Story of England - S. B. Harding

Charles I. and Parliament


Dates of the reign of Charles I.; his character; influence of the Duke of Buckingham; Parliament attacks him; the Petition of Right passed; its importance; death of Buckingham; Charles's third Parliament.

Eleven years of absolute government; Sir John Eliot dies in the Tower; the Ship Money Tax; John Hampden resists it; the judges decide in favor of the King; importance of this case.

Archbishop makes changes in the English Church; punishment of persons who opposed these changes; origin of "Bishops' Wars" in Scotland; their effect in England.

The long Parliament called; why Charles could not get rid of it; the three things it set out to do; punishment of the Earl of Strafford; Charles attempts to avoid the leaders of Parliament; effect of this attempt; the two questions which especially separated Charles from his Parliament; importance of the militia question; what the vote of the Grand Remonstrance showed; the question really at issue in the civil war.

Charles I. was a good man, and was much more "kingly" in his manner than James I.; but he held as high ideas of his rights, and was far more impractical. He was less inclined to give way to Parliament, especially where the rights of the Church were concerned; and there was also an unintentional untruthfulness in him, which made it impossible to bind him to any promise. The result was that he was even less successful than his father in dealing with the problems of his time.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Charles I

King James's last and greatest favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, was equally in favor with King Charles. He had risen from a very humble position, solely through his handsome face and good manners. He was now in the highest ranks of the English nobility, and had an income of thousands of pounds sterling a year. All of his family—father, mother, brothers, sisters—had also been enriched and ennobled.

Until Buckingham's death (in 1628) the government was entirely in his hands. But the war with Spain fared badly, and men thought with regret of the glorious victories of Elizabeth. Buckingham hurried England into a war with France, also, and this, too, was mismanaged. Illegal taxes were collected, and men who refused to pay were illegally punished. In addition, favor was shown to an anti-Puritan party, which now began to rise in the Church of England.

For all this, Buckingham was rightly held responsible, and finally was named in Parliament as "the grievance of grievances." To save him from "impeachment"—that is, trial and punishment by Parliament—Charles was obliged to dismiss his second Parliament. In the next Parliament which he called, the members decided not to renew their attack on Buckingham, but to pass a petition of Right, in which such arbitrary taxation and imprisonment as Buckingham and Charles had used were declared illegal. To this law Charles was forced to give his consent. It was the most important act limiting the power of the crown which had been passed since the granting of the Great Charter, by King John, 413 years before.

A few months later, Buckingham was slain by a private enemy; nevertheless, the quarrels between King and Parliament continued.

In 1629 this Parliament—the third one of King Charles's reign—broke up in great disorder. While the King's messenger knocked loudly upon their locked door, to summon them for dismissal, the leaders of the House of Commons forcibly held their Speaker in his chair, and passed a set of defiant resolutions. These declared that anyone who advised the King to bring in anti-Puritan charges in religion, or to collect (without Parliamentary grant) the taxes which were in dispute, should be considered "a capital enemy of the commonwealth"—that is, should be worthy of punishment by death.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Parliament House, Westminster Hall, and Westminster Abbey

For the next eleven years, no Parliament was held, and the King carried on the government by his "absolute" power.

Sir John Eliot was the statesman who had played the chief part in opposing the King's measures, and upon him chiefly the King's wrath now fell. In violation of the rights of free speech, granted to Parliament, the leaders of Parliament were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Others made their submission and were released, but Eliot's brave spirit refused to gain freedom for himself, by surrendering the principle of liberty for the nation. His imprisonment was made more close. He was placed in a room which was dark, cold, and wretchedly uncomfortable; and none but his sons were allowed to visit him. Under the weight of this punishment his health (but not his spirit) gave way, and he died in November, 1632. He was truly a martyr to the cause of constitutional liberty.

Charles's refusal to call Parliament forced him to raise money in many objectionable ways. Among these was the levying of "ship money."

In the old days, when an army might be raised by calling out the men of the country to serve in war, at their own expense, the counties bordering on the sea were often called upon to furnish ships for the King's service. This "ship service" King Charles now changed into a money payment; and he demanded it not only from the seaboard counties, but from the whole country. "Ship money" thus became a regular tax, laid upon the land without the consent of Parliament; and it was seen that, if this were permitted to pass unquestioned, Englishmen would lose one of their dearest rights.

A rich and patriotic Englishman, named John Hampden, refused to pay his "ship money" tax, which amounted to twenty shillings, and the question of the lawfulness of "ship money" thus came before the courts. The judges of that time felt that they were "the lions that supported the King's throne," and must uphold his power; the King, too, had been weeding out judges whom he thought to be unfriendly to his claims. Therefore, the case was decided against Hampden, and the collection of "ship money" continued. The "ship money" case was nevertheless of great importance. It gave to the leading men who opposed the King's claims a chance to speak their minds on the subject, and so to place before the people the dangers of the King's policy. It showed the nation how insecure were their rights of property, under the law as administered by the King's judges.

