Charles I and Politics

Charles I and Politics

Charles came to rely heavily on the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, until the Duke’s assassination in 1628. In the three years that Buckingham had influence over Charles as a king, he managed to cultivate in him a belief that he, as king, was always right. In this, Charles shared his father’s belief in the Divine Right of Kings. As a result, Charles was to frequently take a stand and a position on a topic and refuse to shift or modify his beliefs regardless of what arguments were put before him. It would be a character trait that would have disastrous consequences, as he grew older.

Charles also saw little reason why he as king should explain any of his decisions. He believed that as a king had made a decision, it should be adhered to and certainly not argued with. As a result of this approach, Charles got off to a bad start with the House of Commons in 1625 when he refused to explain the logic of his foreign policy to them – Mansfeld’s expedition during the Thirty Years War. The Commons accused Buckingham of giving Charles incompetent advice and refused to grant Charles tunnage and poundage duties for life – James had received these from Parliament to get his monarchy off to a smooth start and was seen by Parliament as a gesture of a partnership between James and his Parliament. Such a start was not offered to Charles. The talk of impeaching Buckingham led to the Commons being dissolved. It was a poor start to the reign but it symptomatic of what was to come.

A successful foreign policy would have done Charles a great many favours. It would have certainly spiked the guns of the Commons. His foreign policy was a disaster. Mansfeld’s expedition to Northern Europe was a failure as was an attempted attack on Cadiz (October 1625) while part of the navy was used to support an attack on the French Protestants at La Rochelle who were being besieged by Richelieu’s forces. Many could not understand why a Protestant naval force was assisting a Catholic army in attempting to defeat another Protestant force.

The second Parliament of Charles gathered in 1626. The Commons, having had itself stirred by the likes of Sir Edward Coke, was now effectively led by Sir John Elliot. The Commons refused Charles further taxes and talked openly about impeaching Buckingham. The response of Charles to this was to dissolve Parliament once again in June 1626. Such an action could only inflame the problem – if Charles had not allowed his emotions to get the better of him, he would have realised that Parliament had very little, if any, evidence against Buckingham. Any trial would have almost certainly led to the acquittal of Buckingham and left his accusers looking foolish in the extreme. However, Charles could not see this far ahead and simply resorted to a policy used by his father – dissolving Parliament – that was bound to cause much anger.

Charles had also lost the support of the House of Lords as a result of his treatment of John Digby, the Earl of Bristol. He had been James’s primary link with Spain since 1611 but was blamed by James and Charles, egged on by Buckingham, for the Spanish Match fiasco. When Bristol returned to England he was ordered by James to stay at his country estate. When Charles became king in 1625, he offered Bristol an olive branch – if Bristol admitted that the failure of the Spanish Match was his fault, he would be returned to favour. Bristol would not do this and Charles responded by claiming that Bristol had tried to convert him to Catholicism while in Madrid. This was a highly inflammable claim and Bristol demanded a trial in front of the Lords and in April 1626, he got his wish. The dissolving of Parliament two months later ended this but it showed those in the Lords how the king could potentially treat all of them. Bristol was seen as being one of the Lord’s senior figures and if Charles could treat him in such a manner, he could treat all of them accordingly. Less than two years into his reign, Charles had managed to anger both houses of Parliament and upset some highly influential men in both houses. It did not bode well for the future.

Charles financed a war with France by resorting to measures that were bound to only intensify the anger felt against the king. The gentry were invited to contribute to a forced loan. Those who failed to pay were thrown in jail. Maritime ports were ordered to pay for any improvement required in the navy. Troops were billeted on the public. To further enforce his authority, Charles also ordered that several counties be placed under martial law.

