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Romans in Britain
Anglo-Saxons & Vikings
Lancaster and York
Henry VII and Henry VIII
Children of Henry VIII
Charles I and Charles II
     James VI and I
     Stuart rule in England
     Colonial expansion
     Stuarts and religion
     Stuarts and parliament
     James I and taxation
     Charles I and taxation
     The Bishops' Wars
     The Long Parliament
     A king in the commons

Civil War, Commonwealth
Restoration, Revolution

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James VI and I: 1603

Unlike his mother, James is a Protestant. He is also undeniably the next in line of succession to Elizabeth's throne. Elizabeth is the last surviving descendant of Henry VIII, the only adult son of Henry VII. With her death the succession moves to the line of Henry VII's eldest daughter Margaret - married in 1503 to James IV of Scotland.

Margaret's two senior grandchildren are the first cousins Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Darnley, the parents of James VI. His claim is clear. But Elizabeth refuses to acknowledge him as her successor, until finally indicating this intention on her deathbed.


No doubt Elizabeth reasons that an element of uncertainty will keep her Scottish cousin (almost exactly the same age as her last favourite, Essex) on his best behaviour. She is proved right.

James is a skilful politician. During the last two years of Elizabeth's reign he is in secret correspondence with Robert Cecil, by now the queen's chief minister. At the same time James avoids any actions which might alarm the Roman Catholics in England and prompt a rebellion. As a result his succession in 1603 goes as smoothly as if he were Elizabeth's own son, rather than the king of a country where hostility to England has been the norm. James VI of Scotland now gains a new title as James I of England.


Stuart rule in England: 1603-1642

Stuart rule in England can be characterized by three main themes, each of them evident early in the reign of James I. One is the relationship with parliament; here James begins so badly that within a year the commons feel compelled to issue a document, known as the Apology, asserting their rights. Another is the continuing hostility between Christian sects. Again the early omens are unpromising. James profoundly offends the Puritans at Hampton Court in 1604, and is nearly blown up by the Catholics in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

The third theme is the beginning of the British empire. In this area the new Stuart regime can claim greater success.


Virginia: 1607-1644

In 1606 James I supports new English efforts (the first since Raleigh) to establish colonies along the coast of America, north of the Spanish-held territory in Florida. A charter for the southern section is given to a company of London merchants (called the London Company, until its successful colony causes it be known as the Virginia Company). A company based in Plymouth is granted a similar charter for the northern part of this long coastline, which as yet has no European settlers.

The Plymouth Company achieves little (and has no connection with the Pilgrim Fathers who establish a new Plymouth in America in 1620). The London Company succeeds in planting the first permanent English settlement overseas - but only after the most appalling difficulties.


Stuart colonial expansion: 17th century

In the Atlantic the reign of James I includes the founding of Bermuda as a British colony. Soon after his death settlement begins in Barbados - for a while one of England's fastest growing overseas possessions, receiving 18,000 settlers between 1627 and 1642. In America twelve English colonies are in existence by 1688, the end of the reign of James I's grandson, James II.

Colonial achievements eastwards are equally impressive. James I encourages the new East India Company in the early years of his reign, and in 1615 sends Thomas Roe as England's first ambassador to the Indian emperor. By the end of the century Bombay, Madras and Calcutta are fortified English trading stations.


Stuarts and religion: 1603-1640

Since the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I two separate religious struggles run, like interwoven threads, through English life. One is the attempt, clandestine except in Mary's reign, to restore the country to Rome. The other is a battle for the soul of an English church. This second tussle is between those who want a local but reformed continuation of the Roman tradition (the Anglicans) and others wishing to purify the church of all innovations associated with hierarchical state religion (the Puritans).

Elizabeth, for the peace of the nation, has been content to hold the ring between these factions. The Stuarts are more concerned with having their own way.


Because of the tactful manner in which he has handled similar tensions in Scotland, all parties have high hopes of James I when he ascends the English throne in 1603. A small group of extremist Catholics are rapidly disappointed in him. They fatally damage their own cause when they attempt murder and treason in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 - an event which confirms, for centuries to come, an anti-Catholic obsession in the English national psyche.

The Puritans receive apparent encouragement when James calls a conference at Hampton Court in 1604 to consider the fairly modest programme of reform put forward in their Millenary petition (so called because it is supposedly supported by a thousand clergy).


In the event they too are disappointed. The king dismisses their proposals outright, insisting that the church will be organised his way - which means with bishops. Bishops are essential in a state religion, heading a hierarchy through which the monarch may hope to control the church, but they have no place in a presbyterian system.

