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M. B. Synge

The Misrule of the Stuarts—Charles I and the Petition of Right (1625—1628)

The events of James's reign were, except in their remote consequences, dull and tedious. Charles's reign was the most dramatic and tragic in our whole history. From the first year of his reign events moved rapidly, until the nation was plunged into civil war and revolution. The causes were great, Crown and Church against Parliament and the Puritan religion; and the men on both sides were noble.

Charles himself, with all his faults, was a tragic figure. Born with the century, he was twenty-five when his father died. He was tall and athletic, good at tennis, and a fine horseman, a good shot, and a good sportsman. His face was dark, but handsome and dignified. His melancholy fate, and the genius of his portrait painter, Vandyke, have made his face more familiar to posterity than that of any English king. His manners were refined, and his bearing towards his friends was full of charm. He was much more serious than his father, more attentive to his business as a king, less wide in his ideas, but held more strongly to his purposes.

He purified the Court of the drunkards and revellers of his father's time; his personal friends were better men than James's boon companions. He loved beautiful things, and was almost the first collector of our national art treasures. He was religious, and his personal life was pure; he was a generous husband and father. He was not cruel, and although obstinate, he was no Henry VIII crushing a nation under his brutal will. He even believed himself to be the protector of the nation's welfare and the saviour of the national Church.

How was it, then, that with these qualities he was fated to be the one king in our history executed as the enemy of the people? The answer is to be found in two different circumstances. The first is one over which he had little control. A contest of some kind between king and parliament was unavoidable. Charles was, as it were, born into this great struggle. The second is that his abilities were not such as to make him a successful tyrant when matched against men like Pym, Eliot, Hampden, and Cromwell. And his untrustworthiness, when he got into difficulties, caused his enemies to think it unsafe to have further dealings with him.

Nearly every mistake that James made in dealing with the affairs of the nation, Charles repeated and carried much further. He quarrelled with his Parliaments, and he dismissed the first and second after each had been assembled for a few months only.

His third Parliament made itself famous by winning the first decisive victory in the long contest, for it secured the passing of the Petition of Right into an Act of Parliament. It is worthy of note that at this time Charles had no supporters at all in the House of Commons, except a few officials who represented the king's government. Wentworth, who was soon to become Charles's greatest minister, was the leader of the Commons when a Bill was proposed to make it unlawful in future to imprison men without trial, or to raise loans, or to billet soldiers on householders.

The billeting of soldiers was no light grievance in times when soldiers were often undisciplined ruffians, who had; received no pay, and who lived on a sort of free plunder. "In my county," said Sir Walter Earle, of Dorsetshire, "under colour of placing a soldier, there came twenty in a troop to take sheep. They disturb markets and fairs, rob men on the highway, insult women, breaking houses in the night, and enforcing men to ransom themselves, killing men that have assisted constables to keep the peace."

Charles wished Parliament to vote supplies and to rely on his promise "to maintain all his subjects in the just freedom of their persons, and safety of their estates." At this, the Commons determined to go further. Wentworth's bill had merely proposed a new law, saying nothing about the king's misdeeds. Sir Edward Coke, who had been Chief Justice of England; Sir John Eliot, the Cornish squire, once Vice-Admiral of Devon, and more than once imprisoned for his bold speeches; John Pym, a Wiltshire member, and the future leader of the House; John Selden, the most learned lawyer in the land; these now led the Commons. They drew up the famous Petition of Right, which was really a statement that the king had already broken the laws of the land by "(1) levying gifts, loans, benevolences, and taxes without the consent of Parliament; (2) imprisoning persons without showing cause; (3) billeting soldiers on householders against their wills; and (4) issuing unlawful commands for ruling by martial law."

In this petition the Lords agreed. The Parliament was so united that Charles saw he must give way or lose the grants—five subsidies, probably the most liberal grant ever voted up to that time.

The victory of Parliament had been gained. The news was shouted in the streets. The City churches rang their bells; bonfires were lighted, and men thought that strife was over. In reality it had only just begun. Before many days disputes arose again. Charles was angry, and prorogued Parliament until January, 1629. When Parliament assembled in January, they at once took up the tale of grievances, both in State and Church. In March the king ordered the Commons to adjourn, and a strange scene occurred.

Without the presence of the Speaker, sitting in the chair, no business could be transacted. The Speaker—Finch—rose to obey the king's order. The members wished to continue their discussion, if only for a few minutes. Two members held down the Speaker in the chair, whilst Eliot moved three resolutions: "(1) That whosoever shall bring in innovation in religion, or seek to extend Popery, (2) whosoever shall counsel the taking and levying of the subsidies of Tonnage and Poundage, not being granted by Parliament, (3) whosoever shall voluntarily pay the said subsidies of Tonnage and Poundage, shall be reputed a capital enemy to this Kingdom and Commonwealth, and a betrayer of the liberty of England."


John Hampden.

In the tumult that followed, Eliot threw his paper of resolutions into the fire, despairing of the House voting on them. The king's messenger was knocking at the door to take away the Speaker's mace. Holies remembered the resolutions, word for word, and put them himself to the vote, which was carried.

The king dissolved Parliament. He had made up his mind to call no more, and for eleven years no Parliament sat. Eliot, Holles, and Valentine were sent to the Tower, where Eliot died four years later.

Thus, the first session of Charles's Third Parliament had seen the granting of the Petition of Right. The second session ended in scenes of violence, and Parliament was dismissed by the king, with threats that "the vipers amongst them should meet with their reward."


The Duke of Buckingham.

Between the two sessions, two striking events had happened. Buckingham, the vain, incompetent, foolish favourite of the king, was assassinated. Wentworth, the strong-willed, ambitious statesman, had entered the service of the king.