Henry Parker on Parliament’s role in limiting the power of Kings (1642)

Henry Parker

Found in Tracts on Liberty by the Levellers and their Critics Vol. 1 (1638-1643)

The English lawyer and pamphleteer Henry Parker (1604-1652) justified the taking up of arms against Charles I’s “unbounded & unconditionate royalty” because Parliament ruled with the consent of the people and acted as a “guard against the guardians”:

It was soon therefore provided that lawes agreeable to the dictates of reason should be ratified by common consent, and that the execution and interpretation of those Lawes should be intrusted to some magistrate, for the preventing of common injuries betwixt Subject and Subject, but when it after appeared that man was yet subject to unnaturall destruction, by the Tyranny of intrusted magistrates, a mischiefe almost as fatall as to be without all magistracie, how to provide a wholsome remedy therefore, was not so easie to be invented. ’T was not difficult to invent Lawes, for the limitting of supreme governors, but to invent how those Lawes should be executed or by whom interpreted, was almost impossible, nam quis custodiat ipsos custodes.

The lawyer and political theorist Henry Parker (1604-1652) took up his pen to defend the right of “the people”, or at least those represented in Parliament, against the growing claims of King Charles I to rule without limits placed on his power. The conflict escalated during the summer of 1642 when violence broke out between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists which began the first phase of the English Civil War. What is interesting about Parker’s pamphlet “Observations upon some of his Majesties late Answers and Expresses” (July 1642) is the way he grounds the right of Parliament’s actions in “consent theory”, in other words that political power should be exercised with the consent of the governed. This was written 45 years before John Locke made similar arguments in Two Treatises of Government (1688) and over 100 years before the North American colonists began challenging the British government on the same grounds in the mid-18th century. Another interesting point is his reference to the classic problem of any political system, how do you guard against the misuse of power by the very people who wield that power (quis custodiat ipsos custodes)? His answer was that Parliament or other “Publique Assemblies” had now emerged which could allow the people to “assume its owne power to do itselfe right without disturbance to it selfe, or injury to Princes”.