Why Did Parliament Wage War Against the Monarchy in the 17th century?

Portrait: Charles I of England in Three Positions by van Dyck, 1635–36

Throughout English history, conflicts between the monarch and Parliament have occurred, reflecting the struggles for power, influence, and differing political ideologies.

Take the case of King John of England (r. 1199–1216) whose reign was marked by intense and prolonged conflict with both the Church and the baronial class over the monarch’s imposition of high levels of taxes. That conflict ultimately resulted in John granting Magna Carta in June 1215. The historic document established certain rights and limitations on the monarchy, paving the way for the emergence of Parliament as a check on the monarch’s power.

Of all those conflicts, perhaps the most brutal of them ensued in the 17th century, when Parliament in England waged war against Charles I of England. The conflict culminated in the English Civil Wars, which resulted in not only Charles losing his head but the abolishment of the monarchy for about a decade.

The question that begs to be answered is: What exactly made Parliament to go against the monarchy, even to the extent of committing regicide?

Below, we dive deep into the major reasons why Parliament challenged the king’s authority:

Royal Authority

King Charles I sought to exert absolute authority and govern without significant parliamentary oversight, challenging the traditional balance of power between the monarchy and Parliament. This was perceived as a threat to individual liberties and parliamentary privileges. Parliament, especially the radical members, maintained that sovereignty truly resided in the people. And who better to represent the people than the members of Parliament?

Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War. Cromwell was a leading and very radical figure in New Model Army. He went on to become Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, governing England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the English overseas possessions. His reign lasted from 1653 to 1658.

Religion

Since the dawn of human civilization, religion and politics have always been bedmates. In the time of Charles I of England, this point could not have been more emphasized. Basically, religious divisions played a significant role in the conflict.

Charles I’s attempts to impose Anglicanism on Scotland and the implementation of policies favoring high church practices alienated Puritans and other religious dissenters who held influence in Parliament.

For example, in 1637, he and the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud incurred the wrath of Scots when they tried to force them to accept a Book of Common Prayer.

The English-style religious reforms did not sit too well with the Scots, who were predominantly Presbyterians. Charles would embark on the First Bishops’ War in 1639 to enforce those reforms. The war proved to be inconclusive, resulting in Charles recalling Parliament in 1640 to ask MPs for money for another war.

Also, a significant percentage of the population at the time believed that Charles I of England had developed a soft spot for Catholicism. Many of them put the blame right at the doorstep of his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, who was a very devout Catholic.

Suspecting that Catholics, with the tacit approval of Charles, wanted to return England back into the orbit of Rome, the Church of England, which was Protestant, came to have deep distrust for Catholics in the land.

Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria by Flemish painter van Dyck, 1632

His appointment of William Laud to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1638 was met with a lot of fury from the Puritans. Laud was part of the Arminians, a sect of the Anglican Church that held clergy, sacraments and other rituals dearly. The Puritans viewed them too close to Catholicism.

Making up significant percentage of Parliament, Puritans would fight fiercely against any covet attempt that made the clergy have more power in their hands. As strong supporters of religious independence, the Puritans simply wanted their congregation to have the right interpret the Bible in their own way.

Laud did not help matters as he started bringing back some practices similar to that of the Catholics, including the decoration of churches and playing of music. He also placed a ban on weekday lectures – a practice that was held very dear by the Puritans.

William Laud, Charles I's Archbishop of Canterbury.

William Laud, Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the most senior figures of Charles’ court

Issues surrounding Charles’ arbitrary and heavy taxes

History has always shown that rarely do the governed take it kindly to a monarch’s decision to raise taxes to fund some war abroad or project. What is even worse is when the monarchs did it without the approval of some sections of the populace. This was seen in the early 13th century when John levied heavy taxes on the English barons.

One would have taught that Charles I of England would have taken lessons from John. As it turned out, he didn’t. Why would he? After all, he was a firm believer that king’s authority was absolute, and that he (Charles) should be able to do as he pleased in his kingdom.

