Charles I - Jacob Abbott

Civil War

The way in which the king came at last to a final rupture with Parliament was this. The victory which the Commons gained in the case of Strafford had greatly increased their confidence and their power, and the king found, for some months afterward, that instead of being satisfied with the concessions he had made, they were continually demanding more. The more he yielded, the more they encroached. They grew, in a word, bolder and bolder, in proportion to their success. They considered themselves doing the state a great and good service by disarming tyranny of its power. The king, on the other hand, considered them as undermining all the foundations of good government, and as depriving him of personal rights, the most sacred and solemn that could vest in any human being.

It will be recollected that on former occasions, when the king had got into contention with a Parliament, he had dissolved it, and either attempted to govern without one, or else had called for a new election, hoping that the new members would be more compliant. But he could not dissolve the Parliament now. They had provided against this danger. At the time of the trial of Strafford, they brought in a bill into the Commons providing that thenceforth the Houses could not be prorogued or dissolved without their own consent. The Commons, of course, passed the bill very readily. The Peers were more reluctant, but they did not dare to reject it. The king was extremely unwilling to sign the bill; but, amid the terrible excitements and dangers of that trial, he was overborne by the influences of danger and intimidation which surrounded him. He signed the bill. Of course the Commons were, thereafter, their own masters. However dangerous or destructive the king might consider their course of conduct to be, he could now no longer arrest it, as heretofore, by a dissolution.

He went on, therefore, till the close of 1641, yielding slowly and reluctantly, and with many struggles, but still all the time yielding, to the resistless current which bore him along. At last he resolved to yield no longer. After retreating so long, he determined suddenly and desperately to turn back and attack his enemies. The whole world looked on with astonishment at such a sudden change of his policy.

The measure which he resorted to was this. He determined to select a number of the most efficient and prominent men in Parliament, who had been leaders in the proceedings against him, and demand their arrest, imprisonment, and trial, on a charge of high treason. The king was influenced to do this partly by the advice of the queen, and of the ladies of the court, and other persons who did not understand how deep and strong the torrent was which they thus urged him to attempt to stem. They thought that if he would show a little courage and energy in facing these men, they would yield in their turn, and that their boldness and success was owing, in a great measure, to the king's want of spirit in resisting them. "Strike boldly at them," said they; "seize the leaders; have them tried, and condemned, and executed. Threaten the rest with the same fate; and follow up these measures with energetic and decisive action, and you will soon make a change in the aspect of affairs."

The king adopted this policy, and he did make a change in the aspect of affairs, but not such a change as his advisers had anticipated. The Commons were thrown suddenly into a state of astonishment one day by the appearance of a king's officer in the House, who rose and read articles of a charge of treason against five of the most influential and popular members. The officer asked that a committee should be appointed to hear the evidence against them which the king was preparing. The Commons, on hearing this, immediately voted, that if any person should attempt even to seize the papers of the persons accused, it should be lawful for them to resist such an attempt by every means in their power.

The next day another officer appeared at the bar of the House of Commons, and spoke as follows. "I am commanded by the king's majesty, my master, upon my allegiance, that I should come to the House of Commons, and require of Mr. Speaker five gentlemen, members of the House of Commons; and those gentlemen being delivered, I am commanded to arrest them in his majesty's name, on a charge of high treason." The Commons, on hearing this demand, voted that they would take it into consideration!

[Illustration] from Charles I by Jacob Abbott


The king's friends and advisers urged him to follow the matter up vigorously. Every thing depended, they said, on firmness and decision. The next day, accordingly, the king determined to go himself to the House, and make the demand in person. A lady of the court, who was made acquainted with this plan, sent notice of it to the House. In going, the king took his guard with him, and several personal attendants. The number of soldiers was said to be five hundred. He left this great retinue at the door, and he himself entered the House. The Commons, when they heard that he was coming, had ordered the five members who were accused to withdraw. They went out just before the king came in. The king advanced to the speaker's chair, took his seat, and made the following address.

"Gentlemen,—I am sorry for this occasion of coming unto you. Yesterday I sent a Sergeant at Arms upon a very important occasion to apprehend some that by my Command were accused of High Treason; whereunto I did expect Obedience and not a message. And I must declare unto you here, that albeit no king that ever was in England shall be more careful of your Privileges, to maintain them to the uttermost of his Power, than I shall be; yet you must know that in cases of Treason no Person hath a Privilege; and therefore I am come to know if any of those Persons that were accused are here. For I must tell you, Gentlemen, that so long as these Persons that I have accused (for no slight Crime, but for Treason) are here, I can not expect that this House will be in the right way that I do heartily wish it. Therefore I am come to tell you that I must have them wherever I find them."

