Agree or disagree with US war policy, what we do in this country we do as a nation. It would seem absurd to us to see the President and the Congress raise separate armies to go to war with one another, but that’s just what happened in 17th century England.
Queen Elizabeth I passed away without issue in 1603, succeeded by her first cousin, twice
removed, King James VI of Scotland. For the first time, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united under single rule.
The English Parliament of the age didn’t have a permanent role in government, instead being a temporary advisory body, summoned and dismissed at the will of the King. Practically speaking, the King had no means to enforce his will on matters of taxation, without the consent of the “gentry”, the untitled land owning classes who were the primary means of national tax collection. This gave rise to an elected “House of Commons”, joining the House of Lords to form a Parliament.
James thought of Kings as “little Gods on Earth”, and had long gotten whatever he wanted from a supine Scottish Parliament. The English Parliament was another matter. James’ entire reign and that of his son Charles I was one long contest of wills with the English governing body.
Charles’ 1625 marriage to a Roman Catholic, French princess Henrietta Maria, did little to win him support in Protestant England. His interventionist policies in the 30 years’ war made things worse, ending with Parliament bringing impeachment proceedings against his minister, the Duke of Buckingham. Parliament drew up the “Petition of Right”, invoking the Magna Carta and severely limiting the King’s right of non-Parliamentary taxation, along with other restrictions on the Royal Prerogative. Charles looked to the House of Lords to check the power of the Commons, but both houses ratified the measure by the end of May.
The King dissolved this first Parliament in 1629, putting nine of its leaders in prison and unwittingly making them martyrs for their cause. The following 11 years are sometimes called “the personal rule” or the “eleven years’ tyranny”. Charles had severe money problems by 1640, forcing him to call another Parliament. The King wanted a more docile body this time, so he appointed many of his adversaries as Sheriffs, knowing that this would require them to stay within their counties, making them ineligible for election. To others he bestowed aristocratic titles, making them ineligible for the House of Commons. Of course, that only moved them to the House of Lords.
What the King saw as reasonable, the legislative body saw as opportunity to negotiate, and this “Short Parliament” was dissolved within a month. That was May 1640, and Charles once again called a Parliament in November. This was to be his “Long Parliament”, proving as uncooperative as any before it.
In January, Charles directed Parliament to surrender five members of the Commons and one Peer on grounds of high treason. On the following day, January 4, 1642, the King himself entered the House of Commons with an armed guard of 400, demanding that the offenders be handed over. The Speaker, William Lenthall, 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, whose servant I am here.” He might as well have told the King “I work for these people. I don’t work for you”.
It was a grave breach of protocol, no King had ever entered the House of Commons. Making things worse, the botched arrest had cut the feet out from under Charles’ supporters. The two sides began to arm themselves that summer. Full-scale civil war broke out that October.
What’s been variously described as one or two separate civil wars ensued, in which 300,000, 6% of the country’s population or roughly twice the percentage lost in the American Civil War, lost their lives. A “Rump” House of Commons indicted the King on treason charges, in a trial which was never recognized by the upper house. Charles maintained that he was above the law, while the court argued that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise”.
Charles I was found guilty of treason and sentenced to die by decapitation. Clothed in two shirts by his own request, lest any shiver of cold be misinterpreted as a sign of fear, the King of England put his head on the block on January 30, 1649. “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things,” he said. “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be”. With that, he extended his hands to signal he was ready, and his head was parted with a stroke.
The Rump House of Commons disbanded the House of Lords and England was briefly governed as a Commonwealth, but Charles soon came to be seen as a Martyr King. Oliver Cromwell established a Protectorate with himself as Lord Protector. He was briefly succeeded by his son on his death in 1658, but the son was not the equal of his father. Parliament was reinstated and the monarchy restored to Charles’ eldest son, who became Charles II in 1660.
In the American colonies, Charles II renamed a slice of southern Virginia after his father “Carolus”, the Latin for Charles, and North and South Carolina were born. The Petition of Right would pop up 129 years later, reflected in the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh amendments of the United States’ Constitution, part of what we now know as the Bill of Rights.