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

Accession to the Throne

K ING JAMES made slow progress in his military preparations. He could not raise the funds without the action of Parliament, and the houses were not in very good humor. The expenses of the prince's visit to Spain had been enormous, and other charges, arising out of the pomp and splendor with which the arrangements of the court were maintained, gave them a strong feeling of discontent. They had other grievances of which they were disposed to complain, and they began to look upon this war, notwithstanding its Protestant character, as one in which the king was only striving to recover his son-in-law's dominions, and, consequently, as one which pertained more to his personal interests than to the public welfare of the realm.

While things were in this state the king fell sick. The mother of the Duke of Buckingham undertook to prescribe for him. It was understood that Buckingham himself, who had, in the course of the Spanish enterprise, and since his return, acquired an entire ascendency over Charles, was not unwilling that his old master should leave the stage, and the younger one reign in his stead; and that his mother shared in this feeling. At any rate, her prescriptions made the king much worse. He had the sacrament administered to him in his sick chamber, and said that he derived great comfort from it. One morning, very early, he sent for the prince to come and see him. Charles rose, dressed himself, and came. His father had something to say to him, and tried to speak. He could not. His strength was too far gone. He fell back upon his pillow, and died.

Charles was, of course, now king. The theory in the English monarchy is, that the king never dies. So soon as the person in whom the royal sovereignty resides ceases to breathe, the principle of supremacy vests immediately in his successor, by a law of transmission entirely independent of the will of man. The son becomes king by a divine right. His being proclaimed and crowned, as he usually is, at some convenient time early in his reign, are not ceremonies which make  him king. They only acknowledge him to be so. He does not, in any sense, derive his powers and prerogatives from these acts. He only receives from his people, by means of them, a recognition of his right to the high office to which he has already been inducted by the fiat of Heaven.

It will be observed, thus, that the ideas which prevailed in respect to the nature and province of government, were very different in England at that time, from those which are entertained in America at the present day. With us, the administration of government is merely a business, transacted for the benefit of the people by their agents—men who are put in power for this purpose, and who, like other agents, are responsible to their principals for the manner in which they fulfill their trusts. But government in England was, in the days of the Stuarts—and it is so to a great extent at the present day—a right  which one family possessed, and which entitled that family to certain immunities, powers, and prerogatives, which they held entirely independent of any desire, on the part of the people, that they should exercise them, or even their consent  that they should do so. The right to govern the realm of Great Britain was a sort of estate which descended to Charles from his ancestors, and with the possession and enjoyment of which the community had no right to interfere.

This seems, at first view, very absurd to us, but it is not particularly absurd. Charles's lawyers would say to any plain proprietor of a piece of land, who might call in question his right to govern the country, The king holds his crown by precisely the same tenure that you hold your farm. Why should you be the exclusive possessor of that land, while so many poor beggars are starving? Because it has descended to you from your ancestors, and nothing has descended to them. And it is precisely so that the right to manage the fleets and armies, and to administer the laws of the realm, has descended, under the name of sovereignty, to him, and no such political power has descended to you.

True, the farmer would reply; but in matters of government we are to consider what will promote the general good. The great object to be attained is the welfare and happiness of the community. Now, if this general welfare comes into competition with the supposed rights of individuals, arising from such a principle as hereditary succession, the latter ought certainly to yield.

But why, might the lawyer reply, should rights founded on hereditary succession yield any more readily in the case of government  than in the case of property?  The distribution of property influences the general welfare quite as much as the management of power. Suppose it were proved that the general welfare of your parish would be promoted by the division of your land among the destitute there. You have nothing to oppose to such a proposition but your hereditary right. And the king has that to oppose to any plan of a division of his prerogatives and powers among the people who would like to share them.

Whatever may be thought of this reasoning on this side of the Atlantic, and at the present day, it was considered very satisfactory in England two or three centuries ago. The true and proper jurisdiction of an English monarch, as it had existed from ancient times, was considered as an absolute right, vesting in each successive inheritor of the crown, and which the community could not justly interfere with or disturb for any reasons less imperious than such as would authorize an interference with the right of succession to private property. Indeed, it is probable that, with most men at that time, an inherited right to govern  was regarded as the most sacred of the two.

The fact seems to be, that the right of a son to come into the place of his father, whether in respect to property, power, or social rank, is not a natural, inherent, and indefeasible right, but a privilege  which society accords, as a matter of convenience and expediency. In England, expediency is, on the whole, considered to require that all three of these things, viz., property, rank, and power, in certain cases, should descend from father to son. In this country, on the other hand, we confine the hereditament to property, abrogating it in the case of rank and power. In neither case is there probably any absolute natural right, but a conventional right is allowed to take its place in one, or another, or all of these particulars, according to the opinion of the community in respect to what its true interests and the general welfare, on the whole, require.

