362 Free Men not Villeins

In 1637 Charles sought an example to squash opposition to Ship Money, and chose a minor country squire. John Hampden refused to back down.




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The Ship Money in 1637-8 was a courtroom battle sought for by both the king, and Hampden and the ‘Warwick house’ faction, where battle lines were clearly drawn, in the bright light of public fascination and scrutiny.


I spoke last week with the problem England faced on the waters, with their international credibility in tatters even with the garland of England, the Navy. The expedient Charles arrived to solve said garland at is famous – or was famous maybe? But I think when the subject is talked about, in whatever tone depending on your political preferences, what is sometimes left out is that the solution arrived at was aimed at a specific and real need – money was needed, and needed for the navy, and spent there as it happens. Anyway the expedient arrived at was called Ship Money.

Wassat? I hear you ask? Well. in a way it’s another traditional feudal due. Once upon a time, as all of you who have been with me for the last 11 years are aware, feudalism was based on land given for military service; and one of these ideas of military service, for maritime counties, was to provide ships to help the king defend the coast against attack. It’s on this basis that merchantmen also were called out to serve in royal fleets. Now over time, this requirement lay forgotten, and most other aspects of military service began to be served by making a payment instead; so if you were an artistic young aristocrat, excellent taste in ruffs and sculpture, fine nose for a good sack and perfume, the last thing you wanted to do was put on a rough leather jerkin and a breastplate, draw your sword and wallow around in mud trying to get at the Frenchman at the end of a pike, while spending most of your time trying to forget the dysentery you managed to catch in camp. So instead of that, you paid money to the king who instead hired people who really enjoyed all that sort of thing, and there are such people I’m told.

So, in 1634 some bright spark, thought to be the Attorney General William Noy, came up with the idea that maybe the requirement for maritime to provide military service would be a good way of raising money in lieu of said service too; to make sure it was legal, they would emphasise the claim that the same feudal principle lay behind Ship Money – a maritime county would send money instead of a ship – and the Crown would do the rest, either building or hiring a vessel. Actually Charles had already tried it in 1628 but it hit such hostility that he’d chosen the path of the Forced Loan instead. And we know how popular that was. Now delighted with the idea, Charles mentally gave Noy a big kiss on his cherry lips, and in June 1634 instructed the Council to come up with proposals; it’s clear, by the way, that Charles was very much involved through the process.

Now there was a problem. These kinds of impositions were normally levied only in times of emergency – when the king was going to war, in real and present danger as the film has it. Now in Charles’ view there was a state of emergency going on, and he was determined that as King, he was the only person capable of identifying what did and did not constitute an emergency. When the writ went out it defined the emergency as

The many depredations, violence and hostile acts committed daily on the Narrow Seas and even within his majesty’s ports…to the dishonour of his majesty’s sovereignty in those seas and the infinite disturbance and prejudice to trade

Which, fair dinkum, does sound like a serious issue, but not exactly the same as the Spanish landing a force of pikemen at Margate, or hordes of English turning up at a Spanish port demanding lager and fish and chips. There were rumblings. One of the Cinque Ports actually refused to pay, when you’d have thought they were a dead cert – nut now, they might provide a ship, because they had a few of those lying around, but at hard cash they drew the line. In London, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen were told by their lawyers that

Money could not be reasonably obtained from the people without infraction of the laws, by any way but the ordinary one of parliament.

Ah, parliament. That old chestnut. The Lord mayor and Aldermen, however, stared into the abyss, which gave them a nasty wink; because the Privy Council hauled the Mayor up in front of them, and demanded to know what was going on here. London decided their corpses wouldn’t look good on this particular hill, and ponied up. But actually despite said many and various rumblings, the first writ, expected to raise £80,000 did raise pretty much that – or 90% of it – plus some ships from London, as it happens.

