Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Long Parliament

The Long Parliament in session,
Speaker Lenthall
in the chair

The Short Parliament

The First Bishops' War had concluded with humiliation for Charles's army, forcing him to summon Parliament and end the Personal Rule. This Parliament, known as the Short Parliament, assembled on 13 April 1640. Contrary to Strafford’s optimistic predictions, the Commons had been elected on an anti-court programme, with Ship-money a major issue. Parliament refused to grant the subsidies Charles demanded in spite of his major concession - the repeal of Ship-money - until their religious and political grievances received a hearing. On the advice of Strafford, who promised him an Irish army of 8,000, Charles dissolved Parliament on 5 May - this was his fourth Parliament and the last he would be able to dissolve.

The Second Bishops’ War

In August the Scots, galvanized by their new radical agenda, seized the initiative when the veteran soldier, Alexander Leslie led an army of about 18,000 across the Tweed. On 28 August they routed a hastily assembled English army at Newburn.  Then, while the English reinforced the fortifications of Berwick, they by-passed the town and went on to take Newcastle.  While they advanced without opposition, the king arrived in York.

Back in England Charles's opponents - peers and former members of the Short Parliament - signed a petition lamenting innovations especially the increase in popery and urging the king to summon another Parliament to redress grievances. One of their leaders, Nathaniel Fiennes, wrote to the Covenanters asking for information about Scottish plans so that they could co-ordinate their future efforts - this surely constituted treason.

Charles responded to the petition by summoning a Great Council of Peers to York. When they met on 24 September, he immediately announced the summoning of a Parliament for 3 November. In the meantime his commissioners negotiated with the Scots and on 21 October concluded the Truce of Ripon: the Scots would remain in Newcastle and receive £850 a day from Charles until satisfactory terms were agreed by an English Parliament. It was a great humiliation but the king was playing for time.

The Long Parliament

This Parliament, the longest in English history, met under tense circumstances on 3 November 1640. To put it mildly, it was unusual to have  an English Parliament’s existence been secured by 18,000 troops occupying north-eastern England!  Most of the members had already served in the Short Parliament and were ready for conflict. 

The strongest ideological drive behind the opposition to the king in the 1640s was religious zeal, as demands for a constitutional parliamentarianism went hand in hand with a craving for 'godly reformation’.  The targets of the opposition were Laud (who had oppressed the Protestants and made the Scots revolt) and Strafford (who had thrust the second war upon them). The aim - to rescue the king from his ‘evil counsellors’ - was highly traditional, going back to the days of King John.  

In November Strafford was impeached for treason and imprisoned. In December Laud was also impeached for and imprisoned, and the Root and Branch Petition for the complete abolition of episcopacy (bishops) was presented to parliament. It claimed to be signed by 15,000 citizens of London, now highly radicalized and potentially dangerous. This was embarrassingly radical, and Pym managed to have the Petition referred to the committee for religion

The new leaders

John Pym, Charles's most
tenacious opponent
The new leaders had emerged quickly, with John Pym soon becoming the voice of the parliamentary opposition. As well as giving the Commons ‘front bench’ leadership in steering the business of the House, he had contacts with the radical groups in the City to organize marches of apprentices and others to Westminster. The historian, C. V. Wedgwood has described him in her book, The King's Peace (Collins, 1955, p. 364) as
‘a child of the Elizabethan age, reared in hatred of Spain, in strong Protestant beliefs, and in the faith that God intended the English to establish his Gospel by sea-power and settlement over the face of the earth’. 
He was a revolutionary who nevertheless saw himself as a conservative, harking back to the days of Good Queen Bess!

The Personal Rule attacked

The main business of Parliament was to attack Strafford. By 25 November he was in the Tower while a committee prepared articles of impeachment accusing him of ‘endeavouring to subvert the ancient and fundamental laws and government of England and Ireland’, of erecting an ‘arbitrary and tyrannical government’ in Ireland, and of provoking war against the Scots. 

On 7 December the Commons proclaimed Ship-money an illegal tax. Laud was impeached on 18 December as ‘an actor in the great design of the subversion of the laws ... and of religion’. In March 1641 he was imprisoned in the Tower. But Parliament was happy to allow him to languish there until he was executed in 1645.

The Triennial Act

On 15 February 1641 Parliament passed the Triennial Act requiring the king to summon a parliament at least every third year, and setting up an elaborate machinery to ensure that Parliament would meet even if he failed to issue the necessary writs.  In signing it, Charles declared that he was yielding ‘one of the fairest flowers in my garland’.  He was abandoning what had been an unquestioned part of the royal prerogative.  

The trial of Strafford

The trial of Strafford, depicted by
Wenceslas Hollar. It was abandoned for
lack of evidence in favour of
On 22 March Strafford’s trial began at Westminster Hall, a great and well-attended spectator sport.  It was clearly not going to be straightforward to get rid of him – how could a man who had the king’s confidence be accused of treason?  Furthermore, the case against him was weak. Sixteen of the twenty-eight articles of the impeachment were directed at his Irish policy. He was accused of intending to bring an Irish army over to ‘reduce’ ‘this kingdom’ but it could not be proved that he had meant England rather than Scotland. 

As a result of the lack of evidence, the Commons voted on 10 April, against Pym’s advice, to proceed by a parliamentary bill of attainder, which avoided the inconvenience of a trial in the Lords! On 21 April 204 MPs voted in favour of the attainder and only 59 ‘Straffordians’ against. Many stayed away, either because they felt intimidated, or because they did not approve of the whole process.

On 23 April (Good Friday) Charles wrote to Strafford promising that ‘upon the word of a king, you shall not suffer in life, honour or fortune’, but his plot to use army officers to save him came to nothing. Meanwhile crowds of Londoners, many of them affluent and respectable, screamed for his blood. On 7 May the attainder bill passed a thinly attended Upper House.
On Monday 10 May, Charles assented to Strafford’s death. He was advised by many bishops that if he refused his signature the nation would descend into civil war; and he was also in deep fear for his wife’s safety.   His decision caused a bitter Laud to confide to his diary that he ‘knew not how to be or be made great’.  

Strafford's execution depicted by Hollar
On 12 May Strafford was executed on Tower Hill. In his history of the Civil War, the earl of Clarendon, an eye-witness to these great events, was to write:
‘Thus fell the greatest subject in power and little inferior to any in fortune, that was at that time in any of the three kingdoms.’ 

The Root and Branch Bill

The 'Root and Branch' Bill was introduced in May 1641. This called for the removal of the bishops from the Church of England and for the Church's reform along Scottish-style Presbyterian lines. This was extremely radical and went far beyond the intentions of those MPs who had simply wanted Charles to abandon what they saw as his unconstitutional innovations. Events were slipping out of the control of the moderate parliamentarians.

The Personal Rule dismantled

In June the Lords voted to exclude bishops from the House.
In July the prerogative courts of Star Chamber and High Commission that operated outside the common law, were abolished. In August Ship Money was abolished, knighthood fines were prohibited, and the boundaries of the royal forests were clearly defined. These bills passed both Houses with enormous majorities. 

By the late summer the policy of the Personal Rule had been dismantled. Charles’s opponents had apparently achieved what they wanted. Why then did the Civil War break out?

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