340 Ancient Birthright

In 1621 James tried to tread a narrow path to peace in Europe – through the instrument of a Marriage between the England and Spanish royal families. To have a chance, parliament needed to play its role.

Download Podcast - 340 Ancient Birthright (Right Click and select Save Link As)


Hello everyone and welcome to the History of England, episode…

Let us start with George Abbot, pretty much as we ended last time. Here he is the lad, speaking of the situation in Bohemia, whence had gone Frederick and Elizabeth

God had set up this prince, His Majesty’s son-in-law, as a mark of honour through out

all Christendom, to propagate the gospel and to protect the oppressed. Therefore let not a noble son be forsaken for their sakes who regard nothing but their own ends. Our striking in, will comfort the Bohemians, honour the Palsgrave [the Elector Palatine], strengthen the Princes of the Union, draw on the United Provinces, [and] stir up the King of Denmark…to cast in their shares…Therefore let all our spirits be gathered up to animate this business, that the world may take notice that we are awake when God calls.

Thus spake on that holy man, the bright eyed archbishop. George Abbot was much towards the Calvinist end of the protestant market, which had always been of great comfort to the Scots. You might notice a few things. This is God’s work going on here – the hand of the Almighty was never far from the affairs of man in the 17th century. The appropriate response as far as George was concerned was most definitely war; and not war for the sake of pride or the honour of Elizabeth and the Stuart dynasty, but war as a crusade against Catholicism, a chance to gather all the forces of Protestant Europe. It is worth noting, that this rather reflected that all the forces of Catholicism were gathering to do the very same thing the other way round; and with the HRE, the Spanish Empire and the Pope, it was really only religious fervour and the belief that God was, of course, a protestant that kept the confidence of the protestant supporters for war high. That, and the hope and expectation that, James, the most Protestant monarch would throw his weights into the scales on the Bohemian side.

Everyone was talking about the Bohemian rebellion; one Londoner remarked that he could not

Pass the streets but I am continually stayed by one or other to know what news

An astrologer saw news in the comet-later-to-be-called-Halley’s, that the House of Austria could not continue beyond 1623; a popular ballad circulated, called ‘Gallants to Bohemia’, encouraging volunteers to fight for the cause. Here’s a flavour:

In fair Bohemia now is sprung,

 a service which lookt for long:

 Where souldiers may their value trie,

 when cowards from the field will flie:

 It never shall of us be said,

 that English Captaines stood afraide:

 Or such adventures would refraine,

 Then let us to the warres again

James however, was resolutely gloomy. He knew he didn’t have the cash to do anything, and anyway nor was he convinced at all that it would be a righteous cause. The whole business rather persuaded him that Calvinst ministers and Bishops were more trouble than the Arminians, who displayed nothing like the same enthusiasm for this war. So he forbad ministers to preach in support of Elizabeth and James in terms of their rebellion against the Emperor.  Many of his subjects wanted to celebrate it traditional fashion, which generally involved lots of Bonfires, in the tinder box that was Jacobean London, while they waited for their king to declare his support for Frederick, as surely he must. James exercised the full powers of curmudgeon and allowed nothing of the sort, and banned celebratory bonfires. The Spanish Ambassador managed to get James to suspend Thomas Dekker’s play The Whore of Babylon, because it was full of

Thousands of blasphemies against the Pope and Spain.

The media filled with sermons, pamphlets, manuscript letters and libels, demanding intervention into war and also demanding the abandonment of the Spanish match; much of the material was unlicensed, some of it published in the Netherlands and shipped over. People became confused by James’ refusal to do any such thing intervening, and public opinion began to shift against him.

What you might ask, was Buckingham’s attitude to all of this? It appears that initially at least, Buckingham’s attitude was exactly what you’d expect of a red blooded Early Modern nobleman – war it must surely be. Glory. And praise. William Trumball again said he’d heard from Buckingham the words

‘that as he had received all he had from His Majesty’s most gracious favour and bounty, so he was ready to spend it all in the cause of the King of Bohemia, wherein this kingdom had so great an interest’.

