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Tuesday, 19 May, 1998, 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK
From civil war to the Glorious Revolution
At the beginning of the sixteenth century Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, were very much the junior partners in the government of Britain. The Crown was pre-eminent.

Yet by the end of the century the House of Commons had fought and won a civil war against the King, beheaded him for treachery, proclaimed and disowned a republic, abolished and restored the monarchy and the House of Lords, and secured its key role in ratifying legislation and taxation.

The Stuart dynasty

On the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 the Stuart dynasty, in the shape of King James I (1603-1625) took the throne.

The Stuarts believed in the divine rights of Kings - a doctrine which said the King's right to govern was ordained by God and as such could not be challenged. James himself had little love of Parliament.

He once remarked: " The House of Commons is a body without a head. The members give their opinion in a disorderly manner; at their meetings nothing is heard but cries, shouts and confusion. I am surprised that my ancestors should ever have permitted such an institution to come into existence."

It was during James's reign that co-operation between the monarchy and Parliament began to break down, but it was during his son Charles's reign that the storm finally broke.

Charles I

Charles I
Charles I defended the divine right of kings and paid with his head
When Charles I came to the throne in 1625 relations between the monarch and Parliament were already poor but they were by no means in crisis.

But two issues were fundamentally to undermine the possibility of a working relationship between Parliament and the monarchy: taxation and religion.

On Charles's accession, Parliament denied the new King the traditional right to gather customs duties, a right Parliament had granted every previous monarch.

The King had little choice but to follow this break of convention with one of his own and he began to use the power of royal prerogative to gather taxes outside Parliament.

Parliament struck back and in 1628 issued a Petition of Rights, stipulating that there would be no taxation without the consent of the Commons.

Charles's position as monarch was by now so weak he was forced to make the petition law, but he vowed never to call another Parliament.

For 11 years England faced the possibility that Parliamentary government was over, but in 1640 military defeat and near bankruptcy forced Charles to summon Parliament once more in order to raise the necessary funds for a second attempt at defeating his Scottish enemies.

The Long Parliament

The Short Parliament was formed in 1640 and promptly refused the King's demands for revenue. The King disbanded it and a second Parliament was summoned, but unfortunately for Charles it proved even more hostile than the first.

Within a year of being formed the Long Parliament had impeached and executed the King's counsellor, the Earl of Stafford, and had begun a deliberate attack upon the traditional rights of the Crown.

Parliament drew up Bills forbidding the raising of taxation by any body other than the Commons and passed a second Bill which would force the monarch to summon a Parliament if none had been held for a period of three years.

As the struggle between the monarch and Parliament reached new heights events outside Westminster were to push the conflict several steps closer to civil war.

On the brink

In 1641, Catholics in Ulster rose up against the King. England had no standing army at that time and Charles needed to raise an army if the rebellion were to be put down.

But the Commons was not prepared to trust the King at the head of an army, fearing once it was raised he would use it against his Parliamentary opponents. The Commons therefore demanded that the King withdraw his right to head the army.

The Commons' distrust of the monarch was not just based only on questions of government, it also found roots in religious differences.

A vocal minority of extreme Protestants, or Puritans, had entered Parliament and they and their sympathisers not only doubted the King's ability to defend and uphold the Protestant faith, but they also accused him of having Catholic sympathies.

This distrust was taken to such lengths that rumours reached the King that five senior members of the Commons were planning to impeach his Catholic wife, Queen Henrietta.

On January 4 1642 Charles took 400 armed men into the Commons chamber to seek out the five men plotting against his wife. Seeing that they had already fled Charles turned to the Speaker of the Commons and demanded to be told of their whereabouts.

Speaker Lenthall famously replied, "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."

Parliament had for the first time openly defied the monarch to his face. And perhaps more importantly Speaker Lenthall's remarks to Charles implied that Parliament was in some instances a higher authority than that of the monarch.

Charles's decision to storm the Commons proved disastrous. He failed to capture those he believed to be plotting against him and also turned public opinion against him. He was soon forced to flee the capital and set about raising an army.

Crowmwell
Cromwell's statue outside Parliament
By August 1642 civil war had broken out and three years later, at the battle of Naseby, the Parliamentary general, Oliver Cromwell, and his New Model Army decisively destroy the King's forces.

By 1649 the King was dead, executed by his own subjects for treason.

The trial of a King

At his trial, which took place in Westminster Hall, Charles was accused of having, "traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament and the people therein represented."

Charles refused to plead, believing that as King there was no authority on earth that had the right to try him. The trial lasted a little over a week, at the end of which the King was found guilty of being a "tyrant, traitor and public enemy".

Sentence being passed, the soldiers who were present at the proceedings spat at the King. Two days later he was beheaded in the public street at Whitehall.

Charles beheading
Charles' beheading
During his trial the King put the case for the monarchy over government by Parliament, saying, "If power without laws may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own."

Charles was restating the traditional belief that without the monarchy as a guard against anarchy, the rule of law in England would almost certainly break down.

The English republic and Restoration

Following the death of Charles England was run as a republic with Cromwell at its head. Parliament existed as a single chamber, as the House of Lords was abolished.

For much of Cromwell's time war dominated the political life of the nation and although Cromwell was successful in his brutal suppression of Ireland and greatly improved England's position in Europe, he failed to leave in place a lasting system of government or a written constitution at the time of his death in 1658.

Faced with little alternative Parliament invited Charles's son, soon to be Charles II, to return to England as monarch and by 1660 the republican experiment was over.

The new King exhumed Cromwell's body and had him beheaded. His skull was then placed in high up on Westminster Hall where it remained for over 20 years until it was blown down in a storm.

The Glorious Revolution

Although government in England looked to have returned to normality Parliament had dramatically improved its power in relation to the monarchy.

The extent of Parliament's new power was made clear after the unsuccessful reign of James II saw renewed conflict between Parliament and the King.

James's attempts to impose a Catholic monarchy were resisted and in 1688 an invasion led by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange was welcomed, James having fled the country.

Parliament made plain its position of strength when in a new coronation oath William and Mary had to swear "to govern the people of this kingdom according to the statutes in Parliament agreed on and the laws and customs of the same".

A Bill of Rights was also drawn up by Parliament and signed by the King; now the Crown was no longer able to enact laws, raise taxes, or keep an army without Parliament's consent. Furthermore members in the House were to enjoy the privilege of free speech.

The decisive nature of Parliament's power was emphasied by Sir Joseph Williamson when he explained Parliament's reasons for being less than generous in money grants to the new king: "When princes have not needed money they have not needed us".

Parliament was now in firmly in the driving seat, but who was to control Parliament?

Links to more Talking Politics stories are at the foot of the page.


Links to more Talking Politics stories