On this Day: 19 November 1600, the birth of Charles I

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Charles I and Parliament, 1621-1629

Born on this day in 1600, Charles spent his formative years witnessing his father, James I, struggle to manage the English Parliament or attempt to avoid summoning it altogether. Charles was six when the Commons rejected the last vestiges of James’s cherished plan for a formal Union with Scotland and was almost ten when the Commons declined to proceed with the Great Contract, an ambitious plan to restore the royal finances with parliamentary help. Perhaps Charles’ clearest childhood memory would have been of the short-lived Parliament of 1614, as he participated in its opening ceremony. After the Commons refused to vote him subsidies unless he surrendered the customs duties known as impositions, James angrily dissolved the assembly. Thereafter, James strained every nerve to manage his affairs without recourse to Parliament. Consequently, unlike his brother, the late Prince Henry, Charles was not created Prince of Wales in Parliament.

Parliaments, however, proved to be inescapable, and in 1621 Charles sat in the House of Lords in his capacity as duke of Cornwall. At first there was no hint that Charles had imbibed any of his father’s hostility to England’s representative body. On the contrary, he was an enthusiastic participant in its proceedings, attending the Lords on an almost daily basis and, despite a minor speech defect, frequently contributing to debate.  Moreover, with the Lord Chancellor, he helped to manage business behind the scenes. His confident handling of the upper House helps to explain why in November 1621 James decided to decamp to Newmarket rather than remain at Westminster.  However, when the Commons turned their attention to the king’s plan to marry him to a Spanish Catholic princess, Charles’ enthusiasm for the Parliament began to wane. Some Members had been ‘a little unruly’, he observed, and it might therefore prove necessary to arrest some of the more ‘seditious fellows’. When the Commons drafted a petition protesting about the Spanish Match, Charles complained that his marriage was ‘continually prostituted in the House’.

Following the ensuing dissolution, James was more determined to do without Parliament than ever. However, Charles, though offended by the Commons, advocated the summoning of another assembly as early as September 1622. This was because the lands of his sister Elizabeth and her husband, the Elector Palatine, had been invaded by Habsburg forces and if money were to be raised for their recovery Parliament would be needed. His support for another Parliament increased in 1623, when he discovered that Spain was not interested in helping James to recover the Elector’s lands; he also suspected that Madrid had never been serious about a royal marriage. By placing pressure on his father, another Parliament met in 1624.  For Charles this Parliament proved a triumph, as a majority of Members in the Commons shared his desire to break off the marriage negotiations and wage war on Spain. Assisted by the Duke of Buckingham, Charles obtained subsidies for the king in return for an end to the Spanish Match. 

The ease with which the Commons complied with Charles’ wishes in 1624 was misleading; it was not a sign that in future the lower House would be more amenable to royal control. When Parliament met in 1625 the Commons were resentful at being asked for additional money, the subsidies voted in 1624 having been squandered. Charles, now king, assumed that the Commons would make up the shortfall, but he initially failed to indicate what was needed, and although money was soon voted it was not nearly enough. Under pressure from Buckingham, Charles tried to obtain a second grant before the first had been collected, but this served only to cause grave offence. When Parliament directed its anger at Buckingham, Charles caused it to be dissolved. 

Charles had now discovered that Parliaments were harder to manage than he had perhaps supposed, and that the Commons frequently pursued their own agenda rather than the king’s. This was demonstrated again clearly in 1626, when Charles summoned the second Parliament of his reign. Charles insisted that priority should be given to granting subsidies for the war, but the Commons, under the leadership of men like Sir John Eliot and Sir Dudley Digges, tried instead to impeach Buckingham, whose power had long excited envy, whose conduct as Lord Admiral was regarded as woeful and who had now become closely associated with clergymen widely regarded as crypto-Catholic. Charles therefore ended the Parliament and ordered the subsidies he had lost to be raised in the form of a Forced Loan. Only if this money was forthcoming would he call Parliament again. In the short term this strategy paid dividends, as most of the money was collected.  However, the Parliament which met in 1628 proved just as difficult to control as its immediate predecessors, as there was anger that the king had raised taxes without his subjects’ consent and had imprisoned without trial many of those who had refused to contribute. There was also widespread resentment at the use of billeting and martial law that war had made necessary. Consequently, Charles only obtained supply after he agreed to accept the Petition of Right, a document drafted by the Commons which required him to operate within the law.

It was now clear that while Charles needed money to pay for war he would remain the prisoner of his Parliaments. In order to remedy this situation Charles, in effect, abandoned the war. When Parliament met again, in 1629, the House of Commons tried to punish the officers responsible for levying without parliamentary consent the customs duties known as Tunnage and Poundage. Charles, no longer dependent upon parliamentary supply, thereupon ordered an adjournment. Several furious Members responded by holding down the Speaker in his chair while they delivered a formal protest. In the aftermath of these chaotic scenes, Charles, like his father before him, concluded that Parliaments were more trouble than they were worth. Not until 1640, when war with the Scots compelled him to do so, did he summon another.

Author: Andrew Thrush