Despite strong opposition from his Parliament, Charles tried his hardest to engineer means to raise his own taxes without Parliament. The legislators saw this as the king overstepping. Many of them became concerned that the king’s tax policies posed a threat to the survival of Parliament. If Charles could willy-nilly raise any amount of money he wanted without Parliament’s consent, then what’s to stop Charles from doing away with Parliament?

Basically, Parliament resented the king’s persistent attempts to sideline them so as to raise revenue. Not having their consent also meant that Charles was a liberty to do as he pleased with the funds.

Most Famous Churches in London

Parliament resented the king’s attempts to raise revenue without their consent and his misuse of funds. This led to conflicts over taxation, customs duties, and the king’s reliance on arbitrary sources of income. Image: King Charles I of England depicted by Wenceslaus Hollar on horseback in front of his troops, 1644.

Personal Rule

There is no doubt whatsoever that had Charles put aside his deluded view of absolute power and had he worked with Parliament, he would have averted a serious conflict with Parliament. A firm believer in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, the king even took it further: He dissolved Parliament for extended periods and ruled personally, exacerbating grievances and limiting avenues for redress of grievances.

It’s safe to say that whatever changes Charles wanted to enact in the kingdom, he would have fared better had he gone through Parliament. For example, all those grand reformations that were initiated by Tudor monarch Henry VIII happened primarily because the king chose to work with Parliament and not antagonize them.

Parliaments are altogether in my power…As I find the fruits of them good or evil, they are to continue or not to be

He went to the grave believing that his right to rule was bestowed upon him by none other than God. Therefore no human had the right to question his reign. This explains why he completely disregarded the court that put him on trial and thereafter sentenced him to death in 1649. Portrait of King Charles I by Flemish artist van Dyck

Constitutional Concerns

Parliament was concerned about preserving and asserting its role as the representative body of the people and protecting the rights and privileges of English subjects. There were debates about the extent of the king’s prerogative powers and the limits of monarchical authority.

Not once was Parliament not willing to work with Charles and help resolve any issue that arose. For example, when the Scots invaded England, Parliament was ever willing to help Charles raise the money needed to nip the issue in the bud. There was a catch though. Parliament wanted a few concessions from Charles – a sort of quid pro quo, so to speak.

Charles failed to realize that Parliament was a powerful and important part of government – an institution that had come to have the powers to determine the level of taxes and to promulgate laws. Above all, the radical elements in Parliament were unwilling to let go of their right when it came to allocating money for the king’s use. Charles’ critics wanted a more inclusive form of government.

Charles’ botched attempt to arrest some members of Parliament

Parliament waged war against the monarchy in the 17th century due to a complex set of factors that led to escalating tensions between King Charles I and Parliament. Image: The Five members of the Commons (L-R): John Pym, William Strode, Denzil Holles, John Hampden, and Sir Arthur Haselrig.

As tensions mount, London is almost overran with violent mobs who are inspired by the Charles’ fiercest critics in Parliament. Many of the king’s loyal supporters flee London into the countryside. This leaves Parliament with very few MPs that support the king. Realizing this, the king orders for all MPs to meet. His planned to use the few loyalist MPs to help him crush the brewing rebellion in London. The plan does not come to fruition. The king left his royal court and made his way into Parliament uninvited and tried to personally arrest five members of Parliament he believed aided the Scots in the invasion.

Although Charles’ suspicion of some MPs colluding with the invading Scots was correct, it was the manner in which he handled the whole situation. It was an obviously ill-thought plan, and Charles was absolutely humiliated as leaders of the House refused to hand over the accused MPs – John Pym, William Strode, Denzil Holles, John Hampden, and Sir Arthur Haselrig.

For example, John Hampden (1595 – 1643) fiercely opposed the arbitrary taxes imposed by Charles I. He was an ally of Parliamentarian leader John Pym, and cousin to Oliver Cromwell.

It is said that Charles’ decision to use force to arrest those MPs was influenced by his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. The five MPs managed to flee before Charles and his armed guard stormed the House of Commons. They had gotten news of their arrest warrants ahead of time.

