Sunday, 5 January 2014

A month of Civil War! part three

Welcome back for part three! Today, as promised, I'll ramble on a bit about the political side of the causes for the Civil War in England, with a look at the events that led up to the battle lines being drawn between the King and his parliament. 

Differing views of religious belief played a large part in the declaration of war, as discussed last time, but perhaps one of the most iconic images of this period is Charles I dissolving parliaments because they disagreed with him. This is certainly one of the enduring ideas that I've taken away from my school days of studying the period. Charles, we were told, wanted money, but parliament refused to grant it to him so he ruled without parliament for most of his reign. When he finally had to call a parliament, they turned on him. Did they?

Charles I - despot?
I have mentioned in previous entries that Charles I was a firm believer in the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, that a King receives his authority to rule from God alone, and therefore his will is comparable with that of the Almighty. This perhaps gives some idea as to the rest of his character. Charles was certainly a proud man, with a definite taste for the finer things in life. He was a big art collector, and commissioned lots of art from Rubens, Van Dyck, et al. All of this cost money, of course, more than the King's personal income.

To get money, the King needed to get a parliament to agree to grant him a portion of the revenue raised from taxes. While James I was used to much less confrontational sessions when he ruled Scotland, he resorted to some creative means of money-raising when on the English throne, for instance selling titles and monopolies. He merely circumvented parliament. Charles, on the other hand, was much too proud for that - he seems to have believed that parliament existed to merely sign off on his decrees. As such, when he was forced to negotiate for settlements with the MPs, in a fit of pique he dissolved parliament on no less than three separate occasions - the last, in 1629, was to be the last parliament called for eleven years. 

This does seem to make him appear a bit of a despot, don't you think? A man who believes parliament is beneath him, and who refused to negotiate with his subjects on the way in which he ran the kingdom. 

Creative accounting
Much like his father, Charles went about sourcing other channels of income. The most famous of these is probably the Ship Tax. Ship Tax was a tax payable by all the people who lived on the coast of Britain, to pay for the upkeep of the navy and harbour defenses in case of foreign invasion. Charles, the little scamp, decided that all those inland dwellers benefited from the harbour defenses and the navy being kept in shape, and so they should also pay the tax. I must admit, I do see the logic of this - a more general-purpose defense tax would be far more sensible than merely taxing those who live on the circumference of the country. This assumes, of course, that the money goes towards the defense of the country...

Other sources of revenue explored during this period were revivals of Forestry laws, where the king claimed ownership of all land that had once been forest (and so could charge for rents etc); knighthood fines, whereby the king reserved the right to re-knight any peer at his coronation, and those who did not attend were forced to pay a fine; forced loans, similar to ship money, where the king forced noblemen to pay a kind of defense tax in case of foreign invasion (real or otherwise); and the selling of wardships of wealthy orphaned children to noblemen. 

Charles could not pass new laws, because he needed parliament for that. Instead, he merely revived laws still on the statute books, so in essence he was doing nothing illegal or wrong. However, when people appealed such things as the knighthood fines, judges did often find against the king, which in turn led to their dismissal - another mark of the tyrant?

This couldn't last, of course, and it was the outbreak of the Bishops' War in Scotland that signalled this for Charles. He simply didn't have the money necessary to raise an army to meet the Covenanters in 1640. 

The Short Parliament
In April 1640 Charles called parliament. Immediately, the MPs began to lodge complaints about the King's conduct for the period of his personal rule, with very little being decided for Charles' own aims. When he demanded money to pay for the army, he was told 'Till the liberties of the House and kingdom were cleared, they knew not whether they had anything to give or no'. Charles' ally the Earl of Strafford successfully caused a rift between the Lords and the Commons before Charles dissolved the parliament after three weeks. Peace was made with the Scots in October, whereby Charles agreed to basically pay the Scots off, then called another parliament that November. 

The Long Parliament
This time, the MPs were ready. Before attempting anything else, they forced Charles to sign into law some key pieces of legislation, with actual threats of violence made if he failed to do so. In addition to signing the death warrant for Strafford, he was made to repeal the Ship Tax, the abolition of the royal prerogative courts (which Charles had used to decide many appeals in his favour during the personal rule), and most importantly, the Triennial Act. This last ensured that a parliament must be called for at least fifty days in any three year period. He was then forced to agree that parliament could only be dissolved by its own agreement, with an Act of Parliament passed to such an effect. Thus began the Long Parliament, which sat until 1648 more or less continuously. 

However, all was not united under this new parliament. Strafford's discord had obviously done the trick, as his trial kept the Houses split and a pro-Charles faction soon emerged. MPs were keen to redress the religious reforms that Charles had implemented with William Laud, who had also been arrested, and the legality of the King's meddling in religious affairs was questioned. However, while many MPs began to move for a removal of Laudian reforms, it didn't take long for appeals to come in requesting the reinstatement of the bishops. 

The situation in Ireland in 1641, with the Catholic uprising bringing news of ghastly atrocities being committed against Protestant English settlers there, caused control of the army to become a major issue in parliament. It was at this time that the Grand Remonstrance was presented to the King by John Pym, who had listed all of Charles' misdeeds over the period of personal rule, and possible solutions to each. Parliament requested the power to appoint commanders in the army and navy. The King refused, and refuted the Grand Remonstrance. When news reached him of a plot to impeach his Catholic wife for her alleged part in a Catholic plot against the country, Charles decided to act. 

In 1642, Charles moved to arrest the five leaders of the Commons who had been most vociferously against him. Forewarned, they did not attend the parliament when Charles burst in, so he left London for Oxford with his royalist followers, and set up the Oxford Parliament. Parliament in Westminster then decreed that all measures it passed did not require the royal assent to be come law, and passed the Militia Ordnance that gave it control over the army. Charles revived the Commission of Array that allowed him to appoint a Commissioner in each county, who would be responsible for raising the local militia into an army. 

Charles went first to Hull, to make use of the arsenal created there during his dealings in Scotland, but was barred entry by the parliamentarian governor. Arguably, the expulsion of the royalists from Hull was the first military action of the English Civil War. Frustrated, Charles moved south to Nottingham and, on 22 August 1642, raised his standard. Parliament had during this time appointed the Earl of Essex as commander of their army, and tasked him with 'rescuing' the King from the 'desperate persons' he was with. 

It was war! 

It's interesting to look back and see where such comparatively small steps eventually led. Charles saw it as his right, as King, to govern his subjects as he saw fit. When he was challenged, he went into a fit of pique and circumstances pushed him into war with his own people. 

There is, to my mind, a definite sense of smugness about parliament once they had secured their own safety with the Triennial Act and the Act against Dissolution - perhaps if they had been more circumspect war would have been avoided. Of course, circumspection is perhaps a tall order to ask from a nation who had been under what they had perceived to be a tyrannical rule for eleven years. 

At any rate, war was inevitable, with the royalist forces gathered in the west midlands, and the parliamentarians moving through the east midlands to meet them (collecting Oliver Cromwell from Cambridgeshire on the way). Come back next time, for a series of snapshot views of the conflict!

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