Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Useless Parliament of 1625

By Harry Hayfield

This evening, the House of Commons will hold the "meaningful vote" on the Prime Minister's agreement with the European Union over the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union which, if the experts are to be believed, is going to crash and burn leading people to sigh "Great, another useless Parliament". And whilst there have been several Parliaments that could be termed "useless" there is only one that can claim to be called "The Useless Parliament" and that Parliament was the one called in March 1625.

To start off with, everything ran like clockwork. When Charles I became King on March 27th, 1625, the Parliament that had been gathered in the name of his father (James I) was dissolved and on April 2nd, the 1625 general election was called for Parliament to gather on May 7th. So far, so good you might think, however, things soon started to go wrong, not least when the King married. Why would this cause problems? Well, there were two reasons. First his bride, Henrietta Maria was a French Catholic and two, she was still in France. Therefore, her marriage was a little on the strange side for as she arrived at the altar at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris to wed the King, she found the Duke of Chartreuse standing in for the King. Due to religious and distance problems the King asked the Duke to marry on his behalf in Paris using a Catholic ceremony and then bring her to Canterbury for a Protestant ceremony so that everything was above board. This resulted in a delay to Parliament and so the opening was postponed until June 13th, and then postponed again until June 18th. Not the best start to a Parliament I think you will agree.

Charles & Henrietta Maria by Van Dyke (Public Domain Image)

However, once Parliament did get started, the King's Speech took place and as just today, there were certain traditions to follow. The formal investigation of the cellars underneath Parliament (to prevent a repeat of what had happened a mere twenty years previously), the kidnapping of a member of that Parliament to ensure the monarch's safe arrival from Westminster, the gathering of the peers in the Lords, the Commoners being summoned to the Lords and all standing behind the bar to hear the speech, but unlike today, it wasn't the Prime Minister who wrote the speech (mainly due to the fact that the title was not created until George I) but it was the actual King's speech. Every word was written by the King and so as this was his first formal speech at Parliament there was a lot of expectation to hear what he had to say.

"My lords spiritual and temporal, and you gentlemen of the house of Commons, in this parliament assembled; I thank God, that the business to be treated on at this time is of such a nature, that it needs no eloquence to set it forth; for I am neither able to do it, nor doth it stand with my nature to spend much time in words"

This is where the modern-day State Opening and the Opening of the 1625 Parliament differ, as in the modern era when the Queen has finished her speech the Lord Chancellor retrieves the speech, the Queen stands (as does the Lords) and she leaves the chamber with the MP's following shortly afterwards. But back in 1625 the Lord Keeper got to say a few words and the words that he spoke gave an indication of how difficult things were:

“That the king's main reason of calling the parliament, besides the beholding of his subjects faces, was to remind them of the great engagements for the recovery of the Palatinate, imposed on his majesty by the late king his father, and by themselves, who break off the two Treaties with Spain. Also to let them understand, That the succeeding treaties and alliances, the armies sent into the Low Countries, the repairing of the forts, and the fortifying of Ireland, do align in one centre, the Palatinate ; and that the Subsidies granted in the last parl. are herein already spent, whereof the Account is ready, together with as much more of the king's own revenue"

And there, in a nutshell, was the smoking gun that was to make this Parliament useless. The King needed money and needed it fast. Things started out on the up as four days later on June 22nd, a motion was passed expressing, "Good Harmony between the King and Parliament". However, this good harmony didn't last long for on July 5th, Parliament voted on a motion to supply the King's tonnage and whilst the motion was passed, it was only agreed for a year, a severe restriction on the usual method. But things appeared to resume their usual course save for the fact that shortly thereafter plague was discovered in London, so, in a move that has caused a great deal of debate these days, Parliament was moved lock, stock, and barrel to Oxford and on August 4th, the King addressed the Parliament gathered at Christchurch and declared:

"My lords, and you of the Commons; We all remember, that, from your desires and advice, my father, now with God, brake off those two Treaties with Spain that were then in hand: well you then foresaw, that, as well for regaining my dispossessed brother's inheritance, as home defence, a war was likely to succeed; and that as your counsels had let my father into it, so your assistance, in a parliamentary way, to pursue it, should not be wanting. That aid you gave him by advice, was for succor of his allies, the guarding of Ireland and the home parts of Munition, preparing and setting forth of his Navy"

And just as in London, once the King had finished the Lord Keeper added:

"That our sovereign lord king James, of famous memory, at the suit of both houses of parliament, and by the powerful operation of his maj. that now is, gave consent to break off the two Treaties with Spain, touching the Match and the Palatinate: That it was then foreseen a war would ensue, there being no other means to recover the Palatinate, nor to vindicate the many wrongs and scorns done unto his majesty and his royal children: besides, if the king of Spain was suffered to proceed in his conquests, under pretense of the Catholic Cause, he would become the Catholic Monarch, which he so much affects, and aspires unto"

It was becoming plain for everyone to see that the King had one idea about how to govern the land while Parliament wasn't that keen on the idea, and when a motion was moved on August 5th for the Supply, things really kicked off.

