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The fatal quarrel between the early Stuart monarchs and the Commons

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Politics, Revolution, Royalty on Wednesday, 30 May 2012

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This edited article about the Stuarts and their Parliaments originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 714 published on 20 September 1975.

The Speaker is restrained, picture, image, illustration

Two MPs held the Speaker down to prevent his calling an Adjournment by James E McConnell

Everyone has heard of the Gunpowder Plot, fixed for the day before the opening of Parliament on 5th November, 1605. Even today the vaults of the Houses of Parliament are searched ceremonially before the annual opening of Parliament, and each year, on 5th November, bonfires are lit and replicas of Guy Fawkes – “guys” – are burnt.

In spite of this, the true purpose of the Gunpowder Plot is still something of a mystery. Some people think it was a Roman Catholic plot to blow up the King and his government, while some think it was a clever conspiracy to discredit the Catholics.

According to the official story at the time, the plan was drawn up by a man named Robert Catesby and a number of other leading Catholics. These men were opposed to James I’s policy of enforcing the existing anti-Catholic laws.

The plan, whatever its purpose, was a complete failure. This was due in the main to one of the conspirators themselves, Francis Tresham, who warned Lord Monteagle to stay away from the House on the day appointed.

As a result, the buildings were searched, and on 4th November, Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar where a large quantity of gunpowder was also found.

All the conspirators were eventually arrested. Some were killed and the rest, after being tortured, confessed to the plot.

These are the facts, as far as they can be proved, but whether the conspirators told the truth in its entirely will never be known.

It remains that neither King James I nor his Parliament were blown up – although the King might not have been too unhappy if his Parliament had been!

At the very beginning of his reign, Parliament informed James that he would not be granted the privileges enjoyed by his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth.

Unfortunately, this was a direct challenge to James’s belief in the divine right of kings.

As usual money caused the first really serious quarrel between the King and Parliament.

For many years, duties on imports and exports had been a matter for Parliament, but this had been only a custom, not law. Suddenly James imposed a duty of 5s. per cwt. on imported currants. Parliament was furious, but the King’s right to do what he had done was upheld by the Law Courts.

After this sort of thing had happened a number of times, the Commons refused to make James his annual grant of money. They said that he must first ask their approval for all duties and taxes imposed.

Instead of agreeing, James dissolved Parliament and sent four M.P.s to the Tower. The quarrel had begun.

For six years James tried to govern without Parliament but he did not meet with much success. He had to recall Parliament. Unfortunately, as soon as the Commons returned, the trouble started again.

In 1621, the King told the Speaker that the Commons must stop meddling in the affairs of state. Not surprisingly, the Commons protested and their reply was written down in the official records. When the King saw this, he was so enraged that he tore out the offending page with his own hands.

During this time, the position of the Speaker was becoming intolerable for he was the servant of both the Commons and the Crown.

The climax came during the reign of Charles I, when an M.P., Sir John Eliot, proposed a resolution stating that all who paid duties not ratified by Parliament should be classed as traitors.

Acting upon the King’s instructions, the Speaker, Heneage Finch, adjourned the Commons before a vote could be taken on this motion. When this happened again, two members forcibly held the Speaker in his chair to stop him calling for an adjournment. As the King’s messenger, Black Rod, came hurrying to see what was the trouble, another M.P. slammed the door in his face.

As a result, the resolution was eventually passed and the event has become part of history.

The final break came in 1642. Riots broke out in London between supporters of the King on the one hand and Parliament on the other. Charles, believing that he had the people’s support, forced an entry into the Commons and demanded the arrest of five leading M.P.s

On this occasion, the Speaker courageously refused to give them up and said: “Sir, I have ears to hear and lips to speak, only that the people shall command me!”

Charles retired empty-handed.

A few days later, the King left London and prepared for war. When he next returned to the capital, it was to face his execution.

After four years of war, Charles had fled to Scotland. Peace negotiations had failed and the Scottish army had handed the King over to Parliament.

Even in prison, Charles continued to intrigue, and the Commons summoned him for trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

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