When Charles I came to the throne in 1625, he inherited his father’s fractious relationship with Parliament. James and Charles both saw the English throne as their divine right. Literally. They had a right to rule over the kingdom and no one had a right to question their decrees. The English Parliament, ever the contrarians, thought it would be only fitting to have a voice in such things as their own taxation. After all, according to ancient custom only Parliament had the right to approve new taxes on the people. Charles, as James had done, tried to rule without Parliament for years on end, but when a rebellion broke out in Scotland in 1639, Charles was forced to call a new Parliament to levy taxes to support the military expedition to punish the Scots.

Charles_I_(1630s)

Calling the parliament, that… didn’t go so well. Parliament refused to do anything until the King listened to their demands for reform. Charles said, “Go away” and that was that. That first parliament of 1640 sat for only three weeks and is known in history as the Short Parliament.

Later in the year, Charles gave in and called a new parliament (this one called the Long Parliament) and promised that yes, well, maybe he’d think about listening to what the Commons had to say, but they bloody well had better vote for new taxes because the Scots were still revolting!

Prayerbook Rebellion

Over the course of 1641, Charles and Parliament were at increasing loggerheads, with neither side wholly winning, but increasing acrimony on both sides of the equation. Charles close advisor and friend, the Earl of Stafford was executed by the prompting of Parliament, while Charles secured a peace and eventual military alliance with the Scots.

Finally, in January 1642, Charles had had enough of dealing with Parliament and decided to show them his power in full. He chose five MPs who were particularly troublesome to his political goals and decided to arrest them for treason. Being something of a histrionic man, Charles chose to enter Parliament himself, at the head of an armed guard, to arrest the MPs himself. Before he could arrive, the word came that he was coming with soldiers and the five MPs were shuffled off into hiding. Charles entered the House of Commons, surrounded by armed men and ascended to the throne of the Speaker of the House. He asked the Speaker to point out the men whom he had come to arrest. Charles had never laid eyes on his political opponents before. They were names to him, not faces.

The reply of the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, has ever since then been cited as a pivotal moment in the history of parliamentary democracy in the English speaking world.

May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this is to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.

Charles was forced to leave the House of Commons, humiliated and cowed. The first shots of the English Civil War followed soon after.

 

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