Hello and welcome to Revolutions.
If there is a moment when we can reasonably talk about Parliament fully united in opposition to the King, November 1640 is that moment. Except for a few die-hard royalists, the members who showed up for the opening session of the Long Parliament, though it was obviously not called that yet, were ready for a reckoning with the King. That unity, of course, could not withstand the enormous pressures that were about to force everyone to take sides in the Civil War. But in November 1640, the 450-odd MPs who came together in Westminster were fairly united in purpose and fairly represented the collective will of the voters, the third of adult males that could vote anyway.
As had been the case in the Short Parliament, the first order of business for the Long Parliament was venting frustrations about the last eleven years, most especially about religious innovation and unconstitutional taxation. It is actually quite a debate among modern historians which of these two agitated the populace more. But whichever it was, in the opening days of the Long Parliament, the two issues were linked by a central theme: The King had been led astray by evil counselors, specifically Archbishop William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. The time had come for them to go.
After being summoned back to England by King Charles, Strafford was impeached by Parliament on November 11. Two weeks later, he was formally charged with traitorously endeavoring to subvert the fundamental laws and government of the realms of England and Ireland, and instead thereof, to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government against law. Archbishop Laud was impeached on December 18 for subverting true religion, assuming tyrannical powers, and causing the war with the Scots.
With those Scots occupying the north, there was nothing Charles could do to prevent these bold attacks on his most trusted counselors. All he could hope for is that they would find a way to beat the rap. Now, as I just mentioned, the early sessions of the Long Parliament were absorbed in a lot of negativity, accusing Royal counselors of treason, declaring Ship Money unlawful, that sort of thing. But there was a positive agenda buried in the mix that really started to take form once all the preliminary complaining was out of the way. For the dissident Puritans, Bedford, Warwick, Saye and Sele and the Lords and guys like John Pym and Oliver St. John in the Commons, the positive agenda was to force Charles to cede power to them. And to this end, they had two central demands. First, Parliament must meet at regular intervals whether the King called for them or not. And second, Parliament was going to have veto power over who the King selected as Royal Counselors. Both carved deeply into Charles prerogative powers, and there was no way he was just going to give them what they wanted. But that’s where things like the impeachment of Strafford came in. It was all about leverage.
Trapped between an English Parliament he couldn’t control and a Scottish army he couldn’t beat, King Charles was forced to start doing the one thing he appears to have hated doing more than just about anything else, and that is giving in to other people’s demands. In February 1641, he accepted the Triennial Bill, which was an enormous constitutional concession. The bill stated that if three years passed without the King calling a Parliament, elections would just be held anyway. In return for this enormous concession, the leaders in Parliament promised to vote Charles four subsidies, bury radical Presbyterian Church reforms that were starting to gain traction, and consider leniency for the Earl of Strafford. John Pym, who had by now established himself as an effective parliamentary leader, delivered on the first two promises in the Commons. But the third promise, leniency for Strafford, exposed a split among the Puritan Lords. The moderate faction was led by the Earl of Bedford, and they were absolutely willing to spare Strafford’s life if Charles gave in to their demands. For them, the looming impeachment trial was simply a means to an end. But a harder line faction, led by the Earl of Warwick, were adamant that Strafford must die. So why must Strafford die?
In The Noble Revolt, John Adamson’s insanely detailed history of the 18 months between the closing of the short Parliament in May 1640 and the evacuation of Charles from London in January 1642, he floats a theory that the drive to kill Strafford was about something I hinted at last week. The Puritan Lords had been in continuous contact with the Scottish Covenanters throughout the Bishops Wars, and there is good evidence that they had invited the Scots to invade, which was, you know, treason. Warwick and his faction believed that Strafford knew all about it, was gathering evidence to prove it, and as soon as the evidence was in hand, he was going to take the heads off of every last one of them. So for Warwick and his group, killing Strafford was not just about leverage, it was about self preservation.
The trial of the Earl of Strafford was the climax of the first phase of the Long Parliament. It was also a complete joke. When Stafford was finally presented with the 28 articles of impeachment against him in February 1641, he breathed a sigh of relief because it was obvious that his enemies in Parliament had nothing on him. It was just a bunch of petty complaints cobbled together that were somehow supposed to add up to treason. So rather than approaching his defense with a sense of foreboding, Strafford set to work with relish. He was going to slaughter his accusers in court. And there’s absolutely no question that when his trial started, that’s exactly what happened.
