Wednesday, 20 October 2010

PARLIAMENTARY HISTORY IN THE 1620s: IN OR OUT OF PERSPECTIVE?


(This article was written by Professor Christopher Thompson. He has given his permission to post it on my blog).

The debate about the origins of the English Civil War is as old as the conflict itself. The view taken by S.R.Gardiner and C.H.Firth that it was largely the result of the constitutional and religious struggles between the early Stuart kings and their subjects long ago ceased to be regarded as adequate. The focus of investigation switched to economic and social causes and beyond to the examination of urban and county history. Such has been the pace at which these enquiries were conducted that no new orthodoxy or synthesis commanding widespread assent has emerged.

The seminal influence of Wallace Notestein and his colleagues and pupils in the United States ensured that the importance of Parliamentary proceedings in this period was not forgotten. Our debt to the work of American scholars in this field has grown considerably in the last decade and a half with the publication of some of the major sources for the subject and a flow of studies on individual sessions and institutional procedures. Here in England, the influence of the History Schools of Oxford and Cambridge has been equally apparent in recent years. But the piecemeal work of revision in both countries has been superseded with the publication by Conrad Russell of a series of articles and a remarkable book on the Parliamentary politics of the 1620s. Together, they constitute a radical challenge to the old orthodoxies about early Stuart Parliamentary history.

The genesis of Russell’s work lies in a conscious protest against the ‘Whig’ view that Parliament was set on a collision course with the Crown leading inevitably to a struggle for supremacy in the state. He therefore set out to confute the belief that Parliament was a powerful institution and to undermine the contention that there was a constitutional struggle between ‘government’ and ‘opposition’. His polemically brilliant article, ‘Parliamentary History in Perspective, 1604-1629’, was devoted to demonstrating that the withholding of supply was not an effective bargaining counter. 

There was indeed no systematic attempt to make supply conditional on the redress of grievances: on the one occasion that this was tried – over impositions in 1614 – the manoeuvre failed. And there was relatively little effort until 1626 to bargain over the amount of supply demanded by the Crown. His further denial that the House of Commons had wide-ranging constitutional aims or that it intended to restrict the prerogatives of the monarch and enlarge its own powers struck at the heart of Whig views. On the contrary, as he showed in his book, Parliaments and English Politics, 1621-1629, the constitutional ideas of M.P.s were conservative, aiming at consensus within the House and harmony with the king. It was for this reason that they were more reluctant to force confrontation with the monarch over their privileges than has sometimes been supposed. Because there was no clear Court or government policy, let alone a substantial legislative programme, because of the breadth of the Court’s political and religious patronage, because, indeed, Court support was vitally necessary for a successful career in the counties, it was institutionally and ideologically impossible for there to be a fundamental ‘Court-Country’ division.

It was not until the late-1620s that the rise of Arminianism made religion a controversial subject. The persistent localism of M.P.s made them reluctant to accept responsibility for financing the war into which the Duke of Buckingham and Prince Charles had led them in 1624. As a result, the administrative machinery of the kingdom proved increasingly unable to cope with the burden placed on it by the war effort. Parliament’s failure to accept its responsibilities inevitably raised questions about its continuing existence and it was no surprise that it was dispensed with after 1629. To interpret the Parliamentary history of the period since 1604 as a contest for power between government and opposition is an illusion. “Before 1640, Parliament was not powerful, and it did not contain an ‘opposition’.”

Professor Russell’s case is a formidable one, argued with great learning and winning general acceptance from his reviewers. Many of his arguments – about the basic conservatism of M.P.s and their desire to preserve a harmonious balance between the rights of the subject and those of the king or on the contribution that Court faction made to the revival of Parliamentary judicature in the 1620s – were already familiar. His attempt to reassess Parliamentary history in the light of the research conducted into county politics in the early seventeenth century is a welcome one. If his general analysis is sound, then our view of the political history of the period must be profoundly altered. It is on this point that there has been most reaction.
 There have been vigorous counter-attacks to re-capture the intellectual territory he has taken, to re-establish the importance of long-term constitutional and ideological differences and to re-emphasise the significance of social conflict. The use of the term ‘opposition’ has been strongly defended. But it is noticeable that none of these attempts to undermine the bastions of his position have tempted Professor Russell out of his citadel.

It may therefore be of interest to look again at some of the central issues he has raised to see how far his claims can be fully sustained. It may then be possible to reconsider, however schematically, the analytical framework in which he has placed the politics of the period.

The terms in which Russell formulated his original argument and subsequently developed it are of prime importance. He was concerned with the “ingrained assumption of English Parliamentary historians that Parliament, well before the Civil War, was already set on a course which led to serious challenges to the Crown and ultimately to political supremacy.” The theory of the ‘high road to Civil War’ marked by periodic constitutional milestones implied in his view the belief that Parliament was a powerful institution: “ it is only if Parliament is thought of as a great power in the State that it can be made to fill the role for which it is cast, as a potential challenger to the king for supreme power.”

