Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: From the meeting of the Long Parliament to the outbreak of the Civil War. [1640-1642.] - The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, 1625-1660
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
III.: From the meeting of the Long Parliament to the outbreak of the Civil War. [1640-1642.] - Samuel Rawson Gardiner, The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, 1625-1660 
The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, 1625-1660, selected and edited by Samuel Rawson Gardiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
From the meeting of the Long Parliament to the outbreak of the Civil War.
For the first time in the reign of Charles I, a Parliament met with an armed force behind it. Though the Scottish army, which continued to occupy the northern counties till August 1641, was not directly in its service, it depended for its support upon the money voted by the English Parliament, and would consequently have placed itself at the disposition of Parliament if Charles had threatened a dissolution. Charles was therefore no longer in a position to refuse his assent to Bills of which he disapproved, and the series of Constitutional Acts passed during the first ten months of the existence of the Long Parliament (Nov. 1640-August 1641), bear witness to the direction taken by it in constitutional matters. The Triennial Act (No. 27, p. 144), enacting that Parliament was to meet at least once in three years, and appointing a machinery by which it might be brought together when that period had elapsed, if the Crown neglected to summon it, struck at Charles’s late system of governing without summoning Parliament until it suited him to do so, but it did nothing to secure the attention of the King to the wishes of the Houses. Whilst measures were being prepared to give effect to the further changes necessary to diminish the King’s authority, the attention of the Houses and of the country was fully occupied by the impeachment, which was ultimately turned into the attainder of the Earl of Strafford.
No great constitutional change can take place without giving dire offence to those at whose expense the change is made, and Parliament had therefore from the very beginning of its existence to take into account the extreme probability that Charles, if he should ever regain power, would attempt to set at naught all that it might do. Against this, they attempted to provide by striking at his ministers, especially at Strafford, whom they knew to have been, for some time, his chief adviser, and whom they regarded as the main supporter of his arbitrary government in the past, and also as the man who was likely from his ability and strength of will to be most dangerous to them in the future, in the event of an attempted reaction. They imagined that if he were condemned and executed no other minister would be found daring enough to carry out the orders of a King who was bent upon reducing Parliament to subjection. They therefore impeached him as a traitor, on the ground that his many arbitrary acts furnished evidence of a settled purpose to place the King above the law, and that such a purpose was tantamount to treason; because, whilst it was apparently directed to strengthening the King, it in reality weakened him by depriving him of the hearts of his subjects.
Whether it was justifiable or not to put Strafford to death for actions which had never before been held to be treasonable, it is certain that the Commons, in imagining that Strafford’s death would end their troubles, under-estimated the gravity of the situation. They imagined that the King, in breaking through what they called the fundamental laws, had been led astray by wicked counsel, and that they might therefore fairly expect that when his counsellors were punished or removed, he would readily acquiesce in changes which would leave him all the legal power necessary for the well-being of the State.
Such a view of the case was, however, far from being accurate. As a matter of fact, the Constitutional arrangements bequeathed by the Tudors to the Stuarts had broken down, and Charles could argue that he had but perpetuated the leadership of the Tudors in the only way which the ambition of the House of Commons left open to him, and that therefore every attempt now made to subject him to Parliament was a violation of those constitutional rights which he ought to exercise for the good of the nation. It is true that an ideally great man might have been enlightened by the failure of his projects, but Charles was very far from being ideally great, and it was therefore certain that he would regard the designs of the Commons as ruinous to the well-being of the kingdom as well as to his own authority. The circumstances of Strafford’s trial increased his irritation, and he had recourse to intrigues with the English army which still remained on foot in Yorkshire, hoping to engage it in his cause against the pretensions of Parliament. It was against these intrigues that the Protestation (No. 28, p. 155) was directed. It was drawn up by Pym, and was taken by every member of both Houses as a token of their determination to resist any forcible interference with their proceedings. It was rapidly followed by the King’s assent, given under stress of mob violence, to the Act for Strafford’s attainder (No. 29, p. 156).
