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The Birds Have Flown: How King Charles I Took England Into Civil War

Updated on April 18, 2017
King Charles I, Henrietta Maria and their two eldest children
King Charles I, Henrietta Maria and their two eldest children | Source

Opposition to the King

King Charles I came to the throne in 1625, utterly convinced that he had been put there by God and that his governance must, therefore, be beyond question. As Charles saw things, the Parliament that sat at Westminster had only one function, namely to enact his policies and raise the necessary funds for any wars or other forays that incurred an expense.

Although Charles had plenty of support among the elected members of Parliament, who were hardly tribunes of the people but representatives of the country’s squires, wealthy landowners, and successful merchants, there was also a good deal of opposition.

The anti-Charles brigade were men who objected to raising taxes to pay for Charles’s adventures – the MPs were, after all, among those who would be out of pocket, but they also included people who were fundamentally against what they saw as the King’s dangerously anti-Reformation religious views.

Within a few weeks of coming to the throne, Charles married a French princess, Henrietta Maria, who was openly Catholic and did nothing to temper her Catholicism once she became the Queen of an officially Protestant country. The fear was therefore that she would bring up her children (the King's heirs) as Catholics, a fear that was given added weight when she imported a personal entourage of French Catholics – including priests – shortly after her marriage.

Many of the Protestants in Parliament were radicals who sought to strip the Church of England of all vestiges of Catholicism. They became known in general parlance as Puritans, because they sought to purify the Church, and many would later find that their efforts could not go anything like as far as they wished. Some founded new “dissenting” religious bodies and some emigrated to the American colonies where they hoped to be free to practice their religion in their own way.

During the period leading up to the 1640s, therefore, the stage was set for violent conflict between the King and Members of Parliament.

Strafford and Laud

Charles came to rely on two supporters who were every bit as pig-headed as himself and who refused to take account of the strength of feeling in Parliament and the country in general. Both believed that they could get their way through force, and both would ultimately pay for this approach by losing their heads on the block.

Sir Thomas Wentworth, who was later given the title of Earl of Strafford, had at first been on the side of reform but then took the view that the reformers were going too far. He became a staunch defender of the status quo and the “Divine Right of Kings”. He became Charles’s chief adviser, his advice usually being to take strong measures against the King’s opponents.

Archbishop William Laud was an extreme opponent of Puritanism and a stickler for the rules that governed worship in the Church of England. He saw no scope for compromise and imposed stern punishments on anyone who opposed him.

Strafford and Laud worked together to ensure that Charles would get his way, but – not surprisingly – they provided plenty of ammunition for the “equal and opposite reaction” that would eventually lead to the deaths of all three of them.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford
Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford | Source

King Charles’s False Moves

Charles soon found himself in trouble when he tried to use Parliament to raise money for his personal expenses and to finance foreign wars. He summoned Parliament on his accession in 1625 in the belief that they would follow precedent by granting him “tonnage and poundage” for life, but Parliament refused to do so and insisted that Charles should renew this grant on an annual basis. However, although the first year’s payment was agreed by the House of Commons, the House of Lords would not grant even that, and Charles promptly dismissed Parliament after it had sat for only two months.

Charles tried again in 1626 but had no more success than before. Instead, he set about levying “forced loans” on wealthy men – a tactic that his predecessor King Henry VII had used to great effect. However, Charles tried to force money from many subjects who were far from rich and the courts were soon full of non-payers who were promptly sent to prison.

The Parliament of 1628 was therefore occupied with the “Petition of Right” – a latter-day Magna Carta that the Members wished to present to the King with their demands for the ending of non-Parliamentary taxation and arbitrary imprisonment. The King reluctantly signed it, thus apparently conceding that his power was not as absolute as he had assumed.

However, Charles had no intention of giving way to Parliament. This became apparent in 1629 when the issue of church ceremonial came up for debate. William Laud was at that time Bishop of London, and he was keen on restoring rituals to the Church of England that had long been neglected.

The Puritans in Parliament objected but Charles refused to allow any discussion on the matter to take place. When the King’s messenger knocked on the door of the chamber to tell the members to stop the debate he was refused admission and the Speaker of the House was forcibly restrained from leaving his chair. The House promptly condemned the actions of Bishop Laud and also passed more resolutions against non-Parliamentary taxation.

The King’s response was what might have been expected. He had nine Parliamentarians imprisoned in the Tower of London and dissolved Parliament yet again. This time he was determined to do without Parliament altogether – he would not recall it again for another eleven years.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury
William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury | Source

Ship Money

Charles still needed money. Despite the provisions of the Petition of Right he still reckoned that he could raise funds without recourse to Parliament. He did this by taking advantage of the medieval tradition by which sheriffs in coastal counties could levy taxation on behalf of the king for the purpose of building and equipping ships for royal service in time of war.