Its corollary is the belief that “the Parliaments of these years witnessed a constitutional struggle between two ‘sides’, government and opposition, or, in modern language, court and country.” It is on these propositions “logically implied in statements made by well-known historians” which “have gained the status of received opinions” that he wreaked such terrible destruction. What is striking about his analysis, quite apart from the exculpation of Notestein from wholehearted subscription to its provisions, is that its adherents are nowhere identified nor are their views cited in detail. I have no doubt that some statements along these lines can be found but I am not persuaded that they have enjoyed much scholarly currency in recent times.

 My second reservation is more serious. It is not essential to view Parliament as “a great power in the State” in order to argue that there were persistent areas of conflict with the Crown: its role, or more particularly that of the House of Commons, as defender of the rights and liberties of the subject and its responsibilities as the representative body of the kingdom provide a more satisfying explanatory framework.

To argue furthermore from the contents of the opening speeches by King James to successive meetings that there was little or no Conciliar desire to legislate (apart from the issue of the Union with Scotland) and therefore much less power for either House to obstruct royal wishes involves a drastic foreshortening of perspective. It renders inexplicable the Earl of Salisbury’s efforts to manage the business of the first Parliament of the reign, the bills of grace prepared by the Privy Council and offered on the King’s behalf in 1614, Conciliar preparations for dealing with grievances before the 1621 Parliament and the measures taken in the light of proceedings then which paved the way for some of the legislation of 1624. It is in the mid-1620s, as D.H.Willson pointed out, that the break in preparations comes. The contraction in the Crown’s legislative programme to little more than a demand for supply and the decline in the arts of Parliamentary management was a slower process than Russell recognised. 

The importance of the process of bargaining between the King and the Privy Council on the one hand and the House of Commons on the other over supply and the redress of grievances is thereby partially obscured. As a result, the explanation for the deterioration in relations between them and the development of sustained criticism of the Crown’s methods of raising finance is reduced to Court faction and localist resistance to taxation. This is much too rigid a formula to sustain the explanatory burden.

It is true that Russell was able to support his initial analysis by offering a test of Parliamentary power over the granting of supply and the redress of grievances. “A monopoly of the power of extraordinary taxation was the only means by which Parliament could, in a situation of conflict, hope to force its will on a reluctant Crown.” But this apparently potent weapon proved surprisingly ineffective in practice. The ability to link subsidies with the redress of grievances did not confer any significant bargaining power on the House of Commons in the first Parliament of King James and the attempt to force the Crown to abandon its right to levy impositions in 1614 ended in dismal failure. It was even further from the minds of M.P.s to use this power as a lever in 1621 when they voted two subsidies to the King just over a fortnight after the opening of the session. Subsidies were voted in 1624 before grievances were discussed.

Admittedly, the House of Commons went through the motion of requesting redress before supply in 1625 but this was not successful and the attempt to grant Tonnage and Poundage for only one year backfired when Charles went on collecting it without statutory authority. It was only in 1626 that a belated attempt was made to link supply with the redress of grievances by voting subsidies early and then delaying the bill in committee to see how the King would respond to the attack on Buckingham. But Charles’s decision to dissolve Parliament and his success in collecting the Forced Loan called the point of this manoeuvre into question.

Its repetition in 1628 did not prevent Charles evading the restrictions of the Petition of Right. “The conclusion appears irresistible that the withholding of supply was not a powerful bargaining counter. At the end of the Parliament of 1628, the King still had impositions, Tonnage and Poundage, Buckingham, and, as the event was to show, the powers of arbitrary taxation and arbitrary imprisonment. Parliament’s inability to sustain a constitutional struggle with the Crown appeared to have been clearly proved. The one challenge in James’s reign had achieved nothing, and three in four years at the beginning of Charles’s reign had merely called Parliament’s survival into question ... if Parliament was to continue at all, it would be on the King’s terms.”

This appears to be a convincing explanation of the relative impotence of Parliament in general and of the House of Commons in particular. It is very doubtful, however, whether the test of financial coercion which Russell applies is a valid one. In the first place, it ignores the other sources of revenue – from the sale of land or titles, the resources of the customs farms and other levies on external trade, the granting of patents and monopolies, the exploitation of feudal rights and, ultimately, of the Crown’s emergency powers – which were available right up until the autumn of 1640 in default of Parliamentary supply. It is not, therefore, enough for Russell to contend that the sums offered were too small to be worth bargaining for or that the concessions Parliament sought were worth more than the prospective supply.