On the day on which the King’s assent to Strafford’s death was given, he also consented to an Act against the dissolution of the Long Parliament without its own consent (No. 30, p. 158). It was the first Act which indicated the new issues which had been opened by the manifest reluctance of Charles to accept that diminution of his power on which Parliament insisted. Taking into account the largeness of the changes proposed, together with the character of the King from whom power was to be abstracted, it is hardly possible to avoid the conclusion that nothing short of a change of Kings would meet the difficulties of the situation. Only a King who had never known what it was to exercise the old powers would feel himself at his ease under the new restrictions.
However reasonable such a conclusion may be, it was not only impossible, but undesirable, that it should be acted on at once. Great as was both physically and morally the injury inflicted on the country by the attempt of Parliament to continue working with Charles, the nation had more to gain from the effort to preserve the continuity of its traditions than it had to lose from the immediate evil results of its mistake. If that generation of Englishmen was slow to realise the truth in this matter, and suffered great calamities in consequence, its very tenacity in holding firm to the impossible solution of a compromise with Charles I, gave better results even to itself than would have ensued if it had been quick to discern the truth. A nation which easily casts itself loose from the traditions of the past loses steadiness of purpose, and ultimately, wearied by excitement, falls into the arms of despotism.
In spite, therefore, of the appearance of chaos in the history of the years 1640-1649, the forces which directed events are easily to be traced. During the first months of the Long Parliament there is the resolution—whilst retaining the Kingship—to transfer the general direction of government from the King to Parliament and more especially to the House of Commons, a resolution which at first seems capable of being carried out by the abolition of the institutions which had given an exceptional position to the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns. Later on there is the gradual awakening of a part of the nation to the truth that it is impossible to carry out the new system in combination with Charles, and this leads to the putting forth by Parliament of a claim to sovereignty really incompatible with Kingship. Even those, however, who are most ready to break with the past, strive hard to maintain political continuity by a succession of proposed compromises, not one of which is accepted by both parties.
The Tonnage and Poundage Act, which became law on June 22 (No. 31, p. 159), bears the impress of the first of these movements. On the one hand, whilst it asserts the illegality of the levy of Customs-duties without a Parliamentary grant, it gives to Charles not merely the Tonnage and Poundage given to his father, but also ‘such other sums of money as have been imposed upon any merchandise either outward or inward by pretext of any letters patent, commission under the Great Seal of England or Privy Seal, since the first year of his late Majesty King James, of blessed memory, and which were continued and paid at the beginning of this present Parliament’ (p. 161). In other words, it followed the precedent of the abortive Bill of 1610 (see p. xiv) by including the Impositions in the grant, and thus enabled the King ‘to live of his own’ in time of peace. On the other hand, it shows how greatly Charles was distrusted by limiting the grant to less than two months, from May 25 to July 15 (p. 161).
The circumstances which caused this distrust are revealed in the Ten Propositions (No. 32, p. 163). The English army was still under arms in Yorkshire, and though it was about to be disbanded, the King proposed to visit Scotland with the intention, as was then suspected, and is now known, of stirring up the Scots to assist him in England. At such a time it may well have seemed unwise to make the King financially independent, and subsequent events increasing the feeling, the Tonnage and Poundage Act was renewed for short periods only, till the outbreak of the Civil War put an end to any wish to supply the King.
In spite of the King’s hope of bringing about a reaction with Scottish aid, he did not feel himself strong enough to refuse his assent to the Bills prepared for cutting off the powers acquired by the Tudors, and on July 5 he gave his consent to the Act for the Abolition of the Star Chamber (No. 34, p. 179) and to the Act for the Abolition of the High Commission (No. 35, p. 186). The work of branding with illegality the extraordinary financial means to which he had himself resorted was completed by the Act declaring the illegality of Ship-money (No. 36, p. 189), the Act for the Limitation of Forests (No. 37, p. 192), and the Act prohibiting the exaction of Knighthood Fines (No. 38, p. 196).
