Gateway to the Classics: Charles I by Jacob Abbott
Charles I by  Jacob Abbott

The King and His Prerogative

T HE great difficulty in governing without a Parliament was the raising of funds. By the old customs and laws of the realm, a tax upon the people could only be levied by the action of the House of Commons; and the great object of the king and council during Buckingham's life, in summoning Parliaments from time to time, was to get their aid in this respect. But as Charles found that one Parliament after another withheld the grants, and spent their time in complaining of his government, he would dissolve them, successively, after exhausting all possible means of bringing them to a compliance with his will. He would then be thrown upon his own resources.

The king had some  resources of his own. These were certain estates, and lands, and other property, in various parts of the country, which belonged to the crown, the income of which the king could appropriate. But the amount which could be derived from this source was very small. Then there were certain other modes of raising money, which had been resorted to by former monarchs, in emergencies, at distant intervals, but still in instances so numerous that the king considered precedents enough had been established to make the power to resort to these modes a part of the prerogative of the crown. The people, however, considered these acts of former monarchs as irregularities or usurpations. They denied the king's right to resort to these methods, and they threw so many difficulties in the way of the execution of his plans, that finally he would call another Parliament, and make new efforts to lead them to conform to his will. The more the experiment was tried, however, the worse it succeeded; and at last the king determined to give up the idea of Parliaments altogether, and to compel the people to submit to his plans of raising money without them.

The final dissolution of Parliament, by which Charles entered upon his new plan of government, was attended with some resistance, and the affair made great difficulty. It seems that one of the members, a certain Mr. Rolls, had had some of his goods seized for payment of some of the king's irregular taxes, which he had refused to pay willingly. Now it had always been considered the law of the land in England, that the person and the property of a member of Parliament were sacred during the session, on the ground that while he was giving his attendance at a council meeting called by his sovereign, he ought to be protected from molestation on the part either of his fellow-subjects or his sovereign, in his person and in his property. The House of Commons considered, therefore, the seizure of the goods of one of the members of the body as a breach of their privilege, and took up the subject with a view to punish the officers who acted. The king sent a message immediately to the House, while they were debating the subject, saying that the officer acted, in seizing the goods, in obedience to his own direct command. This produced great excitement and long debates. The king, by taking the responsibility of the seizure upon himself, seemed to bid the House defiance. They brought up this question: "Whether the seizing of Mr. Rolls's goods was not a breach of privilege?" When the time came for a decision, the speaker, that is, the presiding officer, refused to put the question to vote. He said he had been commanded by the king not to do it! The House were indignant, and immediately adjourned for two days, probably for the purpose of considering, and perhaps consulting their constituents on what they were to do in so extraordinary an emergency as the king's coming into their own body and interfering with the functions of one of their own officers.

They met on the day to which they had adjourned, prepared to insist on the speaker's putting the question. But he, immediately on the House coming to order, said that he had received the king's command to adjourn the House for a week, and to put no question whatever. He was then about to leave the chair, but two of the members advanced to him and held him in his place, while they read some resolutions which had been prepared. There was great confusion and clamor. Some insisted that the House was adjourned, some were determined to pass the resolutions. The resolutions were very decided. The declared that whoever should counsel or advise the laying of taxes not granted by Parliament, or be an actor or instrument in collecting them, should be counted an innovator, and a capital enemy to the kingdom and Commonwealth. And also, that if any person whatever should voluntarily pay such taxes, he should be counted a capital enemy also. These resolutions were read in the midst of great uproar. The king was informed of the facts, and sent for the sergeant of the House—one of the highest officers—but the members locked the door, and would not let the sergeant go. Then the king sent one of his own officers to the House with a message. The members kept the door locked, and would not let him in until they had disposed of the resolutions. Then the House adjourned for a week.

The next day, several of the leading members who were supposed to have been active in these proceedings were summoned to appear before the council. They refused to answer out of Parliament for what was said and done by them in Parliament. The council sent them to prison in the Tower.