The kings themselves of this Stuart race—which race includes Mary Queen of Scots, the mother of the line, and James I., Charles I., Charles II., and James II.—entertained very high ideas of these hereditary rights of theirs to govern the realm of England. They felt a determination to maintain these rights and powers at all hazards. Charles ascended the throne with these feelings, and the chief point of interest in the history of his reign is the contest in which he engaged with the English people in his attempts to maintain them.

The body with which the king came most immediately into conflict in this long struggle for ascendency, was the Parliament. And here American readers are very liable to fall into a mistake by considering the houses of Parliament as analogous to the houses of legislation in the various governments of this country. In our governments the chief magistrate has only to execute definite and written laws and ordinances, passed by the Legislature, and which the Legislature may pass with or without his consent; and when enacted, he must be governed by them. Thus the president or the governor is, in a certain sense, the agent and officer of the legislative power of the state, to carry into effect its decisions, and this legislative power has really the control.

By the ancient Constitution of England, however, the Parliament was merely a body of counselors, as it were, summoned by the king to give him their advice, to frame for him such laws as he wished to have framed, and to aid him in raising funds by taxing the people The king might call this council or not, as he pleased. There was no necessity for calling it unless he needed more funds than he could raise by his own resources. When called, they felt that they had come, in a great measure, to aid the king in doing his will. When they framed a law, they sent it to him, and if he was satisfied with it, he made it law. It was the king who really enacted it. If he did not approve the law, he wrote upon the parchment which contained it, "The king will think of it," and that was the end. The king would call upon them to assess a tax and collect the money, and would talk to them about his plans, and his government, and the aid which he desired from them to enable him to accomplish what he had himself undertaken. In fact, the king was the government, and the houses of Parliament his instruments to aid him in giving effect to his decrees.

The nobles, that is, the heads of the great families, and also the bishops, who were the heads of the various dioceses of the Church, formed one branch of this great council. This was called the House of Lords. Certain representatives of the counties and of the towns formed another branch, called the House of Commons. These delegates came to the council, not from any right which the counties and towns were supposed to possess to a share in the government, but simply because they were summoned by the king to come and give him their aid. They were to serve without pay, as a matter of duty which they owed to the sovereign. Those that came from counties were called knights, and those from the towns burgesses. These last were held in very little estimation. The towns, in those days, were considered as mere collections of shopkeepers and tradesmen, who were looked down upon with much disdain by the haughty nobles. When the king called his Parliament together, and went in to address them, he entered the chamber of the House of Peers, and the commons were called in, to stand where they could, with their heads uncovered, to hear what he had to say. They were, in a thousand other ways treated as an inferior class; but still their counsels might, in some cases, be of service, and so they were summoned to attend, though they were to meet always, and deliberate, in a separate chamber.

As the king could call the Parliament together at any time and place he pleased, so he could suspend or terminate their sittings at any time. He could intermit the action of a Parliament for a time, sending the members to their homes until he should summon them again. This was called a prorogation. Or he could dissolve the body entirely at any time, and then require new elections for a new Parliament whenever he wished to avail himself of the wisdom or aid of such a body again.

Thus every thing went on the supposition that the real responsibility for the government was with the king. He was the monarch, and the real sovereignty vested in him. He called his nobles, and a delegation from the mass of the people, together, whenever he wanted their help, and not otherwise. He was responsible, not to them nor to the people at large, but to God only, for the acts of his administration. The duty of Parliament was limited to that of aiding him in carrying out his plans of government, and the people had nothing to do but to be obedient, submissive, and loyal. These were, at any rate, the ideas of the kings, and all the forms of the English Constitution, and the ancient phraseology in which the transactions are expressed, correspond with them.

We can not give a better proof and illustration of what has been said than by transcribing the substance of one of King James's messages to his Parliament, delivered about the close of his life, and, of course, at the period of which we are writing. It was as follows:

"My Lords spiritual and temporal, and you the Commons: In my last Parliament I made long discourses, especially to them of the Lower House. I did open the true thought of my heart. But I may say with our Savior, 'I have piped to you and ye have not danced; I have mourned to you and you have not lamented;' so all my sayings turned to me again without any success. And now, to tell the reasons of your calling and of this meeting, apply it to yourselves, and spend not the time in long speeches. Consider that the Parliament is a thing composed of a head and a body; the monarch and the two estates. It was, first, a monarchy; then, after, a Parliament. There are no Parliaments but in monarchical governments; for in Venice, the Netherlands, and other free governments there are none. The head is to call the body together; and for the clergy the bishops are chief, for shires their knights, for towns and cities their burgesses and citizens. These are to treat of difficult matters, and counsel their king with their best advice to make laws for the commonweal, and the Lower House is also to petition the king and acquaint him with their grievances, and not to meddle with the king's prerogative. They are to offer supply for his necessity, and he to distribute, in recompense thereof, justice and mercy. As in all Parliaments it is the king's  office to make good laws, whose fundamental cause is the people's ill manners, so at this time.

