Agree or disagree with US government policy, what we do in this country we do as a nation. It would seem absurd to us to see the President and Congress raise separate armies to go to war with one another, yet 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, the 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”. By 1640 Charles had severe money problems, 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. On others he bestowed aristocratic titles, making them ineligible for the House of Commons. Of course, that only moved them to the House of Lords.
Measures 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 that November. This “Long Parliament”, proved as uncooperative as any before it.
In January, Charles directed the legislature 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.”
Lenthall 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.
Civil war ensued between Royalist and Parliamentary forces, as Ireland and Scotland broke with England’s primacy among the Three Kingdoms.
The period 1639-’51 saw a series of intertwined conflicts within and between the three kingdoms, including the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and ’40, the Scottish Civil War of 1644–’45; the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Confederate Ireland, 1642–’49 and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649, collectively known as the Eleven Years War or Irish Confederate Wars and finally, the first, second and third English Civil Wars of 1642–’46, 1648–’49 and 1650–’51.
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, he 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, the King of England extended his hands to signal that he was ready, and his head was parted with a stroke.
Some 300,000 citizens of what is now known as the ‘United Kingdom’ lost their lives in the series of conflicts. Roughly 6% of the population, almost twice that lost in the American Civil War. Nationally, the burial rate increased by 29%, between 1643-’64.
The Protestant Reformation begun some 100 years earlier was itself ‘reformed during this period, as Charles’ stranglehold on church-state policy was replaced by more individualized religious experience. Ritual was set aside in favor of The Sermon, as individual congregations coalesced around charismatic speakers. Gone were the days of strong opposition and religious persecution, as previously ‘lunatic fringe’ sects from Muggletonians to Puritans and Quakers expanded across the British Isles and on to Great Britain’s overseas dominions.
The Rump House of Commons disbanded the House of Lords and England briefly became a Commonwealth. The Scottish Parliament proclaimed Charles eldest son King Charles II of Scotland a week after the execution of his father, but Royalist hopes were dashed two years later when Charles was deposed and exiled to France.
“1st Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland” Oliver Cromwell became virtual dictator for much of the 1650s. Succeeded by his son Richard upon his death on 1658, the son was not the equal to his father. When the Royalists returned to power, they had Cromwell’s corpse dug up, hung in chains, and beheaded. Parliament was reinstated, and the monarchy of the Three Kingdoms restored to Charles II, in 1660.
After that, all legal documents were dated as if Charles had succeeded his father, back in 1649.
In the American colonies, the Petition of Right would pop up 129 years later, reflected in the 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th amendments of the United States’ Constitution. Four parts in ten, of what we now know as the Bill of Rights.