The Great Charter
We all know that the English government itself is constructed by two main points : the King and the parliament, but what we are going to explore is the middle ages’ government of the kingdom and its crisis. Indeed, the Parliament has its own unique history which starts back in the 13th century with the Magna Carta ( it means ‘great charter’). This document imposed almost by means of force in 1215 under king John of England made its first step of governance which main objectives were against the king in varieties of ways. This was the first time ,when king’s power and control were inhibited and influenced, and indeed it was neither the last time. Long live the King! King John and every other monarch after him, viewed this new ‘law’ as unrightfully limitation of the government rights and something that stood against the freedom of the crown. However, the arriving of the Magna Carta had indeed extreme importance, despite the disapproval of the monarch, also possessed great significance to the welfare of the common people.
Here are certain exempts from it:
No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned,…or in any other way destroyed…except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice.
No scutage [tax] or aid [subsidy] shall be imposed in our kingdom, unless by the common counsel of our kingdom…
Only from these examples of the document , we could easily realize how fundamental was the imposing of such a doctrine in England. New leading role was taking the course of the kingdom and the king himself left without a choice to be subject of the law not above it like before. Magna Carta transformed many aspects of the government itself,such as the regulation and the taxation system,the operation of the justice within the kingdom and so on. In the time when the king viewed it as his worst nightmare, the people and especially the landowners acknowledged it as a salvation from their monarch’s demands. Be looking throughout the centuries ,we could see how different English monarchs refused point blank to accept the new order, by rejecting the parliament and acting without its consent. For instance, at the very beginning , King John’s successor King Henry III continued with the unbearable taxation ,which appeased people more and more, and did not show progress in his relationship with the barons (and why not, they were enemies to the crown). Moreover, in 1258 the barons forced in some way the king to agree to national assemble of the parliament three times in year, but the king did not honour his pledge and probably saw this only as an idle treat. Instead, he went on his unsuccessful attempts to gain more power and land in France, which only exacerbated the situation even more if that was possible. Eventually, as a result of the king’s disobedience ,he was defeated in a battle by one of his barons (Simon de Montfort) which was fervent supporter of the new order.
However, I would like to rearrange the focus of our attention somewhat latter period in the history of England or more specifically during the 17th century. As that period is famous for its haphazard turbulence, we could see an ample example how the parliament and the king ruled in something different than synchrony.
Before proceeding, we need to have quick look at Elizabeth I’s relations were with the parliament during her reign (1558-1603). Not surprisingly, there were many discrepancies between the both parties, and neither one of them was in mood to heal the breach. For instance, when Elizabeth wanted to impose new taxation to cover war against Spain and Ireland ,the procedure did not run so smoothly as she’d expected- eventually she was left with no choice, but to sell crown land in order to gain financial backing. On a whole, during the queen reign ,the parliament gathered together only three times with its period of staying no more than three mouths. The monarch was , in that time, in authority to summon and dismiss the parliament in any convenient occasions and he/she could put veto on every law.
The distant and somewhat not so distant difficulties between Elizabeth and the House of Commons were nothing in comparison with those with her successor –James I.
James I of England (and as James VI of Scotland) arrived on time as suitable successor to the English throne, due to unfortunate lack of heir on it (as Elizabeth was famously well-known as the virgin Queen). Nobody at that time was capable of recognizing the great danger of the Stuart dynasty, and why they should as the future king was man already knowing the weight of the power and had two children (possible heirs to the throne), also he was Protestant, in other words the Scottish king was the best choice for a mile or at least it did seem like that. Some historians regard this period of Jame’s reign as preparation of the civil war, which they view it as inevitable event, but during 70s and 80s of the 20th century many abandoned this theory or flatly rejected it. However , there are many speculations which support this unavoidable civil war and nobody refuse to accept the complexion of the situation during the Stuart’s reign.
The first battle of wills, between the King and the parliament, appeared for the first time in 1610 when James was on the verge of introducing the so-called ‘the Great Contract’ , but the barons thwarted his ambitious. In nutshell, the contract would have granted the king with right for annual taxation in return of abolishing of certain feudal revenues. This provoked the outrageous outcry amoung the elite and the barons , so it’s not surprising that the contract was turned down. James’s bewilderment of the situation came from the fact that the British and Scottish parliament‘s way of control was ,to put it mildly, slightly different from one another. For example, the latter was been almost under complete control of the monarch ,which granted him/her with much more freedom of authority than the first one.
However , the real storm came in 1620 when the immense tension between the King and the Court became painfully clear. The difficulties were due to many factors like religion, foreign policy and even engagement in war, but none of them contributed so much as the role of one man -George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. His personality was the perfect mixture of disaster – indeed charismatic , he gained the king’s favor and his ambitious grew bigger and bigger until he decided that he wanted to be part of the royal-decision making. Intoxicated by his ambitious and popularity , he became inundated to his weakness as a commander.
Little by little , we are coming closer to the core of our discussion, the next thing I will do is to give brief content of the parliament’s assembly between 1621 and 1629 (during that period the parliament was gathered five times , each time with more disastrous consequences than the last one).
Assembly in 1621 : was with the main aim of funding the Protestant Elector Palatine, King James’ son-in-law, in return king James had to declare war on Spain and change his mind in relation with marring his son, prince Charles ,to Spanish princess(which was Catholic). This was much more than evidence how the Parliament crossed the border of its rights and interfered in the foreign policies of the kingdom. James was at least furious and bemused by those regulations while the parliament response was in defense how the king denied “the ancient liberty of parliament for freedom of speech… the same being our ancient and undoubted right and an inheritance received from our ancestors.” Well, the king did not declare war, touch wood!
Assembly in 1625: after unsuccessful ‘woo’ in attempt prince Charles to win the Spanish princess’s heart, under the fervent initiation of the duck of Buckingham, the king eventually considered enough reasonably to declare war on Spain,for which the parliament willingly excepted. In the same year, Charles came to the throne of the age of 25. This was the first moment in which the great incompetence of the Duck arrived on the international stage, it was utter failure both for the crown and for the king.
3th assembly in 1628 : as if the humiliation was not enough , that 3th assembly was summoned in order to be provided new financial backing for the war. However, unexpected difficulties appeared as the parliament wanted to impose impeachment on the Duck due to his dishonored failure. On the other side stood the king ,who for unknown reasons backed up the duck (if that is not king’s loyalty, I don’t know what is it). Consequently, he refused point blank to let the duck to be punished and he illegally put into prison several numbers of the House of Commons. No money granted for the war.
4th assembly : in the light of the previous events ,which in short involved the declaration of war against not only Spain,but France under the leadership of the duck of Buckingham, the parliament met again in order to provide money for those wars. In understandable mood, Sir Benjamin Rudyard, one of the members, voiced his concern that “this is the crisis of parliaments: we shall know by this whether [correction: if] parliaments shall live or die.” However , the MPs had held an ace in their sleeves, they made the king to sign ‘the Petition of Right’ (which was new tool for inhibiting king’s freedom and power). The document was signed, so money were granted.
5th assembly : in January 1629 The parliament was trying to address its new laws in relation with the new petition, but the king was in variance with it. Despite the fact, that he was prohibited to collect customs revenues , the king did not pay much attention. As a result ,three new resolutions were announced with the content of the Pairlament : first one – anyone furthering “popery or Arminianism” was to be considered “a capital enemy to this kingdom”, secondly –anyone who dare to advise the king of collecting custom revenue will be declared the enemy of the kingdom and lastly – anyone performing such actions was ‘’an enemy to the liberties of England.” Charles ,in response, dissolved the parliament, which did not meet in period of another 11 years.