There were alternatives open to James and Charles up to and after the Short Parliament. Secondly, the argument is hardly compatible with the prolonged negotiations that took place between the two Houses and King James over the surrender of wardship and purveyance in return for an assured annual income in the Parliament of 1604 to 1610. It was precisely the power of the House of Commons and the House of Lords to sanction an alternative means of raising supply from the subject that made a bargain with Parliament so attractive to Salisbury and the King. On the subject of the negotiations over the Great Contract, Russell says absolutely nothing. His remarks to the effect that supply in 1614 was conditional on the abandonment of impositions are misleading: the House of Commons decided to defer discussion of supply until the issue of impositions had been resolved but informed the King that supply would be granted at the end of the session. The quarrel with the House of Lords over Bishop Neile’s remarks on the subject prevented any further progress. Even when James’s ultimatum on supply had been delivered, the Commons offered supply if he would hear the arguments against impositions in the normal Parliamentary way.

There is no sign in the records of the King being “asked to choose between impositions, at £70,000 a year, and a sum unlikely to exceed two subsidies, of £70,000 each, with no certainty that they would be followed by more.” It was James’s insistence on supply regardless of the redress of grievances that precipitated the dissolution. Nor is it true to say that “the issue of impositions remained unmentioned” in the next Parliament until December, 1621.

There was a persistent stream of complaints about the burden impositions placed on trade from February of that year onwards. Sir Robert Phelips, whom Russell quotes as his authority for stating that the lower House had not discussed the issue before 5th December, had explicitly denied the King’s right to impose a week earlier. Serjeant Hitcham’s attempt to defend impositions in April, 1624 resulted in his speech being erased from the Journal. The charges against Lord Treasurer Middlesex included, as Russell himself notes, allegations over the unauthorised levying of impositions. This is hardly “the most deafening” of silences. 

Attempts were subsequently made to settle the issue along with that of the collection of Tonnage and Poundage in 1625, 1626, 1628 and 1629. The comparison Russell draws with the apparent lack of protest over the collection of Tonnage and Poundage without Parliamentary sanction and the absence of objections from M.P.s to its continuing collection is poorly chosen. The draft declaration made by the House of Commons in June, 1626 and the formal one of June, 1628 specifically condemned the taking of Tonnage and Poundage and other impositions, in the latter case because it was a breach of the fundamental laws of the kingdom.

Russell’s handling of the issue of supply is just as wayward in other instances. In February, 1621, King James’s initial attempt to gain supply on the 5th, the first full day of business, was frustrated when the House of Commons refused to discuss the subject until the attempt to restrict members’ freedom of speech was abandoned: the move was effective enough to induce James to make concessions ten days later whereupon a free gift of two subsidies was agreed.
 The further subsidy offered in November, 1621 was intended to keep the army in the Palatinate in being while the Commons incidentally completed the passage of legislation: a full discussion of supply for war was envisaged in a session after Christmas. There was no sign here of “a sharp fall ... in the bargaining power control of the subsidy conferred on the House of Commons.” The claim that the subsidies voted in March, 1624 were granted “before grievances were discussed” is not supported by his own subsequent account of proceedings in the lower House and is in implied conflict with his observation that “there was no possible further concession for which members could have been holding out.” Even with the exception of 1614, it is impossible to accept his assertion that “on almost every other occasion up to 1626, they voted as many subsidies as were asked of them and did so with a reasonably good grace.” King James was obliged to explain away the request he made for a grant in June, 1604 and the addition of a third subsidy and a final two fifteenths to a grant made in 1606 was carried by a single vote. In July, 1610, the grant of one subsidy and one fifteenth had to be carried by a division and was followed by the defeat of a proposal to grant two subsidies.

 It is clear, too, that the single subsidy offered in November, 1621 fell far short of what was anticipated. James’s demand for five subsidies and ten fifteenths for the “great business” of the Palatinate plus a further one subsidy and two fifteenths each year until his debts were paid had to be hurriedly explained, qualified and reduced by Buckingham and Prince Charles in March, 1624. The two subsidies granted to the new King in July, 1625 were a free gift. But there is nothing surprising at all in the House’s discussion of a further grant at Oxford in August, 1625. Since the request came from Charles himself, the Commons could do no less. But, despite personal pleas by the King and Duke, Russell’s dictum did not hold good: there was no offer of supply and no grace whatever about the attack on Buckingham that followed.

The problem with Russell’s entire account of the interaction between supply and the redress of grievances in early Stuart Parliaments springs from the mechanistic criteria on which his judgment is based. His adoption of Professor Koenigsberger’s suggestion that “a Parliament which failed to insist on redress of grievances before supply had no chance of winning its struggle with the monarchy” led him to the conclusion, once he had examined the early seventeenth century evidence, that “the English Parliament before 1629 was heading for extinction.”

