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Charles I Storms the Houses of Parliament

I'm a keen royal watcher and author. The Stuarts' roles in the English Civil Wars were pivotal but disastrous. A commonwealth was declared.

William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons

William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons

Breaking Point

King Charles I (1600-1649) and his parliament were enemies. The king wanted to rule as an autocratic monarch without answering to a parliament. He believed in the Divine Right of Kings and therefore answered only to God, but he had been forced to recall parliament to gain funds for military action in Scotland. Long harboured resentments, new and clear suspicions and escalating tensions could only end disastrously.

As 1641 turned to 1642 Charles I reasoned that five politicians sitting in the House of Commons, John Pym, William Strode, John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig and Denzil Holles, were the ringleaders of unrest in London intended to incite widespread riots against the king's authority. He then decided that these men must have colluded with the Scots to stop a military campaign from being realised and that they intended to impeach his French Catholic wife Henrietta Maria with the assistance of Edward Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, the heir to the Duke of Manchester.

On 3rd January 1642 Charles dispatched a herald to the Houses of Parliament to command that the five men surrender themselves to the king’s custody. They refused.

Charles I by Wenceslas Hollar during the First English Civil War, 1644

Charles I by Wenceslas Hollar during the First English Civil War, 1644

The old (pre-fire) Palace of Westminster where the House of Lords and the House of Commons met

The old (pre-fire) Palace of Westminster where the House of Lords and the House of Commons met

The King Storms Parliament

On 4th January 1642 Charles marched into parliament with an army of approximately four hundred soldiers. He was determined to arrest the five men but they had received a tip-off and fled the property. A courtier named Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle was their likely ally.

For the members of the House of Commons this royal invasion was an outrage. As Charles knew very well, he and his predecessors were only permitted to address the parliamentary figures from the House of Lords. Charles I broke this rule and therefore abused parliamentary privilege. No monarch had dared to enter the Common’s chamber before Charles' incursion and none have tried since.

Charles looked around him, took a seat in William Lenthall, the Speaker of the House’s chair and ruefully noted that “I see all my birds have flown.” He confronted Lenthall who did not disclose the five politicians’ whereabouts but instead sent a clear message to his king. "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here." In other words, Lenthall was a servant of the people, not the monarch.

Humiliation

Charles was forced to leave the House of Commons to cries of “Privilege!” Parliament called the episode an armed assault. As news spread of the king's actions speculation about a civil war increased. Soldiers readied themselves to support parliament. On the 10th January Charles and Henrietta Maria left London. They took up residence at the safer Hampton Court Palace. As if by magic, on the 11th January the five missing politicians reappeared in London to a resounding welcome from crowds. Unnerved, Charles and Henrietta Maria moved further from London on 12th January and made Windsor Castle their refuge.

Henrietta Maria travelled to The Hague in February to secure support for her husband from relatives. She could not return until spring 1643 when the civil war was several months old.

On 19th March 1642, Charles I gave up hopes of returning to London without using force. He decided to head north to the city of York to gather support. Parliament and Charles I prepared for battle.

Godfrey Kneller's portrait of John Hampden, one of the "Five Members." He was Oliver Cromwell's cousin

Godfrey Kneller's portrait of John Hampden, one of the "Five Members." He was Oliver Cromwell's cousin

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War

At Nottingham Castle on 22nd August 1642 Charles I raised his standard (flag) and declared war on Parliament and its army. The Royalists became popularly known as Cavaliers and wore their hair long; the Parliamentarians distinguished themselves by wearing shorter hair styles and were popularly called Roundheads. The navy abandoned the king and aligned itself with the Parliamentarians.

The civil war era is also referred to as The War of the Three Kingdoms and it was three civil wars involving England, Scotland and Ireland. The first was 1642-1646, the brief second war occurred in 1648 and the third war ran from 1650-1651, after Charles I's execution.

After several inconclusive battles the Parliamentarians gained decisive victories and eventually took Oxford, the royalist stronghold. Charles I surrendered on the 5th May 1646 when there was no other route available to him. His trial for high treason commenced on 20th January 1649 at Westminster Hall in London. He did not recognise the authority of the court or enter a plea.

Charles I wore his hat during the trial, a sign of disrespect for the court. His opponents did not remove their hats to communicate their malevolence towards him. John Bradshaw, the President of the Court, wore a hat reinforced with metal so that if a Royalist tried to assassinate him he might survive.

John Cook, prosecutor, told the court that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise.”

On the 27th January 1649 the king, referred to as Charles Stuart, was found guilty of high treason and executed three days later in front of a large crowd at the Banqueting House in London.


Edward Bower's portrait of King Charles I of England at his trial in January 1649

Edward Bower's portrait of King Charles I of England at his trial in January 1649

Guilty Of High Treason

Charles I surrendered on the 5th May 1646 when there was no other route available to him. His trial for high treason commenced on 20th January 1649 at Westminster Hall in London. He did not recognise the authority of the court or enter a plea. Charles I wore his hat during the trial, a sign of disrespect for the court. His opponents did not remove their hats to communicate their malevolence towards him. John Bradshaw, the President of the Court, wore a hat reinforced with metal so that if a Royalist tried to assassinate him he might survive.

John Cook, prosecutor, told the court that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise.”

On the 27th January 1649 the king, referred to as Charles Stuart, was found guilty of high treason and he was executed three days later in front of a large crowd at the Banqueting House, London. He still believed that he was above mere mortals who could have no concept of what it was to reign at the will of God.

Charles I Execution — Historic Royal Palaces

Sources

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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