The week passed away, and the time for the reassembling of the Houses arrived. It had been known, during the week, that the king had determined on dissolving Parliament. It is usual, in dissolving a Parliament, for the sovereign not to appear in person, but to send his message of dissolution by some person commissioned to deliver it. This is called dissolving the House by commission. The dissolution is always declared in the House of Lords, the Commons being summoned to attend. In this case, however, the king attended in person. He was dressed magnificently in his royal robes, and wore his crown. He would not deign, however, to send for the Commons. He entered the House of Peers, and took his seat upon the throne. Several of the Commons, however, came in of their own accord, and stood below the bar, at the usual place assigned them. The king then rose and read the following speech. The antiquity of the language gives it an air of quaintness now which it did not possess then.

"My Lords,—I never came here upon so unpleasant an occasion, it being the Dissolution of a Parliament. Therefore Men may have some cause to wonder why I should not rather chose to do this by Commission, it being a general Maxim of Kings to leave harsh Commands to their Ministers, Themselves only executing pleasing things. Yet considering that Justice as well consists in Reward and Praise of Virtue as Punishing of Vice, I thought it necessary to come here to-day, and to declare to you and all the World, that it was merely the undutiful and seditious Carriage in the Lower House that hath made the dissolution of this Parliament. And you, my Lords, are so far from being any Causers of it, that I take as much comfort in your dutiful Demeanour, as I am justly distasted with their Proceedings. Yet, to avoid their Mistakings, let me tell you, that it is so far from me to adjudge all the House alike guilty, that I know there are many there as dutiful subjects as any in the World, it being but some few Vipers among them that did cast this mist of Undutifulness over most of their Eyes. Yet to say Truth, there was a good Number there that could not be infected with this Contagion.

"To conclude, As those Vipers must look for their Reward of Punishment, so you, my Lords, may justly expect from me that Favor and Protection that a good King oweth to his loving and faithful Nobility. And now, my Lord Keeper, do what I have commanded you."

Then the lord keeper pronounced the Parliament dissolved. The lord keeper was they keeper of the great seal, one of the highest officers of the crown.

Of course this affair produced a fever of excitement against the king throughout the whole realm. This excitement was kept up and increased by the trials of the members of Parliament who had been imprisoned. The courts decided against them, and they were sentenced to long imprisonment and to heavy fines. The king now determined to do without Parliaments entirely; and, of course, he had to raise money by his royal prerogative altogether, as he had done, in fact, before, a great deal, during the intervals between the successive Parliaments. It will not be very entertaining, but it will be very useful to the reader to peruse carefully some account of the principal methods resorted to by the king. In order, however, to diminish the necessity for money as much as possible, the king prepared to make peace with France and Spain; and as they, as well as England, were exhausted with the wars, this was readily effected.

One of the resorts adopted by the king was to a system of loans, as they were called, though these loans differed from those made by governments at the present day, in being apportioned upon the whole community according to their liability to taxation, and in being made, in some respects, compulsory. The loan was not to be absolutely collected by force, but all were expected to lend, and if any refused, they were to be required to make oath that they would not tell any body else that they had refused, in order that the influence of their example might not operate upon others. Those who did refuse were to be reported to the government. The officers appointed to collect these loans were charged not to make unnecessary difficulty, but to do all in their power to induce the people to contribute freely and willingly. This plan had been before adopted, in the time of Buckingham, but it met with little success.

Another plan which was resorted to was the granting of what was called monopolies: that is, the government would select some important and necessary articles in general use, and give the exclusive right of manufacturing them to certain persons, on their paying a part of the profits to the government. Soap was one of the articles thus chosen. The exclusive right to manufacture it was given to a company, on their paying for it. So with leather, salt, and various other things. These persons, when they once possessed the exclusive right to manufacture an article which the people must use, would abuse their power by deteriorating the article, or charging enormous prices. Nothing prevented their doing this, as they had no competition. The effect was, that the people were injured much more than the government was benefited. The plan of granting such monopolies by governments is now universally odious.