The controversy over bishops becomes a central issue in the first two Stuart reigns, and particularly in that of Charles I - partly because he is a less indolent character than his father, and partly because he has, in William Laud, a vigorously authoritarian archbishop fighting on his behalf.


The matter comes to a head in the aptly named Bishops' Wars of 1639-40. These wars, in turn, lead directly into the English Civil War.

The Scottish wars would not necessarily have this result but for another antagonism which the first two Stuart kings seem obsessively determined to foster - in the ever-escalating struggle between themselves and the parliament in Westminster.


Stuarts and parliament: 1603-1628

Where his cousin Elizabeth was a pragmatist, it is James I's misfortune to be a theorist - or, more precisely, a man with one overriding theory. That theory, usually described as the Divine Right of Kings, has been expounded in detail by James (an enthusiastic author) in his True Law of Free Monarchies. In this work of 1598 the king explains that since a monarch is ordained by God to rule, every person and institution in the state owes him absolute obedience.

After his accession in 1603 James wastes little time in conveying this message to parliament in Westminster. It is not well received.


James's first parliament, called in 1604, is sufficiently affronted by the king's attitude to respond with a document, known as the Apology, asserting that their powers and privileges are a long-standing right and not something granted by the grace and favour of the monarch.

The pattern for the reign of James and of his equally intransigent son, Charles I, is set in this first clash. Each king continues to repeat his claim to absolute power. Each parliament responds with ever more insistent assertions of its ancient rights. The Protestation of 1621 and the Petition of Right of 1628 build upon the premises stated earlier in the Apology.


The Petition of Right goes further than its predecessors in attempting to protect the citizen from royal tyranny, causing this statute (given royal assent by Charles I in 1628) to be described sometimes as a successor to Magna Carta. It denies the right of the monarch to keep a standing army in peacetime or to billet soldiers compulsorily on citizens (a backdoor route to martial law).

The Petition also reasserts, yet again, that no citizen shall be obliged to pay a tax of any kind unless by common consent - meaning on the specific authority of an elected parliament. This issue of taxation is, ultimately, the crux of the matter.


James I and taxation: 1603-1625

The balance of advantage between king and parliament derives from two established facts. One favours the king. Only he can summon a parliament, so parliament is powerless without him.

But only parliament can raise the necessary taxes to run the kingdom. This is a traditional right, but it is also a practical reality; the members' local influence in their districts will be an important factor in securing the funds. So in this other sense the king is powerless without parliament.


The Stuart kings attempt to break the impasse by not calling parliament and by finding other ways to raise funds. These include the sale of baronetcies and peerages, the demanding of gifts (payments discreetly known as "benevolences"), and the letting out of trade monopolies. Such measures are not well calculated to please the likely members of the next parliament, fuming in the provinces as they await the unpredictable call to Westminster.

In 1614 James is so short of funds that he calls a parliament, the first in four years. But the members are in no mood to discuss anything other than their own grievances. Not a single bill is passed in two months. The outraged king dissolves what becomes known as the Addled Parliament.


Seven years elapse before James calls another parliament, in 1621. This time the commons find a new way of fighting back. They revive a medieval right by which the commons can impeach a public servant, sending him for trial before the House of Lords. Two purchasers of royal monopolies are the first to be brought to heel by this device. They are followed by a bigger catch - Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor, who admits to accepting money from litigants.

The message is clear. Parliament is to be the highest authority in the land. With the beginning of a new reign, in 1625, the point is driven forcefully home in the sensitive area of taxation.


Charles I and taxation: 1625-1639

On the accession of a new monarch it has been conventional for parliament to vote the right to tonnage and poundage (the nation's basic tax, levied on the import of goods) for the entire reign. Now, in 1625, the members grant it to Charles I only on an annual basis.

This attempt to force the king to call regular parliaments is unsuccessful. Instead he levies tonnage and poundage illegally, imposes a forced loan upon everyone in the community, and imprisons several of those who refuse to pay. This is the background to the parliament, called by Charles in 1628, which passes the Petition of Right. Winning no concessions, the king dismisses parliament in 1629. He does not call another for eleven years.


During this hiatus of eleven years, from 1629 to 1640 (the longest gap in English parliamentary history), Charles looks for further ingenious ways of raising funds. The most notorious is his extension of ship money. This is a tax which monarchs have traditionally been allowed to levy from coastal districts for their defence in time of war.

Charles demands ship money in 1634 (for the first time merely on the possibility of war), then extends the tax to inland districts in 1635, and issues further claims in 1636. An emergency tax is beginning to seem like a permanent one, but without parliamentary approval.


In 1636 John Hampden initiates a policy of non-payment of ship money which gradually wins support around the country. The king's agents are able to raise only 80% of the sums demanded in 1638, and less than 25% of the target figure in the following year.