The procedure for impeachment was that the House of Commons would prosecute the defendant and the House of Lords would act as judges. Pym and his colleagues ensured that the trial was turned into as huge a spectacle as possible, and the proceedings were thrown open to the public and risers were set up to accommodate as large an audience as possible. I’ve posted a contemporary engraving of the trial at revolutionspodcast.com to give you a sense of what this all looked like. The idea was to demonstrate to as many people as possible that Strafford was evil and through him prove that the whole reign of King Charles up to this point had been one terrible injustice after another. But as the prosecution got started, it became clear that their case was, well, it wasn’t clear what their case was. Their accusations were met at every turn by the quick-witted Strafford, who appeared to have total mastery over the facts, despite the fact that he wasn’t even working from notes.
Pretty soon, the audience invited to bear witness to Strafford’s guilt was eating out of his hands. The Lords, meanwhile, started shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Why had this impeachment been called again? Then came the supposed Coup de Grâce. As I mentioned last week, at the fateful May 5th meeting of the King’s Privy Council, the meeting where it was decided to bust up the short Parliament. Strafford had allegedly said to the King: “You have an army in Ireland that you may employ here to reduce this Kingdom”. It was obvious from the context that Strafford was talking about using the Irish forces he had raised against the Scots, because that’s what the Privy Council had been discussing at the time. But the prosecution launched into an utterly contrived attempt to convince everyone that Strafford was talking about this Kingdom. England! That Strafford had advised the King to use a foreign army against his own people. Therefore, he was guilty of treason. Case closed. But the only evidence for this accusation was the memory of Sir Henry Vane. And as soon as he was put on the stand, he started backpedaling. Then no other Privy Counselor called to testify could recall Strafford ever suggesting the Irish Army be deployed against English subjects.
According to accepted jurisprudence, proving treason required at least two witnesses. The prosecution only had one, and not a very good one at that. The defense, meanwhile, had a half dozen witnesses who said he never said it. And with that, the case against Strafford disintegrated. The King was jubilant. It was only a matter of time now before an acquittal came through. But then things took an ugly turn. As I mentioned, Strafford’s enemies in Parliament feared reprisals if Strafford was let off. So they changed tactics in mid stream and presented to the Commons a Bill of Attainder. A Bill of Attainder is basically one of the scariest things you’ve probably never heard of. It is a legislature declaring you guilty of some crime by a straight majority vote. No rules of evidence, no beyond a reasonable doubt. Just, we took a vote and find you guilty. Bills of Attainder are so scary that the US Constitution explicitly forbids them in not one but two separate places. But with the legal prosecution of Strafford in shambles, a Bill of Attainder was introduced into the Commons to simply declare him guilty of treason.
But at this point, it still kind of looks like the Bill of Attainder was just a way to make sure that the pressure on Charles didn’t let up. But in early May 1641, two things happened that sealed Strafford’s fate. The first was a bungled attempt by Charles to rescue Stafford from the Tower of London, where he was being held for the duration of his trial. And before you ask, the answer is no. The King did not have the authority to just tell the guards to stand down and let Strafford out. It was way more complicated than that. Anyway, the half-baked rescue plot came to nothing, but it alienated moderate members of the Commons, just as they were starting to think that maybe the hardcore anti-Strafford types were getting out of hand.
The second thing that happened was on May 9, the Earl of Bedford suddenly died. He had been the great weight, keeping the extremists in check and keeping the King at the negotiating table. It looks like he was on the verge of trading Strafford’s life in exchange for real power within the Privy Council for him and his allies. But his death let Warwick and his faction, who did not trust the King, like Bedford, did, move forward unimpeded. The Bill of Attainder was passed, and all that was left was for Charles to sign the death warrant.
Until the very end, Charles remained adamant that whatever the outcome, he was going to pardon his loyal adviser. But after the revelation of the Army Plot, which is what we call the attempt to break Strafford out of jail, the mobs of London turned on the King and started demanding Strafford’s head. Almost certainly these mobs were organized by Warwick and his allies, but Charles was now generally fearful for the safety of his family in the borderline riotous capital. So he gave in and signed the execution order. On May 12, the Earl of Strafford was executed on Tower Hill. Charles never forgave himself and came to believe that the horror of the coming civil wars was divine retribution for Strafford’s death.