After looking around, and finding that the members in question were not in the hall, he continued:

"Well! since I see the Birds are flown, I do expect from you that you shall send them unto me as soon as they return hither. But I assure you, on the Word of a King, I never did intend any Force, but shall proceed against them in a legal and fair way, for I never meant any other.

"I will trouble you no more, but tell you I do expect, as soon as they come to the House, you will send them to me, otherwise I must take my own course to find them."

The king's coming thus into the House of Commons, and demanding in person that they should act according to his instructions, was a very extraordinary circumstance—perhaps unparalleled in English history. It produced the greatest excitement. When he had finished his address, he turned to the speaker and asked him where those men were. He had his guard ready at the door to seize them. It is difficult for us, in this country, to understand fully to how severe a test this sudden question put the presence of mind and courage of the speaker; for we can not realize the profound and awful deference which was felt in those days for the command of a king. The speaker gained great applause for the manner in which he stood the trial. He fell upon his knees before the great potentate who had addressed him, and said, "I have, sir, neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak, in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am. And I humbly ask pardon that I can not give any other answer to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me."

The House was immediately in a state of great excitement and confusion. They called out "Privilege! privilege!"  meaning that their privileges were violated. They immediately adjourned. News of the affair spread every where with the greatest rapidity, and produced universal and intense excitement. The king's friends were astonished at such an act of rashness and folly, which, it is said, only one  of the king's advisers knew any thing about, and he immediately fled. The five members accused went that night into the city of London, and called on the government and people of London to protect them. The people armed themselves. In a word, the king found at night that he had raised a very threatening and terrible storm.

The Commons met the next morning, but did not attempt to transact business. They simply voted that it was useless for them to proceed with their deliberations, while exposed to such violations of their rights. They appointed a committee of twenty-four to inquire into and report the circumstances of the king's intrusion into their councils, and to consider how this breach of their privileges could be repaired. They ordered this committee to sit in the city of London, where they might hope to be safe from such interruptions, and then the House adjourned for a week to await the result of the committee’s deliberation.

The committee went to London. In the mean time, news went all over the kingdom that the House of Commons had been compelled to suspend its sittings on account of an illegal and unwarrantable interference with their proceedings on the part of the king. The king was alarmed; but those who had advised him to adopt this measure told him that he must not falter now. He must persevere and carry his point, or all would be lost.

He accordingly did persevere. He brought troops and arms to his palace at Whitehall, to be ready to defend it in case of attack. He sent in to London, and ordered the lord mayor to assemble the city authorities at the Guild-hall, which is the great city hall of London; and then, with a retinue of noblemen, he went in to meet them. The people shouted, "Privileges of Parliament! privileges of Parliament." as he passed along. Some called out, "To your tents, O Israel!" which was the ancient Hebrew cry of rebellion. The king, however, persevered. When he reached the Guild-hall, he addressed the city authorities thus:

"Gentlemen,—I am come to demand such Persons as I have already accused of High Treason, and do believe are shrouded in the City. I hope no good Man will keep them from Me. Their Offenses are Treason and Misdemeanors of a high Nature. I desire your Assistance, that they may be brought to a legal Trial." Three days after this the king issued a proclamation, addressed to all magistrates and officers of justice every where, to arrest the accused members and carry them to the Tower.

In the mean time, the committee of twenty-four continued their session in London, examining witnesses and preparing their report. When the time arrived for the House of Commons to meet again, which was on the 11th of January, the city made preparations to have the committee escorted in an imposing manner from the Guildhall to Westminster. A vast amount of the intercommunication and traffic between different portions of the city then, at now, took place upon the river, though in those days it was managed by watermen, who rowed small wherries to and fro. Innumerable steamboats take the place of the wherries at the present day, and stokers and engineers have superseded the watermen. The watermen were then, however, a large and formidable body, banded together, like the other trades of London, in one great organization. This great company turned out on this occasion, and attended the committee in barges on the river, while the military companies of the city marched along the streets upon the land. The committee themselves went in barges on the water, and all London flocked to see the spectacle. The king, hearing of these arrangements, was alarmed for his personal safety, and left his palace at Whitehall to go to Hampton Court, which was a little way out of town.

The committee, after entering the House, reported that the transaction which they had been considering constituted a high breach of the privileges of the House, and was a seditious act, tending to a subversion of the peace of the kingdom; and that the privileges of Parliament, so violated and broken, could not be sufficiently vindicated, unless his majesty would be pleased to inform them who advised him to do such a deed.