Another method of taxation was what was called tonnage and poundage. This was an ancient tax, assessed on merchandise brought into the country in ships, like the duties  now collected at our custom-houses. It was called tonnage and poundage because the merchandise on which it was assessed was reckoned by weight, viz., the ton and the pound. A former king, Edward III., first assessed it to raise money to suppress piracy on the seas. He said it was reasonable that the merchandise protected should pay the expense of the protection, and in proper proportion. The Parliament in that day opposed this tax. They did not object to the tax itself, but to the king's assessing it by his own authority. However, they granted it themselves afterward, and it was regularly collected. Subsequent Parliaments had granted it, and generally made the law, once for all, to continue in force during the life of the monarch. When Charles commenced his reign, the Peers were for renewing the law as usual, to continue throughout his reign. The Commons desired to enact the law only for a year at a time, so as to keep the power in their own hands. The two houses thus disagreed, and nothing was done. The king then went on to collect the tax without any authority except his own prerogative.

Another mode of levying money adopted by the king was what was called ship money. This was a plan for raising a navy by making every town contribute a certain number of ships, or the money necessary to build them. It originated in ancient times, and was at first confined to seaport towns which had ships. These towns were required to furnish them for the king's service, sometimes to be paid for by the king, at other times by the country, and at other times not to be paid for at all. Charles revived this plan, extending it to the whole country; a tax was assessed on all the towns, each one being required to furnish money enough for a certain number of ships. The number at one time required of the city of London was twenty.

There was one man who made his name very celebrated then, and it has continued very celebrated since, by his refusal to pay his ship money, and by his long and determined contest with the government in regard to it, in the courts. His name was John Hampden. He was a man of fortune and high character. His tax for ship money was only twenty shillings, but he declared that he would not pay it without a trial. The king had previously obtained the opinion of the judges that he had a right, in case of necessity, to assess and collect the ship money, and Hampden knew, therefore, that the decision would certainly, in the end, be against him. He knew, however, that the attention of the whole country would be attracted to the trial, and that the arguments which he should offer, to prove that the act of collecting such a tax on the part of the king's government was illegal and tyrannical, would be spread before the country, and would make a great impression, although they certainly would not alter the opinion of the judges, who, holding their offices by the king's appointment, were strongly inclined to take his side.

It resulted as Hampden had foreseen. The trial attracted universal attention. It was a great spectacle to see a man of fortune and of high standing, making all those preparations, and incurring so great expense, on account of a refusal to pay five dollars, knowing, too, that he would have to pay it in the end. The people of the realm were convinced that Hampden was right, and they applauded and honored him very greatly for his spirit and courage. The trial lasted twelve days. The illegality and injustice of the tax were fully exposed. The people concurred entirely with Hampden, and even some of the judges were convinced. He was called the patriot Hampden, and his name will always be celebrated in English history. The whole discussion, however, though it produced a great effect at the time, would be of no interest now, since it turned mainly on the question what the king's rights actually were, according to the ancient customs and usages of the realm. The question before mankind now is a very different one; it is not what the powers and prerogatives of government have been in times past, but what they ought to be now and in time to come.

The king's government gained the victory ostensibly, in this contest, and Hampden had to pay the money. Very large sums were collected, also, from others by this tax, and a great fleet was raised. The performances and exploits of the fleet had some influence in quieting the murmurs of the people. The fleet was the greatest which England had ever possessed. One of its exploits was to compel the Dutch to pay a large sum for the privilege of fishing in the narrow seas about Great Britain. The Dutch had always maintained that these seas were public, and open to all the world; and they had a vast number of fishing boats, called herring-busses, that used to resort to them for the purpose of catching herring, which they made a business of preserving and sending all over the world. The English ships attacked these fleets of herring-busses, and drove them off; and as the Dutch were not strong enough to defend them, they agreed to pay a large sum annually for the right to fish in the seas in question, protesting, however, against it as an extortion, for they maintained that the English had no control over any seas beyond the bays and estuaries of their own shores.

One of the chief means which Charles depended upon during the long period that he governed without a Parliament, was a certain famous tribunal or court called the Star Chamber. This court was a very ancient one, having been established in some of the earliest reigns; but it never attracted any special attention until the time of Charles. His government called it into action a great deal, and extended its powers, and made it a means of great injustice and oppression, as the people thought; or, as Charles would have said, a very efficient means of vindicating his prerogative, and punishing the stubborn and rebellious.