Yet this test is not one which accords with Tudor Parliamentary practice or, as his analysis shows, with that of early Stuart Parliaments. His idea that delaying or threatening to delay supply was not used as a device to secure concessions until the mid-1620s is equally fallacious. It had been discussed in Elizabethan Parliaments and was actually employed in 1601 when the threat to delay the subsidy bill in the House of Commons produced almost immediate concessions over the grievance of monopolies. 

The Earl of Salisbury warned his fellow Councillors before the 1606 session that the King’s programme, which included supply, might be delayed in the lower House “because it is not unlike that many which have desires of their own will at least protract the consent until they see some hope of retribution, and others which have absolute indisposition to all, or part of them, will come prepared with as many arguments as wit or will can furnish.” Lord Chancellor Ellesmere complained of M.P.s in 1610 who planned to prevent any grant being made at all. Delaying tactics were certainly employed in 1614 and 1621.

Bargaining over supply and the redress of grievances took place throughout the period. It did so within a set of conventions that the artificial test applied by Russell ignores. The House of Commons was perfectly capable of challenging royal exactions and of refusing concessions from the monarch if the subject was expected to pay too high a price. It could and did delay discussion on supply to persuade the King to consider concessions on controversial issues well before 1626. The result was that the Crown was forced to turn towards a more vigorous exploitation of its prerogative revenues in peacetime and of its emergency powers in the military crisis of the late-1620s. Both evoked a fundamental challenge from the House of Commons.

The second theme strongly developed in Russell’s work involves a shift in focus away from Parliament. The majority of important political events in England took place, so he argues, outside its walls: major decisions were usually taken at Court. Diplomatic manoeuvring over Prince Charles’s marriage, the trade depression of the 1620s, county reactions to the billeting of soldiers later in the decade, etc., “all deserve more prominence than the echoes of these events which can be heard at Westminster.” Parliaments were thus “ad hoc gatherings of men reacting to events elsewhere” and their deliberations ought to be seen “in part, as second-hand history.” The Court itself, especially under James and “throughout Buckingham’s period of power”, was open to men of widely differing political and religious persuasions.

James’s lack of energy and of enthusiasm for political programmes precluded him from presiding over an ideologically polarised country. He came to the last years of his reign being served by a crypto-Catholic Secretary of State, Sir George Calvert, and an Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, “who was as nearly Puritan as most of the House of Commons.” Buckingham avoided such polarisation by the sheer universality of his patronage. He was the patron of the Puritan divine, John Preston, and of the Arminians in the Church: the York House conference between them in February, 1626 was not a contest between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’: it was a contest between rival groups of his supporters. And the quarrel over predestination and free will remained “first and foremost a dispute within the Court” in the years before 1629. Even so, Buckingham’s dominance was never absolute and it was possible for a major Court figure like the Earl of Pembroke to use Parliament to attack him and to survive. In fact, Court faction fed the revival of Parliamentary judicature. But to have opposed a Court whose leading figures displayed such a range of views “would have required a formidable feat of political gymnastics.” Few M.P.s were “so eccentric that they could not find one among the many potential court patrons to share their political objectives.”

Court favour was, in any case, necessary to enable the most rustic of country gentlemen to perform his local duties. The good will of the King and the Privy Council was a prerequisite for appointment to office and for promotion: hence, the concern of men like Eliot, Phelips and Wentworth to keep open their links with the Court. But they also had to accommodate themselves to the views of their neighbours and countrymen in their localities and when they represented them in Parliament. Under the strain of war, which had been entered more in a spirit of compliance than of enthusiasm in 1624, their loyalties came under increasing pressure: service to the Court conflicted with duty to the Country. The attempt to put local administration on a war footing brought relations between the centre and the localities and between the King and Parliament to the point of collapse. It was only the commitment of Charles to customary ways that kept the institution in being for so long.

There is no doubt about the compelling nature of this synthesis and the deep mark it has left on subsequent studies. It offers a persuasive combination of analysis and narrative based on the concept of an ‘open’ Court interacting with the constraints imposed by the relatively closed world of county politics. More cogently still, it provides a key to the functional breakdown of administration which hamstrung the war effort in the late-1620s.

Nonetheless, it is not entirely convincing. First of all, it lacks a sustained analysis of Court and Conciliar politics without which the Parliamentary history of the period is deprived of a vital dimension. The interplay between Conciliar politics and the debates in the two Houses is only illuminated intermittently in Russell’s work. Secondly, it implies that the Court remained ‘open’ and that the range of its political and religious patronage did not contract during the 1620s. It is highly doubtful whether this is true after the spring or summer of 1626 when the resort to the emergency powers of the Crown and the rise of Arminian influence in the Church altered the political perspective and religious complexion of the Court. The domestic conflict that ensued clearly involved an ideological element.

