Eleven years—the longest such interval in English history—were to pass without the assembling of Parliament. Charles was now free to be an absolute king. Theoretically he was claiming no more than James, Elizabeth, and Henry VIII; practically he was claiming more, for they had never stretched the royal prerogative so near the breaking point as Charles was doing by levying unsanctioned taxes, forcing loans, billeting soldiers on citizens, making arbitrary arrests, denying prisoners the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury, extending the tyranny and severity of the Star Chamber in political, and of the Court of High Commission in ecclesiastical, trials. But Charles’s basic mistake was his failure to recognize that the wealth now represented by the House of Commons was much greater than that wielded by or loyal to the King, and that the power of Parliament must be increased accordingly.
Amid this crisis, before it drew the nation’s blood, the economy prospered, for Charles, like his father, was a man of peace and, through most of his reign, kept England out of war, while Richelieu exhausted France and Germany became a wilderness. The harassed King did what he could to mitigate the natural concentration of wealth. He ordered a halt to enclosures, annulled all those made in five Midland counties between 1625 and 1630, and fined six hundred recalcitrant landlords.61 He had the wages of textile workers raised in 1629, 1631, 1637; he bade the justices of the peace exercise better control over prices; he appointed commissions to protect the wage scale and supervise poor relief; and Laud made new enemies by warning employers not to “grind the faces of the poor.”62 But at the same time the government granted, and profited from, monopolies in soap, salt, starch, beer, wine, and hides; it kept to itself a monopoly in coal, buying it at eleven shillings a caldron and selling it for seventeen in summer and nineteen in winter;63 and these monopolies too ground the faces of the poor. During this period over twenty thousand Puritans emigrated to New England.
Charles pleaded that he had to find some ways to pay the costs of government. In 1634 he tried, disastrously, a new tax. Precedents existed for requiring coastal cities, in return for the protection afforded them by the navy, to fit out vessels for it in time of war, or, instead, to contribute “ship money” to the government for the maintenance of the fleet. Charles now (1635), without precedent, exacted this ship money from all England in time of peace, alleging the (quite real) need to rebuild the dilapidated navy for emergency and to protect British commerce from Channel piracy. Many resisted the new levy. To test its legality John Hampden refused to pay it; he was indicted, but was left free. He was a well-to-do Puritan of Buckinghamshire, no firebrand, but a quiet man (said the Royalist Clarendon) of “extraordinary sobriety and strictness,”64 who hid firmness in courtesy and leadership in modesty.
His trial was long delayed, but came to court at last in November 1637. The lawyers for the Crown cited precedents for the ship-money tax, and held that the king, in time of peril, had the right to call for financial aid without waiting to assemble Parliament. Hampden’s attorneys replied that there was no emergency, there had been plenty of time to call Parliament, and the exaction violated the Petition of Right accepted by the King. The judges voted seven to five for the Crown, but public sentiment supported Hampden, and questioned the impartiality of judges subject to royal retaliation; Hampden was soon released. Charles continued till 1639 to collect ship money, and he used most of it to build the navy that fought victoriously against the Dutch in 1652.