Thus far Parliament had been practically unanimous. The Constitution which had been virtually modified in 1629 to the profit of Monarchy, was legally modified in 1641 to the disadvantage of Monarchy. If there had been nothing more than constitutional questions at issue, it is highly probable that if the King had continued to intrigue with the object of redressing forcibly the balance in his favour, Parliament, backed by the active part of the nation, would have at last been almost unanimous in demanding a change of sovereigns. It is however seldom, if it is ever the case, that political movements are determined on such simple lines. Human action is influenced by many motives, and as the political current shifts and varies, ideas which have at one time hardly obtained recognition rise to the surface and become all important in the direction of events.
At the end of August, 1641, the political changes which had been unanimously adopted, and which, with the exception of the clauses in the Triennial Act for the automatic assembling of Parliament, were permanently accepted in 1660 by the Government of the Restoration, had been accomplished. Room was thereby made for the consideration of another class of changes on which considerable difference of opinion existed. Something must be done to settle the Church as well as the State, and excepting so far as the abolition of the High Commission was concerned, there was no such agreement about ecclesiastical as there had been about political reforms. It was indeed generally desired that the Church, like the State, should be regulated by Parliamentary law rather than by the Royal authority; and that an end should be put to the alterations in the conduct of worship, which in Laud’s eyes were but the restoration of legal order, whilst in the eyes of others they were unauthorised innovations. Further than this, agreement was not to be had. There were those who wished Episcopacy and the Common Prayer Book to be abolished, and there were others who wished them to be retained with some restraint of the authority of the Bishops, and with some more or less slight alteration of the forms of prayer.
These two tendencies had already made themselves felt: the first in the Root and Branch Petition (No. 26, p. 137), presented to the House of Commons on December 11, 1640, and in the so-called Root and Branch Bill for transferring Episcopal jurisdiction to Parliamentary Commissioners, which reached the committee stage in the House of Commons; the second in the Bill on Church Reform (No. 33, p. 167), which was read twice in the House of Lords. Neither of these obtained the final sanction even of the House in which it had been introduced, and when in the beginning of September, whilst the King was away in Scotland, the Houses prepared for a short recess, the Resolutions of the Commons on Ecclesiastical Innovations (No. 39, p. 197) and the publication of an Order of the Lords on the Services of the Church (No. 40, p. 199) showed that there were divergent tendencies in the two Houses at least so far as Church matters were concerned.
The event which precipitated the division of parties was the Ulster Rebellion. The first indication that the majority of the Commons felt that, with a war in Ireland in prospect, it was necessary that harmony should exist between the Crown and Parliament is to be found in the Instructions to the Commons’ Committee in Scotland sent up to the Lords on November 8 (No. 41, p. 199). The demand made in these Instructions was for the appointment of councillors and ministers approved by Parliament (p. 200). To grant such a wish would practically annihilate the independent action of the Crown, and the division of parties on ecclesiastical affairs now gave to the King a majority of the Lords and a large minority of the Commons upon whom he could rely. All those, in short, who wished to see considerable ecclesiastical changes made in the Puritan direction supported the authority of the House of Commons, whilst those who wished the changes to be few or none supported the authority of the King. When Charles returned to London on Nov. 25 his speech to the Recorder (No. 42, p. 201) showed that he was aware where his real strength lay, and his policy was completely in accordance with his conscience. On Dec. 1 a deputation of the Commons presented to him the Grand Remonstrance (No. 43, p. 202), which had been carried by a small majority before his return. After setting forth at length the details of the late misgovernment, the House asked for the employment of ministers in whom Parliament might confide (p. 231), and for the reference of Church reform to a synod of divines whose conclusions might be confirmed by Parliament (p. 229). As there was to be no toleration of Nonconformity, the plan of the framers of the Grand Remonstrance was to substitute the general enforcement of their own form of Church government and worship for that which had recently been enforced by the authority of the King and the Bishops. On December 10 Charles answered indirectly by a Proclamation on Religion (No. 44, p. 232), and directly on December 23 by his answer to the petition accompanying the Grand Remonstrance (No. 45, p. 233). The general outcome of the discussion was that the House of Commons wanted their will to prevail in all that was to be done, whilst the King was ready to hear what they had to say and to assent to just as much as he pleased.