Finally, it is altogether too simple to explain Parliamentary protest in 1628 as the result of the pressure the war measures adopted since 1624 put on county administration. Men, money and munitions were provided on a scale not seen since the late-sixteenth century. The machinery linking central and local government did work under this pressure. The problem lies in explaining how this was achieved and why the effort could not be sustained.

Russell’s analysis of the evolution of Court politics in the early-1620s and the effects of this process on the Commons’ debates on foreign policy illustrate my case. The major issue of this period concerned the role England should play in the developing crisis over Bohemia and the subsequent invasion of the Palatinate by Spanish and Imperial forces. King James and an important group of pro-Spanish Privy Councillors led by the Earl of Arundel were committed to resolving the crisis without imperilling England’s diplomatic relationship with Spain: others, including the Earls of Pembroke and Southampton and Archbishop George Abbot, were more inclined to support overt intervention on behalf of James’s son-in-law, the Elector Frederick. The picture Russell offers is of an initially quiescent House of Commons drawn by conciliar invitation into a debate on foreign policy in November, 1621 and led (or, perhaps, misled) by confusion over the Court’s official line into raising the issue of Prince Charles’s proposed marriage to the Infanta, thereby provoking the dispute on privilege which led to the dissolution. The failure, however, of the marriage negotiations meant that the House of Commons had to be cajoled by the Prince and the Duke of Buckingham aided by Pembroke and his allies into supporting a breach of the treaties and into providing supply for a war. The succession of Charles to the throne in the spring of 1625 confirmed the Duke’s supremacy at Court and quietened his critics there. But the attempt to win further supply foundered on the resistance of the lower House to the war policy. It was the only Court-Country confrontation of the decade. Unfortunately, the elaboration of this analysis and the conclusions drawn from it are largely wrong.

There was an entirely clear ‘Court’ line articulated by Lord Digby, Lord Treasurer Middlesex and Lord Keeper Williams, later repeated by their fellow Privy Councillors, Edmondes and Weston, in the autumn of 1621 that supply should be given for the Palatinate and the broader issues of war strategy forborne. The call for an expedition to the West Indies, which Russell attributes to Solicitor General Heath and uses as evidence of official encouragement for a wider war, was actually made by George Shilleto. Goring’s famous intervention on 29th November indicates that the Palatinate was the central objective in Court policy and a threat of war against Spain a useful bargaining point in the conflict envisaged in the Empire. Even those like Sir Thomas Wentworth, Sir Edward Coke and Sir Francis Seymour who, according to Russell, wished merely to pass bills, were prepared to support supply for the forces already in the Palatinate and to discuss the war strategy in detail after Christmas.

The Court’s objectives were much more clearly defined in 1621 than a reading of Russell’s work suggests. So, too, was the willingness of the House of Commons to fund a war. But the failure to obtain supply then and the need to override the resistance of the pro-Spanish group in the Council made the difficulties of managing the House of Commons in 1624 all the greater. New allies – Oxford and Say and Sele in the House of Lords, Sandys, Phelips and Diggs in the Commons – had to be sought by the Prince and the Duke.

It is true that the king would have preferred to have continued to use diplomatic means to recover the Palatinate but he was by no means as isolated at Court as Russell implies. A persuasive case has been put forward by Dr Ball to suggest that James had the assistance and support of the Earl of Pembroke and, indirectly, of Sir Benjamin Rudyerd in seeking adequate supply before foreign adventures were contemplated. There is a marked lack of appreciation of the tactical manoeuvring that went on in the Commons before it was agreed to vote three subsidies and three fifteenths on 20th March. It is difficult to agree that “war had been forced on the House of Commons in circumstances most of its members did not understand” when they were apparently able, as subsidy commissioners, “to go back to their homes and make speeches explaining why they had voted money.” The divisions at Court were not settled by Charles’s accession. All the contemporary evidence from Lord Keeper Williams’s correspondence, the dispatches of the French and Venetian Ambassadors, and the fragments in the State Papers runs directly against Russell’s view that the “one necessary ingredient to an explosive Parliament, an openly divided court” was missing in 1625. These divisions explain why the request for further supply at Westminster in July had to be laid aside. The strain on Conciliar solidarity was equally apparent at Oxford in August where Buckingham tried to use complaints over the lax enforcement of the recusancy laws to bring the Lord Keeper down and where Arundel and Pembroke were questioned in the Privy Council about accusations in the lower House against the Duke.

The renewal of the plea for supply provoked an assault that was clearly the prelude to impeachment proceedings. Russell’s failure to notice any of this material on Court conflicts vitiates his entire account. Just as the Parliament of 1624 witnessed the defeat of the pro-Spanish group on the Privy Council and the widening of the range of the Prince and Duke’s contacts, so that of 1625 marked the estrangement of many of their Parliamentary allies from the previous year. The Court was no longer ‘open’ in the sense it had been in 1621 with room for differing views on foreign policy: the nature of the war policy adopted since 1624 meant that its representative character had been partly lost and that its range of Parliamentary contacts was contracting sharply.