People beat a path to Buckingham’s door, knowing that if they wanted to influence the king, he was the best route; Elizabeth wrote to him and sent her Ambassador Baron Dhona to court. But Buckingham was, in the end, his king’s servant and executor, and he could see the way the wind was blowing. The Venetian Ambassador for example reported back of Baron Dhona’s interview with James that the king

‘Continued to interrupt him, laying stress on the reasoning of the Austrians’ and denouncing the Bohemians ‘practice of dethroning kings and princes’.

People did not really understand though; they thought that surely the king must make the right decision, and since he didn’t appear to be doing so it must be that he was being badly advised – so who would be his closest adviser? Ah – that’d be Buckingham then. Libels appeared condemning the nature of Buckingham’s relationship with James, quite unrepeatable on a family show – assuming that this is a family show and that you are all dutifully lining up all your small children in front of the wireless podcatcher each Sunday evening to listen. You are doing that aren’t you?

Some of the muttering was aimed at James though, and the stock of the Stuart sank further; the French Ambassador wrote home of

The hatred in which this king is held, in free speaking, cartoons, defamatory libels

James’ strategy was more subtle than in simply declaring a war in which he neither believed, nor for which he held out no hope of success. He saw himself as a peacemaker, who would heal these rifts in Europe, and bring universal peace. His strategy for doing this was the Spanish marriage of Charles to Marie Anna. Here’s how the thinking went. He would use the glittering prospect of a marriage to a Stuart and future king of Britain to unite the Spanish with the British interest; he would then use the power, wealth and influence of Spain to hold back the hand of wrath of the Emperor; and he would stand into the breach as a mediator between his son in law and Empire. Let’s be honest – from the start James was being super optimistic of the power of a marriage to bridge the faultline of the Reformation and Counter Reformation and the centuries long Spanish-French rivalry.

However, there was an iron fist in the purple and diamond encrusted velvet glove. Meanwhile James would hold the threat of war over the heads of Catholic Europe, playacting that if things didn’t go his way, well, the full might, glory and unmatched puissant power of England would descend on the chaff like the ubiquitous storm, so watch out. To help this story, he ordered Buckingham to prepare a fleet of six ships, funding it, interestingly enough, through a Ship Money tax levied on London. I say interestingly, because Ship Money will have a role to play in his son’s story.

It’s attractive thinking, though to be honest, there were holes. One of those holes, obs, was that there were few Catholic diplomats who had much fear of the unmatched puissance of English arms. Nor, also, was it clear that Spain was even very enthusiastic about the idea of an English marriage. The Venetian Ambassador wrote home that James seemed to be acting against the grain of his councillors’ advice, and that the Spanish match was ‘nothing but make believe’, and that Gondomar

Laughs about it with his intimates, rejoices at the gain of time and boasts of having so far kept his Majesty’s hope buoyed up through his devices’.

Wootton was right wasn’t he? Diplomats, men sent abroad to lie for their country.

Then in the Autumn of 1620 came dramatic news. Firstly, in September the commander of a Spanish army, the brilliant Genoese general Spinola invaded the Palatinate, Frederick’s ancestral lands, and quickly captured a series of towns. In November, Emperor Ferdinand’s army of 27,000 crushed the Bohemian army of 15,000 in about an hour.  The idea of a Europe all brought to the Reformed Religion died at White Mountain. The consequences for Bohemia in their bid for freedom would be severe; the population of Bohemian lands would suffer a catastrophic crash, as the 30 Years rolled over them. The Bohemian constitution was cancelled, and a new one introduced in 1627 which squished most of their freedoms, made German the equal of Czech as a language, removed most of the protestant landowners and replaced them with Catholic outsiders and mercenary generals. The general population were converted to Catholicism by a combination of force and education with the help of the Jesuit order, Ferdinand carried on his way to try and restore uniform religion over all his lands with the Edict of Restitution in 1629 so to be honest, while The goodly Archbishop’s talk of the second coming and the good and evil thing seem a bit OTT, the bit about a war between Protestantism and Catholicsm, despite modern scholarship, was really not that wide of the mark.