"For a supply to my necessities, I have reigned eighteen years, in which I have had peace, and I have received far less supply than hath been given to any king since the Conquest. The last queen had, one year with another, above a hundred thousand pounds per annum in subsidies; and in all my time I have had but four subsidies and six fifteens. It is ten years since I had a subsidy, in all which time I have been sparing to trouble you. I have turned myself as nearly to save expenses as I may. I have abated much in my household expenses, in my navies, and the charge of my munition."

After speaking about the affairs of the Palatinate, and calling upon the Parliament to furnish him with money to recover it for his son-in-law, he adds:

"Consider the trade for the making thereof better, and show me the reason why my mint, these eight or nine years, hath not gone. I confess I have been liberal in my grants; but if I be informed, I will amend all hurtful grievances. But whoever shall hasten after grievances, and desire to make himself popular, he hath the spirit of Satan. I was, in my first Parliament, a novice; and in my last, there was a kind of beasts, called undertakers, a dozen of whom undertook to govern the last Parliament, and they led me. I shall thank you  for your good office, and desire that the world may say well of our agreement."

This kind of harangue from the king to his Parliament seems not to have been considered, at the time, at all extraordinary; though, if such a message were to be sent, at the present day, to a body of legislators, whether by a king or a president, it would certainly produce a sensation.

Still, notwithstanding what we have said, the Parliament did contrive gradually to attain to the possession of some privileges and powers of its own. The English people have a great deal of independence and spirit, though Americans traveling there, with ideas carried from this country, are generally surprised at finding so little instead of so much. The knights and burgesses of the House of Commons, though they submitted patiently to the forms of degradation which the lords and kings imposed upon them, gradually got possession of certain powers which they claimed as their own, and which they showed a strong disposition to defend. They claimed the exclusive right to lay taxes of every kind. This had been the usage so long, that they had the same right to it that the king had to his crown. They had a right too, to petition the king for a redress of any grievances which they supposed the people were suffering under his reign. These, and certain other powers and immunities which they had possessed, were called their privileges. The king's rights were, on the other hand, called his prerogatives. The Parliament were always endeavoring to extend, define, and establish their privileges. The king was equally bent on maintaining his ancient prerogatives. King Charles's reign derives its chief interest from the long and insane contest which he waged with his Parliament on this question. The contest commenced at the king's accession to the throne, and lasted a quarter of a century; it ended with his losing all his prerogatives and his head.

This circumstance, that the main interest in King Charles's reign is derived from his contest with his Parliament, has made it necessary to explain somewhat fully, as we have done, the nature of that body. We have described it as it was in the days of the Stuarts; but, in order not to leave any wrong impression on the mind of the reader in regard to its present condition, we must add, that though all its external forms remain the same, the powers and functions of the body have greatly changed. The despised and contemned knights and burgesses, that were not worthy to have seats provided for them when the king was delivering them his speech, now rule the world; or, at least, come nearer to the possession of that dominion than any other power has ever done, in ancient or modern times. They decide who shall administer the government, and in what way. They make the laws, settle questions of trade and commerce, decide really on peace and war, and, in a word, hold the whole control, while the nominal sovereign takes rides in the royal parks, or holds drawing-rooms in the palaces, in empty and powerless parade. There is no question that the British House of Commons has exerted a far wider influence on the destinies of the human race than any other governmental power that has ever existed. It has gone steadily on for five, and perhaps for ten centuries, in the same direction and toward the same ends; and whatever revolutions may threaten other elements of European power, the British House of Commons, in some form or other, is as sure as any thing human can be of existence and power for five or ten centuries to come.

And yet it is one of the most remarkable of the strange phenomena of social life, that this body, standing at the head, as it really does, of all human power, submits patiently still to the marks and tokens of inferiority and degradation which accompanied its origin. It comes together when the sovereign sends writs, ordering  the several constituencies to choose their representatives, and the representatives to assemble. It comes humbly into the House of Peers to listen to the instructions of the sovereign at the opening of the session, the members in a standing position, and with heads uncovered. It debates these suggestions with forms and in a phraseology which imply that it is only considering what counsel  to give the king. It enacts nothing—it only recommends; and it holds its existence solely at the discretion of the great imaginary power which called it into being. These forms may, very probably, soon be changed for others more true to the facts; and the principle of election may be changed, so as to make the body represent more fully the general population of the empire; but the body itself will doubtless continue its action for a very long period to come.