Prior to Charles, no English monarch dared enter the House of Commons without invitation. And by invading the chamber with an armed guard, Charles made a complete fool of himself. Many people began to see the king as someone who had no regard for parliamentary privilege. No amount of PR work could make him to be perceived as a peace-loving monarch. Some of his supporters began to see him for who he truly was: A monarch who was ever willing to interfere in the duties of the House of Commons.

Charles attempts to arrest the Five Members, January 1642; a Victorian re-imagining by Charles West Cope

With just the right amount of propaganda from Parliament, some members of the population began believing that Charles was an evil king who had to be removed.

Seen as an unforgivable affront on them, Parliament proceeded to seize the few remaining patches of areas that were pro-Charles. Therefore, Charles had no other option than to flee London. In January 1642, the embattled monarch left for Hampton Court Palace and later to Windsor Castle in Berkshire, South East England. And he would not return until when it came time for him to be executed in 1649.

As a direct confrontation with Parliament looked invertible, the King would then spend the months that followed trying to lay his hands on as many weapons as possible. And on August 22, 1642, he raised the royal standard in Nottingham.

A line had been drawn as both sides – Parliament and Royalist – worked assiduously to generate support from wherever they could get. Charles’ wife Henrietta, for example, sailed all the way to Holland to appeal for support for her husband.

Interestingly, both sides were confident of securing a quick and decisive victory, with some hoping that the confrontation would wrap up by December 1649.

Parliamentarian pamphlet depicting Charles raising the royal standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642

The King’s right to raise militia

Not only was the king’s right to raise funds questioned by parliamentarians, but also his right to raise militia was a sticking point. As Parliament and Charles squabbled, a fierce Catholic rebellion was fermenting in Ireland. It was in every Englishman’s interest to have to the rebellion put down; however, it remained unclear whose job it was to lead the English army and quell the rebellion.

The reason why Parliament did not want Charles anywhere near an army was because they feared that Charles was likely to turn the army on Parliament after he was through dealing with the rebellion in Ireland.

It would be an understatement to say that Charles was enraged by Parliament’s refusal to allow him raise and lead an army. Since time immemorial, English monarchs always had this right.

Absence of trust between Parliament and the monarchy

Basically, the history of tensions and clashes between Charles I and Parliament, including the attempted arrest of MPs and the dissolution of Parliament, had eroded trust between the two sides. Parliament was reluctant to grant Charles I any additional powers that could be used against them.

For example, critics of the King in Parliament were concerned that if Charles I were allowed to raise militia, it would strengthen the Royalist faction, which was loyal to the king. Parliament viewed this as a threat to their own authority and the broader goals of the Parliamentarians.

This was one of the reasons why Charles took the bold decision in 1629 to dissolve Parliament, which he believed was infested with radical and treasonous elements. And so, Charles begins to rule without Parliament, entering into a period historians like to call Charles’ 11 Years’ Tyranny.

Just after Charles fled London, he managed to raise enough forces to control almost all of the Midlands, northern England, Wales and the West Country. From his newly established court at Oxford, he readied himself to do battle with Parliament, whose forces were in firm control of London and large parts of East Anglia. Compounding Charles’ problem was the fact that his opponents also control the English navy.

Charles’ political sway diminished tremendously following his disastrous attempt to bring into custody MPs he had suspected of treason. Simply put; the king made a complete fool of himself the moment he entered the House of Commons on January  4, 1642.

Question and Answers

Tensions arose between King Charles I and Parliament over issues such as taxation, religious reform, and the monarch’s claim to absolute power. The conflict reached its apex during the English Civil War, as Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, sought to curtail the king’s authority and establish a more balanced form of government. Image: King Charles I of England, as painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck between 1637 and 1638

These factors, among others, led to growing discontent and a breakdown in trust between Charles I and Parliament, ultimately resulting in armed conflict and the English Civil War. The war became a struggle between those supporting parliamentary rights and those defending royal prerogative, shaping the course of English history and paving the way for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

Here’s what you need to know:

Was Charles I of England as tyrannical as many Parliamentarians described him at the time?