It was the invasion of the Palatinate which hit James hardest; while he deeply disapproved of Frederick’s support of a rebellion against an anointed monarch, Ferdinand was now in the process of doing the same thing; these were Frederick’s hereditary lands, they could not rightfully be removed from him.

The public debate, though, hit new levels of pottiness and fury. One Thomas Alured wrote an open letter which was widely copied and circulated, urging Buckingham to action, objecting furiously to the idea of a Spanish marriage, and advocating the calling of a new parliament. Thomas finished the piece with the hope that his publication of honestly-meant and constructive advice would not be seen as presumptuous. Whether he was right about the Spanish marriage or not is a matter for debate, but he was certainly wrong about the last thing; James and his Privy Council definitely thought it was presumptuous, and chucked him into the Fleet prison until he submitted an abject apology. ‘Really sorry for being so presumptuous, don’t know what came over me, send me the wedding present list for Charles and Maria Anna and I’ll get right on it’, sort of thing.

Thomas Scott’s Vox populi took an even fiercer approach; it was a rather nice skit essentially, pretending to be a secret document back home from Gondomar. It was in effect a scathing attack not only on James’ foreign policy, but on his policies for church and state. The fake Gondomar mocks the English as being no match for the Spanish on the battlefield; it does a nice line in demonstrating the growing gap between the public view of Court and Parliament, since Gondomar says he’ll fool James into not calling a parliament – but hey, even if it did it could easily be packed with a body of men ready to ‘betray their country and religion’. It chuckled about the credulity of James in imagining a jumped up little sub-king like him he could arrange a marriage with the glory that was the Hapsburgs of Spain, and rejoiced in the negotiations as

A cover for much intelligence and a means to obtain what I desire

So, it pushed all the buttons then. People went wild for this piece of work – it went through 7 editions in 1620 alone. Gondomar was furious; according to one at court ‘he foams with wrath at every direction’. Which is of course the only possible direction when you are foaming. Thomas Scott did not wait for invitation to visit to the Fleet – he jumped ship to the Netherlands and went into hiding. But he’d merely said out loud what many people were thinking. Lando the Venetian ambassador wrote home to report that as the invasion of the Palatinate came through

‘the whole court is boiling with rage at the news

The French ambassador worried that the public reaction looked worryingly like the anteroom to civil war. Elizabeth wrote from exile to her father and also to Buckingham, and she pleaded Buckingham to persuade James to be

A loving father to us and not suffer his children’s inheritance away…the enemy will regard more his blows that his words

James begged leave to disagree with all of them still. Yes, he was outraged at the invasion of the Palatinate, but he did not want to go to war, we wanted peace restored to Europe and the Palatinate to its rightful owner. And the road to peace was not at the end of a pike as his daughter was suggesting – it was through the arts of diplomacy and the tradition cement between reconciled enemies in marriage. So his reaction was to just add a few more decorations and embellishments  to the house that was the Spanish Marriage – you know, a breakfast bar, a big flat screen TV, and  a promise from Frederick to give up his claim to Bohemia over the porch, and for the Spanish to return the Palatinate in return for the marriage. In fact the thing that really made him see red was all this public debate about something which was for the all-knowing king, not the common folk – foreign policy was definitely not part of the list of things his subjects could discuss. That list was restricted to ‘what’s for supper’ and ‘what new ways can we think of to praise the wisdom of our king?’ Again the Venetian Ambassador Lando reported James had

wrathfully remarked that his people are becoming too republicanising

A royal proclamation was published at Christmas essentially telling people to button their collective lips, telling them

Not to intermeddle by pen or by speech with causes of state, and secrets of empire either at home or abroad

He got the Dutch to issue a proclamation against seditions publications designed for export, and again warned the clergy not to mention the Spanish match in their sermons.

