VI. CHARLES I VERSUS PARLIAMENT: 1625–29

And now this tragic King over whom all England was to fight, what sort of man and monarch was he? Before the storm soured the milk of human kindness in him, he was a reasonably good man—a loving son, an unusually faithful husband, a loyal friend, a father idolized by his children. He had begun the struggle of life by fighting a congenital weakness of physique; he could not walk till he was seven. He overcame this defect by resolute pursuit of vigorous sports, until in maturity he could ride and hunt with the best. He suffered from an impediment of speech; until ten he could hardly speak intelligibly; his father thought of having an operation performed on the boy’s tongue. Charles gradually improved, but to the end of his life he stammered and had to counter his difficulty by speaking slowly.54 When his popular brother Henry died, leaving him heir apparent, Charles was suspected of complicity in the death; the charge was unjust, but it shared in darkening the Prince’s mood. He preferred a studious solitude to the bibulous hilarity of his father’s court. He became proficient in mathematics, music, and theology, learned something of Greek and Latin, spoke French, Italian, and a little Spanish. He loved art; he cherished and expanded the collection left by his brother; he became a discriminating collector, and a generous patron of artists, poets, and musicians. He invited the Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi to his court, then Rubens, Vandyck, and Frans Hals; Hals declined, and Rubens came chiefly as ambassador; but all the world knows Charles as the proud and handsome king, with Vandyke beard, repeatedly painted by Vandyck. William Dobson, pupil of Vandyck, continued the idealization of the royal family.

Charles’s parentage and marriage contributed to his ruin. He inherited his father’s conception of the royal prerogative as absolute, with power to make as well as administer laws, to rule without Parliament, and to override laws enacted by Parliament. This view seemed justified by precedents and was taken for granted in France and Spain; it was encouraged in Charles by Buckingham, the court, and the Queen. Henrietta Maria had been reared at the French court in the very days when Richelieu was making her brother Louis XIII absolute over everybody but Richelieu. She had come to England as an avowed Catholic, bringing priests in her bridal train, and her faith had been made more intense by the disabilities she saw it suffer there. She had all the allure of beauty, vivacity, and wit, and the full Medicean flair for politics. Inevitably she urged her devoted husband to alleviate the lot of English Catholics; doubtless she dreamed of converting the King himself. She gave him six children; it must have cost him many a struggle to resist her wish that they might be brought up Catholic. But he had developed a sincere attachment to the Anglican Church, and he realized that his England was predominantly Protestant and hostile to a threatening papacy.

Charles’s first Parliament met on June 18, 1625. One hundred lords—peers and bishops—sat in the upper house; five hundred men, three fourths of them Puritan,55 had been elected to the Commons by various forms of financial or political skulduggery;56 there was no pretense of democracy. Probably the level of ability in this Parliament was higher than an adult suffrage would have returned; here were Coke, Selden, Pym, Sir John Eliot, Sir Thomas Wentworth, and others marked for history. The total wealth of the Commoners exceeded threefold the wealth of the lords.57 The Commons showed its temper by demanding the full enforcement of the anti-Catholic laws. The King asked for an appropriation for governmental expenses and the war with Spain; Parliament granted him £ 140,000 ($7,000,000?), which was purposely inadequate; the fleet alone required twice that sum. For two centuries the English monarchs had been granted, for the duration of their reigns, the right to levy export and import duties, usually of two to three shillings per tun (a large cask), and six to twelve pence per pound; now the Parliament’s “tonnage and poundage” bill allowed Charles this right for one year only. It argued that previous appropriations had been squandered in the extravagance of James’s court; it complained that taxes had been levied without its consent; it was resolved to compel hereafter an annual summoning of Parliament and an annual examination, by Parliament, of governmental expenditures. Charles took umbrage at these economies and intentions, and when plague threatened London he seized the excuse to dissolve the Parliament (August 12, 1625).

The government was now in the hands of Buckingham. Charles had not merely inherited the amiable, reckless Duke from his father; he had been brought up with him, had traveled with him, in a companionship that made it difficult for the King to see in his friend an unwise and disastrous counselor. Buckingham, with the support of Parliament, had led James into war with Spain; Parliament now refused to finance the war. The Duke organized an armada to go out and capture Spanish spoils or ports; it failed utterly, and the returning soldiers, unpaid and demoralized, spread rape, robbery, and defeatism in the coastal towns.

Desperate for funds, Charles resigned himself to calling his second Parliament. The opposition grew stronger with his needs. The House warned him not to levy taxes without parliamentary sanction. Eliot, once a friend of the Duke, excoriated him as a corrupt incompetent who had grown richer with each failure of strategy or policy. Parliament appointed a committee to investigate Buckingham; Charles rebuked it, saying, “I would not have the House to question my servants, much less one that is so near me.” Eliot advised Parliament to withhold any grant of funds until the King admitted its right to demand the removal of a minister; Charles angrily reminded Parliament that he could at any time dismiss it; the Commons replied by formally impeaching Buckingham—accusing him of treason and demanding his dismissal (May 8, 1626); it informed the King that until this was done it would grant no funds. The King dissolved the Parliament (June 15). The issue of ministerial responsibility was left to the future.