Meanwhile he had extended his blunders to Scotland. He shocked the Presbyterian Scots by marrying a Catholic and extending the authority of the bishops over the presbyteries of the Kirk. He alarmed half the nobility by an “Act of Revocation” (1625) revoking all grants of Church or Crown lands made to Scottish families since the accession of Mary Stuart. He named to the Privy Council of Scotland five bishops and an archbishop, John Spottiswoode, and (1635) made this prelate Chancellor—the first churchman to be appointed to that office since the Reformation When, after irritating delays, he came to Scotland to be crowned (1633), he allowed the bishops to carry out the ritual with the almost Catholic ceremonies of the Anglican Church—vestments, candles, altar, and crucifix. Determined to enforce their authority over the presbyteries, the Scottish bishops drew up a set of liturgical rules, which, because emended and approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury, came to be known as “Laud’s Canons.” These gave the king full jurisdiction over all ecclesiastical matters, forbade assemblies of the clergy except at the king’s call, restricted the right of teaching to persons licensed by a bishop, and limited ordination to candidates accepting these canons.65 Charles sanctioned the canons and ordered them proclaimed in all Scottish churches. The Presbyterian ministers protested that half the Reformation was thereby annulled, and they warned that Charles was preparing to submit Britain to Rome. When an attempt was made, in St. Giles’s Church, Edinburgh, to conduct a service according to the new formulas, a riot broke out; sticks and stones were hurled at the officiating dean; Jenny Geddes flung her stool at his head, crying, “Thou foul thief, wilt thou say Mass at my lug [ear]?”66 Petitions from all classes were sent to Charles to revoke the canons; he replied by branding such petitions treasonable. Scotland now set the pace in revolt against the King.
On February 28, 1638, representatives of the Scottish ministry and laity signed at Edinburgh the National Covenant, reaffirming the Presbyterian faith and ritual, rejecting the new canons, and pledging themselves to defend the Crown and the “true religion.” Nearly all Scotland, urged on by the ministers, subscribed to this covenant. Spottiswoode and all but four of the bishops fled to England. The General Assembly of the Kirk at Glasgow repudiated all bishops, and declared the Kirk to be independent of the state. Charles sent orders to the Assembly to disperse or be charged with treason; it continued its sittings. The King mustered an unenthusiastic army of 21,000 men and advanced toward Scotland; the “Covenanters” raised 26,000 men aflame with patriotic and religious fervor. When the two forces came face to face Charles agreed to submit the issues to a free Scottish Parliament and an unhindered Assembly of the Kirk; a truce was signed at Berwick (June 18, 1639), and the “First Bishops’ War” ended without shedding blood. But the new Assembly, convened at Edinburgh (August 12, 1639), confirmed the “treasonable” decisions of the Glasgow conference, and the Scottish Parliament ratified the acts of the Assembly. Both sides prepared for the “Second Bishops’ War.”
In this crisis Charles called to his aid a man as resolute and thorough (this word was his motto) as the King was vacillating and incompetent. Thomas Wentworth had reached Parliament at twenty-one (1614), and had often voted against the King. Charles won him over by making him president of the Council of the North, rewarded his vigorous enforcement of the royal policies by appointing him to the Privy Council, and sent him as Lord Deputy to Ireland (1632), where his “Thorough” policy of merciless efficiency stamped out rebellion and created an angry peace. In 1639 he was made Earl of Strafford and chief counselor to Charles. He advised the King to raise a large army, suppress the Covenanters, and face a recalcitrant Parliament with an irresistible force. But a large army required large funds, which could hardly be raised without Parliament. Reluctantly, Charles summoned his fourth Parliament. When this “Short Parliament” met (April 13, 1640), he displayed to it an intercepted letter in which Covenanters had solicited the aid of Louis XIII;67 against such treason, argued the King, he had the right to organize an army. John Pym secretly communicated with Covenanters, decided that their cause was akin to Parliament’s case against the King, and persuaded the Parliament to deny the King the subsidies and arrange an alliance with the Scots. Charles dissolved the Short Parliament as traitorous (May 5, 1640). Riots broke out in London; a mob attacked the palace of Archbishop Laud; not finding him, it killed a Catholic who refused to join in Protestant worship.68
Charles moved north with an improvised army. The Scots came down over the border, defeated the English (August 20, 1640), and took possession of northern England. The helpless monarch agreed to pay them 850 a day until a satisfactory treaty could be concluded; he could not pay, and the Scottish army remained around Newcastle as a decisive ally of the English Parliament in its war with the King. Bewildered and desperate, Charles called a council of peers to meet him at York. They advised him that his authority was on the verge of collapse, and that he must find some accommodation with his enemies. For the last time he summoned a Parliament, the longest and most fateful in English history.