Thursday, 1 January 2015

Charles I: the Personal Rule (1629-40)

In April 1629 Charles made peace with France, and in November 1630 with Spain, calculating that if he avoided war, he would be able to rule without Parliament. 


The Personal Rule has also been called the ‘eleven years’ tyranny’, though, after the horrors of the Civil War, many came to see it as a golden age. The period is significant constitutionally because it saw a clash between two views of kingship:

  1. the king subject to the common law; 
  2. the king able to rule through the sole exercise of his prerogative. 

These conflicts had already come to the fore in Charles’s parliaments. 

Some consensus is emerging among historians about the personal rule.

  1. The Crown was genuinely attempting to reform the machinery of government and make it more efficient. Similar policies were being pursued by other monarchs in western Europe.
  2. Charles and his court became increasingly isolated from the mainstream of contemporary religious, intellectual, and cultural life, and did not bother to explain their policies. This shows the political disadvantage of ruling without Parliament. By 1640 Charles had created a climate of distrust that was to prove a disaster for him. 

Financial expedients

The perennial problem of early Stuart administration was the need to cut expenditure and increase revenue. The war years had left the Crown in severe financial distress, with a deficit of £2m by 1629. The absence of Parliament did not in itself signal financial disaster because scarcely a tenth of royal revenues came from parliamentary supply. The Crown could not wage war without the taxes voted by Parliament but it could manage without them in a period of peace. 

But Charles’s financial expedients were open to legal challenge. In 1637 John Hampden challenged the legality of the extra-parliamentary tax, ship money. The case was heard in the Court of Exchequer from November 1637 to June 1638. Seven out of the twelve judges (the narrowest possible margin) gave their verdict in favour of the Crown.

Religious policy

William Laud, Charles's very active
and controversial archbishop
of Canterbury
It is probable that it was the king’s religious policy that contributed most to his unpopularity. In Church as in State, Charles I pursued a vigorous and authoritarian programme of reform and centralization. The key figure in implementing his religious policies was William Laud (1593-1645), bishop of London (1628) and archbishop of Canterbury (1633). 

What convinced many people that he was a revolutionary was his attempt to move the communion table from its accustomed position in the nave to the east end of the church and to surround it with rails. Yet the Elizabethan injunctions had permitted the Eucharist to be celebrated round a plain ‘communion table’ set in the middle of the church, and this was the arrangement of most parishes until the 1630s. Laud enforced conformity through the ecclesiastical Court of High Commission, that, along with Star Chamber, operated outside the English common law.
The baroque porch added to the medieval
church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford by
Laud in his capacity as
 Chancellor of the University.

Wentworth in Ireland

Thomas Wentworth, later earl of Strafford
known as 'Black Tom Tyrant'
In 1632 Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641) was appointed Lord Deputy in Ireland. A former MP for Yorkshire, Wentworth had initially supported the ‘popular party’ in parliament and had been imprisoned for non-payment of the forced loan. But in 1628 he had switched to support the court. He had been created Baron Wentworth (1628), appointed President of the Council of the North (1628) and Privy Councillor (1629). In July 1633 he arrived in Dublin and proceeded to impose his will on the Irish landowners.

The Scots revolt

The collapse of the personal rule was brought about by events in Scotland, highlighting Charles’s problems as the monarch of a multiple kingdom. Just as he attempted to impose uniformity on England, so he tried to bring Scottish religious practice in line with England’s. In July 1637 he imposed the English Prayer Book on the Presbyterian Scots, inspiring a revolt that was partly religious and partly nationalistic. In February 1638 the Scots signed the National Covenant, binding themselves together in a solemn oath refusing to comply with royal policy, pledging to ‘maintain the true worship of God’ and the ‘true religion, liberties and laws of the kingdom’.
The riot against the Prayer Book, St Giles'
Cathedral, 23 July 1637

The end of the Personal Rule

By the spring of 1639 Charles had assembled an army to subdue the Scots. But when his forces confronted the Covenanting army, his commanders were so disaffected that they sued for peace without firing a shot. On 11 June the English began peace negotiations, which were concluded a week later at Berwick. In September Wentworth returned to England and promptly advocated a hard-line policy: the Scots should be treated as rebels, to be conquered by war. For this, Charles would need money and would therefore have to summon Parliament. Wentworth (created earl of Strafford in January 1640) believed that because he had successfully managed the Irish Parliament, a new English Parliament would present no problems. 

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