Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

The Story of the Long Parliament

The meeting of the Long Parliament was one of the greatest events in all history. Never before and never since has such a situation arisen. For anything at all like it, we must go back to Simon de Montfort's summoning of the first Parliament, or forward to the calling of the States-General in the French Revolution (1789).

Previous Parliaments had met to vote supplies for the work of the Government, and to seek redress of grievances before the passing of new laws. The Long Parliament met to carry out a revolution, although few of the members would have dreamt of calling their intention by that name.

The first six months were occupied chiefly by a tremendous struggle to secure the death of Strafford—a struggle for life between Parliament and its most dangerous enemy. The chief charges against Strafford were that he had, whilst President of the Council of the North, and especially whilst ruling in Ireland, made use of a "tyrannous power above and against the laws, over the lives of his Majesty's subjects. He had slandered the House of Commons to his Majesty, and did advise his Majesty that he, the king, was free from all rules of government, and that he had an army in Ireland which he might employ to reduce this kingdom. And he had also encouraged the wars between England and Scotland." What all this meant was that Strafford had been the chief adviser when the king tried to do away with the ancient liberties of the nation and to set up a despotic rule.

Strafford and Laud


In November, 1640, Strafford arrived in London. He at once advised the king to accuse the leaders of the Commons of treason for their correspondence with the Scots. The secret was betrayed to Pym. Next day Pym moved his impeachment of Strafford, and when Strafford went to take his place in the Lords, he was ordered to withdraw, and was put under arrest. The Commons kept strict watch that he was not allowed to escape.

Laud was also sent to the Tower and accused of high treason by the Commons. Not until March did Strafford's trial begin. The Commons in the meantime prepared their charges against him, and passed resolutions to limit the power of the bishops, and to put an end to the unlawful taxes, and to secure that henceforth Parliament should be called at least every three years. Strafford was executed on May 12th, before an immense crowd of the citizens of London.

The Long Parliament had struck down its most dangerous enemy. After the death of Strafford no minister could ever set Parliament at defiance again. It secured that the king's right to call Parliament as he wished should cease. An Act—the Triennial Act—was passed, which said that if the king called no Parliament for three years it should assemble without the royal summons.

In the terror inspired by the army plots Parliament went further. It compelled Charles to agree that the "present Parliament should never be dissolved except with its own consent." The collecting of taxes without consent of Parliament was made illegal. Ship-money was finally made unlawful. The Courts of High Commission, the Star Chamber, and the Council of the North, and other similar courts were abolished. By these means an end was put to all the practices of levying taxes without consent of Parliament, all the prosecution of persons by illegal courts, all the exercise of power, except in the Church, by the bishops. The king was no longer the supreme power in the realm.

The Long Parliament set itself as actively to reform the Church as to limit the king's power in State matters. From the time of the Hampton Court Conference the bishops had been the staunchest allies of the king. Led by Laud, the clergy had even granted liberal supplies of money to Charles when the Short Parliament had refused them; and had passed new laws declaring that the most high and sacred order of kings is of divine right, and that for subjects to bear arms against their king is to resist the power ordained by God.

When, however, the Parliament decided to reform the Church, it was found easier to denounce the bishops and to curtail their powers than to agree upon what the Church of England should be. How should it be governed? What should its services be? What should its doctrines be? The more extreme Puritans wanted to do away with bishops altogether, and to have the Churches governed by some laymen and some clergymen, in place of the bishops. In December, 1640, a petition from 15,000 London citizens had asked that episcopacy might be destroyed "root and branch." This phrase gave its name to the bill brought into the House of Commons by the extreme Puritans, including Cromwell. After some time the bill was supported by Pym and Hampden.

It was this bill that gave the king his party. For whilst the more conservative House of Lords was willing to cut down the power of the bishops, a strong section in both Houses would on no account agree to sweeping changes in the government and services of the Church. Sir Edward Hyde and Lord Falkland were the leaders of this section. The Root and Branch Bill only passed the Commons by a small majority, and was rejected by the Lords, and later on dropped.

The king declared boldly that he would die in the maintenance of the Church of England. From that moment Parliament was divided into two parties: Puritans on the one side, who stood for the Parliament and a reformed Church; on the other side a Church or Anglican party, who stood for the Church first and for agreement with the king.

Ever since the death of Strafford, Charles had been constantly making plans and listening to plots, to get the better of the English Parliament. He knew that there were fierce divisions among the Scottish nobles, and he had reason to think he could create a royalist party in Scotland. If only he could get a Scottish army on his side he could beat the Parliament by its own weapon. For it was by the support of the Scots that the English Parliament had got the upper hand.

Charles tried to win the affection of the Scots by granting everything the Presbyterians wanted, whilst he intrigued with their enemies. But Argyle, the leader of the Scottish Parliament, was too shrewd, and defeated Charles's plans. Then occurred an event which seemed to bring discredit on the king. A plot was formed to seize—and probably to murder—Argyle, and place his power in the king's hands. The plot was betrayed. The king's part in it was never known, but in England it was regarded as a proof that the king was ready for any step which would give him the advantage over Parliament.