In March 1628, a new parliament was called. It had all the potential for major trouble. However, it was not as traumatic as many might have predicted. Eliot was brought into line by being convinced that a further campaign against Buckingham would prove less fruitful than a campaign against Charles. The Commons decided to launch a campaign that would limit the king’s power of arbitrary imprisonment. The Commons decided to use a ‘Petition of Right’ which was meant to defend ‘ancient, sober and vital liberties’. The Petition stated that arbitrary imprisonment (without a stated reason), taxation without Parliament’s consent, billeting of the army on the public and subjecting civilians to martial law were all illegal. Charles gave his “royal word” to uphold the Petition but this was not good enough for the Commons. Just two years into his reign, he had lost Parliament and his “word” simply was not deemed good enough. Parliament wanted the Petition to have full legality and in an instance where Charles climbed down, he gave the Royal Assent to the Petition of Right on 7 June 1628.

The passing of the Petition of Right mollified the moderates in the Commons, men such as Thomas Wentworth, but men such as Eliot were still after the blood of Buckingham. Others were equally concerned with the church reforms that were taking place. The religious advisor to Charles was William Laud, Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was a strong believer in royal absolutism and he expected his followers to also support this belief. One of these supporters, Roger Manwaring, claimed that a refusal to pay forced loans was an offence against God. He was impeached by Parliament and Charles was sent a remonstrance complaining about the behaviour of the Laudians.

On 23 August 1628, Buckingham was assassinated. This led to Charles bringing back to court men of ability (such as Bristol) who finally added some substance to his rule and obviously increased the king’s self confidence. Charles blamed Eliot for Buckingham’s murder for stirring up a mob mentality and there were many in society who had reason to fear the ‘mob’. Charles used this opportunity to assert his authority in religious matters and in the second half of 1628 he moved Laud to become Archbishop of London and gave Manwaring a handsome royal pension. In December 1628, Charles issued a royal declaration that reform of the church was no concern of Parliament.

Parliament reassembled on 20 January 1629. By March it was in disarray. Those who wanted major reform followed Eliot. But many MP’s were more moderate and felt that he was moving too far too soon. The majority of the Lords failed to give Eliot any support in his move to impeach Laudians. In this scenario, Charles had little choice but to dissolve Parliament. However on 2 March, the more extreme MP’s forcibly postponed their own dissolution by locking out Black Rod and holding down the Speaker in his chair. They issued their ‘Three Resolutions’. This stated that anyone who paid tunnage and poundage duties or advised on its collection or who brought in innovations in religion was “a capital enemy to this kingdom and commonwealth”. Only after this was Parliament dissolved when they left the chamber.

Many were shocked by the actions of Eliot and his supporters. What they did seemed to undermine the very fabric of how the nation was governed.

“The most gloomy, sad and dismal day for England that had happened in five hundred years. The cause of the break and dissolution was immaterial and frivolous, in the carriage whereof divers fiery spirits in the House of Commons were very faulty and cannot be excused.” (Sir Simonds d’Ewes MP)

Charles made his input by saying, “This House proceeds not upon the abuses of power only, but upon power itself.”

Two MP’s who had been supporters of Sir Edward Coke but who were concerned that things were going too far within Parliament were Thomas Wentworth and John Noy. Both returned to the court fearing that some MP’s were stirring up too much revolutionary fervour. Wentworth said “The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government, which containeth each part in due relation to the whole.” Like many gentry, Wentworth and Noy were more concerned with maintaining social order than with what the likes of Eliot wanted. The judiciary also backed the king and consistently found in his favour over where power lay.

So why did Charles fail to take advantage of this situation whereby the villains of the piece seemed to be those in the Commons who spoke out against royal power? The answer almost certainly lies in Charles himself. The speed of those who moved to support Charles and the numbers involved all but convinced Charles that he must be right. The concept of the Divine Right of Kings was, in the mind of Charles, conclusively proven. His seeming success in 1629 in both rallying support and splitting his opponents convinced him that he was right and made him even more arrogant. Possibly, Charles began to believe that he was infallible and that any problems that arose were caused by anyone else except the king himself. For the next eleven years, Charles aided by his small group of advisors, ruled without a Parliament – the so-called ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’.

See also: Charles and the Church

MLA Citation/Reference

"Charles I and Politics". 2024. Web.