There were three reasons why this court was a more convenient and powerful instrument in the hands of the king and his council than any of the other courts in the kingdom. First, it was, by its ancient constitution, composed of members of the council, with the exception of two persons, who were to be judges in the other courts. This plan of having two judges from the common law courts seems to have been adopted for the purpose of securing some sort of conformity of the Star Chamber decisions with the ordinary principles of English jurisprudence. But then, as these two law judges would always be selected with reference to their disposition to carry out the king's plans, and as the other members of the court were all members of the government itself, of course the court was almost entirely under governmental control.

The second reason was, that in this court there was no jury. There had never been juries employed in it from its earliest constitution. The English had contrived the plan of trial by jury as a defense against the severity of government. If a man was accused of crime, the judges appointed by the government that he had offended were not to be allowed to decide whether he was guilty or not. They would be likely not to be impartial. The question of his guilt or innocence was to be left to twelve men, taken at hazard from the ordinary walks of life, and who, consequently, would be likely to sympathize with the accused, if they saw any disposition to oppress him, rather than to join against him with a tyrannical government. Thus the jury, as they said, was a great safeguard. The English have always attached great value to their system of trial by jury. The plan is retained in this country, though there is less necessity for it under our institutions. Now, in the Star Chamber, it had never been the custom to employ a jury. The members of the court decided the whole question; and as they were entirely in the interest of the government, the government, of course, had the fate of every person accused under their direct control.

The third reason consisted in the nature of the crimes which it had always been customary to try in this court. It had jurisdiction in a great variety of cases in which men were brought into collision with the government, such as charges of riot, sedition, libel, opposition to the edicts of the council, and to proclamations of the king. These and similar cases had always been tried by the Star Chamber, and these were exactly the cases which ought not to be tried by such a court; for persons accused of hostility to government ought not to be tried by government itself.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the origin of the term Star Chamber. The hall where the court was held was in a palace at Westminster, and there were a great many windows in it. Some think that it was from this that the court received its name. Others suppose it was because the court had cognizance of a certain crime, the Latin name of which has a close affinity with the word star. Another reason is, that certain documents, called starra, used to be kept in the hall. The prettiest idea is a sort of tradition that the ceiling of the hall was formerly ornamented with stars, and that this circumstance gave name to the hall. This supposition, however, unfortunately, has no better foundation than the others; for there were no stars on the ceiling in Charles's time, and there had not been any for a hundred years; nor is there any positive evidence that there ever were. However, in the absence of any real reason for preferring one of these ideas over the other, mankind seem to have wisely determined on choosing the most picturesque, so that it is generally agreed that the origin of the name was the ancient decoration of the ceiling of the hall with gilded stars.

However this may be, the court of the Star Chamber was an engine of prodigious power in the hands of Charles's government. It aided them in two ways. They could punish their enemies, and where these enemies were wealthy they could fill up the treasury of the government by imposing enormous fines upon them. Sometimes the offenses for which these fines were imposed were not of a nature to deserve such severe penalties. For instance, there was a law against turning tillage land into pasturage. Land that is tilled supports men. Land that is pastured supports cattle and sheep. The former were a burden, sometimes, to landlords, the latter a means of wealth. Hence there was then, as there is now, a tendency in England, in certain parts of the country, for the landed proprietors to change their tillage land to pasture, and thus drive the peasants away from their homes. There were laws against this, but a great many persons had done it notwithstanding. One of these persons was fined four thousand pounds; an enormous sum. The rest were alarmed, and made compositions, as they were called; that is, they paid at once a certain sum on condition of not being prosecuted. Thirty thousand pounds were collected in this way, which was then a very large amount.

There were in those days, as there are now, certain tracts of land in England called the king's forests, though a large portion of them are now without trees. The boundaries of these lands had not been very well defined, but the government now published decrees specifying the boundaries, and extending them so far as to include, in many cases, the buildings and improvements of other proprietors. They then prosecuted these proprietors for having encroached, as they called it, upon the crown lands, and the Star Chamber assessed very heavy fines upon them. The people said all this was done merely to get pretexts to extort money from the nation, to make up for the want of a Parliament to assess regular taxes; but the government said it was a just and legal mode of protecting the ancient and legitimate rights of the king.