Well, that was good, decided the Privy Council – we’ll have a bit more of that, and in 1635 the writs were issued again. But this time they had a flash of inspiration; since ships would effectively be defending the whole country – let’s levy it in places like Loughborough which is famously short on coastline; let’s levy it on everyone. Not just to the maritime counties, who were at least accustomed to being involved in naval wars, but to all inland counties as well. Well, I never did my Granny would have said, rattling her teacup against saucer suspiciously, Who had ever heard of such a thing? And then again writs were issued in 1636. So, not only was this anyway pretty dodgy legally, not only was it unheard of as a tax in inland counties – but it was looking suspiciously like an annual tax now, all without parliament even getting a sniff. For Charles and the PC, it was mouth wateringly exciting; each year it raised over £200,000, the equivalent of 4 parliamentary subsidies. We are quids in. And despite loud grumblings, 80-90% of people were paying up. Charles’ money problems appeared to be over – Ship money could be the English version of the French Taille, or Gabelle, the basis of Louis XIV’s glittering and warmongering absolutism to come. Parliament, schmarliament. It’s worth noting at this stage that by the time Treasurer Weston died in 1635. In th process of his administration, he had managed to clear all of the king’s £2m debt, and the current account was in the black – and that is quite an achievement. The future was bright and shaped like a massive, gilded ship.

Because that’s what Charles used Ship Money for – a Ship Money fleet. The Sovereign of the Seas was launched in 1637 and was an absolute whopper. Actually, if you’ll forgive me the flight of fancy, the Sovereign of the Seas was everything Charles stood for – made boat. It was the epitome of absolute majesty – the very first three decker, carrying 102 guns; the next biggest ship in Europe was the French Couronne, with a measley 88 guns, and of course just two decks. Lord, so last year. She was armed entirely with Bronze cannon, each chased lovingly with the royal arms – Bronze was wickedly expensive. And the decoration ladies and gentlemen boys and girls – was to die for; forget naval strategy look at that gilt! The Dutch called her the Golden Devil because she was decorated entirely in gold and black, no colours; you could build a warship on the cost of the gilt alone. Now the Sovereign of the Seas was an achievement; it and ships like it, began to restore England’s naval reputation, in a straight fight she would be formidable. Utterly, utterly useless at catching pirates of course. By the time she’d opened her gunports, the barbary pirate would be back in Salee selling their collection of Cornish citizens in the slave markets.

But it is worth noting that Charles sought to sell this to his people by making it absolutely clear that this money would indeed be spent on the fleet and it was. Charles provided the sheriffs collecting the tax with accounts they could show, demonstrating the point. And as I have said, the tax was pretty successful, although there was lots of trouble and upset caused; so for example, Ship Money reached much deeper into society than a traditional subsidy, so this directly affected far more people than normal. In Essex for example, a parliamentary subsidy would fall on 3,200 people; Ship Money was due to be paid by 14,500 so four times the number. The Venetian Ambassador reported that many thought the king was acting

‘contrary to the laws of the land’

And certainly repugnant to the uses and forms observed by the people up to the present time

But most of the grumbling were individual complaints about the assessment rather than the principle. There were so many of these sorts of complaints, that Charles instituted a new additional Privy Council every Sunday, to respond to objections.

Even in the early days, however, it’s important to look at what these grumblings and complaints about assessment mean; they are more than grumblings. The impulse towards obedience was powerful, the sheriffs enforcing this through local constables held a deep influence and control over society, the fear of social disorder was an obsession. The complaints about assessment were the only legitimate way to resist. They were so numerous, that the sheriff hated collecting the tax as intolerably antagonistic and hard. To give just one example from many possible. In Northamptonshire, John Dryden found it so awful he complained until he was replaced as sheriff by the PC. His replacement, Cockayne, wrote to Laud

I find much difficulty, for since few or none will pay what they are assessed without distress; others either wilfully oppose or disturb my servants and officers in making distresses…

Another sheriff reported

“I will do the uttermost of my duty to bring in all behind … and hope your Lordships will think I do what I can from piece to piece, for I protest there is no penny that is not forced, God help me, amongst the people.”

But the call to obedience was strong, the penalties for non payment were severe, and in the end few felt up to absolute refusal to pay.

Which doesn’t yet bring us to the Great Patriot, John Hampden, but it does bring us to other agents of rebellion – Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick, and William Fiennes, Viscount Saye and Sele. If you are looking for resistance, the group of friends and peers around Warwick is a first stone to unturn. Warwick was the type of grandee Charles liked around him at court in the sense that he was of ancient and grand lineage, and so Warwick was very much the courtier; but he was not the kind of grandee whose advice Charles would listen to – Warwick was deeply Calvinist, puritan if you prefer. Never appointed to the PC, Warwick felt excluded from Charles’ inner circle, and objected strongly to his religious policies, and to the overriding of parliament, the only remaining forum left to him to provide the council that was a tradition of his class. Warwick was an Essex boy as it happens, and his house there at Leez was described by one royalist critic as