However, Charles went further than this and demanded that ship money be raised from inland counties as well, and even when England was not at war. It was quite clear that he had no intention of using the proceeds for anything to do with ships and that this was simply a backdoor way of raising general funds. The first writs for ship money were issued in 1634 with further writs in 1635 and 1636.

Not surprisingly, the raising of ship money led to considerable opposition, with John Hampden, a Buckinghamshire landowner and member of Charles’s first three Parliaments, being the most prominent critic.

In 1637 Hampden refused to pay the tax and was put on trial. Twelve judges heard the case and found against Hampden by seven to five. This margin was narrow enough to give heart to other potential payers, many of whom also refused to pay. Although the levying of ship money had been very lucrative at first it soon ceased to be so. By 1639 only 20% of the expected revenue was flowing into the King’s coffers. John Hampden, on the other hand, became a celebrated figure in the struggle of Parliament against the King and he has long been regarded as one of the heroes of the English Revolution.

John Hampden
John Hampden

Parliament Resumes - Briefly

In 1640 King Charles had no choice but to call a fresh Parliament, his aim – as ever – being to raise revenue. In this case he needed funds to finance a war, but he must have known that this was never going to be easy.

The war in question was the first phase of the Civil War, because it was to be fought against an army of rebellious Scots (known as the “Covenanters”) who had occupied the north of England. This was to become known as the “Bishops’ War” because the rebellion resulted from Charles’s attempt to impose the full panoply of the Church of England - bishops, Prayer Book and all – on worshippers in Scotland. The money Charles hoped to raise would be used to defray the expenses of the Scots who would then be persuaded to return back across the border.

However, Parliament could see that they had the upper hand and took the opportunity to make a series of demands on the King as their price for coughing up the cash. These demands included the ending of ship money and various reforms in the Church of England. Charles decided that the price was too much to pay and dissolved what would become known as the Short Parliament, which lasted for only three weeks.

Charles Tries Again

The Short Parliament had been dissolved in May 1640, but in November Charles could see no alternative to summoning a fresh Parliament, for the same reason as before. However, nothing had changed since the earlier attempt, apart from the growing anger of Parliament.

The result, for Charles and his supporters, was a complete disaster. Parliament was now emboldened and the Puritan wing seized its chance. Led by John Pym, the members demanded that the Earl of Strafford be put on trial for being “the principal author and promoter of all those counsels which had exposed the kingdom to so much ruin”. A “bill of attainder” was drawn up, which was in effect a death sentence for Strafford. With the Scots still occupying the north of England and mobs creating havoc in London, Charles had no choice but to sign it and send his chief adviser to the block.

Archbishop Laud fared no better. In 1641 Parliament passed the “Grand Remonstrance” that listed all their grievances (204 in total) including many for which Laud had to take the blame. His arrest followed soon afterwards although he was not executed until 1645.

Another act passed by this Parliament ensured that it could not be dissolved except by its own decision. It therefore remained in place until 1648 and was the Long Parliament that followed the Short one.

John Pym
John Pym

A Desperate Response

It is interesting to note that the Grand Remonstrance only passed in the House of Commons by a majority of 11 votes (159 to 148). In other words, many MPs thought that the Puritans were going too far. There was indeed considerable support for King Charles within Parliament, especially if the House of Lords was also taken into account.

Had Charles had any sense he might have sought to reach a compromise agreement with Parliament that could have avoided the eventual outcome. However, Charles did not do compromise – probably because he did not have any sense.

His response was to take direct action. He instructed his Attorney General to begin proceedings for treason against his five sternest critics in the House of Commons, namely John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, William Strode and Arthur Hazelrig. One member of the House of Lords was also indicted.

Charles then did something extraordinary. On Tuesday 4th January 1642 he marched down Whitehall with a party of guards and entered the Parliament Building at Westminster, fully intending to arrest the five Commons members there and then. However, he had fallen straight into a trap, in that John Pym and the others knew exactly what Charles was up to.

When Charles demanded that the Commons Speaker point out to him the five men in question, the Speaker refused to do so. Charles then said that his eyes were as good as anyone else’s and he tried to pick out the five for himself. However, they were not there, having already left Westminster and taken a boat to escape down the river Thames.

Charles then made his famous remark that “all my birds have flown” and left the chamber with the catcalls of the members ringing out behind him. Any respect for his royal personage had clearly been replaced by utter hatred and contempt.

This was the turning point. Charles saw no way forward other than military action to force his will on Parliament. On 10 January he left London, firstly for Hampton Court and then York, where he hoped to raise an army to fight for his cause. His Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria, headed for Holland with her children and the Crown Jewels. The English Civil War was about to begin.

Attempted Arrest of the Five Members
Attempted Arrest of the Five Members | Source

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