The political contraction of the Court was accompanied by a notable change in its religious complexion. Under James, the episcopate was largely filled by men who were doctrinal Calvinists. But a minority of men like Neile, Andrewes and Montagu existed who rejected predestinarian teaching and who profited from the King’s distaste for criticism tinged with Calvinist undertones during the negotiations for the Spanish match. The prospect of winning Prince Charles’s support is known to have been discussed by them in 1623 and it is likely that the publication of Richard Montagu’s ‘New Gag’, which reduced the number of issues disputed with Rome and which specifically repudiated predestinarian Calvinism, was intended as a deliberate challenge.

There is some evidence to suggest that the petition from Yates and Ward complaining about the book to the House of Commons in 1624 had the indirect backing of Archbishop George Abbot. But the lower House’s decision to refer the work to Abbot to deal with was frustrated by King James’s action in passing it to a small group of sympathisers – Williams, Neile and Dean White of Carlisle – for examination. Montagu’s clarification of his views in ‘Appello Caesarem’ was equally provocative to his Parliamentary opponents. The condemnation of his doctrines in the House of Commons in July, 1625 revealed that he was the servant and chaplain of the King himself. Montagu and his episcopal supporters - Laud, Howson and Buckeridge – responded by appealing to Buckingham with a denial of Parliament’s jurisdiction. The issue was barely taken any further in the second session at Oxford. But the King’s personal support for the Arminians could be detected in the exclusion of bishops of Calvinist persuasion from appointments to episcopal committees. Buckingham was placed in the position of having to choose between Montagu, whose doctrines were debated at York House on 11th and 17th February, 1626, and John Preston, the noted Puritan divine he had advanced since 1622. John Cosin, one of Montagu’s supporters, closed his account of the conferences by recording that the King “swears his perpetual patronage of our cause.” 

It is significant that this was the moment chosen for the establishment of the Feoffees for Impropriations. Montagu was inevitably the target for a renewed attack in the House of Commons. The 1626 Parliament witnessed an attempt to pass a bill giving statutory authority to the Irish Articles of 1615, thereby rendering Montagu’s doctrinal position untenable since they confirmed Calvinist teaching on grace. It was also a riposte to a royal proclamation forbidding religious controversy. But the dissolution of Parliament in June, 1626 meant that, to all intents and purposes, predestinarian teaching was forbidden. The struggle for control of the Church at its highest level had been won by the Arminians.

These conflicts seriously weakened the King’s control over the House of Lords. The view that the upper House was of secondary importance in the politics of the period is open to question: it was, if anything, of growing importance to the Crown in the late-1620s because its direct influence was so much stronger there than in the Commons. The combined presence of a large number of Privy Councillors and the bench of Bishops provided a solid nucleus of support which was buttressed by the proxy system.

 The adoption of the war policy in 1624 was preceded by a series of reconciliations with peers like Oxford and Southampton who had been confined for their criticism of the Spanish match in 1621 and with Lord Say and Sele who had been committed and interrogated for resisting the benevolence of 1622. It was even easier to win the support of figures like the Earl of Essex, who had served as a volunteer on the continent in the preceding three years, and the Earl of Warwick. Of course, these new allies were only obtained at the cost of alienating the old. It is clear that Arundel opposed a breach with Spain, a view courageously expressed by his ally, Sir George Chaworth, in the House of Commons in March, 1624 and that he was prepared to do what he could to help Bristol and Middlesex stem the tide of charges brought against them. By July, he, Calvert and Williams had been excluded from the negotiations with France. Arundel’s plea to Charles at his accession to allow the Privy Council a share in advising him was not heeded and he came to be suspected of supporting the lower House’s attacks on the Duke. The loss of Pembroke’s support was more serious still. He had been much more cautious about the consequences of breaking the treaties with Spain than Buckingham and Prince Charles had wished. Pembroke is known to have been anxious to secure a firm alliance with France before war with Spain began. By the spring of 1625, he was openly sceptical about the terms Buckingham had obtained. He doubted whether there would be any benefit from the adjournment of Parliament to Oxford and complained to the Earl of Leicester in October, 1625 that “Buckingham carried all business in his heart.”

It was not just Buckingham’s monopoly of influence that exposed him to criticism. The Earl of Essex was alienated by his experiences on the disastrous Cadiz expedition and by the exculpation of Sir Edward Cecil, its incompetent leader, by the Privy Council on his return. The last chance of retaining the support of Warwick and Say was sacrificed at the York House conferences in February, 1626. Amongst the peers, the same pattern – of expansion in the range of the Court’s contacts in 1624 and of contraction in 1625 – can be detected.

