Hello and welcome to Revolutions.
In 1625, Charles Stuart became King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland. Born in 1600, Charles was the second son and third child of King James VI of Scotland. The young Prince spent a sickly childhood overshadowed by his dashing older brother, Henry Frederick, and his vibrant older sister, Elizabeth, both of whom thrived in the public spotlight, a spotlight that got quite a bit brighter in 1603, when Queen Elizabeth died and James the 6th of Scotland became James I of England, uniting the British crowns for the first time in history.
Charles, meanwhile, grew to be a reserved and solitary young man, ill at ease with the loose commotion of his father’s court. But that was all right. As the second son, he could afford to fade into the background. But then, in late 1612, 18-year-old Prince Henry died, and all of a sudden, Charles became heir to the throne. Acutely aware of the responsibilities he now faced, he did his best to prepare for the monumental job that lay ahead. He read, he studied, he thought deeply. But he lacked the air of authority that came so naturally to his father and elder siblings. When James died in March 1625, 24-year-old Charles, ready or not, became the ruler of three kingdoms.
England was the largest and wealthiest of these kingdoms. Her 5 million souls dwarfed the million or so living in Scotland and 2 million living in Ireland. The English population was primarily rural and coastal, and they spent their days farming, shepherding, fishing and mining. The economy was mostly insular, with the primary export being undyed wool, and that export mostly headed straight to Dutch merchants on the other side of the channel. There were small regional cities scattered across England, Norwich in the East, York in the north, and Bristol in the west. But they all held barely 10,000 people. When you talked about the city, you meant the city of London. When Charles ascended to the throne, London held somewhere north of 300,000 people. It was the political capital, the conduit for all trade and the cultural heart of England up to the north.
Scotland, the ancestral home of the Stuarts, was divided by the classic line between the Highland North and the Lowland South, which served not only as the major geographic divide, but also the major cultural, linguistic, political and religious divide. In rough terms, the Lowlanders were more Anglo-centric settled and critically, in terms of what’s about to happen, pretty radically Protestant. The Highlanders, Meanwhile, were fiercely independent, spoke Gaelic, and remained Catholic. The largest city in Scotland was the capital, Edinburgh, which in the mid 1600s was about the same size as York, Norwich, and Bristol. Scotland had long been dominated by her neighbor to the south, but it is important to note that at this point, even with King James VI of Scotland becoming King James I of England, we are still dealing with two separate countries, not a single unified polity.
Ireland, meanwhile, was not an equal monarchy to England the way that Scotland was. It was instead a dependency claimed by England since the 1540s. By the time of Charles’s ascension, Ireland was composed of three main groups the old Irish (Celtic, Gaelic and Catholic), the old English, descendants of Anglo-Norman settlers who had come over during the Middle Ages and who formed the ruling aristocracy, and for the most part remained Catholic after the Reformation. And then finally, there was the new English settlers who had come over on plantation schemes in the last century. They were uniformly Protestant and represented a threat both to the old English and the old Irish. The English, especially the new English, took the old Irish as some weird race of sub-humans, and the goal of Royal administrators was to civilize them, that is, turn them into Protestants without it costing the exchequer too much money, because the English exchequer, as we’re about to see, is kind of a mess.
One of the first things Charles did after ascending to the throne was to call a Parliament. Not only was he just getting started with his own reign, but war with Catholic Spain was brewing, and that meant that the new King needed to get his financial house in order. And calling a Parliament was the only way to get his financial house in order. The institution of Parliament had grown out of medieval great councils, meetings of the leading nobles and clergymen, designed to make sure everyone was on the same page when it came to Royal policies. And by policies, I, of course, mean taxation. These great councils morphed into proto parliaments round about the Magna Carta and were basically called whenever the King needed money.
By the 1300, Parliament was divided into its familiar two branches the Upper House of Lords, composed of the peers and bishops, an exclusive little club of 120 or so during the Stuart era, and the Lower House of Commons, composed of the Knights, lesser Gentry and professional classes, a less exclusive club of 400 or so members. Now it is critical to remember that Parliament, even with the Commons, was by no means a body that represented the people. Franchise was restricted membership even more so. But it did represent the only thing that was important for it to represent at the time. Namely, these were the guys with the money, and it was important to make them feel like they were a part of the process.