If only an appeal to force could be averted, the majority of the Commons had the game in their own hands. They had but to refuse to continue the grant of Tonnage and Poundage to reduce Charles to bankruptcy. It was the consciousness that this was the case which filled the air with rumours of Royalist plots during the last fortnight of December, and which brought a mob of apprentices to support the Commons in Palace Yard, and a crowd of officers who had served in the now disbanded army of the North to support the King at Whitehall.
Such a tension of feeling could not last long, and the King was the first to move. On January 3, 1642, his Attorney-General impeached five leading members of the House of Commons, and one member of the House of Lords (No. 46, p. 236). On January 4, the King came in person to the House of Commons to seize the five members. The five took refuge in the city, which rose in their defence, and Charles, finding the forces of the city arrayed against him, left Westminster on January 10. On January 17, the Commons set forth a declaration telling the story from their point of view, and defending their own constitutional position (No. 47, p. 237).
Though the King absented himself from Westminster, negotiations between him and the Parliament still continued. On February 13 he gave his consent to the last two Acts which became law in his reign. The first was the Clerical Disabilities Act (No. 48, p. 241), by which the clergy were disabled from exercising temporal jurisdiction and the Bishops were deprived of their votes in the House of Lords, the other the Impressment Act (No. 49, p. 242), authorising the impressment of soldiers for the service of Ireland. The fact that an army was being brought into existence for Ireland constituted a danger for whichever of the two parties failed to hold military command, and this last Act was soon followed by a claim put forward by Parliament to appoint the Lords Lieutenants of the Counties, who were at the head of the militia or civilian army which was, in time of peace, the only force at the disposal of the King. As Charles, naturally enough, refused to give such power into the hands of those whom he regarded as his enemies, the Houses, on March 5, passed a Militia Ordinance to the effect which they desired (No. 50, p. 245). An Ordinance was nothing more than a Bill which had been accepted by the two Houses but had not received the Royal assent, and for some months the Houses had claimed the right of acting on such Ordinances as if they had the force of law.
For the next few months a long and wordy controversy on the legality of this step arose, of which the King’s Proclamation of May 27 (No. 52, p. 248), and the Declaration of the Houses of June 6 (No. 54, p. 254), may be accepted as specimens, whilst the Declaration of the Houses on Church Reform of April 8 (No. 51, p. 247) may be regarded as an attempt to minimise the difference between the two parties in ecclesiastical matters.
The Nineteen Propositions (No. 53, p. 249) have a wider scope. They set forth as a whole the constitutional changes demanded by the prevailing party at Westminster. They would simply have established government by persons appointed by Parliament in lieu of government by the King, and they may therefore be taken as definitely marking the acceptance by the majority of the House of Commons of the idea that the King’s sovereignty must not merely be weakened but practically set aside (see p. xxxii). Against this proposed system were enlisted not only the feelings of Charles, but also those of every man who disliked the ecclesiastical or civil policy of the Houses. In other words, a question arose whether the unlimited power of the Houses would not be as despotically vexatious as had been the unlimited power of the King, and the solution of diminishing the sphere of government by enlarging the sphere of individual right did not as yet occur to either party.
Civil War was the natural result of such a condition of things. On June 12, Charles issued Commissions of Array (No. 55, p. 258) to summon the militia of the counties to his side, and on July 12, the Houses resolved, in addition to their claim to command the militia, to raise an army, and placed it under the command of the Earl of Essex (No. 56, p. 261). On August 22, the King raised his standard at Nottingham, and the Civil War began which was to decide, at least for a time, in whose hands was sovereignty in England.