The common rendez vous of all schismatic preachers

His house in London, Warwick House, meanwhile was where the like minded courtiers gathered together – the likes of Saye & Sele, the earls of Manchester, Brooke, Essex and Bedford. The circle of ‘Warwick Peers’ were strongly Calvinist, strongly parliamentarian. They fully agreed with Simmonds D’Ewes the diarist when he wrote in his journal that with the Ship Money

The liberty of the subjects of England received the most deadly and fatal blow it had been sensible of in 500 years

It was Warwick who took action first; in 1636, he organised a campaign of non payment in the County of Essex on a wide scale. Then in January 1637 he decided to bite the bullet; he would not hide his resentment in deferential silence – he would confront Charles at court. In what the historian John Adamson refers to as one of the most remarkable altercations in Charles’[1] entire reign, Warwick confronted Charles in person and demanded a complete re-orientation of royal policy – parliament must be called, war must be made on Spain and the Palatinate recovered – and he grandly claimed to be representing the nation, and that ordinary people like his tenants could not bear the prospect of living

Under the stigma of having…signed away the liberties of the realm

He portentously declaimed that if Charles took his advice, parliament would support him all the way.

Charles, reportedly, kept his calm and’ smiling and composed’, though later would threaten prosecution through the Court of the Exchequer. The Warwick house circle were rumoured to have drawn up a petition to demand the return of parliament. But their nerve failed, and it never appeared. By Autumn 1637, pretty much all the County of Essex had paid up, and the protest, was over.





In February, Charles sought backup from the judges and asked for a judgement on the legality of Ship Money. He prepared the ground carefully of course; it would be unforgiveable if the judges came up with the wrong answer, so embarrassing for their professional reputations. Chief Justice Finch went round every one of the 12 judges with a letter from Charles demanding compliance – and no doubt a personal reminder from Finch that Charles rewarded compliant judges well when they retired. Spookily, the judges found for the king – who’d a thunk it. The king they said, could levy ship money

When the good and safetie of the kingdom in generall is concerned and the whole kingdom is in danger

and that the king was

the sole judge both of the danger and how the same is to be prevented

Otherwise known as a wash as complete and shiny white as could be desired. Charles was delighted. Charles’ self-confidence ballooned, Charles’ aggression grew with it. He could finish this, he could finish this here, and he could finish it now. Filled with a feeling of invulnerability and with the judges apparently in the pack pocket of his gloriously silky pantaloons, Charles decided that a test case would be the ticket – to crush a ship Money refusenik would send the right message to the world. He might have felt differently, had he known that many of the judges had deep misgivings about the ruling they had just agreed to. But if he did know that, he ignored it.

William Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele was equally desperate to take Charles on in test case. He did the equivalent of jumping up and down in front of Charles, waving his arms and shouting ‘me, meeee sire, take me sir’. He refused to pay ship money, and saw his cattle distrained; when his lawyer, Oliver St John, advised him to take it to court he tried to do so – but when he did, Charles had it taken in Star Chamber in June away from the public eye, and prosecuted on entirely different grounds than ship money. He did not want to take on such a powerful figure. Instead he chose a relatively obscure, and hopefully therefore hopefully defenceless, member of the minor gentry.

Enter John Hampden, 43 years old. I keep referring him to the Great Patriot, ‘cos I was sure he was once referred to as such – but actually I think I may be wrong, so I’ll stop. Anyway John Hampden was financially comfortable without being rich, and was an inhabitant of Buckinghamshire, near Aylesbury – including the manor of Great Hampden, which could be nominative determinism in the minds of supporters of the good old cause. He was educated at Thame Grammar, and as a lawyer at the Inns of court. In 1616 he walked his bride, Elizabeth Simeon, from her house to the church at Pyrton; Pyrton is not a million miles away from where I live, and I happen to know a couple who also walked to the church there to get married, in conscious imitation of John Hampden. Which shows a nice respect for the grand English narrative of history. I approve.  By 1634 Elizabeth had given birth to 10 children, 7 of whom survived. Hampden was a Calvinist, a cousin of Cromwell as it happens; but there’s really no sign of anything revolutionary in his early years, although his mother thought he was capable of great things – but that’s the way mothers roll, isn’t it?