Initially, getting the stamp of approval from the men who controlled the wealth of the nation was a savvy political and economic expedient. But by the time Charles took office, parliamentary approval of new taxes was more than just an expedient. It was settled law that Parliament must approve new taxes or they were illegal. As we will see, the kind of litigious Englishman who milled around Westminster took this right very, very seriously. So when the King or Queen needed money for something, war being that most typical of some things, they would call a Parliament and ask it to approve a subsidy or two. These subsidies took the form of a wealth tax, and after a little bit of wrangling, the monarch usually got what they asked for. But unfortunately for the Stuarts, one of the ways Queen Elizabeth had courted favor was by keeping regular taxes ridiculously low and the subsidy requests to a minimum. It’s not that she was a big spender, quite the opposite. But unfortunately, that unwillingness to spend was yet another problem for the Stuarts. King James inherited a Kingdom with minimal revenue streams, lots of debt and a boatload of projects that needed funding. So the early Stuart period is plagued with financial difficulties because everyone had been conditioned by the Tudors to expect tax payments that were hilariously out of date. The nobility, for example, was being assessed at rates a century old that took no account of the 600% inflation over the same period. So when the Stuarts started trying to bring a little sanity to the system, there was this terrible gap between what was politically possible and what was economically necessary, by which I mean that when Parliament thought that it was being generous, its subsidies still weren’t even coming close to meeting the financial needs of the state.
Now, it was customary that in the first Parliament of a new reign, the King would be voted something called tonnage and poundage for life. Simply put, tonnage and poundage was a collection of import/export duties that the King would use to finance the routine organs of government. Granting it for life meant that no matter what, the King would have an independent financial base from which to run his administration. It was traditional. It was expected. It was a respectful little tip of the cap.
The first Parliament of Charles’s reign, however, got together in May 1625 and decided to vote him tonnage and poundage for one year only. The historical consensus appears to be that this unprecedented stinginess was simply a maneuver to get the young King to agree to some much needed reforms. But Charles took it as a slap in the face. So it’s fair to say that relations between Charles and his parliaments got off on the wrong foot right away. Parliament followed up on this insult to Charles’s Royal dignity with a second one when they started openly attacking George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham.
Ok, stay with me. Buckingham had been rapidly elevated up the peerage after the charismatic young man had caught the eye of King James the decade before he was created Duke of Buckingham in 1623, right about the time he was jumping ship from the deteriorating old King James to the rising young Prince Charles. The bond between Duke and Prince had been sealed during an impulsive and ill-fated trip to woo the Infanta of Spain in 1623. The reckless wooing of the Catholic Princess had failed spectacularly to the great rejoicing of Protestant England, but it had cemented Buckingham as one of the few men Charles called friend. Handsome and self assured, Buckingham provided a crutch for Charles to lean on as he made the transition from Prince to King. But Buckingham’s self regard, It was not only infuriating to his rivals, it was usually a delusion. He had managed to convince both himself and the Stuarts that he was a wizard of finance, diplomacy, and war. But everyone else thought that he was a corrupt blunderer who was going to bring the Kingdom to ruin. So the Parliament of 1625 started making noise that they intended to impeach Buckingham and get him the hell away from the levers of power. But Charles had very few men he called friend and none that he trusted more than Buckingham. But tonnage and poundage vote had put him on edge. The attacks on Buckingham pushed him over, and in August 1625, he dissolved Parliament, as was absolutely his legal right.
Dissolving Parliament may have been emotionally satisfying, but it did nothing to set the Royal finances in order. So in 1626, Charles called for a new Parliament, but this time he made sure that the most outspoken MPs from the last session were appointed sheriffs of their various counties so that they were ineligible to sit again. But the maneuver had little effect, and the new Parliament picked up right where the last one had left off. They voted the King for subsidies, but kept the bill locked in committee while they renewed their complaints against Buckingham. The Parliament of 1626 then started harping on another point near and dear to everyone’s heart. Religion.