None the less, James was not a fool; he realised that he needed more leverage with the Spanish than a love of peace and the offer to fulfil love’s young dream for a young prince and princess. And here, the public fury might well be useful – it allowed him to threaten that unless everyone came up with a deal, he might not be able to hold the English public and parliament back. And indeed, there were English already fighting for Frederick’s cause; James had blessed an army of 2,000 volunteers as they set off for the Palatinate under the experienced commander Henry Vere, with the Earl of Essex, the man rejected by Frances Howard you might remember, as his lieutenant.

There was a further weakness with this plan though – Gondomar knew full well that James was skint, and any army he could put together at the moment would probably be composed purely of the drummer boy. And indeed how much of a threat to the continental was it anyway, even if he did somehow magic up an army? There were plenty in James’ court who were hot for war – but for an Elizabethan type of war, blue Water strategy war. This said that rather than sending expensive armies to the continent, why not attack the Hapsburg colonies at sea instead? And of course that would allow us to do a bit of innocent raiding, pillage and trading on the side – always worked in the past. But whatever – skint, that was the thing, didn’t have two beans to rub together.

James, then decided he simply had no choice but to take the nuclear option – and call a parliament. Obviously as far as he was concerned calling parliament was a pleasant as eating a cucumber. Or even worse, if there is worse, which I seriously doubt. But there was nothing for it; if he was to convince the Spanish that there was an iron fist in his velvet glove, spondulikes were required. It was a tricky operation that faced him. He could generate the fury of the crowd true enough, to put as much wind up the Spanish as possible; but you know what these commoners are like, they do so easily forget themselves, so harnessing said fury and channelling that was the challenge. They needed not to get above themselves and get involved in matters of strategy. Nor did they need to get involved in anti Catholic invective, because any deal with the Spanish would have to include something about toleration for Catholics. Nor should they fulminate against the Spanish match because that would tie his hands completely . He needed them to just behave, vote him a bag of cash, say a few bellicose things, and then go home, job done. Anyway, James didn’t lack for confidence, so he was sure he could manage the politics of it all.

Well, on 30th January 1621, as James set out to his newly called parliament, the streets were absolutely rammed. Everyone was full of expectation and excitement – this would be called the glorious parliament of 1621, the one where our king declared war on our enemies and the Papacy, and led us in the way of Gloriana and the great victories against the Spanish once more. Cry Jimmy and Harry! James took it all in his stride -normally he absolutely hated crowds, especially when they should all be working not taking an unnatural interest in matters of state or getting in the way of his hunting, but this time he smiled and waved, and even stopped along the way to speak to his people – whereas normally, as the diarist Simmonds D’Ewes noted, he’d have

Bid a pox or plague on such as flocked to see him

Once inside, James tried to set the right tone with his speech. Bacon had warned him that there was something of a head of steam building against overspending and corruption at court, and especially over the matter of monopolies. So James went on at some length about all the reforms he’d made in Household spending and the Navy and things, all under the leadership of his eagle eyed Steenie. Which was a bit of a hoot, because as far as the Commons were concerned, Buckingham had become the object of all suspicion as being the chief corrupter. But you know, get your retaliation in early as they say. Then he went on to lay down the rules with a bit of constitutional theory, by way of reminding the Commons of their place. Parliament was not the equal of kings because kings called parliaments, they came when the king decided. He needed money, but parliament was to keep to its place and remember that ‘it was a vain thing for a parliament to press to be popular’ – i.e. no playing to the agenda of the proles thank you very much.

There is much evidence at the 1621 parliament of active government management. James was expecting trouble from Edward Coke of course, with his pesky appeals to parliamentary privilege and precedent, and indeed in his speech to the Lords, James sent a warning shot straight across his bows

For though Sir Edward Coke be very busy and be called the Father of the Law and the Commons house have divers young lawyers in it, yet all is not law that they say, and I could wish, nay I have told Sir Edward Coke, that he [should] bring precedents [from] good kings’ times … [and not from the reigns of] silly weak kings

But in fact, he should also have been looking at our Edwin Sandys, who was once more up to his tricks of managing affairs in the Commons. Sandys spoke frequently; at least twenty-two times in the last two weeks of April, and made over fifty speeches in May. But his best work was as normal behind the scenes; and not always in ways James would object to. So Sandys was as keen as anyone to enable the king to fight for the protestant cause, and get him his money; and so smoothed conflicts out of the way to get a quick vote of subsidies – initially of £140,000.