In the aftermath of the execution, the relationship between King and Parliament was so strained that Charles decided to suddenly change political trajectory. Thus far, the King had been trying to get Parliament to align with him against the Scots. But what happened was that Parliament had aligned itself with the Scots against the King. So, beyond furious with the parliamentary leadership, Charles turned on a dime in the summer of 1641 and announced that he was headed to Scotland. If he couldn’t get Parliament to help him defeat the Scots, then maybe he could get the Scots to help him defeat Parliament. The official reason for the trip was to finalize the details of the Treaty of London signed between the King and Covenanters in August. Charles, in pursuit of his new political strategy, had hastily given into most of the Scottish demands, paving the way for their immediate withdrawal from English soil. But it is doubtful Charles planned to bind himself to the terms of the treaty because Charles, like always, was convinced he was about to get the upper hand on everyone. And once he had the upper hand, he could do whatever he liked.
So he and his Royal entourage headed north to get the upper hand in August 1641, which, again, like always, just isn’t going to happen. The key to Charles’s strategy in Scotland was the Earl of Argyle. Specifically, detaching him from the Covenanter cause. Argyle was a young man, still in his early thirties, but he was by far the largest landowner in Scotland and the leader of the powerful Clan Campbell. He had aligned himself with Covenanters, but according to the King’s sources, he was not a true believer. So breaking Argyle away would deprive the Covenanters of a powerful ally and simultaneously give the King a native force strong enough to protect his interests in Scotland. So Charles launched a charm offensive, promoted Argyle to Marquis, and started hinting that more was on the way if Argyle abandoned the Covenanters.
But then the damnedest thing happened. Something that has become known as simply The Incident. The Incident was the attempted kidnapping of Argyle by Royalist Scotsman. That’s right! Royalists are about to try to kidnap Argyle, and not just Argyle, but also the Marquis of Hamilton, the King’s point man in Scotland. So what? Behind the plot, we find the Marquis of Montrose, who popped up briefly last time as the Covenanter leader who retook Aberdeen. Since the Bishops Wars, Montrose had moved decisively, if secretly, over to Charles. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the one we should note for the moment is that he and Argyle were bitter rivals, and Argyle had emerged as a leader of the Covenanters. So Montrose switched sides. The kidnapping plot was supposed to be about Montrose, exposing a secret alliance between Argyle and Hamilton against the King. But the plot was betrayed just as it was about to be carried out. So Argyle and Hamilton got away. Unfortunately for Charles, this incident, The Incident destroyed his credibility with the Scots. But before you feel too bad for Charles, just know that Montrose was working closely with one of the King’s most trusted secretaries. So the idea that Charles did know something was up is pretty far fetched. This means that the King had been busy pursuing two contradictory strategies in Scotland. One made of honey, the other vinegar. And when the one made of vinegar was exposed, the one made of honey was ruined.
Charles left Scotland in November 1641, having achieved nothing. Well, he did achieve one thing. He ensured that the most powerful man in Scotland remained his enemy. In his foundational six volume series on the English Civil Wars, S. R. Gardner writes that the period of United Parliament that I mentioned at the top of this show pretty much ended around the time Charles went to Scotland, and that when Parliament returned from its recess in the autumn of 1641, half the Commons was ready to resume their attacks on the King, while the other half thought the work was done and it was time for reapproachment. Gardner notes that when the Restoration settlement comes along in 1660, it will be based on the work the Long Parliament had accomplished up to about August 1641. Everything that came after will wind up swept away and only regained, if regained at all, by later generations.
The fight over the Grand Remonstrance demonstrates this breakdown of parliamentary unity. The Grand Remonstrance was to be a tally of every single grievance anyone had ever had against Charles. John Pym and his allies planned to write it up and then use it as the basis for extracting further concessions from the King. It was supposed to be introduced to the Commons on October 30, but that same day news came that changed everything. News that temporarily shelved debate over the remonstrance and swerved everyone’s attention, including our own, over to Ireland because on October 23, a rebellion had erupted in Ireland. If the bishops wars were the big picture trigger for the English civil wars, given that they forced Charles to recall Parliament and all, the Irish rebellion is the more direct trigger because it was the question about what to do with Ireland that finally broke the government in half.
The rebellion was initially launched by old Irish landowners centered around the province of Ulster. Ulster had a history of being pretty staunchly anti-English, and so had become a major target of Protestant colonization projects organized by, for example, the late Earl of Strafford. With the King bogged down in conflict with both the Scots and his own Parliament, old Irish leaders hatched a plot to simultaneously seize both Dublin and major northern forts, hopefully securing everything before the English knew what hit them. Then the King and English Parliament would really be in a bind and hopefully maybe decide that Ireland wasn’t worth the trouble. But apparently, like all secret plots these days, the planned rebellion was exposed literally the night before it was set to launch, and the English leaders had just enough time to prepare so Dublin held out. For the rest of the year stories trickled over from Ireland, carried mostly by English refugees of the atrocities committed by Irish rebels up to and including the murder of babies, which, yes, that didn’t actually happen. But given English prejudice against Catholics in general and the Irish in particular, everyone was ready to believe the worst. So something had to be done. Reinforcements had to be sent. But with the King and Parliament locked in a power struggle, really important questions were now being opened up that had no real answer. On whose authority would these troops be raised? And who would pay them? And who would they answer to? And who would appoint the officers? And what if the King and Parliament both started raising separate armies and claiming the other side’s army is illegitimate? These are the kind of questions that lead directly to civil war.