According to the view of the subject which we have presented, it would of course follow, as the real sovereignty was mainly in the king's hands, that at the death of one monarch and the accession of another, the functions of all officers holding their places under the authority of the former would cease. This was actually the case. And it shows how entirely the Parliament was considered as the instrument and creation of the king, that on the death of a king, the Parliament immediately expired. The new monarch must make a new Parliament, if he wished one, to help him carry out his own plans. In the same manner almost all other offices expired. As it would be extremely inconvenient or impossible to appoint anew all the officers of such a realm on a sudden emergency, it is usual for the king to issue a decree renewing the appointments of the existing incumbents of these offices. Thus King Charles, two days after his father's death, made it his first act to renew the appointments of the members of his father's privy council, of the foreign embassadors, and of the judges of the courts, in order that the affairs of the empire might go on without interruption. He also issued summonses for calling a Parliament, and then made arrangements for the solemnization of his father's funeral.


St. Stephens.

The scene of these transactions was what was, in those days, called Westminster. Minster means cathedral. A cathedral church had been built, and an abbey founded, at a short distance west from London, near the mouth of the Thames. The church was called the West minster, and the abbey, Westminster Abbey. The town afterward took the same name. The street leading to the city of London from Westminster was called the Strand; it lay along the shore of the river. The gate by which the city of London was entered on this side was called Temple Bar, on account of a building just within the walls, at that point, which was called the Temple. In process of time, London expanded beyond its bounds and spread westward. The Strand became a magnificent street of shops and stores. Westminster was filled with palaces and houses of the nobility, the whole region being entirely covered with streets and edifices of the greatest magnificence and splendor. Westminster is now called the West End of London, though the jurisdiction of the city still ends at Temple Bar.

Parliament held its sessions in a building near the shore, called St. Stephen's. The king's palace, called St. James's Palace, was near. The old church became a place of sepulture for the English kings, where a long line of them now repose. The palace of King James's wife, Anne of Denmark, was on the bank of the river, some distance down the Strand. She called it, during her life, Denmark House, in honor of her native land. Its name is now Somerset House.

King James's funeral was attended with great pomp. The body was conveyed from Somerset House to its place of repose in the Abbey, and attended by a great procession. King Charles walked as chief mourner. Two earls attended him, one on each side, and the train of his robes was borne by twelve peers of the realm. The expenses of this funeral amounted to a sum equal to two hundred thousand dollars.

One thing more is to be stated before we can consider Charles as fairly entered upon his career, and that is the circumstance of his marriage. His father James, so soon as he found the negotiations with Spain must be finally abandoned, opened a new negotiation with the King of France for his daughter Henrietta Maria. After some delay, this arrangement was concluded upon. The treaty of marriage was made, and soon after the old king's death, Charles began to think of bringing home his bride.

He accordingly made out a commission for a nobleman, appointed for the purpose, to act in his name, in the performance of the ceremony at Paris. The pope's dispensation was obtained, Henrietta Maria, as well as the Infanta, being a Catholic. The ceremony was performed, as such ceremonies usually were in Paris, in the famous church of Notre Dame, where Charles's grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been married to a prince of France about seventy years before.

There was a great theater, or platform, erected in front of the altar in the church, which was thronged by the concourse of spectators who rushed to witness the ceremony. The beautiful princess was married by proxy to a man in another kingdom, whom she had never seen, or, at least, never known. It is not probable that she observed him at the time when he was, for one evening, in her presence, on his journey through Paris. The Duke of Buckingham had been sent over by Charles to conduct home his bride. Ships were waiting at Boulogne, a port nearly opposite to Dover to take her and her attendants on board. She bade farewell to the palaces of Paris, and set out on her journey.

The king, in the mean time, had gone to Dover, where he awaited her arrival. She landed at Dover on the day after sailing from Boulogne, sea-sick and sad. The king received his bride, and with their attendants they went by carriages to Canterbury, and, on the following day they entered London. Great preparations had been made for receiving the king and his consort in a suitable manner; but London was, at this time, in a state of great distress and fear on account of the plague which had broken out there. The disease had increased during the king's absence, and the alarm and anxiety were so great, that the rejoicings on account of the arrival of the queen were omitted. She journeyed quietly, therefore, to Westminster, and took up her abode at Somerset House, which had been the residence of her predecessor. They had fitted it up for her reception, providing for it, among other conveniences, a Roman Catholic chapel, where she could enjoy the services of religion in the forms to which she had been accustomed.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Expedition into Spain  |  Next: Buckingham
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.