While the King trampled on the rights of Parliament, and arbitrarily took from his subjects their property, he angered the nation yet more deeply by his religious policies.

Charles appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury a well-meaning but narrow-minded man named William Laud, and allowed him to carry out changes in the Church, which seemed to the Puritans to pave the way for a restoration of the Catholic faith. Men who wrote and spoke against these changes, or against the power of the bishops, were made to stand in the pillory, had their ears cut off, were branded on the cheek with hot irons, were fined ruinous sums, and were cast into prison. Finally, to complete his folly, Laud and the King tried to "reform" the Church of Scotland, in the same way that they had already "reformed" the Church of England.

In Scotland, almost the whole nation banded themselves together to resist the changes. The result was a rebellion, called the "Bishop's Wars," in which Charles was defeated. The Scots then advanced into England. Charles was obliged to make peace with his Scottish subjects. In this he agreed that the Scots' army should stay in England until the changes which he promised should be carried through, and that he would pay its expenses.

To get money to pay the Scots, Charles was obliged, after eleven years of arbitrary government, at last to summon his Parliament—the famous Long Parliament—which sat (with interruptions) from 1640 to 1660.

Charles could not rid himself of the Long Parliament, when it opposed him, as he had done his earlier ones, because in its earlier stages it was backed by the army of the Scots. Later he was prevented from dissolving it, because he had been forced to agree that it should not be dismissed without its own consent.

In both the House of Commons and the House of Lords there was a strong majority against Charles's policies. The leaders of Parliament, therefore, set to work to do three things—to undo the misgovernment of the last eleven years, to punish Charles's ministers, and to pass laws which should make such abuses impossible for the future.

Their hatred was chiefly directed against the Earl of Strafford, who had joined them in opposing the Duke of Buckingham, but had become Charles's principal adviser after Buckingham's death. Strafford was honest in his course, but his former companions regarded him as a traitor to their cause. They also feared him, for so long as he lived no victory which they might win over the King could be permanent, nor their lives be safe. Every effort, therefore, was made to have him put to death. He was accused of attempting to overthrow the liberties of the kingdom, and particularly of having advised the King to make war on his English people. This was held to be treason, and Parliament at last voted that he should be beheaded.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Trial of Strafford

Charles had promised Strafford that he should not suffer in person or in honor, for aiding him. But the outcry of the London mob against Strafford was so great that the King was terrified for the safety of his Queen and children, and, with tears in his eyes, he at last consented to Strafford's execution.

"Put not your trust in princes!" cried Strafford when this news was brought to him. Nevertheless, he had scarcely hoped that he would be spared. He met his death bravely.

He was a pure and able man, and was loyal to what he believed to be his duty. It was his misfortune that his ideas of government were those of a past age, and that his death was a necessity for the people's liberty.

After Strafford's execution, the King and Parliament drifted ever farther and farther apart.

At one time, Charles caused five of the leaders of Parliament to be accused of treason. In violation of their Parliamentary privileges, he came in person with an armed force to seize them. When the Speaker of the Commons was asked to point out the accused members, he replied, kneeling before the King:

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

"Well, well," replied the King, " 'tis no matter; I think my eyes are as good as another's."

However, he did not find the men he sought, because, as he said, "the birds were flown." This attempt did Charles no good, but only caused Parliament and the nation to distrust his intentions.

Two questions, especially, now separated Charles from his Parliament. One was the government of the Church by bishops, which the Puritans wished to cast out, "root and branch." The other was the appointment by Parliament of the officers who commanded the county militia. Troops were now being raised to put down a rebellion in Ireland, and members of Parliament were fearful lest Charles should use these to put down Parliament itself.

To the demand for the right to appoint the militia officers, Charles replied:

"That is a thing with which I would not even trust my wife and children."

On the religious question, he was equally steadfast. In this position he was supported by many members of Parliament who had formerly opposed him. On a measure called the "Grand Remonstrance," which was directed against the King's government, the opposition to Charles had a majority of only eleven votes, in place of the almost unanimous support which they formerly had. Feeling ran so high that swords were actually drawn on the floor of the House of Commons, and bloodshed was narrowly prevented.

The question really at issue was this: Should the King or Parliament control the government?

It was a question which could neither be evaded nor compromised. Matters grew steadily worse and worse; and finally, in 1642, the two parties drifted into civil war.


  1. Why were James I. and Charles I. less successful rulers than Elizabeth?
  2. What is meant by "impeachment"? Who are the accusers in such a trial? Who are the judges?
  3. Find out what you can about Sir John Eliot. About John Hampden.
  4. Was the Earl of Strafford a good man or a bad man? Was he justly or unjustly punished?
  5. Was the King or Parliament right in the struggle over the Church question and the militia question? Why?