Parliaments, 1604-1629

The reigns of James I and Charles I

The difficulties James I and his son Charles I both experienced with their Parliaments had much to do with the circumstances of the early seventeenth century: war at least partly inspired by confessional conflict on the continent and the constant difficulties of royal finance had a very powerful impact on English domestic politics. But poor parliamentary management, and deficiencies in the arts of kingship both contributed to the successive impasses which both monarchs seemed destined to arrive at with Parliament.

In James's first Parliament, of 1604-10, the impasse was concerned with the king's project for a union between his kingdoms of England and Scotland, with the royal right of purveyance - the purchase of goods for the royal household at below the market rate, and with the Lord Treasurer's proposals for the reform of royal finances, 'The Great Contract'. Having avoided a further meeting with his subjects for as long as possible, James finally tried again in 1614, impelled by his deteriorating financial situation. The new Parliament failed too, known as the 'Addled Parliament' as a result of its complete failure to pass any legislations at all.

It would be seven years before James tried again: it was the international situation, the invasion of a Bohemia under the rule of his son-in-law, which made it unavoidable for him to seek money from Parliament. For once, it was forthcoming from the Parliament of 1621, if at the expense of Francis Bacon, Viscount St Alban, the Lord Chancellor, who was impeached for corruption. The attack on ministers however then began to get dangerously close to James's favourite George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, and the Parliament eventually foundered over the House of Commons' anxieties about James's plans to marry his son to a Spanish Catholic princess, and his furious reaction to their interference in matters he regarded as none of their business.

James declared at the end of the 1621 Parliament that he would have nothing more to do with Parliaments. But events abroad, as well as his son and his favourite, forced him to eat his words. With the Spanish having overrun the possessions of his son-in-law, and insisting on humiliating conditions for their return, and for Prince Charles's marriage to the Infanta, both Charles and Buckingham argued that he should turn to Parliament for their advice and their help in waging war on Spain. The 1624 Parliament proved the most successful of the period, since king and his subjects were for once in agreement. But it was ended by James's death in March 1625.

Its successor, the first Parliament of the reign of Charles I, met in June 1625. But it turned out to be less enthusiastic than he had hoped to provide the further resources for the war that it needed, and more concerned with what they regarded as Charles's alarming tolerance towards Catholics. Charles had another attempt in 1626, preparing for a more malleable Parliament by excluding a number of outspoken Members through selecting them as sheriffs (a post incompatible with membership). His action, as well as concern about the king's patronage of an anti-Calvinist faction within the Church of England, hostility to Buckingham (who had deftly managed to pass from being James I's favourite to that of his son) and doubts about the capacity of the royal government to wage war, all wrecked hopes for a successful Parliament. Instead, the House of Commons launched an impeachment of Buckingham, to which Charles reacted by dissolving it.

Charles tried to finance his wars against Spain, and, from 1627 against France, through a levy not approved by Parliament, the 'Forced Loan'. But the failure of an expedition to support Protestants besieged by the French on the Island of Re made it essential to turn to Parliament in order to continue any action. Despite an apparent willingness to respond positively, and Charles's acceptance of the implied criticism of the Forced Loan and associated actions in the Petition of Right, discord revived over the collection of customs duties and a long-running dispute over their legality, and, in a second session of the Parliament in 1629, over the march of the anti-Calvinists - or 'Arminians' - in the English Church. A dramatic confrontation over an attempt to present a 'Remonstrance' to the king disfigured the session: Charles dissolved the Parliament, not to summon another for eleven years.