Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory. — Disraeli

Oliver Cromwell - Estelle Ross




King Charles Sows the Wind

Parliameni's are altogether in my power for their calling, sitting, and dissolution, therefore as I find the fruits of them good or evil, they are to continue or not to be."

The King had spoken. During the eleven years in which Cromwell was employed raising crops in the Fen country, Charles was sowing another kind of grain that was to ripen for the dread harvest of civil War.

The royal exchequer was empty. Parliament was not sitting to vote supplies, grudgingly, with various unpleasant conditions attached to them what, therefore, was the King to do? An ingenious device occurred to him: he looked up ancient statutes that were more honored in the breach than in the observance and put them into force once more. Cromwell was among the unlucky country gentlemen who, having an estate worth over 40 and having neglected to take up his knighthood, was fined 10. A 'Commission of Forests' was also helpful in defining the exact extent of the Crown lands and in imposing heavy fines on landowners whose ancestors had encroached upon them. Now came the turn of the city folk. The little London of that day was over-crowded, and a movement to the suburbs—suburbs that are now in the very heart of the great metropolis—had begun. A royal proclamation forbade the building of houses outside a certain radius, and builders who neglected to observe it had to pay for their disobedience. Town and country folk alike were hit by another device—the revival of 'monopolies'—which had been abolished by an Act of Parliament in the reign of James I. They resembled in some way the gigantic trusts and combines of to-day, since the customer could not go to a rival firm if goods were too dear. He either had to buy his soap and salt and other indispensable articles from the monopolist, who could charge as much as he liked, or go without them altogether.

Nearly every one was beginning to feel the pinch of poverty. The King grew unpopular. Could he have read the signs of the times he would have found an ominous warning in the ever-increasing number of people who sought new lands for old and emigrated to America.

The Star Chamber, which in its earlier day was useful as a check on powerful nobles who could not otherwise be brought to justice, Charles now used for the purpose of extorting money from his subjects who failed to comply with the royal will. It also had the power of inflicting cruel punishments.

Cromwell at St Ives must often have discussed the terrible penalty meted out to William Prynne, a young barrister of fanatically Puritan convictions. To him playhouses were haunts of the evil one, and players and play-goers were alike doomed to perdition. Unfortunately for himself, he felt it his solemn duty to inform them of their peril. Since the Queen often went to the theatre, the volume was considered to be an attack on her. Prynne was brought before the Star Chamber, sentenced to stand twice in the pillory, have both his ears cut off, and be imprisoned for life.

Nor was he the only victim; other Puritan pamphleteers shared a like, if not a worse, fate. Thus John Lilburn, for publishing 'seditious libels,' was heavily fined, condemned to stand in the pillory, and was whipped at the cart's tail from the Fleet Prison to the gate of Westminster Hall. The worst sentence of all was passed upon Dr Leighton. He could hardly have hoped to escape the rigours of a Star Chamber sentence, since in his pamphlet, An Appeal to the Parliament, he had the audacity to call the bishops "Men of Blood, Ravens, and Magpies that prey upon the State, and His Majesty's Royal Consort, our gracious Queen, the Daughter of Heth." For this, together with his commendation of the murderer of the Duke of Buckingham, after being degraded of his ministry, "he shall for further punishment and example to others be brought to the pillory at Westminster and there whipped, and after his whipping be set upon the pillory for some convenient space, and have one of his ears cut off, and his nose slit, and be branded in the face with a double SS, for a sower of sedition, and shall then be carried to the Prison of the Fleet and at some other convenient time afterwards shall be carried into the pillory at Cheapside, upon a Market Day, and there be likewise whipped and then be set upon the pillory, and have his other ear cut off, and from thence be carried back to the prison of the Fleet, there to remain during life, unless His Majesty be graciously pleased to enlarge him." The wretched man succeeded in making his escape, and there was a hue and cry after him. He was caught in Bedfordshire and the sentence was duly executed. Would anybody with the slightest grain of humanity be a party to catching such a malefactor now to undergo such a sentence?