A 17th-Century Parliament
(Public Domain Image)

The Chancellor opened the debate stating that the supply should be "two Subsidies, and two Fifteenths, for that less would not serve for the present occasions" to which Sir Weston immediately sprung up to ask where the supply would be going, who the enemy was and why the papists were not being asked to supply the King instead of Parliament

It was at this point that Sir Robert Cotton rose to speak and just as when a former Cabinet Secretary or former Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition or former party leader speaks today, his speech was listened to without interruption and boy, did he speak!

"Mr. Speaker; Although the constant wisdom of this house of commons did well and worthily appear, in censuring that ill-advised member the last day, for trenching so far into their ancient liberties; and might encourage each worthy servant of the public here, to offer up freely his counsel and opinion: yet, since these walls cannot conceal from the ears of captious, guilty and revengeful men. without, the counsel and debates within; I will endeavour, as my clear mind is free from any personal distaste of any one, so to express the honest thoughts of my heart, and discharge the best care of my trust, as no person shall justly tax my innocent and public mind; except his conscience shall make him guilty of such crimes as worthily have, in parliament, impeached others in elder times"

The following day messages were sent from the Lords to the Commons (akin to Parliamentary ping pong today) with the Lords stating:

“That they had received one from the king, which was to be delivered to the lords and commons together, by the lord keeper and the duke of Buckingham, and that his maj. had commanded the lord keeper to require the lord treasurer, the lord Conway, and Sir John Cook, to assist his grace therein. Upon which account, the lords required a present meeting with their whole house, in the great hall of Christ Church, if it suited their convenience.”

To which the Commons replied:

"That the Commons would meet, at the time and place appointed, with their Speaker and the whole house. And, as intimation was given, that there might be occasion for a worthy member of their house, in delivering the message from his maj. ; though it was against the very fundamental privileges of the house of commons, yet they gave way to it, with this proviso; That he speak, as the king's servant and commissioner, and not as a member of their house.”

Which, when translated into laymen's reads "Get a move on, Commons, the King wants his Supply!" to which the Commons replied, "In our own time, Your Majesty", this was the straw that broke the camel's back for the following day, August 11th, 1625, the motion was voted on in the Commons and was rejected. The King couldn't believe this and so on August 12th, "...perceiving the commons resolved against a Supply, without redress of Grievances; and, in their debates, to reflect upon some great persons near himself, on the 12th of Aug. sent to the house of peers a commission, directed to several lords, for the Dissolution of the Parliament"

The Commons was outraged. The King dissolving Parliament just because they hadn't given him the Supply? This led to a formal protest from the Commons:

“We the knights, citizens, and burgesses of the commons house of parliament, being the representative body of the whole commons of this realm, abundantly comforted in his maj.'s late gracious Answer touching Religion, and his Message for the care of our health, do solemnly protest and vow before God and the world, with one heart and voice, that we are all resolved, and do hereby declare, that we will ever continue most loyal and obedient subjects to our most gracious sovereign lord king Charles; and that we will be ready in convenient time, and in a parliamentary way, freely and dutifully to do our utmost endeavours, to discover and reform the abuses and grievances of the realm and state ; and in like sort to afford all necessary supply to his most excellent maj. upon his present, and all other his just occasions and designs; most humbly beseeching our said dear and dread sovereign, in his princely wisdom and goodness, to rest assured of the true and hearty affections of his poor commons, and to esteem the same to be (as we conceive it is indeed) the greatest worldly reputation and security that a just king can have; and to account all such as slanderers of the peoples affections, and enemies to the common-wealth, that shall dare to say the contrary"

But the King was not moved and formally announced that the Parliament gathered in his name in March 1625 was now dissolved and a new Parliament would be gathered on February 6th the following year, therefore that Parliament was termed "The Useless Parliament" and no parliament, however useless it may be seen to be, can be as useless as that Parliament.


Harry Hayfield, a resident in the county of Ceredigion in Wales, has been interested in Parliament since at least 1983, but only started giving it more attention since 1992. Since then, despite standing for his local council five times in the last 21 years, his interest in Parliament has been extended by his interest in the Caroline era. It is these two interests that combined in his book "The Adventures of Henry Cardigan" based on the tales of the Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, which tell of a member of the Useless Parliament being sent to France at the behest of His Grace, the Duke of Buckingham and the adventures that occur once there. Harry hopes that this will turn into a series of books and is already writing the second volume dealing with the assassination of the Duke in 1628 along with the siege of La Rochelle.

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1 comment:

  1. Parliamentary affairs were as complicated then as they unfortunately are now, it seems. A very interesting article,Harry.


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