It was at the parliament of 1626 that Hampden began to get connected; he is curious in that he is not a charismatic figure like a Pym or a Lillbourne or Cromwell; he did not speak very often. He fulfilled all his roles with honour and competence and honour; and yet again was never really the leader at big ticket events, he’s always a little off centre. Clarendon would later write that his influence and reputation came from management pf people, and ability to organise others and events. And yet his reputation throughout history is very strong. I suspect there are two reasons. One is Conrad Russell’s judgement, and of course I am not worthy so much as to pick up the typos under Conrad’s table – that his skill was in the background, quietly working away with others managing affairs, working in committee in Parliament, getting things done.  He held things together, people wanted him there – including the great men who did not normally involve commoners, because he was a professional, with good judgement on how to achieve results rather than glorying in grand gestures. This very quietness, efficiency and humility I think is one the reasons for his fame; there are no great conundrums or controversy to mar his name.  Also, he probably made a good career move by dying in 1643 in battle, before everything got complicated.

Anywho, in 1627, Hampden popped his head above the parapet, and proved that another of his characteristics was courage and moral purpose. He refused to pay the forced loan, and was imprisoned for almost a year. In the 1628 parliament, he helped Pym draw up the indictment against the cleric Mainwaring; and he made one of his few speeches within which he neatly encapsulated his thinking, and those in his party.  Here we go

Here is 1, an innovation of religion suspected; is it not high time to take it to heart and acquaint his Majesty? 2ly, alteration of government; can you forbear when it goes no less than the subversion of the whole state? 3ly, hemmed in with enemies; is it now a time to be silent, and not to show to his Majesty that a man that has so much power uses none of it to help us? If he be no papist, papists are friends and kindred to him

In this again you see the close connection of religion and politics; a king deeply distrusted by parliamentarians like Hampden, suspected of removing or emasculating parliament, to bring in popery. Is it just me, but I can’t resist thinking of bowls of perfumed dried flowers every single time I say popery. It’s most distracting. Anyway, this speech placed Hampden firmly in the inner circle of the Warwick Peer network along with John Pym, and he was never to leave it.

After the 1629 dissolution, not much happens with Hampden politically; we see him at home appointing a preacher and a vicar, carrying on a correspondence with other political types such as Harry Vane and the incarcerated John Eliot.  He gets peripherally involved in colonial venture, though not as an investor; many other radicals do – Warwick, Holland, Pym and many others in particular get involved in the Caribbean Providence Island colony, a super unsuccessful venture which has the dubious distinction of being the first English colony where over half the population were enslaved. At this time it’s possible that Hampden, like many other of the Godly such as Cromwell, seriously considered emigration to the new colonies in New England.

If so, it was, with a certain amount of irony, the king who called his attention back to England. Charles then was feeling pretty bullish after the ruling of the judges in his favour, and decided that yes, we would grant Saye and Sele his desire for a test case; but no he wasn’t going to give that satisfaction to him, he was going to pick on an easier target, a country squire. There might also be a certain amount of vindictiveness in Charles’ decision. Hampden’s refusal of the forced loan and his speech had annoyed him. Also, Hampden’s uncle Edmund Hampden had been one of the Five knights. So maybe that’s why he picked his name from a list – a relatively lowly figure, and revenge. Also, Obi Won may have said that yes, this is the drone you are looking for, but that’s speculation. But it may also be that Charles recognised a challenge. Because in fact Hampden had been assessed for ship money in a number of parishes, since his landholdings were spread out. Most of them he paid up without trouble; only at Stoke Mandeville did he refuse to pay the small assessment of 20shilings, just £1. It was a clear challenge – because what Hampden was saying was look – it’s not the money, I can afford all of this. It’s the principle that’s at stake here, and which is wrong. This is very different to objecting to an individual assessment – this was a challenge t the very basis of the King’s right to tax without parliament.

For whatever reason then – Charles chose John Hampden as his prey. Time to crush the refusenik, the disobedient, time to bring him, and others like him, to the royal heel.





In August 1637, then, John Hampden was called before the King’s Bench for refusing to pay his Ship Money assessment of £1. The PC were thoroughly aware of how important this case was, and Debate there had been intense, and the PC was divided as to whether or not this was the right thing to  do, or whether it would be better to continue the softly softly approach, avoid direct confrontations. Hawkish Councillors like Coventry were keen to get this thing nailed; wiser heads, in this case Laud and Wentworth thought it was taking an unnecessary risk, the dog seems to be sleeping why poke it with a stick? In the end – the hawks prevailed. Just to make sure the point was thoroughly made to the world, the court was referred to a special court retained for the big cases, the court of the Exchequer Court Chamber. It wouldn’t normally be the sort of place used for pursing 20 shillings a pretty paltry sum, but Charles was making a point to his subjects, note bene folks, listen up, watch and learn. Exemplary justice I think it’s called. Setting an example I mean, rather than justice notable for its excellence.