The king was more and more seriously alarmed. He found that the storm of public odium and indignation was too great for him to withstand. He began to fear for his own safety more than ever. He removed from Hampton Court to Windsor Castle, a stronger place and more remote from London than Hampton Court; and he now determined to give up the contest. He sent a message, therefore, to the House, saying that, on further reflection, since so many persons had doubts whether his proceedings against the five members were consistent with the privileges of Parliament, he would waive them, and the whole subject might rest until the minds of men were more composed, and then, if he proceeded against the accused members at all, he would do so in a manner to which no exception could be taken. He said, also, he would henceforth be as careful of their privileges as he should be of his own life or crown.

Thus he acknowledged himself vanquished in the struggle, but the acknowledgment came too late to save him. The excitement increased, and spread in every direction. The party of the king and that of the Parliament disputed for a few months about these occurrences, and others growing out of them, and then each began to maneuver and struggle to get possession of the military power of the kingdom. The king, finding himself not safe in the vicinity of London, retreated to York, and began to assemble and organize his followers. Parliament sent him a declaration that if he did not disband the forces which he was assembling, they should be compelled to provide measures for securing the peace of the kingdom. The king replied by proclamations calling upon his subjects to join his standard. In a word, before midsummer, the country was plunged in the horrors of civil war.

A civil war, that is, a war between two parties in the same country, is generally far more savage and sanguinary than any other. The hatred and the animosities which it creates, ramify throughout the country, and produce universal conflict and misery. If there were a war between France and England, there might be one, or perhaps two invading armies of Frenchmen attempting to penetrate into the interior. All England would be united against them. Husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbors and friends, would be drawn together more closely than ever; while the awful scenes of war and bloodshed, the excitement, the passion, the terror, would be confined to a few detached spots, or to a few lines of march which the invading armies had occupied.

In a civil war, however, it is very different. Every distinct portion of the country, every village and hamlet, and sometimes almost every family, is divided against itself. The hostility and hatred, too, between the combatants, is always far more intense and bitter than that which is felt against a foreign foe. We might at first be surprised at this. We might imagine that where men are contending with their neighbors and fellow-townsmen, the recollection of past friendships and good-will, and various lingering ties of regard, would moderate the fierceness of their anger, and make them more considerate and forbearing. But this is not found to be the case. Each party considers the other as not only enemies, but traitors, and accordingly they hate and abhor each other with a double intensity. If an Englishman has a Frenchman  to combat, he meets him with a murderous impetuosity, it is true, but without any special bitterness of animosity. He expects the Frenchman to be his enemy. He even thinks he has a sort of natural right to be so. He will kill him if he can; but then, if he takes him prisoner, there is nothing in his feelings toward him to prevent his treating him with generosity, and even with kindness. He hates him, but there is a sort of good-nature in his hatred, after all. On the other hand, when he fights against his countrymen in a civil war, he abhors and hates with unmingled bitterness the traitorous ingratitude which he thinks his neighbors and friends evince in turning enemies to their country. He can see no honesty, no truth, no courage in any thing they do. They are infinitely worse, in his estimation, than the most ferocious of foreign foes. Civil war is, consequently, always the means of far wider and more terrible mischief than any other human calamity.

In the contention between Charles and the Parliament, the various elements of the social state adhered to one side or the other, according to their natural predilections. The Episcopalians generally joined the king, the Presbyterians the Parliament. The gentry and the nobility favored the king; the mechanics, artisans, merchants, and common people the Parliament. The rural districts of country, which were under the control of the great landlords, the king; the cities and towns, the Parliament. The gay, and fashionable, and worldly, the king; the serious-minded and austere, the Parliament. Thus every thing was divided. The quarrel ramified to every hamlet and to every fireside, and the peace and happiness of the realm were effectually destroyed.

Both sides began to raise armies and to prepare for war. Before commencing, hostilities, however, the king was persuaded by his counselors to send a messenger to London and propose some terms of accommodation. He accordingly sent the Earl of Southampton to the House of Peers, and two other persons to the House of Commons. He had no expectation, probably, of making peace, but he wanted to gain time to get his army together, and also to strengthen his cause among the people by showing a disposition to do all in his power to avoid open war. The messengers of the king went to London, and made their appearance in the two houses of Parliament.

The House of Lords ordered the Earl of Southampton to withdraw, and to send his communication in in writing, and in the mean time to retire out of London, and wait for their answer. The House of Commons, in the same spirit of hostility and defiance, ordered the messengers which had been sent to them to come to the bar, like humble petitioners or criminals, and make their communication there.