Charles I’s approach to governance was characterized by a delicate balance between power and compromise. While he resorted to punitive measures such as cutting the ears of Puritan dissenters, he refrained from more severe punishments – punishments like decapitations and quartering meted out by monarchs of Tudor era.

This approach drew criticism from some royalists who felt that his leniency towards the opposition was a major flaw. They believed that the 11 years of Charles’ rule without Parliament, often referred to as the “11 years’ tyranny,” had not been forceful enough.

Basically, the King’s leadership was seen as lacking the cooperation required to effectively collaborate with Parliament, yet simultaneously falling short of the tyranny necessary to govern without their input.

This delicate middle ground proved challenging during a time of heightened political tensions and ultimately contributed to the conflicts between the monarchy and Parliament during his reign.

Why didn’t Parliament allow Charles I raise militia?

Parliament’s decision to deny Charles I the ability to raise a militia during the English Civil War was influenced by several key factors:

Parliament had grown increasingly wary of Charles I’s intentions and believed that granting him control over a militia would consolidate his power and potentially enable him to suppress opposition.

The Parliamentarians saw themselves as the representatives of the people and considered it their duty to defend the rights and liberties of English subjects. Granting Charles I control over a militia could undermine their position and jeopardize their ability to protect those rights.

Parliament wanted to maintain control over the military forces and ensure that they were under the authority of local parliamentary committees rather than centralized control by the monarchy. This approach allowed for more democratic decision-making and prevented the concentration of power in the hands of the king.

Overall, Parliament’s decision not to allow Charles I to raise a militia was driven by a combination of distrust, fear of Royalist influence, the desire to protect parliamentary authority, and a preference for local control over military forces. These factors contributed to the escalating conflict between the monarchy and Parliament during the English Civil War.

What was at the heart of the English Civil Wars?

In summary, the two major sticking points between Parliament and the monarchy was religion and power.

Why did Charles dissolve Parliament in 1629?

Charles had experienced ongoing conflicts and disagreements with Parliament over issues such as taxation, religious reforms, and the extent of his authority. These tensions had reached a point where the king perceived Parliament as an obstacle to his rule and sought to assert his own authority without its interference.

Secondly, Parliament had been unwilling to grant Charles the funds he desired, leading to financial difficulties for the crown. He believed that governing without Parliament would enable him to have greater control over financial matters and the imposition of taxes.

Finally, Charles faced resistance from Puritan members of Parliament who sought further reforms within the Church of England. Charles, however, held more conservative religious views and desired a centralized Anglican Church. Dissolving Parliament allowed him to pursue religious policies without opposition.

What did Charles do during his ‘Personal Rule’?

Also known as the 11 Years’ Tyranny, Charles’ ‘Personal Rule’ spanned from 1629, when he dissolved Parliament, to 1640, when he recalled MPs so that he could ask for money to help him with his military campaigns against the invading Scots in the north of England. Charles was also in dire need of money to quell a rebellion in Ireland.

During this period, Charles pursued a policy of absolute rule, relying on his prerogative powers and bypassing parliamentary involvement. Some of the key actions that occurred during this time included the imposition of unpopular taxes, restrictions on religious practices, and attempts to enforce religious conformity.

How did Charles raise money during his ‘Personal Rule’?

During his reign, King Charles I resorted to various means of financing his government and maintaining his authority without the consent of Parliament, including:

  • Implementing new customs duties
  • Borrowing from bankers
  • Increased fines imposed by courts
  • Imposing forced loans on the wealthy
  • Selling monopolies
  • Expanding the controversial practice of Ship Money

What was Ship Money and how did it cause such a huge controversy during Charles I’s reign?

Originally intended to support the navy and restricted to coastal communities, Ship Money was extended to a wider scale, further increasing the burden on the population. These financial measures and the perceived overreach of royal authority were among the grievances that fueled discontent and opposition, ultimately contributing to the tensions that led to the English Civil War.

Sixpence of Charles I, inscribed: CAROLUS D(EI) G(RATIA) MAG(NAE) BRIT(ANNIAE) FR(ANCIAE) ET HIB(ERNIAE) REX (“Charles, by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, of France and of Ireland”).