Well, if Charles though Hampden was alone, he was wrong. Hampden’s work at the 1628 parliament had connected him firmly into Warwick and Pym’s network. It is quite possible that Hampden himself, in his 1628 speech, had recognised that a confrontation was coming however long it took and whatever form it took.

As the trial opened, Charles was granted his wish – interest throughout the country was high, attention was quickly fixed on the court and the case and what would be said. In Pig sties and Mangel fields, the legal issues were chewed over and sides taken – well I probably exaggerate for effect, but you know what I am saying.  People knew what was happening, and took note; in a letter of one correspondent wrote that Hampden’s refusal “is all the talk of London at present.” The Venetian Ambassador described a general astonishment,

“Everyone wonders at the king’s goodness in allowing the public discussion of such a nature.”

Well, public discussion and public defeat was very much the point of course. Now in such a court, the best government lawyers in the country would be representing Charles’ case – the Solicitor General, Edward Littleton, and the Attorney General John Bankes. Hampton had two lesser known lawyers; the first was Oliver St John a client of the Earl of Bedford, and a contemporary of Cromwell’s at Cambridge University. He’d been in trouble before with the crown, when caught circulating a wildly absolutist tract, presumably using it as an example of where Charles might be leading everyone.  He was a rather quiet, reserved man, who seems to have kept himself to himself as much as possible; but Clarendon would describe him as ‘beloved of parliament’, so obviously his view was respected, and the earl of Beford was no mean patron. The other lawyer was Robert Holborne, a critic generally of Charles’ money raising ventures in the personal rule; an interesting case of a man who, through the 1640-1642 crisis ahead of us would start firmly in the parliamentarian camp, but by 1642 be so alarmed by the radicalism emerging that he would return to the king’s side. There will be many such.

Anyway, there we are, it’s November 1637, cold, dark and Autumnal, crammed all of us into the Exchequer Court Chamber, the 12 highest judges of the land all in their finery, the defendant and his lawyers, the prosecuting lawyers, the seats packed, the hubbub; not just a court of law, but theatre, drama, politics. Hampden, St John, and Holborne had a strategy; whereas at the start of ship money resistance the approach had been to argue the technicalities, now they were to go for a bigger prize – that there was to be no taxation without the consent of parliament. No taxation without representation, if you will.

Oliver St John opened the bidding. The king had no right to demand the provision of ships, his right extended only to an emergency in time of war – and yet we were at peace. If the king needed money, the only legal way to get it, was through parliament. His argument hit a cord in the crowd watching – there was a lot of applause, a hum of conversation and agreement. Littleton rose to reply on behalf of the king and took the approach of necessity; the actions of pirates meant the situation was urgent, and there was no time to go through the lengthy process of asking parliament, the money was needed, and right now.

Robert Holborne rose next and took St John’s argument further;

By the fundamental laws of England, the king cannot out of parliament charge the subject – no, not for common good [2]

Even if danger was imminent; the subject’s right to their own property overrode the king’s claim of prerogative, and parliament’s consent was required. Well, Holborne’s speech may have lacked a little impact in the court as it happens, since he seems to have had a difficult speech impediment, but the argument struck home with the judges.  In the final response, John Bankes went large and high level. Leaving the specifics of the case behind, as justification he went for the absolute power of the king who he claimed was

The first mover among those orbs of ours…the soul of this body, whose proper act is to command

Good point about those, orbs I thought. Anyway, Bankes’ point, orbs aside, was that no one had the right to criticise the king’s use of his powers, because there was simply no one high enough with the right to do so. We are back to James I’s point that if the people were subjected to the tyranny of a bad king all they could do was bow their heads, grin and bear it. This, in the end, is what the political strand of the civil wars was all about; it is a statement at least as political as legal, and gave the judges a dilemma; if they chose for Hampden, Bankes had put them in the dock as rebels.