But then things got nastier; the Commons turned to corruption, and fixed its teeth into monopolies, patents and referees. Let me explain that a bit; monopolies are as you’d probably be aware – a lucky recipient having full rights to sell a particular commodity, for which he could charge whatever he liked. He was awarded said monopoly in return for a fee to the Crown. Patents give the holder the right to regulate a particular trade – and of course this could be quite lucrative in fines if you found wrong doing. Patentees were rewarded in return for a fee to the crown. Referees were the officials who signed off the applicants for a monopoly or patent – they were supposed to do the due diligence and give the winner ‘good egg’ status, should they deserve it of course.

Well obviously this was a lovely lucrative business for the Crown, and hey – you didn’t need to get it approved by parliament. But it had been a running sore with MPs since Elizabeth’s day. Because of course the basic concept played to the idea of dodgy practice – the more you over charged, the more you made. One particularly infamous patentee, Sir Giles Mompesson had made a mint in fines by prosecuting over 3,000 innkeepers for legal violations. It turned out these violations were for ancient and obsolete irrelevant statutes, or often he set the innkeepers up, entrapped them essentially. People like Mompesson, declared one of the MPs were ‘bloodsuckers of the kingdom and vipers of the commonwealth’.

Now James was actually quite prepared to support the idea of legislating to clean up some of the worst excesses of Monopolies; he had a politician’s nose, and saw this as an opportunity to smooth the way to further subsidies to pursue the war – since £140,000 was nobbut a starter. But there was a problem, and that problem wore extremely handsome looking hose, and was as beautiful as St Stephen. That’ll be Buckingham then. Because although Buckingham himself didn’t have many monopolies, he’d made sure his family and clients did. So his enemies, quite convinced that Buckingham was not a reformer as he claimed, but instead the source of much of all this corruption, saw an opportunity to go for the throat and get some blood. Mompesson was first in the firing line, with Edward Coke leading the search for the jugular; Coke was a bit of a one for history, and declared that

‘Empson and Dudley were [but] fools to this projector’

They got their man; Mompesson was duly dispatched, and indeed was forced to leg it to escape, and banished in perpetuity. But then next in the firing line might well be Buckingham. So, we get a delightful bit of theatre. James addressed the lords, sung Steenie’s praises and purity, and sternly informed everyone that if Steenie or anyone stepped out of line he, James, would root them out

‘if he prove not himself a white crow, he shall be called a black crow’

At this, Buckingham made a leg, fell to his knees in front of everyone and declared

‘Sir, if I cannot clear myself of any aspersion or imputation cast upon me, I am contented to abide Your Majesty’s censure and be called the Black Crow.’

Fantastic. There’s little doubt that if George had failed as a favourite, he’d have found a job quick as you like at the Globe. It’s entirely likely that James and Steenie cooked this up before the event. The message to the Lords was clear – don’t go after this one, he’s mine.

It was probably Edward Coke who identified who in the government would be made a scapegoat next. And in March, the person in the crosshairs was James’ Chancellor, Francis Bacon. As Chancellor, Bacon often acted as a referee for Monopolists and Patentees; Mompesson had been among them. But also Bacon was accused of taking bribes, specifically for accepting gifts from two suitors in a legal case. In vain Bacon protested that the referee was not responsible for the crimes of the recipient of the award. In vain, he argued giving of gifts was standard, and would not affect his judgement; and to be fair, in this case he’d actually made a judgement against the suitors who had made the gifts. But parliament wanted blood; only James could save Francis’ bacon now. Arf, and if you will, arf.

Bacon was seriously ill by this stage, horrified by the turn of events and under enormous pressure. Obviously, he hoped the king would extend the hand of protection, as he had to Buckingham. But there was no sign, so Bacon appealed to Buckingham to win him James’ help – but James had already decided that Bacon would have to be sacrificed.

