Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Resurgent Aristocracy in England

All across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, monarchs struggled against their traditional aristocratic supporters over ruling authority. The first of these clashes between monarchs and a resurgent aristocracy occurred in England. It eventually resulted in the English Civil War. Although the English Civil War is correctly interpreted as a struggle between Parliament and King over ruling authority, one must remember what lay behind the assertion of Parliamentary power: a resurgent aristocratic order.

In England, the Stuart dynasty had continued the rule in the absolutist tradition of the Tudors. Parliament traditionally had little say in government policies beyond providing financing of the government.  Under the second of the Stuarts, that changed. Parliament and the aristocracy began to challenge absolutism.


When Charles called together his first two Parliaments in 1925 and 1626, he ended up dissolving them. He needed money to fund debts previous military expeditions and to carry out a new war with Spain. Parliament provided only limited funds and  tried to reduce the king's prerogatives. So he dismissed them. To secure revenue, he began collecting forced loans through arrests. Seventy six prominent men were arrested, including including 27 members of the House of Commons. He also raised so called ship money, taxes on seaport towns to upgrade coastal defenses and the navy.


Revenue problems finally forced Charles I to call a Parliament in 1628, He asked for five subsidies.


Parliament replied with its “Petition of Right.” Parliament asked him to wave his prerogatives and to accede to what they called the traditional application of law on the issue of taxation, imprisonment, and martial law. The subsidies were approved in exchange for the king's agreement on prerogatives. Charles intended, however, to disregard the provisions contained in the petition.


These issues arose again the following year when his third Parliament began its second session.

In March 10 1629, the King again dissolved Parliament. He ruled without Parliament for the next seven years through loans from supporters among the nobles. Charles received some financial relief, too,when he signed peace treaties with France and Spain. This reduced his expenses. And with the resumption of overseas trade, the treasury began to grow through customs duties.

Conflict arose between Charles and Parliament over religious issues as well.


Church of England Archbishop William Laud attempted to reduce the nonconformity of Puritans and to institute a more formal, more Catholic form of worship. Puritans were those who wanted a more thorought reformation of the Church of England; most were Presbyterians and independent Congregationalists. Laud's efforts only served to radicalize Puritan dissenters. The pressure on Puritans drove ten of thousands of Congregationalists to the recently established colonies in the wilderness of North America.


Moreover, Charles and Laud planned to force a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer on Scotland and bring that nation's established Presbyterian Church as close as possible to uniformity with the Church of England. It provoked the Scots into open revolt.


In need of funds to put down the Scottish rebellion, he assembled Parliament for the first time in over ten years. Instead of discussing war, however, Parliament wanted to discuss Laud's religious reforms and Charles' continued disregard for the Petition of Right to which he agreed. Parliament began forming committees to investigate the administration's conduct during the eleven years of personal rule.


Charles again dissolved Parliament. Meeting for only three weeks, it became known as the Short Parliament.


He called together Parliament after six months in 1640.


When it resumed its sessions, Parliament aggressively asserted its rights: bills passed abolishing certain royal courts such as the star chamber, requiring Parliamentary meetings every three years, prohibiting the king from dissolving the Parliament without its own consent, eliminating virtually all of the king's prerogative courts, and declaring any taxes illegal that were levied without the approval of Parliament.


Parliament issued what is known as The Grand Remonstrance in 1641. It listed grievances of Parliament and called for the King to relinquish many of his prerogatives, especially those regarding military appointments. Parliament was attempting to bring the military under the control of Parliament.


This provoked a reaction from the King. Charles attempted to arrest some leading members of Parliament, but they escaped. Charles then gathered loyalists in the town of York, where he planned to raise an army to assert his rights.


In June 1641, Parliament sent the Nineteen Propositions, which in fact was an ultimatum demanding that the kind surrender his remaining prerogatives. It proved to be the most aggressive assertion of power yet by the aristocrats who dominated Parliament. It demanded that privy councilors, ministers, and military officers all be placed under the authority of Parliament.

In these disputes, both Parliament and the King appealed to their rights from England's "ancient constitution" in support of their respective positions. In fact, both the monarch and the aristocrats in Parliament were actually attempting to expand their ruling authority beyond their traditional bounds.


Charles rejected the Nineteen Propositions. Parliament began to plans to raise an army to support its view. The King raised his standard and the war was on. The war would determine who had the supremacy in the English constitution and what kind of Protestant politics would the government support.

1 comment:

CW said...

Fascinating post – thanks for the (much needed) history lesson!

Regardless of what the actual origins of today’s conservatism are, it is important to understand that the world is just a continual series of power struggles. Always has been, always will be.