Charles returned to London in November, but before that time other important events happened. Among Charles's schemes had been one to bring over the Irish army to help him against the Scots (and perhaps against the English Parliament too). The queen had encouraged him to bargain with the Irish Catholics for help. Many of the Irish Catholics believed that, by rising in rebellion, they would be able to throw off the hated Protestant settlers, who governed Ireland solely in the Protestant interest. Undoubtedly Charles's dealings with the Catholics had raised their hopes and indirectly led to the insurrection.

Signing the covenent


As the rebellion went on unchecked for months, the terror it inspired was only equaled by that of the Indian Mutiny two hundred years after, London was in a panic; and the effect on the House of Commons was to hurry on the revolution. The Irish rebellion was perhaps, so they thought, a sign of a great Catholic plot. The king had intrigued with the Scots; might he not be in the same way responsible for the Irish rising?

At any rate, it would not be safe to entrust the king with an army, even to put down the Irish rebellion. The king must be made to appoint only such councillors as were approved by Parliament. Cromwell moved that the Earl of Essex should have power to command the trained bands in defence of the kingdom. Pym and his party pressed forward a further attack on the king, in the shape of a Grand Remonstrance.

The Grand Remonstrance was a long recital of all the misdoings of Charles and his councillors in Church and State since the beginning of the reign. But the real importance of if was that it proposed to take away the king's power to do wrong, by making him choose only such councillors as the Parliament could confide in. It also demanded that the Church should be reformed by a general assembly of the most grave and learned clergy.

It was clear from the debates that the men who were most eager for a Puritan reformation of the Church—Cromwell, Pym, Hampden, St. John, Hazelrig, Strode, and others—were also most eager to take from the king his power over the army and the appointment of all officers in the State. The Church party were, therefore, almost driven to side with the king, when he declared for the maintenance of the Church as it already existed.

The two parties were narrowly divided. The Remonstrance was carried in the Commons at midnight in November, 1641, by a majority of only eleven. The division was now a division between Parliamentarians and Royalists. For the Puritans, though reduced to a small majority, were determined to force their way. "If the Remonstrance had not passed," said Cromwell, "I would have sold all I had the next morning, and never have seen England any more."

Charles had now a splendid opportunity for both good and evil. The Church party was ready to his hand. By acting in open alliance with it, but avoiding all plots and appeals to force, he might soon have regained his position. But within a few months he had made a worse mistake than ever.

Charles had at his command a body-guard composed of reckless ruffians. He had tried to place the Tower of London in charge of one of the worst of these soldiers named Lunsford, and Charles only dismissed him after a warning that the London apprentices would storm the Tower unless Lunsford were removed. One affray had already taken place between Lunsford and the citizens, and the Commons had asked the king for a guard to protect the Houses of Parliament.

Archbishop Laud


Charles answered that "the security of all and every one of you is as much our care as the preservation of us and our children." Yet, within a few days, fearing that some Puritan members intended to impeach the queen, he had Lord Kimbolton, together with the Five Members, Pym, Hampden, Holles, Hazelrig, and Strode, impeached of high treason, for plotting with the Scots to invade England. Charles intended, by having the leaders thrown into prison, to strike terror into his enemies.

But the news of his plans leaked out. The members took refuge in the City. Charles hesitated until his foolish, but high-spirited wife urged him. "Go, you coward, and pull these rogues out by the ears, or never see my face again."

At three o'clock on January 4th he threw himself into a coach at Whitehall, and, followed by hundreds of his armed soldiers (among them many noted ruffians), went to the House of Commons.

No king had ever before entered the House of Commons. The soldiers remained at the doors. "By your leave, Mr. Speaker, I must borrow your chair a little," he said. "Gentlemen, I am sorry for the occasion of coming unto you. . . . No king that ever was in England shall be more careful of your privileges, . . . 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.

"Is Mr. Pym here?" There was no answer.

"Are any of these persons in the House?"

"May it please your Majesty," answered Lenthall, the Speaker, "I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

"Well," said the king, "I think my eyes are as good as another's. I see all the birds are flown. I do expect from you that you shall send them unto me as soon as they return hither."

As he retired, cries of "Privilege" were raised. The soldiers had waited impatiently. "They had come," said one of them afterwards, because they heard that the House of Commons would not obey the king, and therefore they came to force them to it. If the word had been given, they should certainly have fallen upon the House of Commons."

Next day the king went to the City to demand from the Common Council in the Guildhall the Five Members. The streets were crowded, and there were cries of "Privilege of Parliament." On his way back, a bold man threw into his coach a paper, on which were written the ominous words, "To your tents, O Israel."

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


That night a large number of the trained bands, and many other citizens armed with halberds, swords and clubs, appeared in the streets, prepared to resist any attack by Royalist guards, and to defend the Parliament against any further assaults. The House of Commons accepted, as guard, companies of the City trained bands. Some thousands of Buckinghamshire squires and yeomen, Hampden's friends, marched into London to protect their hero.

The king prepared for flight, and on January 10th he left Whitehall. It was not until seven years afterwards that he entered once more the palace of Whitehall, a prisoner, on his way to trial in Westminster Hall.