Okay, so let’s talk about religion. Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation about 100 years before Charles became King. The Reformation hit England a few years later when Henry VIII decided that he wanted to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. In 1534, the Church of England, with the King as its supreme head, was formally separated from the Catholic Church. After Henry died, there was a tug of war between Protestants and Catholics during the reigns of Edward VI, then Mary I. When Elizabeth became Queen, the Protestants established permanent ascendancy, but not without compromise. In 1559, the so-called Elizabethan Settlement established the Church of England’s independence from Rome and laid out its formal structure. But because the settlement was just that, a settlement, the Church of England wound up maintaining a semi-catholic form with 26 bishops and two Archbishops. The real key to the settlement, however, was the gap between dogma and discipline. Elizabeth wanted religious peace, and so she was never much interested in pursuing rigid uniformity. Within reason, parishes could decide for themselves what form they wanted their worship to take. Meanwhile, up in Scotland, the Reformation followed a different course. In England, everything had been funneled through the Crown. The King was the supreme governor. The bishops and clergy were used to reinforce the authority of the monarchy and so on. But the Scottish Reformation had been opposed by the Catholic monarchy, so it was not imposed from the inside out, but rather from the outside in. Kings and bishops were not defenders of the Reformation, but rather its arch enemies. After Mary, Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate, her infant son, James, Charles’s father, was crowned King. But during his minority reign, the Protestant nobles who had overthrown Mary pursued Reformation to the hilt, establishing what became known as Presbyterianism, which massively decentralized the church’s structure, put power in the hands of lay elders, and abolished episcopacy that is, the bishops.
When James emerged from his minority in the 1580s, he moved to reinstate the bishops, a move usually seen as an attempt to align the Scottish Reform Church with the Church of England in anticipation of Elizabeth’s call to be her heir, which finally came on her deathbed in 1603. Back in England, the combination of loose discipline and the example of the Scottish Church allowed for the growth of a Godly movement that contemporaries derisively labeled Puritanism.
The Puritans, they did not call themselves that, were not united of mind or purpose, but they did hold some general principles in common. They were mostly Calvinists and believed that the Reformation was thus far a deed half done. They were rigid austere, convinced that only a select community would find Salvation, and believed in a literal reading of the Scriptures. It was a movement that spread to all socioeconomic classes, but its emphasis on private Bible study obviously meant that literacy was generally a prerequisite. The Puritans abhorred the loose morality and corruption of the Episcopal hierarchy, with its lazy ministers and corrupt bishops growing fat on forced tides from their ill served parishioners. They were never aiming to overthrow the Church of England or set up a rival Church. Such would have been unthinkable in the 17th century, when it was taken as axiomatic that a Kingdom could only function with one Church. They simply wanted to see the Reformation through to its logical conclusion.
But the issue facing the Parliament of 1626 was not just a rivalry between Puritans and moderate Anglicans, another word that didn’t exist yet. It was between Puritans and Armenians. Okay, so what the hell is an Armenian? Well, they took their name from a Dutch theologian who went by the Latinized name Arminius. Unlike the Puritans, who looked at the Reformation and thought, hey, this doesn’t go far enough. Armenians looked at the Reformation and thought, well, how do we pull back from this? They were emphatically Protestant, but danced as close to the edge of Roman Catholicism as you could get without falling in. They loved the fancy ceremonies. They rejected Calvin’s rigid theories of predestination. There were other differences, but what they added up to was a doctrine that to a Puritan, basically rejected everything that they thought distinguished them from the evil Roman Catholics in the first place.
Unfortunately for the Puritans, Charles seemed inclined to favor an Armenian outlook, which developed due to his close association with Bishop William Laud. William Laud? He is important. Laud was an angry little man, literally. He was short and had a raging temper, who seemed to stand for everything the Puritans hated. Shortly before Charles became King, Laud had become Buckingham’s personal chaplain, and through Buckingham, had caught the future King’s ear. It turned out that he and the King saw eye to eye on the kind of ceremonial, formalities, and strong institutional hierarchies that the Puritans despised as creeping popery. Politically, Laud was a staunch defender of the King’s prerogatives and happily lectured both of Charles’s first two parliaments that their sole duty was to vote the King whatever money he asked for and then go home. Laud was deeply unpopular, but he wasn’t yet the most despised man in the Kingdom. That title was still reserved for Buckingham, whom Parliament once again tried to impeach, this time harping on the embarrassingly inept assault he had just led on the Spanish Port of Cadiz, which turned out to be less an assault and more of a his men getting drunk and then refusing to fight.
So in June 1626, Charles dissolved his second Parliament in a row. But by dissolving Parliament, Charles abandoned the four subsidies that had been buried in committee, and he had still not been granted tonnage and poundage. Buckingham, brilliant diplomacist that he was, somehow then managed to get England into a war with France to go along with its war against Spain, a move that would have been catastrophic had not France and Spain both been too distracted with real problems to worry about the English. But whatever the attitude of France and Spain, England was taking these wars seriously. Except, oh, yeah, Charles was operating without any money to pay for any of it. So first he just started collecting tonnage and poundage without any official parliamentary grant. This ruffled some feathers, but most let it pass, since they had been paying tonnage and poundage to their Kings and Queens forever.
