The Parliament of 1621

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

The Parliament of 1621

 

Date of writs of election: 13 Nov. 16201

Session dates:

16 Jan. 1621 (prorogued)2

23 Jan. 1621 (prorogued)3

30 Jan.-27 Mar. 1621 (adjourned for Easter)4

17 Apr.-9 May 1621 (adjourned for Ascension Day)5

11 May-18 May 1621(adjourned for Whitsun)6

24 May-4 June 1621 (adjourned for the summer and autumn)7

14 Nov. 1621 (adjourned)8

20 Nov.-19 Dec. 1621 (adjourned)9

Dissolved by Proclamation 6 Jan. 1622 and by commission 8 Feb. 162210

Following the disastrous 1614 assembly, James became more determined than ever to do without parliaments. Over the course of the next six years royal spending was reduced and new sources of income were found, most notably by issuing fresh grants of monopoly. In addition, James’s coffers were swollen by the proceeds of a benevolence (1614), the sale to the Dutch of the Cautionary Towns of Brill and Flushing (1616), which had been handed over to Elizabeth as security for repayment of English loans, and a loan from the City (1617). As part of his strategy for avoiding a Parliament, James also entered into negotiations for with Spain for a bride for Prince Charles in the hope of securing a dowry of £600,000, sufficient to eliminate almost the entire royal debt.

Despite his determination to subsist without parliaments, James was reluctantly compelled to issue fresh writs of summons in November 1620 by events on the Continent. Against his wishes, his son-in-law the Elector Palatine Frederick V had accepted the throne of Bohemia following the deposition of the Catholic Archduke Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Holy Roman emperor. Frederick’s rash action had led Ferdinand’s Spanish and Bavarian allies to invade not only Bohemia but also Frederick’s patrimony. Although unwilling to oppose Spain for fear of jeopardizing the proposed Spanish Match, James could not stand idly by while the Palatinate was overrun, but by the same token he could hardly persuade the Catholic powers of Europe that he possessed the means to intervene on Frederick’s behalf unless he had the promise of financial support from Parliament.

Though James clearly dreaded this fresh meeting with his subjects, the opening weeks of the new Parliament were among the most harmonious of his reign. The Commons not only voted two subsidies without demur but also studiously avoided debating impositions, preferring instead to concentrate on examining and suppressing individual monopolies and reforming the court of Chancery. During the course of its investigations into Chancery the Commons discovered that the lord chancellor, Viscount St. Alban (the former Sir Francis Bacon), had taken bribes. After carrying out an extensive inquiry the House communicated its findings to the Lords, who extracted a confession from the unfortunate minister. Since James was unwilling to jeopardize his unexpectedly good relations with Parliament, Bacon was subsequently stripped of office, fined and imprisoned. These proceedings marked the beginning of the revival of the long-abandoned medieval practice of impeachment, whereby royal officials accused of criminal behaviour were tried and punished by Parliament.

Although the fall of Bacon represented a stunning parliamentary success, several members of both Houses were anxious to press their advantage in the hope of toppling the royal favourite, George Villiers, marquess of Buckingham. During the Commons’ investigation into the abuses associated with monopolies it had become clear that several of Buckingham’s clients and kinsmen were deeply implicated, among them Sir Giles Mompesson, who was stripped of both his parliamentary seat and knighthood, and Buckingham’s elder half-brother Sir Edward Villiers. In the Lords the earls of Arundel and Southampton accused Buckingham of having threatened the former attorney-general Sir Henry Yelverton with dismissal unless he cooperated with Mompesson. In order to prevent a full-blown attack on the favourite from developing, and perhaps also to halt a Commons’ investigation into Lord Treasurer Mandeville, James announced on 28 May that he intended to end the session on 4 June. However this apparently innocuous message caused panic and dismay in the Commons. Aside from the subsidy bill, the lower House had not finished a considerable body of legislative business, and were the session to end abruptly all its bills would automatically be lost. Moreover, although it had been promised that Parliament would reconvene over the winter, there were fears that James, irritated by the mounting attack on Buckingham, was secretly intending to return to ruling without parliaments. In order to calm these concerns and allow the Commons to return to its legislation at the point where it had previously left off, James consented to an adjournment rather than a prorogation. However, it was left to the Pembroke gentleman Sir James Perrot to restore to the House a sense of unity. On the final day of the sitting he proposed that the Commons should strengthen the bargaining position of James’s ambassador to the emperor by promising to assist the king ‘to the utmost’ if the Palatinate were not restored.11 This idea immediately captivated the Commons, and the ensuing declaration was passed by general acclamation.

Although the sitting had ended on a note of goodwill, Buckingham was convinced that the earl of Southampton and his close ally in the Commons, Sir Edwin Sandys, had conspired between them to wreck the Parliament. Consequently, shortly after Parliament was adjourned, both men were arrested. Though soon released, neither man resumed his seat when Parliament reassembled in November. In the Commons Sandys’s absence was greeted with dismay, and it was only with difficulty that the House was persuaded that Sandys was at liberty to resume his place if he wished and that his earlier arrest had not had been occasioned by his conduct in Parliament.

Although many in the Commons believed that they were now free to complete the legislation that had remained unfinished at the end of the previous sitting, James’s chief purpose in recalling Parliament was to obtain supply, as the subsidies granted earlier in the year had all been spent. Heartened by the Commons’ declaration of 4 June, the king demanded a large vote of subsidies in order to prevent the Palatinate from being completely overrun. On the face of it this request should have been welcome to the Commons, but many Members now regretted their earlier rashness in promising to assist the king ‘both with their lives and fortunes’. England was then in the midst of a trade depression, and against such an economic backdrop it was difficult to see how money could be granted twice in one year. Furthermore, there remained the matter of the continuing negotiations for a Spanish bride for Prince Charles, for how was it possible for James to demand money for a war with Spain on the one hand and yet seek a Spanish marriage alliance on the other? In view of