To get his man, Edward Coke revived a very old procedure, the process of impeachment whereby a minister could be accused in the Commons, and then tried in the Lords. You may or may not remember that the approach had been first used against William Latimer, the leech feeding on the enfeebled mind and body of Edward III, at the Good Parliament of 1376. By the end of the 15th century, the process had fallen into disuse; but over 100 years later, it was to have a new lease of life, and first to be fed into its fire was Francis Bacon.

But Bacon had no will to go through the process, and so he gave in – he admitted that he had accepted bribes and did not fight the case; was sentenced by the lords to be fined £40,000, imprisoned at the king’s pleasure, and barred from court or parliament. So, Buckingham and the king had both abandoned Bacon and thrown him to the wolves; probably they both felt guilty, since he was soon released by James. He never quite lost the desire to play a political role but it was not to be, and instead he devoted himself to writing. With a bit of luck we’ll be able to come back to him before he dies in 1626.

But for the moment we must square our shoulders, straighten our backs and head back to the politics, and make our way to the Protestation of 1621. So, looking at the scoreboard; James had managed to avoid a crisis with his favourite, une point, and jollied along parliament, deux point. By May 1621 he could feel pleased about progress – he had a couple of subsides all bagged up and ready to ship, and by professing himself well satisfied with the need to reform patents and monopolies he hoped parliament would vote him another – he needed a rather larger sum for this threat of war on Spain to be at all credible. In July, indeed after parliament was prorogued until Autumn, he issued a proclamation cancelling 18 monopolies. So – Coolio, all on track. Let’s go hunting.

But then things hit choppier waters and parliament began to wobble off their allotted course, as parliaments under James were rather wont to do. And they introduced a bill for the better discovery and suppression of Catholics. Now I guess that might not have been unexpected but it was deeply unhelpful for James and his strategy for Spain. For that to succeed he needed to be seen as the boy with his finger in the dyke stopping the flood of the Commons’ desire for war, but also to be seen as a man who could deliver catholic toleration if peace in Europe could be achieved. It may have been an impossible balancing act – certainly as paths go, it was very very narrow, twisty and rocky. This bill if passed, would make it look deeply unlikely he could deliver toleration in the event of a marriage to a Catholic princess – and Gondamar was predictably furious. What is the point, he demanded to know, of continuing negotiations if England was about to start persecuting Catholics again?

So James tried to tun off the tap of Parliament – the very tap he’d turned on. And he immediately prorogued parliament so everyone could cool down. In the commons, chins made contact with toecaps – and interestingly many of them were basically worried about their constituents; the prospect of going back to their countries. Having achieved almost mothing except vote subsidies was not attractive. Sandys went rushing around with others to dissuade the king for the adjournment, arranging for a petition.  The royal response was indignant irritation, this was not the script, not the script at all. Such a petition would be a ‘derogation of his privilege’, and no one likes to be derogated, and he delivered a speech, possibly for Gondomar’s ears, wondering that

We rather expected you should have given us thanks for the long maintaining of a settled peace in all dominions, when as all our neighbours about are in miserable combinations of war

But before they left, with no visible evidence of being any more gruntled by the speech, the MPs passed a Declaration for the Recovery of the Palatinate, professing their willingness to go to war if diplomatic efforts were unsuccessful.

James didn’t leave it there. He hauled in Sandys, had him questioned and slung in jail for a while, accusing him of trying to stitch things up with the Commons and his foreign policy views. He imprisoned the earls of Southampton and Oxford for speaking out against the Spanish Match. After that straight jab to the head, he followed up, as boxers do, with a quick cuddle, and then he cancelled those 18 monopolies as parliament wanted, but followed up with a blow to the guts, re-issuing his proclamation against MPs intermeddling in Foreign Policy that were the affairs of kings and kings only; The cobbler, he advised, ‘should stick to his last’. A declaration which required a good knowledge of boot manufacture, in which matter the good MPs of Northampton would no doubt have been useful.