The arguments were done; now judgement would be delivered by the 12 judges, each giving their opinion. Bear in mind, incidentally, that these are all the same judges who, earlier in the year, had been prevailed on to give a judgement in favour of the legality of Ship Money to Charles, under personal pressure from John Finch with his letter. This makes for an awkward moral, social and egal situation. How would they react, was the question, now that they had a specific case to consider, and now that they were in the public eye? The court room was by now absolutely rammed; people began queueing at dawn and still couldn’t get in, which I understand is now the case at Banff national parks. As one writer complained to his friend in the country:

“The business now talked of in town, is all about the question of ship money, the King is pleased to give way to those subjects that refuses to pay, whereof Mr John Hampden is one, to have their counsel to argue the case in point of war, in the Exchequer Chamber before all the Judges…. I cannot relate any particulars because I heard it not, although I was up by peep of day to that purpose. I was so far from getting into the room that I could not get near the door by two or three yards, the crowd was so great.”

Letters like this were flying around the country, St Pauls Walk was humming with the chat – the public sphere was engaged, the government of the realm was in the dock.

Well, the Presiding Judge was one Robert Berkley, and he laid into demolishing Hampden’s case with some enthusiasm. He dismissed the idea that ship money was a subsidy – it was payment in lieu of service, and there was sufficient danger on the high seas to warrant the action, and anyway the idea that only parliament could charge the subjects was tripe

The law knows no king yoking policy

Thundered Berkley. He declared for the king.  Next up was Lord Chief Justice Finch, noted anyway for his robust defence of the king’s prerogative though as an MP he had presented a petition against the billeting of troops to be fair; he did so in the most delightfully obsequious terms that I need to find a way to get into a conversation sometime and see if I can escape with my life. Sir, he said

you are the breath of our nostrils, and the light of our eyes

By ‘eck. Breath of our nostrils. Ewe. Steady John. See if you can give a friend today the ultimate accolade of being the breath of your nostrils, I’m sure they’ll be honoured, though they might not see you alone in future. Finch was also of course the Speaker of the house who’d been held in his chair during Eliot’s speech. It surprised no one that Finch came out for the king. He had power declared Finch

To charge his subjects for the necessary defence and good of the realm’ and ‘subjects were bound to obey’[3]

By the hair of my nostrils it was not going well. 2 more of the judges took this same line laid out for them, that the king’s prerogative was supreme and not dependent on parliament, so that was 4 out of 12. More judges tried to duck all this politically charged thing about prerogative vs parliament and stuck to the technicalities – was Ship Money a tax, and therefore subject to parliament, or was it a feudal due, money in lieu of service and therefore not a subsidy to be granted by parliament.

But there were now others who began to take a different line. Justices Brampton and Davenport also hid behind technicalities, but took a different view; they held that the king could only demand a service – that is the provision of a physical ship – not money; and that since Hampden was being tried for debt, this was money we were talking about here, it was clear money involved – and they found for Hampden. Not exactly a ringing constitutional judgement to get people to the barricades, but a win is a win

But by now, the court had gone against Hampden, his stand was going to end in the defeat of his case, and he’d be distrained for is quid – 7 judges out of the 12 had declared for the king, Charles had won.





He might have won the battle – had he won the war?  A third judge held for Hampden, and then there two ringing rejections of the king’s case, enough to get the blood beating in the ears; from a couple of oldies, as it happens, 76 and 77 years old respectively. I don’t know if that’s relevant, you can draw your own conclusions. Both had been the most reluctant of the judges in the earlier general ruling about ship money, and although they’d finally bent to the pressure, it had clearly been weighing on their minds. Lord Chief Justice Hutton was a child of Cumberland where the air is clear and free, and declared straightforwardly that ship money was

Contrary to the lawes of the realm

He then launched into a bit of a rant I’m ashamed to say; presumably his children looked embarrassed and rolled their eyes.

the subjects of England are free men not slaves, free men not villeins. Here is no apparent necessity of an invasion; therefore by law, they cannot be thus compelled to part with their interest in their goods.”

He launched into a full blown vindication of the rights of parliament. Not only did he make it clear that ship money could not be raised on the basis of the King’s writ without the assent of parliament, but he also did a bit of quoting of the Statutes of Edward III. Because although I am constantly reminding you that parliament is not a standing part of the legally defined constitution yet, it’s an occasional body the king calls when he needs counsel and to graciously allow his subjects to bring their own cases, actually it had already been decided in the reign of Edward III that parliaments should be held annually. Who managed to make us forget that then? The decision had been sort of shovelled off into the monarch draw labelled odds and ends, and things were lost that should not have been lost.