The attack on Buckingham in the Parliament of 1626 is one of the best known and least understood set-pieces of the period. The exclusion of half-a dozen of the Commons’ leaders of 1625 by pricking them as Sheriffs allowed M.P.s like Eliot and Diggs to play much more prominent roles. Buckingham also had to take account of his enemies in the upper House from the beginning of the session. On 25th February, a vote was carried against his advice to limit the number of proxies a peer might hold to two in future sessions. A little over a week later, Arundel showed unmistakable signs of interest in the case of the seized French vessel, the St. Peter of Le Havre, which Eliot was charged with pursuing in the Commons.

The discovery that Arundel’s son had secretly married a royal ward without the King’s consent was used as an excuse to confine him and remove an enemy with five proxy votes at his command. The Duke’s efforts to divert the developing attack by sheltering behind royal orders or attempting to provoke disputes on privilege between the two Houses proved unavailing. Furthermore, the position of his supporters in the Lords was gradually undermined. The investigation of precedents undertaken after complaints from the Earl of Lincoln and from Viscount Say and Sele revealed that no peer had previously been committed during a Parliamentary session. Charles was accordingly asked for Arundel’s release on April 19th. 

It was the first of a series of requests that the King attempted to evade. The charges that the Earl of Bristol, who had successfully defied an order not to attend, brought against Buckingham made every vote vital. A request for the Duke’s confinement sent up by the House of Commons after it had presented its charges was lost by only four votes: the four new peers who were immediately created to bolster Buckingham’s position were described as “heavenly Lords as do need no land to walk upon.” Indeed, there is every sign that the House was deliberately dealing as slowly as possible with Bristol’s charges against Buckingham and the King’s counter-allegations against Bristol. Not a single afternoon session – which was customary when the House was pressed for business – was held between April 1st and June 8th. The Lords even adjourned for a week at the end of May when Charles merely promised a reply on Arundel’s release before the end of the Parliament. Eventually, the King was forced to give in: on 8th June, Arundel returned. The tempo of business at once picked up and afternoon sessions were resumed. But the risk that Buckingham might be condemned by the House of Lords was one the King dared not face. On 15th June, against the wishes of the majority of the Privy Council, Parliament was adjourned.

Buckingham’s escape from impeachment meant that the succession struggle that had been going on at Court since the autumn of 1623 was over. His rivals had been defeated and were, with the important exception of Pembroke, driven out. But this was only achieved at the cost of losing almost all the allies acquired in 1624 and by leaving the composition of the inner circle of the King’s advisers narrower than ever before.

The Privy Council lost much of the representative function it had hitherto played. There was furthermore a distinct hardening in the King’s attitude towards Parliament. Far from being the patient but puzzled figure Russell portrays, he was increasingly intolerant of what he regarded as factious opposition and inclined to stress his determination to uphold his royal authority. He found support from Buckingham and his allies on the Privy Council for this view and from a small group of Buckingham’s supporters – the Earls of Dorset and Bridgewater and Bishops Laud and Neile – in the House of Lords.

The King’s overt hostility to Parliament and the ideological alliance between the adherents of royal authoritarianism and the Arminian party in the Church is an established feature of English politics after 1626. To finance the military and naval effort for which he could no longer obtain consent in Parliament, Charles turned to his prerogative and emergency powers. There was nothing new in the forced loan, martial law, billeting, etc., but they led to theoretical justifications of prerogative rule and the visible persecution of those who resisted. Leading country gentlemen like Eliot or Phelips or Wentworth whose Court contacts had withered on the vine looked to Parliament for salvation. The decline in their local prestige caused by the loss of places on the Justices’ bench or removal from the post of Deputy Lieutenant could partly be repaired by victory at the polls. They certainly understood the national function of the House of Commons as their predecessors had done to be to seek remedies for the grievances of the subject. That is why they concentrated on the task of re-establishing the subject’s personal liberties in 1628 and on restoring the purity of religion in 1629.

It is because Russell’s mastery of the resources is so uncertain, because his analysis of the tactics and manoeuvres of the leaders in the two Houses is so fragile, because, indeed, his understanding of the structure of politics in the 1620s rests upon rigid criteria, that the framework within which he has tried to place the Parliaments of this period must be suspect. The weakness of his analysis is partly due to the procedure he adopted in examining the Parliaments in turn. The choice of a single account as a base text for proceedings in the House of Commons carries with it inevitable dangers. Unfortunately, the accounts attributed to Pym for 1621, 1624 and 1625 are not ‘diaries’ taken on the floor of the House at all but edited versions written up later. Some of the comments they contain can be shown to be misleading when checked against other evidence. The use of Stowe Ms.366 in 1628 is open to similar but less serious objections.