Well, despite being able to dispatch the parliamentary ball to the boundary, the next few months were something of a disappointment for James. He’d hoped that having a subsidy in his wallet however small along with the threat of war, things would progress in negotiations for a Spanish marriage; but progress in Spain was glacial. So, he tried a new approach also – sending an Ambassador to the Emperor, Ferdinand II, to try and winkle out a commitment from him that if Frederick agreed to give up his claims to Bohemia, then Ferdinand would return the Palatinate to him and not seek to punish the poor lad any further.

The envoy was a chap called John Digby, the Earl of Bristol, and an experienced diplomat. He’d spent years in Spain as an ambassador so he knew the lay of the land; but he wasn’t an easy man. Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, historian of the civil wars, described him

though he was a man of great parts, and a wise man, yet he had been for the most part single, and by himself, in business, which he managed with good sufficiency, and had lived little in consort; so that in Council he was passionate and supercilious, and did not bear contradictions without much passion, and was too voluminous a discourser; so that he was not considered there with much respect.

However, he was the man with the knowledge, and was a favourite with the king. And so he was despatched; but by September 1621 he was back. And he was back with bad news, the worst – it was definitively a no from Ferdinand, Frederick would be toast as soon as the toasters, Spinola and Maximillian of Bavaria, had completed their tasks of subjecting the Palatinate to their control. It might be worth noting that anyway, Frederick would reject the idea of renouncing the Bohemian crown – there was not a man who knew neither how to hold up, nor to fold up, or indeed when to run.

Poor James. There was nothing for it therefore, but to call parliament back to their duty, to up the pressure on the Spanish, and in November Parliament met again for a new session. Important though it was neither James nor Buckingham were in evidence much – James liked to spend the Autumn hunting in the east of England. So it was left to ministers to tell parliament that their job was to deliver a subsidy to recover the palatinate.

Well I have to say, this put the house of Commons in something of a pother, which they pointed out to Charles, the Prince of Wales, who was standing in for the king at parliament – who reported back to his Dad that that house had ‘been a little unruly’. To which we might remark you ain’t seen nothing yet, young Charlie, but sadly we were not there.

The point is though that there were mixed messages around. The king had issued two proclamations as we’ve heard telling the cobblers to stick to their last and not discuss matters of State. He’d slung people in gaol for criticising the Spanish Match. He’d also written a poem, had our king, bidding his subjects to

Hold your prattling, spare your penn

Bee honest and obedient men

Now all of a sudden – they were supposed to discuss nothing else but the Palatinate, surely a matter of foreign policy. And there was another, larger, constitutional point here. What about the principle of parliamentary privilege, that MPs should have complete freedom of speech and expression? Now this, asserted parliament, was an ancient and immutable right – not a point of view James held it had to be said, nothing ancient or immutable about it given parliament came from the king, but the Commons believed it right enough, and made clear their views. Nonetheless – they voted a subsidy in principle.

So that’s all good then. Except – not really. On the 29th November a chap called Sir George Goring threw his hat into the ring, and it was a flat hat of the Peaky Blinder construction – so, including the presence of a razor blade in it’s leading edge. Goring proposed that the Commons should send a petition to the king to declare war on Spain if they did not withdraw from the Palatinate. That was fair enough, it played to the script. But once a parliamentary committee then got hold of George’s words, they added line that the Prince should marry ‘one of our religion’.

Why George, why? Goring was no revolutionary or Mutineer. And yet he had really thrown poo on to the crown bowls green. Why oh why? There has been much debate, about this; and at the moment the clever money has it that we see the hand of Buckingham here – Goring was well known as being a client of the Marquis. The idea is that Buckingham had decided that if they were to get movement from the Spanish, they needed to turn up the thermostat to 7th Circle setting. And so he’d prompted George to put the original declaration forward – never imagining that they’d then add all that anti Spanish marriage stuff. If so, we can consign the tactic to the ‘boob’ category.