But Charles was again destitute. A large quantity of royal plate was sold. “Free benevolences”—gifts to the King—were asked of the country; the yield was slight; British money was pro-Parliament. Charles ordered his agents to collect tonnage and poundage dues despite lack of Parliamentary consent, and to seize the goods of merchants who failed to pay; he commanded the ports to maintain the fleet; he allowed his agents to impress men into military service. English and Danish troops, fighting for Protestantism in Germany, were being overwhelmed by the Imperialists; England’s Danish allies demanded the subsidy she had promised them. Charles ordered a forced loan—every taxpayer was to lend the government one per cent of the value of his land, five per cent of the worth of his personal property. Rich opponents were jailed, poor opponents were hustled into the army or the navy. Meanwhile English merchants delivered materials at Bordeaux and La Rochelle to Huguenots embattled with Richelieu; France declared war on England (1627). Buckingham led a fleet to attack the French at La Rochelle; the expedition failed. The £ 200,000 raised by the loan was soon spent, and Charles was again at his money’s end. He summoned his third Parliament.

It met on March 17, 1628. Coke, Eliot, Wentworth, and John Hampden were returned, and, for the first time, Huntingdon Borough sent up a sturdy squire named Oliver Cromwell. Charles, in his speech from the throne, sternly called for funds, and added, with reckless insolence, “Take not this as threatening; I scorn to threaten any but my equals.”58 Parliament proposed £ 350,000, but, before voting it, required the King’s consent to a “Petition of Right” (May 28, 1628) which became a historic landmark in the rise of Parliament to mastery:

TO THE KING’S MOST EXCELLENT MAJESTY:

We humbly show unto our sovereign lord the King … that whereas it is declared and enacted by a statute … of Edward I … that no tallage or aid shall be laid or levied by the King … without the good will and assent of the archbishops, bishops, earls, barons, knights, burgesses, and other the freemen of the commonalty … your subjects have inherited this freedom, that they should not be compelled to contribute to any tax, tallage, aid, or other like charge not set by common consent in Parliament.

The petition went on to protest against forced loans, and the King’s violation of the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury as embodied in the Magna Charta of 1215. “We shall know by this [petition] if Parliaments live or die,” said Coke. Charles gave it an ambiguous consent; Parliament demanded a clearer reply, and still held up the appropriation; Charles gave formal consent. London felt the significance of the surrender; there broke out such ringing of bells as had not been heard there for years.

Parliament, moving forward, requested the King to dismiss Buckingham; Charles refused. Suddenly both sides were startled to find this issue taken out of their hands. John Felton, a wounded ex-soldier weighed down with debts, angry at the arrears of his pension, and inflamed by pamphlets, bought a butcher’s knife, walked sixty miles from London to Portsmouth, plunged the weapon into Buckingham’s breast, and yielded himself to the authorities (August 23, 1628). Buckingham’s wife, soon to give birth, collapsed at sight of the corpse. Felton, overcome with remorse, sent her his apologies and begged her forgiveness; she gave it. He was executed without torture.

The Parliament admonished the King that his continued collection of tonnage and poundage dues violated the Petition of Right; Charles replied that such dues had not been mentioned in the document; Parliament encouraged merchants to refuse to pay them.59Reasserting its right to legislate for religion despite the ecclesiastical supremacy of the king, it proclaimed a strictly Calvinist, anti-Arminian interpretation of the Thirty-nine Articles as the law of England; it proposed, of its own authority, to enforce religious conformity on this basis, and to deal out penalties to Catholics and Arminians alike.60 Charles ordered the Parliament to adjourn; the Speaker, obeying, left the chair; but Parliament refused to adjourn, and members compelled the Speaker to resume the chair. Sir John Eliot now (March 2, 1629) offered three resolutions which made it a capital crime to introduce “Popery, or Arminianism, or other opinions disagreeing from the true and orthodox Church,” to counsel, or take any share in, the collection of tonnage or poundage dues not sanctioned by Parliament, or to pay such unsanctioned dues. The Speaker refused to put the motions to a vote; a member put them; the House acclaimed and passed them. Then, learning that the King’s troops were about to enter and dismiss the Parliament, it moved its own adjournment and dispersed.

On March 5 Charles ordered the imprisonment of Eliot, Selden, and seven other members of Parliament on charges of sedition. Six of them were soon released; three were condemned to heavy fines and long imprisonment; Eliot died in the Tower, aged thirty-eight (1632).

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