Compounding the animosity between King and Parliament, reports started coming over that the Irish rebels were claiming to be acting on the King’s instructions. A lot of the rebels were drawn from the idle ranks of the army Strafford had built to go fight in Scotland. And so, as ready as the parliamentary leadership was to believe tales of Irish butchery, they were also ready to believe that Charles was somehow behind it, that he was finally coming clean about his closet popery and launching the final assault on Protestantism in Britain.
So as the Irish rebellion heated up, so too did parliamentary anger at Charles. Though it is critical to note that as the temperature of Parliament rose, the heat was coming from fewer and fewer sources. Instead of closing ranks with the King to put down the revolt in Ireland, those fewer and fewer sources, led by John Pym, returned instead to the Grand Remonstrance. This turning back to the cataloging of grievances struck more moderate and increasingly royalist members of the Commons as pointless, off-topic, and not a little bit dangerous, given what’s going on in Ireland. But Pym and his increasingly parliamentary allies were looking to keep Charles’s feet to the fire.
Now, a remonstrance is technically a private letter from Parliament to the King. But Pym had much grander plans for the document. He wanted it printed and circulated and stirring up trouble. He didn’t want the public to forget why Charles was so bad just as he and his allies were getting ready for the next move: seizing control of the armed forces. The remonstrance was narrowly passed on November 23. But showing the now sharp divide in the Commons, the vote to publish the document went against Pym. This was a setback, as publishing the remonstrance was kind of the point of the whole exercise. But not to worry. A few careful leaks and it was off to the underground presses, which further offended moderates who started to think that this was all getting out of hand. And look, at the end of the day, we owe our loyalty to the King, even if we don’t like him. And now you’re not even playing by your own rules anymore.
But Pym and his circle quickly regained their balance when Charles once again shot himself in the foot. On January 4, 1642, King Charles paid an extremely ill advised visit to the House of Commons. The King was fed up and decided that if he couldn’t dissolve Parliament, his best play would be to just lock up the opposition leaders. So he ordered the arrest of five MPs and one peer. The five members were John Pym, of course, John Hampdem, of course, because of the Ship Money business. But then there were also the three other guys: Arthur Hazelrigg, Denzel Halls, and William Strode. The latter two had been among those who had held the speaker down at the end of the last Parliament before personal rule, leading some historians to argue that Charles was maybe not super plugged in to what was going on in Parliament and was just falling back on names he recognized. The one peer was Lord Mandeville again, an opponent of the King, but hardly the ringleader.
Locking up MPs is a pretty provocative business. And at first, the arrest order was resisted. So Charles decided to march into the Commons and arrest the members personally. Never mind that no English King had ever set foot in the House of Commons. Ever. Let alone to drag members out by the ear. Unfortunately for Charles, the secret plan to arrest the five members, I don’t even know why people try to keep plans secret these days, was revealed to Pym the night before. So when the King, backed by 400 armed soldiers, dramatically burst into the Chamber to arrest them, they were not there. Charles demanded they come forward. Cue chirping crickets. Charles demanded the speaker tell him where they had gone whereupon the speaker famously replied: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here”.
So now the King is just standing there in a room he really shouldn’t be standing in trying to do something he really shouldn’t be doing. And then he had to leave empty handed, his power visibly rejected. On January 10, 1642, an embittered King, Charles, once again afraid that he and his family were about to be engulfed by the parliamentary directed mobs of London, incensed over the attempt on the five members, left the city for Hampton Court. Three days later, they moved on to the more defensible Windsor Castle.
Now is the point where I mentioned that Charles will not return to his capital until 1649. And only then to stand trial for treason.
Next week, we will take the final plunge into civil war. With the King unwilling to make any further concessions to a parliamentary faction that was itself unwilling to back down, armed conflict started to seem like the only solution. Neither side wanted it. Neither side expected it to actually happen because both sides thought the other side was going to blink. But then nobody blinked. And everyone got sucked in to the first English Civil War.
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