The propositions of the king to the houses of Parliament were, that they should appoint a certain number of commissioners, and he also the same number, to meet and confer together in hope of agreeing upon some conditions of peace. The houses passed a vote in reply, declaring that they had been doing all in their power to preserve the peace of the kingdom, while the king had been interrupting and disturbing it by his military gatherings, and by proclamations, in which they were called traitors; and that they could enter into no treaty with him until he disbanded the armies which he had collected, and recalled his proclamations.

To this the king replied that he had never intended to call them traitors; and that when they would recall their declarations and votes stigmatizing those who adhered to him as traitors, he would recall his proclamations. Thus messages passed back and forth two or three times, each party criminating the other, and neither willing to make the concessions which the other required. At last all hope of an accommodation was abandoned, and both sides prepared for war.

The nobility and gentry flocked to the king's standard. They brought their plate, their jewels, and their money, to provide funds. Some of them brought their servants. There were two companies in the king's guard, one of which consisted of gentlemen, and the other of their servants. These two companies were always kept together. There was the greatest zeal and enthusiasm among the upper classes to serve the king, and equal zeal and enthusiasm among the common people to serve the Parliament. The war continued for four years. During all this time the armies marched and countermarched all over the kingdom, carrying ruin and destruction wherever they went, and plunging the whole country in misery.

[Illustration] from Charles I by Jacob Abbott


At one of the battles which was fought, the celebrated John Hampden, the man who would not pay his ship money, was slain. He had been a very energetic and efficient officer on the Parliamentary side, and was much dreaded by the forces of the king. At one of the battles between Prince Rupert, Charles's nephew, and the army of the Parliament, the prince brought to the king's camp a large number of prisoners which he had taken. One of the prisoners said he was confident that Hampden was hurt, for he saw him riding off the field before the battle was over, with his head hanging down, and his hands clasping the neck of his horse. They heard the next day that he had been wounded in the shoulder. Inflammation and fever ensued, and he died a few days afterward in great agony.

This Prince Rupert was a very famous character in all these wars. He was young and ardent, and full of courage and enthusiasm. He was always foremost, and ready to embark in the most daring undertakings. He was the son of the king's sister Elizabeth, who married the Elector Palatine, as narrated in a preceding chapter. He was famous not only for his military skill and attainments, but for his knowledge of science, and for his ingenuity in many philosophical arts. There is a mode of engraving called mezzotinto, which is somewhat easier of execution than the common mode, and produces a peculiar effect. Prince Rupert is said to have been the inventor of it, though, as is the case with almost all other inventions, there is a dispute about it. He discovered a mode of dropping melted glass into water so as to form little pear-shaped globules, with a long slender tail. These globules have this remarkable property, that if the tip of the tail is broken off ever so gently, the whole flies into atoms with an explosion. These drops of glass are often exhibited at the present day, and are called Prince Rupert's drops. The prince also discovered a very tenacious composition of metals for casting cannon. As artillery is necessarily very heavy, and very difficult to be transported on marches and upon the field of battle, it becomes very important to discover such metallic compounds as have the greatest strength and tenacity in resisting the force of an explosion. Prince Rupert invented such a compound, which is called by his name.

There were not only a great many battles and fierce encounters between the two great parties in this civil war, but there were also, at times, temporary cessations of the hostilities, and negotiations for peace. But it is very hard to make peace between two powers engaged in civil war. Each considers the other as acting the part of rebels and traitors, and there is a difficulty, almost insuperable, in the way of even opening negotiations between them. Still the people became tired of the war. At one time, when the king had made some propositions which the Parliament would not accept, an immense assemblage of women collected together, with white ribbons in their hats, to go to the House of Commons with a petition for peace. When they reached the door of the hall their number was five thousand. They called out, "Peace! peace! Give us those traitors that are against peace, that we may tear them to pieces." The guards who were stationed at the door were ordered to fire at this crowd, loading their guns, however, only with powder. This, it was thought, would frighten them away; but the women only laughed at the volley, and returned it with stones and brickbats, and drove the guards away. Other troops were then sent for, who charged upon the women with their swords, and cut them in their faces and hands, and thus at length dispersed them.

During the progress of the war, the queen returned from the Continent and joined the king. She had some difficulty, however, and encountered some personal danger, in her efforts to return to her husband. The vice-admiral, who had command of the English ships off the coast, received orders to intercept her. He watched for her. She contrived, however, to elude his vigilance, though there were four ships in her convoy. She landed at a town called Burlington, or Bridlington, in Yorkshire. This town stands in a very picturesque situation, a little south of a famous promontory called Flamborough Head, of which there is a beautiful view from the pier of the town.