But then Charles also started issuing what have become known as forced loans, which are exactly what they sound like. He, or most likely Buckingham, came up with a number they thought some individual peer or county ought to produce to keep the Crown solvent, and then they simply demanded it. This, as you can imagine, did more than ruffle a few feathers, and the irritation was compounded by Buckingham taking the money, using it to botch a naval assault in support of French Protestants besieged at La Rochelle and losing half his men. But even still, given the circumstances, most people complied and paid what the Crown said they owed. But if you resisted, citing any number of precedents in common law, that what the King was doing was illegal. Charles responded by locking up those who refused to pay.
The issue of forced loans came to a head the next year when five Knights, imprisoned for their refusal to pay, sued for a writ of habeas corpus. The subsequent case, creatively dubbed the Five Knights Case, wound up hinging not on the right of the King to issue forced loans, but on his right to imprison by his own special command. The judges found that Charles did indeed have wide discretion to imprison, but it was a pyrrhic victory for the King. He got his extra parliamentary revenue and he could lock up people as he saw fit, but his subjects were rapidly losing faith in him as a King they could trust.
By 1628 it was clear that Parliament and the King were going to have to come to some sort of understanding. So Charles agreed to call another session and keep it sitting until it could complete its business, as long as they refrained from attacking Buckingham. The disgruntled MPs who assembled for Charles’s third Parliament did indeed refrain from attacking Buckingham, but they let fly on everything else that had been bugging them. Forced loans, forced billing, arbitrary imprisonment, the Five Knights in particular, martial law in general. A back and forth with Charles over his conduct resulted in Parliament passing the famous Petition of Right. In form, the Petition of Right was a declaration not of new rights Parliament was inventing, but of rights Englishmen already enjoyed, specifically that nonparliamentary taxation was illegal. Due process of law must always be observed, habeas corpus must always be granted, and soldiers could not be billeted without consent. Charles accepted the Petition of Right with the provision that he would observe it within the bounds of settled law. Settled law that, among other things, established that there were Royal loopholes for everything. Parliament sighed and voted the King five subsidies.
For the first time since Charles had become King, a session of Parliament was seen through to its conclusion. Charles was evidently satisfied enough by their conduct that he invited them back for a second session after the new year. In the meantime, however, one of the major sources of tension between King and Parliament was removed from the picture.
In August 1628, the Duke of Buckingham was stabbed to death by a disgruntled officer, angry at being passed over for promotion. This, you would think, would mark the dawning of a new era of political peace. The King had a parliamentary approved revenue stream. The Petition of Right had been accepted. The hated Buckingham was dead. But it was not to be.
The next session of Parliament wound up being the last Charles would call for eleven years, the last he would have ever called if he had had his way, but, well, you probably shouldn’t have tried to impose the Book of Common Prayer on the Scots. Instead of reconciliation, the assassination of Buckingham embittered Charles, while the emboldened MPs decided to press for further reforms. They decided to raise the old issue of tonnage and poundage, which they had still not officially granted and denounced the imprisonment of merchants who refused to pay as was their right. They also got back on the horse about encroaching Armenianism and started for the first time making links between Charles’s arbitrary taxes and his support for crypto-catholics in the Church of England. Weary of the carping MPs, Charles decided to once again dissolve Parliament. But a group of agitated members decided, with Charles once again pulling the plug early, it was time for a demonstration. When the last session met, the speaker took his place and was about to rise to formally dissolve the body when he found himself literally held down in his chair until the house was able to officially register its disapproval of Charles’s illegal collection of tonnage and poundage and the whole Armenian establishment that seemed to be destroying the Church of England. Charles was not amused. And when the speaker was finally allowed to dissolve Parliament, the hostile MPs were locked up and then left to rot.
Thus began the personal rule of King Charles I.
Next week, we will delve into the era of personal rule and the running battle over the means of Royal financing and the fate of the Church of England. We will also start rolling out some of the key figures who will dominate the coming showdown between King and Parliament: John Pym, John Hampdem, the Earls Bedford and Warwick, and, of course, Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford.
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