Why did Charles summon Parliament in the spring of 1640?

Charles I recalled Parliament in 1640 due to mounting political and financial crises that he faced. The Parliament that he called became known as the Short Parliament because he dissolved it less than a month later. Charles did this because he was unwilling to accept Parliament’s proposed political reforms.

The main factors that led to the recall of Parliament were:

  • The Scottish Rebellion: Charles was facing a rebellion in Scotland known as the Bishops’ Wars. The conflict arose due to religious tensions and the imposition of Anglican reforms on the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Lacking the resources to suppress the rebellion, Charles needed financial support from Parliament to fund a military campaign against the Scots.
  • Financial Difficulties: Charles was grappling with significant financial challenges. His previous attempts to raise revenue through unpopular means such as forced loans and arbitrary taxation had backfired, leading to resistance and public discontent. Parliament held the power to grant taxation and approve budgets, making its cooperation necessary to address the financial strain.
  • Political Pressures: Charles faced political pressures from various factions within his realm. The unrest and discontent caused by his perceived absolutist tendencies and policies had polarized public opinion. Recalling Parliament was seen as a way to navigate these divisions, seek compromise, and maintain stability.
  • Legitimacy Concerns: Charles recognized the need to legitimize his actions and decisions by seeking parliamentary approval. With his previous rule without Parliament, known as the “11 Years’ Tyranny,” drawing criticism and fueling unrest, recalling Parliament was a strategic move to regain political legitimacy and present a united front against internal and external challenges.

What was the Long Parliament?

After Charles failed to secure any deal with members of the Short Parliament, he dissolved Parliament. With not enough resources at his disposal, he could only field a weak force against the Scots in the Second Bishops’ War. His forces struggled, and he was left with no other option than to enter into a humiliating peace treaty – Treaty of Ripon – with the Scots in October 1640. Per the treaty Charles had to doll out some money to the Scots to keep them content.

Charles did not have the money. Therefore, in November 1640, he was forced to recall Parliament – which came to be known as the Long Parliament.

The Long Parliament was an extended session of the English Parliament that lasted from 1640 to 1660. That Parliament would prove to be Charles’ undoing as MPs permanently wanted to secure the survival of their institution.

MPs agreed to give Charles the money he needed to pay off the Scots provided he made certain concessions. The following were some of the demands the Long Parliament made to Charles:

  • The legislators wanted Parliament to be summoned at least once every three years.
  • Dissolution of Parliament must come with its consent.
  • Charles’ ministers had to receive parliamentary approval before their appointment.
  • Ship Money should be made illegal.

However, despite making these promises, Charles disregarded them and failed to fulfill his commitments. His actions demonstrated a disregard for the agreed-upon conditions, further straining the already fragile relationship between the king and Parliament.

Other interesting facts

Depiction of Charles I on horseback, accompanied by his riding master, Pierre Antoine Bourdon, Seigneur de St Antoine.

  • Today, we see quite a number of severely damaged castles in Britain. But did you know that the English Civil Wars were the culprit?
  • The conflict between Charles and Parliament ended up claiming the lives of almost a quarter of a million people. That figure translated to about 4% of the population Britain at the time.
  • The only time Britain was under republican rule was after the execution of Charles by Parliament in 1649. The republican rule, headed by Oliver Cromwell, lasted for 11 years. It came to an end in 1660, when Charles’ eldest son, Charles II, was restored to the throne.
  • To be fair to Charles I of England, he inherited a Britain that was rife with several complex problems, ranging from religion to politics and culture to economy. Some of those problems went as far back as the late Tudor period. However, there is no doubt that Charles’ uncompromising stance and complete distrust of Parliament made the tensions much worse.

Following Charles I of England’s defeat by Parliamentarian forces, the king was captured and executed. Led by Oliver Cromwell, Parliament went ahead to abolish the monarchy and establish a Commonwealth. Image: Charles (in the dock with his back to the viewer) facing the High Court of Justice, 1649

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