arbitrary use of his powers.
Charles also attempted to mobilise the Church in support of the forced loans. Roger Maynwaring and Robert Sibthorpe preached sermons justifying the King's actions through his Divine Right. Charles ordered the publication of their sermons, but George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, was reluctant to license them. A commission of bishops, including William Laud, bypassed the Archbishop and the sermons were licensed. Thereafter, Laud's influence in the Church of England steadily increased.
Despite the disastrous failure of two expeditions against Spain and France, King Charles and the Duke of Buckingham were determined to send another force to La Rochelle. Buckingham favoured calling another Parliament to raise the necessary funds; Charles was reluctant and only agreed on condition that there would be no more demands for Buckingham's impeachment.
King Charles' third Parliament duly assembled on 17 March 1628. His opening speech called for the immediate granting of taxes to continue the wars, but MPs decided that no money would be granted until their various grievances were addressed. Led by Sir John Eliot, Sir Edward Coke, Sir Robert Phelips, John Selden and Sir Thomas Wentworth, the King's opponents drew up the Petition of Right.
The Petition was not an enactment of new law, but a declaration of established rights. It contained four demands:
- there should be no taxation without the consent of Parliament;
- there should be no imprisonment without cause shown;
- there should be no billeting of soldiers or sailors upon householders against their will;
- there should be no martial law to punish ordinary offences by sailors or soldiers.
These rights were claimed under laws and statutes from Magna Carta and the laws of Edward I, Edward III and Richard III. The third and fourth demands reflect the impact that Charles' warlike foreign policy was having upon everyday life.
Initially, Charles refused to give his consent to the Petition, but he was in desperate need of money. He consulted prominent magistrates regarding the legal status of the Petition. On the understanding that he could enforce his powers anyway, Charles consented to the Petition on 7 June 1628. Parliament then granted the subsidies the King needed. When MPs resumed their criticisms of Buckingham, however, Charles prorogued Parliament on 26 June, intending to recall it the following year.
The second session of King Charles' third Parliament assembled on 23 January 1629. In August 1628, during the interval between the two sessions, the King's unpopular minister the Duke of Buckingham had been assassinated. Without Buckingham's divisive influence, the King hoped that Parliament would finally co-operate with him. Led by Sir John Eliot and John Pym, however, the House of Commons immediately began to complain about the growing influence of the Arminian faction in the Church of England, which Puritans regarded as crypto-Catholic.
Complaints were also made about the ongoing collection of tonnage and poundage, which had not been granted by Parliament and was therefore contrary to the Petition of Right. The dispute was aggravated by the case of John Rolle, a Member of Parliament imprisoned for refusing to pay the levy.
King Charles regarded Parliament's criticisms as an attack upon his authority. He briefly adjourned the House, hoping to arrange a compromise with his opponents. But when Parliament reassembled on 2 March 1629, the King's opponents led by Sir John Eliot issued a protestation known as the Three Resolutions. The protestation denounced Arminianism and encouraged merchants to refuse to pay tonnage and poundage. Those who paid were branded enemies to the Kingdom and betrayers of the liberties of England.
King Charles angrily ordered the Speaker, Sir John Finch, to adjourn Parliament once more. When Finch tried to rise to declare the session at an end, a group of MPs led by Denzil Holles strode forward and held him down in his chair. Insisting that the House had the right to decide when to adjourn, Holles ordered the Speaker to remain seated until the Three Resolutions had been passed. The doors of the Commons were locked and Holles read out the Protestation while the King's officials hammered at the door. No formal vote was taken in the ensuing confusion but many Members shouted their approval of Holles' actions. The Commons then voted their own adjournment.
A Royal proclamation was drawn up and King Charles announced the dissolution of Parliament on 10 March 1629. In a long declaration, the King defended his domestic and religious policies and asserted the Crown's right to collect tonnage and poundage without Parliament's consent. He denounced his opponents in Parliament and the following day, Sir John Eliot, Denzil Holles, William Strode and six others were arrested and imprisoned. The King resolved to govern without Parliament, and embarked upon the eleven-year period of his Personal Rule.
Pauline Gregg, King Charles I (Berkeley 1984)
Mark A. Kishlansky and John Morrill, King Charles I, Oxford DNB 2004