In these and similar modes, large sums of money were collected as fines and penalties for offenses more or less real. In other cases very severe punishments were inflicted for various sorts of offenses committed against the personal dignity of the king, or the great lords of his government. It was considered highly important to repress all appearance of disrespect or hostility to the king. One man got into some contention with one of the king's officers, and finally struck him. He was fined ten thousand pounds. Another man said that a certain archbishop had incurred the king's displeasure by desiring some toleration for the Catholics. This was considered a slander against the archbishop, and the offender was sentenced to be fined a thousand pounds, to be whipped, imprisoned, and to stand in the pillory at Westminster and at three other places in various parts of the kingdom.

A gentleman was following a chase as a spectator, the hounds belonging to a nobleman. The huntsman, who had charge of the hounds, ordered him to keep back, and not come so near the hounds; and in giving him this order, spoke, as the gentleman alleged, so insolently, that he struck him with his riding-whip. The huntsman threatened to complain to his master, the nobleman. The gentleman said that if his master should justify him in such insulting language as he had used, he would serve him in the same manner. The Star Chamber fined him ten thousand pounds for speaking so disrespectfully of a lord.

By these and similar proceedings, large sums of money were collected by the Star Chamber for the king's treasury, and all expression of discontent and dissatisfaction on the part of the people was suppressed. This last policy, however, the suppression of expressions of dissatisfaction, is always a very dangerous one for any government to undertake. Discontent, silenced by force, is exasperated and extended. The outward signs of its existence disappear, but its inward workings become wide-spread and dangerous, just in proportion to the weight by which the safety-valve is kept down. Charles and his court of the Star Chamber rejoiced in the power and efficacy of their tremendous tribunal. They issued proclamations and decrees, and governed the country by means of them. They silenced all murmurs. But they were, all the time, disseminating through the whole length and breadth of the land a deep and inveterate enmity to royalty, which ended in a revolution of the government, and the decapitation of the king. They stopped the hissing of the steam for the time, but caused an explosion in the end.

Charles was King of Scotland as well as of England. The two countries were, however, as countries, distinct, each having its own laws, its own administration, and its own separate dominions. The sovereign, however, was the same. A king could inherit two kingdoms, just as a man can, in this country, inherit two farms, which may, nevertheless, be at a distance from each other, and managed separately. Now, although Charles had, from the death of his father, exercised sovereignty over the realm of Scotland, he had not been crowned, nor had even visited Scotland. The people of Scotland felt somewhat neglected. They murmured that their common monarch gave all his attention to the sister and rival kingdom. They said that if the king did not consider the Scottish crown worth coming after, they might, perhaps, look out for some other way of disposing of it.

The king, accordingly, in 1633, began to make preparations for a royal progress into Scotland. He first issued a proclamation requiring a proper supply of provisions to be collected at the several points of his proposed route, and specified the route, and the length of stay which he should make in each place. He set out on the 13th of May with a splendid retinue. He stopped at the seats of several of the nobility on the way, to enjoy the hospitalities and entertainments which they had prepared for him. He proceeded so slowly that it was a month before he reached the frontier. Here all his English servants and retinue retired from their posts, and their places were supplied by Scotchmen who had been previously appointed, and who were awaiting his arrival. He entered Edinburgh with great pomp and parade, all Scotland flocking to the capital to witness the festivities. The coronation took place three days afterward. He met the Scotch Parliament, and, for form's sake, took a part in the proceedings, so as actually to exercise his royal authority as King of Scotland. This being over, he was conducted in great state back to Berwick, which is on the frontier, and thence he returned by rapid journeys to London.

The king dissolved his last Parliament in 1629. He had now been endeavoring for four or five years to govern alone. He succeeded tolerably well, so far as external appearances indicated, up to this time. There was, however, beneath the surface, a deep-seated discontent, which was constantly widening and extending, and, soon after the return of the king from Scotland, real difficulties gradually arose, by which he was, in the end, compelled to call a Parliament again. What these difficulties were will be explained in the subsequent chapters.

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