The queen succeeded in landing here. On her arrival at the town, she found herself worn down with the anxiety and fatigue of the voyage, and she wished to stop a few days to rest. She took up her residence in a house which was on the quay, and, of course, near the water. The quay, as it is called, in these towns, is a street on the margin of the water, with a wall but no houses next the sea. The vice-admiral arrived at the town the second night after the queen had landed. He was vexed that his expected prize had escaped him. He brought his ships up near to the town, and began to fire toward the house in which the queen was lodging.

[Illustration] from Charles I by Jacob Abbott


This was at five o'clock in the morning. The queen and her attendants were in their beds, asleep. The reports of the cannon from the ships, the terrific whistling of the balls through the air, and the crash of the houses which the balls struck, aroused the whole village from their slumbers, and threw them into consternation. The people soon came to the house where the queen was lodging, and begged her to fly. They said that the neighboring houses were blown to pieces, and that her own would soon be destroyed, and she herself would be killed. They may, however, have been influenced more by a regard to their own safety than to hers in these injunctions, as it must have been a great object with the villagers to effect the immediate removal of a visitor who was the means of bringing upon them so terrible a danger.

These urgent entreaties of the villagers were soon enforced by two cannon-balls, which fell, one after another, upon the roof of the house, and, crashing their way through the roof and the floors, went down, without seeming to regard the resistance, from the top to the bottom. The queen hastily put on her clothes, and went forth with her attendants on foot, the balls from the ships whistling after them all the way.

One of her servants was killed. The rest of the fugitives, finding their exposure so great, stopped at a sort of trench which they came to, at the end of a field, such as is dug commonly, in England, on one side of the hedge to make the barrier more impassable to the animals which it is intended to confine. This trench, with the embankment formed by the earth thrown out of it, on which the hedge is usually planted, afforded them protection. They sought shelter in it, and remained there for two hours, like besiegers in the approaches to a town, the balls passing over their heads harmlessly, though sometimes covering them with the earth which they threw up as they bounded by. At length the tide began to ebb, and the vice-admiral was in danger of being left aground. He weighed his anchors and withdrew, and the queen and her party were relieved. Such a cannonading of a helpless and defenseless woman is a barbarity which could hardly take place except in a civil war.

The queen rejoined her husband, and she rendered him essential service in many ways. She had personal influence enough to raise both money and men for his armies, and so contributed very essentially to the strength of his party. At last she returned to the Continent again, and went to Paris, where she was still actively employed in promoting his cause. At one of the battles in which the king was defeated, the Parliamentary army seized his baggage, and found among his papers his correspondence with the queen. They very ungenerously ordered it to be published, as the letters seemed to show a vigorous determination on the part of the king not to yield in the contest without obtaining from the Parliament and their adherents full and ample concessions to his claims.

As time rolled on, the strength of the royal party gradually wasted away, while that of Parliament seemed to increase, until it became evident that the latter would, in the end, obtain the victory. The king retreated from place to place, followed by his foes, and growing weaker and more discouraged after every conflict. His son, the Prince of Wales, was then about fifteen years of age. He sent him to the western part of the island, with directions that, if affairs should still go against him, the boy should be taken in time out of the country, and join his mother in Paris. The danger grew more and more imminent, and they who had charge of the young prince sent him first to Scilly, and then to Jersey—islands in the Channel—whence he made his escape to Paris, and joined his mother. Fifteen years afterward he returned to London with great pomp and parade, and was placed upon the throne by universal acclamation.

At last the king himself, after being driven from one place of refuge to another, retreated to Oxford and intrenched himself there. Here he spent the winter of 1646 in extreme depression and distress. His friends deserted him; his resources were expended; his hopes were extinguished. He sent proposals of peace to the Parliament, and offered, himself, to come to London, if they would grant him a safe-conduct. In reply, they forbade  him to come. They would listen to no propositions, and would make no terms. The case, they saw, was in their own hands, and they determined on unconditional submission. They hemmed the king in on all sides at his retreat in Oxford, and reduced him to despair.

In the mean time, the Scots, a year or two before this, had raised an army and crossed the northern frontier, and entered England. They were against monarchy and Episcopacy, but they were, in some respects, a separate enemy from those against whom the king had been contending so long; and he began to think that he had perhaps better fall into their hands than into those of his English foes, if he must submit to one or to the other. He hesitated for some time what course to take; but at last, after receiving representations of the favorable feeling which prevailed in regard to him in the Scottish army, he concluded to make his escape from Oxford and surrender himself to them. He accordingly did so, and the civil war was ended.