Because James went bananas. And we move from parliament and king working in partnership to, well, not. James gave parliament a broadside, writing to the Speaker of the House accusing them of debating

matters far beyond their reach and capacities

and instructing them not to speak of anything concerning government or the Spanish Match. Edward Coke got involved amongst the members, though Sandys hadn’t returned to parliament as it happens. The commons responded protesting their innocence that they’d merely wanted to put some ideas and information before the king that might not have

come so fully and clearly to his knowledge

and also made the point about free speech again. Well, more blue touch paper had been duly ignited. James got in touch again with the Speaker, carefully removing his kid gloves before he did so. He didn’t need any advice from anyone thank you very much. He accused them of claiming a ‘plenipotency …in all power upon earth’, like the Pope and ‘the puritan ministers in Scotland’, He delivered a pretty clear threat and evidence of his views about the relative powers of king and parliament. They should

beware to trench upon the prerogative of the crown

or he’d act to

retrench them of their privileges

The language is important; in evidence is his struggle with Radical ministers of the kirk in Scotland and the idea that a king had no role in the church, which fuelled his views that puritans were synonymous of rebels. Secondly, in evidence was his view that parliamentary powers came not from the people, but from the king – and what the king had given, the king could take away. Free speech is not a right, pal, it’s a privilege.

The parliamentary response, cooked up with the active involvement of Edward of that name, was the Protestation of 18th December 1621. I am going to quote most of it, because it’s an important constitutional document, so pens ready. OK? It declared:

‘That the liberties, franchises, privileges, and jurisdictions of parliament are the ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England; and that the arduous and urgent affairs concerning the king, state, and the defence of the realm, and of the church of England, and the making and maintenance of laws, and redress of mischiefs, and grievances which daily happen within this realm, are proper subjects and matter of counsel and debate in parliament; and that in the handling and proceeding of those businesses, every member of the house hath, and of right ought to have, freedom of speech to propound, treat, reason, and bring to conclusion the same: that the commons in parliament have like liberty and freedom to treat of those matters, in such order as in their judgments shall seem fittest: and that every such member of the said house hath like freedom from all impeachment, imprisonment, and molestation (other than, by the censure of the house itself), for or concerning any bill, speaking, reasoning, or declaring of any matter or matters, touching the parliament or parliament business’

There’s a tiny bit more but that’s the guts of it. The Commons asserted their right to speak as they wished of what they wished and to be free of coercion by the crown or government. It was not really an ancient birthright as Coke claimed, or at least was a bit dodgy – but of course if accepted would be one of the many baby steps that went towards the making of the modern constitution we now work under.

James’ head – exploded. He immediately dissolved parliament. On 30th December, his outrage still burning bright he had the protestation torn out of the Commons Journal. Edward Coke was thrown into the Tower – into a room that had been once a kitchen, funnily enough, and some wag had daubed the walls with the line ‘this room wants a cook’. There’s always room for a cheaky chappy. Interestingly, an MP called John Pym was also incarcerated – you’ll here more of him. James retired to his favourite house Theobalds declaring that

He would govern according to the good of the common weal; but not according to the common will

HA! That’ll show ‘em, HOW DARE THEY?! Ooh but incidentally…he’d also set a torch to the paper of his Spanish strategy; he’d given up the second subsidy, which had not yet gone through the process yet. His plan to use parliament to pressure the Spanish was doubly entoasted since they’d complained officially about a Spanish match and demanded more actions against Catholic. As the fire of James’ strategy burned, you might have seen Gondomar the Spanish Ambassador dancing in the light of the fire. He wrote home that the dissolution was

The best news in a century

For Spanish interests, removing any likelihood that England could launch meaningful military action on the continent

Oh dear. What on earth were they all to do now?




4 thoughts on “340 Ancient Birthright

  1. “Optimistic” isn’t nearly a good enough label for a plan to get “the Most Catholic King” to marry his daughter to a “heretic” to secure peace in Europe, when Spain’s 80-year war on the Netherlands had another decade or so to run. “The wisest fool in Christendom” strikes again. There’s so much trouble on the horizon that one can’t see the horizon.
    Good episode, in a horrifying way, thanks.

    1. I have some sympathy though, don’t you? At least he was chasing a worthy aim, the treasure of peace. There weren’t many who did that in early modern Europe.

Leave a Reply