By this time the king's needs are increasingly urgent, because now he does have a war on his hands - albeit only an internal one, in his own kingdom of Scotland. It is fought over the sensitive issue of bishops, a topic on which Charles and his archbishop, William Laud, have emphatic views. Scotland, they insist, should have the same hierarchy of archbishop and bishops as England. Scotland's Covenanters disagree.


The Bishops' Wars: 1639-1640

In 1637 Charles I and Laud try to impose the full liturgy and hierarchy of the Anglican church on Scotland, where James I - in his more tactful early period - has put in place a workable compromise between the presbyterian and episcopal systems. This solution has held good for several decades.

Now the king's demands lead to riots in Edinburgh, in 1638, and the emergence of the Covenanters. It has been a tradition for members of the Church of Scotland, when confronted by a crisis, to covenant themselves to a shared cause. They do so now in a National Covenant, first signed in Greyfriars' churchyard in Edinburgh in 1638 and then circulated throughout Scotland.


In 1639 the Covenanters take control in Edinburgh, Stirling and other Scottish towns. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland declares episcopacy abolished north of the border. A truce is agreed with the king later in 1639, but a second Bishops' War breaks out in 1640 when a Covenanters' army marches into England and seizes Newcastle.

The new crisis prompts Charles to summon parliament in London in 1640. But far from being willing to help the king against the Scottish presbyterians, the House of Commons - itself now predominantly presbyterian - presents Charles with unprecedented demands.


First two years of the Long Parliament: 1640-1642

The parliament eventually known as the Long Parliament (because in various forms it lasts until 1660) assembles in 1640 in a mood of great vigour. Many of its members have sat in the Short Parliament, summoned by Charles I earlier in 1640 and dismissed after only three weeks when it refuses to grant funds for the war against Scotland. They have now lost all patience with the king.

Charles's position is so weak that he accedes to many radical measures. Ship money is outlawed. There are to be parliaments every three years. The court of the Star Chamber is abolished (this ancient court, designed to speed up justice, has been used by Charles to circumvent the safeguards of the law).


Even more significant than his acceptance of these drastic reforms is Charles's inability to prevent the commons impeaching his two closest advisers, the earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud.

Strafford, recently returned from governing Ireland, is accused of treasonable intent in planning to bring an Irish army into England in support of the king. When evidence seems to be lacking, parliament switches to a blunter instrument - a simple bill of attainder condemning Strafford to death. In May 1641, with an excited mob rioting in Whitehall, the king signs his friend's death warrant. Laud, himself by now a prisoner in the Tower, blesses Strafford on his way to the scaffold.


The commons, with the bit between their teeth, prepare in November 1641 a great list of grievances under the title Grand Remonstrance. Its 206 clauses, claiming to describe in detail the sorry state of the kingdom, amount to a detailed criticism of Charles's reign. But recent events have convinced many members that upheaveal has gone far enough. The Grand Remonstrance is passed by only a narrow majority (159 to 148).

This glimpse of a considerable level of support tempts the king into an impetuous and disastrous move. He decides on a pre-emptive strike. He accuses his five leading opponents in the House of Commons of treason. Even more dangerous, he makes a dramatic personal intervention.


A king in the commons: 1642

On 3 January 1642 the king's Sergeant-at-Arms arrives at the House of Commons with orders to arrest the five accused members. The House refuses to admit him, arguing that this is a matter of privilege. He takes back the message that the members will return their answer to the king as soon as possible.

On the next day, January 4, Charles arrives in person at the House of Commons, with an escort of some 400 men, to arrest the five members. Leaving his escort outside, Charles enters the chamber alone. He is the first (and only) monarch to cross the bar into the House of Commons. This flagrant breach of privilege is greeted with tense silence from the assembled members.


The king sits in the Speaker's chair and apologizes to the House for violating their privileges, but he goes on to argue that those guilty of treason have no privilege. He then calls on two of the members, Pym and Holles, by name. Receiving no answer, he asks the Speaker if any of the five are present.

The Speaker, William Lenthall, kneels and delivers the most resonant sentence in the annals of the English parliament, asserting with quiet dignity its sovereign independence: '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.'


Charles accepts this rebuff with a good line of his own: 'I see all the birds are flown.' He is right. The five members (John Pym, John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, William Strode) have been forewarned of the king's intention and have slipped away to a place of refuge in the city of London.

Six days later Charles leaves London for the north of England, where his support is strongest. His wife Henrietta Maria (target of much hostility in the recent unrest, as a foreigner and a Catholic) travels to safety in Holland. In the desperate quest for funds for her husband's cause she takes with her some light but valuable objects which she hopes to pawn - the crown jewels.


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