Apart from the published letters of John Chamberlain and Sir Thomas Wentworth and the manuscript correspondence of Sir Robert Phelips, there is a surprising lack of reference to other sources. Sir John Eliot’s Negotium Posterorum is used but not his letter-book or his collection of Parliamentary papers at St. Germans. There is only one reference supplied by Dr Tite to the vast Petyt collection in the Inner Temple Library and none at all to the Loseley manuscripts at Guildford. More surprising still, he appears to have missed one of the principal sources for Pym’s career.

The description of the French and Venetian Ambassadors’ reports as “gossip” is particularly unfortunate: they provide, when checked against other sources, the best insight available into the politics of the Court. The Mede to Stuteville letters are directly cited only for 1621. Other important printed sources like the Cornwallis correspondence, the Fairfax papers, James Howell’s letters and the autobiography of Sir John Bramston find no mention.

 Neither the printed extracts nor the extensive originals of the Scudamore manuscripts are mentioned. His failure, moreover, to consult the theses of Miss Dawson and Dr Stoddart on the House of Lords was a serious omission. No one scholar can do everything but there are some things which must be done if a study of the kind Russell has written is to prove sound.

There is an even more fundamental problem at the heart of his work. It has long been apparent that many members of the Commons in the 1620s had ‘Court’ connections through marriage or office or patronage and that many office-holders expressed criticisms in the House of the policies of James and Charles. Because of this overlap and because there is now a better understanding of the role of Court faction, attempts to employ the contemporary terms ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ for political analysis have invariably run into difficulties. Russell’s more flexible approach stressing the importance of local interests in many M.P.s’ minds promises dividends it does not fully pay.

The fact that Westminster was a permanent part of Sir Robert Phelips’s way of life is used in one place to explain his support for war in 1624: elsewhere, he takes the view that the interests of Somerset outweighed those of England in Phelips’s list of priorities. The latitude permitted by this approach suggests that the analytical problem has not been solved at all. There is a curious contrast drawn, moreover, between members with a localist approach and others like Pym, Rich and Rudyerd whose freedom of action was, so it is claimed, dependent on a lack of responsibility to an electorate. Whether this is a real distinction seems highly doubtful since no evidence is adduced to support it. It overlooks, in any case, the more plausible hypothesis that the rhetoric of localism is part of the process of bargaining with the centre: the need to respond to royal fiscal and military demands was in itself a unifying national experience for the governors of the counties. Far too little is said about who controlled the debates, managed the business and manned the committees of the two Houses.

When we are told that a lower House containing Sir Edward Coke, Sir Edwin Sandys, Sir Robert Phelips, Sir Dudley Diggs, Sir Thomas Wentworth and many other prominent figures lacked “any effective leadership” in 1621, it is impossible to accept this unadorned assertion. There are whole sections of the narrative – on the debates in the House of Commons leading up to the Petition of Right in May, 1628, for example – in which no attempt at political analysis is made. But it is perfectly possible, as John Ball showed a generation ago, to identify different groups amongst the leaders in the House of Commons, to describe their views and analyse the evolution of their tactics. It is also possible to show, often in detail, how the politics and debates of the two Houses are connected. What Russell offers is a study of Parliamentary history with many of these ingredients missing and the vacuum filled with localism. The echoes produced make no sense in the study of a national institution.

Conrad Russell’s work is an important contribution and will stimulate debate in the years to come. The assumption of Parliamentary weakness on which it is based is, however, highly questionable. It has always been recognised that the early Stuart monarchs had extra-Parliamentary resources which they could and did exploit. Even so, the financial difficulties confronting James and Charles in the 1620s made recourse to Parliament essential if there was to be effective intervention in the European struggle then raging. It is this rather than any principled belief in Parliamentary institutions on the part of King Charles that explains the meetings in 1626, 1628 and 1629. Any practical alternative would have been welcome to him. But the methods by which King James had raised revenue inevitably aroused controversy in 1621 and 1624.

Without the necessary expertise to manage the lower House, it proved essential to employ some of the most prominent members as intermediaries to obtain supply for war in 1624. Unfortunately, the war policy proved an expensive and oppressive failure. It is perfectly true that there was no struggle for power between the King and Parliament in the late-1620s. But there was a bitter and prolonged effort to set limits to the exercise of the royal prerogative and emergency powers. This conflict transformed the complexion of the upper ranks of the episcopate and undermined royal control of the House of Lords. It left a permanent legacy of distrust for the King and his circle of advisers that was to be a powerful influence in the crisis of 1641. It is this conflict and this connection that Russell has left essentially unexplored. The history of the Parliaments of the 1620s and of their place in English politics has still to be written.

[Seminar paper delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1981 and the University of Birmingham in 1985. Published by The Orchard Press, Wivenhoe, Essex (ISBN 0 948206 15 2) in January, 1986. Copyright: Christopher Thompson]



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