Apart from the ever-increasing influence of the Queen, Charles's main counselors were Sir Thomas Wentworth and Archbishop Laud. The former, as we have seen, had first come into prominence as a champion of the rights of Parliament, but when it came to choosing between King and Commons, he threw in his lot unreservedly with the monarch. He was a man of ability with a power of command. He now concentrated the whole force of his gloomy nature on one object—the establishment in England of a despotism as rigorous as the one which his contemporary, Cardinal Richelieu, had established in France. To this policy, which was "to vindicate the Monarchy for ever from the conditions and restraints of subjects," he gave the name of 'Thorough.' In 1628 he was created President of the Council of the North and in 1632 Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Laud, his colleague in the royal counsels, was a sincere man, of limited intelligence, superstitious and narrow-minded. He, Clarendon says, courted "persons too little, nor cared to make his design and purposes appear as candid as they were, by showing them in any other dress than their own natural beauty and roughness; and did not consider enough what men said or were like to say." Like his royal master he loved the forms and ceremonies of church worship, splendid vestments, richly adorned churches, and the beautiful English liturgy. But though it was not his intention, as the Puritans feared, to place the country once more under the yoke of the Papacy, it was his intention to suppress Puritanism with the utmost rigor.

Wentworth and Laud were alike in their hatred of opposition and in their inability to understand or appreciate other points of view; consequently they were unsuitable counselors in a country germinating with new ideas and challenging accepted beliefs.

Popular discontent was fanned into flame when in 1635 the King attempted to levy Ship-Money (an impost exacted in time of war from the maritime provinces) in time of peace from the inland counties. Charles condescended to explain his reasons to his indignant subjects: "We are given to understand that certain thieves, pirates, and robbers of the sea as well as Turks, enemies of the Christian name as others, have spoiled and molested the shipping and merchandise of our own subjects and those of friendly powers." The judges were on the King's side, since they informed him that "Your Majesty is the sole judge both of the danger and when and how the same is to be prevented and avoided." But he had gone too far. London protested, and many private individuals refused to pay; among them was John Hampden. Proceedings were taken against him and the trial opened on November 6, 1637. Oliver's cousin, "Mr. St John, a dark tough man of the toughness of leather, spake with irrefragable law eloquence, law logic, for three days running on Mr. Hampden's side." Hampden, though he lost his case, won the gratitude of the oppressed nation.

Not content with sowing dissension in England, Charles, still with the best intentions, proceeded to alienate Scotland. The Scottish people, deeply influenced by the doctrines of Calvin, had accepted the Reformation far more completely than the English. There the Presbyterian system of Church government was accepted. Charles now determined to bring the Scottish Church into complete uniformity with the English, and ordered that the Book of Common Prayer should be used in all the churches. When on Sunday, July Z3, 1637, an attempt was made to read it in St Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh, a militant of the period, Jenny Geddes by name, threw a stool at the preacher's head. The act was symbolic of the attitude of the nation. The following year, in the churchyard of the Greyfriars at Edinburgh, a 'Covenant with God' was signed amid scenes of wild enthusiasm: "We promise and swear by ,the great name of the Lord our God, to continue in the profession and obedience of the said religion, and that we shall defend the same, and resist all their contrary errors and corruptions, according to our vocation and the utmost of that power which God has put into our hands all the days of our life." 'Deeds, not words,' was the intention of these men, and armed Covenanters now marched south.

Great Britain was seething with discontent when in 1639 the King summoned Wentworth from Ireland to consult with him about what was to be done. Early in 1640 he was raised to the peerage as Earl of Strafford. On his advice a new Parliament was summoned to meet on April 13, 1640. To it Oliver Cromwell was returned as member for Cambridge.

The eleven years of despotism had taught the King nothing of the temper of the country. The breech had widened between him and the Commons. He needed immediate supplies and he promised that if these were granted he would later on consider the question of grievances. The House wanted an assurance that . Ship-Money and other illegal taxation should be abolished before they voted a penny for the royal exchequer. Charles, after a sitting of twenty-three days, dissolved the Short Parliament (as it was afterward called) in anger. He had not, however, dashed the hopes of ardent reformers. "Things must be worse before they could be better," Cromwell's cousin, St John, observed.

The King was getting deeper and deeper into difficulties. The Covenanters had routed his troops in the north. Now he was resolved, cost what it might, to reduce the northern kingdom to submission. There was nothing for it but to summon a Parliament, and this was destined to be the last one of his reign.