So Richard Hutton cited the statutes, and asked how it had come about

That this kingdom which hath thus flourished by parliaments, should now forget her frequent kind of government by parliament.

Good point Ron baby cried the crowd. Well they didn’t really, but they did burst spontaneously into ‘much applause of the people’

George Croke similarly braved the wrath of the king; apparently he had also had something of an ear bashing from his wife Mary Benet, the daughter of a mayor of London, whom he’d married very late at the age of 49 when Mary was but 19; it seems Mary might have been a bit of a firebrand, exhorting George to step over the threshold he’d hung back from earlier in the year. Croke remarked rather sourly that the whole business should not never have reached a court, should have been decided at a

‘public assembly of the state’

Hmm…what’s one of those called…let me think…oh yes! Parliament!

He then made it clear that according to the laws of England, a man had a freedom and property in his goods and estate that could be taken from him only with his personal consent, or by his consent as expressed in parliament. And that nothing escaped this rule and that no

‘necessity nor danger can allow a charge, which is a breach of the laws’

We started the case in November 1637; it was now June 1638; the country had been gripped for over 8 months in this debate, and meanwhile new writs had been issued for the 4th year of collection of what was now clearly an annual tax. But in June 1638 it finally came to the time that all the judges’ opinions had been heard, and judgement was duly recorded; the court had found for the king, by 7 votes to 5. A victory then for the king.

But again – or was it? It was in fact a very close call. Maybe if it had been unanimous it would have had the right impact; but 7 to 5 was way too close for comfort. Also, most of the judges who declared for the king had done so on rather technical grounds; while those that did go large like of Berkley who went large on royal powers, panicked people a bit; when he said

The king is law, law speaking, a living, breathing, an acting law

People’s jaws hung open slightly; it felt horribly extreme. In one historian’s view, it would have been better for Charles if he had lost. He had seemingly got come credit for allowing open debate of the case, and although he’d initiated action, he was at least allowing the legality of the tax to be judged in open court rather than being crushed. But the fact that he won turned Hampden into a hero, and made Charles look like a tyrant trying to crush the little man.

Clarendon certainly thought that despite the result, Hampden’s Ship Money case was a major turning point. Prior to that he felt that many had been willing to pay the levy ‘as a testimony of their affection’. What Clarendon means is that people might have had doubts – as we’ve heard they did; And although now there was a ruling saying that it was the king’s rights, it was a judgement that appeared to have been made on very dodgy, political sounding grounds – that people suspected was ‘not the law’. It was now seen as a political argument not legal; and so many began to feel that they were ‘bound in conscience not to submit’.

Debate is still rather split; there is an argument to say that in practical terms it did not make any difference – the 1638 levy was also a success, so people can’t have cared. It did begin to seriously break down in 1639, but then there were other problems, like additional taxes to deal with the Scots. So the argument runs that there are grumblings, but hey there always were, it’s tax no one likes parting with the hard earned. But really, the evidence points to Charles paying a very heavy political price for the Ship Money case; and a wiser, more canny and politically aware person – such as his father for example – would have ducked the idea of a legal challenge, and that over confidence, an arrogant conviction in his rights, and a passionate demand for absolute obedience as a signifier of loyalty – led him into a public relations disaster.

I’m going to turn to the historian Conrad Russell here; he makes the point that the pain felt by the gentry in implementing this dodgy tax against the constant drag of resistance in their beloved countries and their own doubt,s tore at the very fundamental of the English state;

“It threatened a co-operation between King and county gentry for which no substitute existed, and for which no substitute was desired”

It also challenged the trust between Gentry and the community they led. Complaints and evasions from communities became more violent and more determined after the case. In Lyme Regis it was said

“What foolery is this, that the country in a general peace be thus much taxed and oppressed with the payment of great sums to maintain the King’s titles and honours”[4]

In Kent, they were equally cynical:

“the kinge having neyther then nor now any declared enemy…. this made much discourse how the king could have any necessyty that had no enemy.”

Even if the tax was for the fleet – and Charles at least seemed genuine in that it has to be said – there was a general lack of belief that the King knew what he was doing anyway

“The West Country people have no great belief that the King’s ships will do any good against the Turks.”

There was now a strong element of social disorder in the resistance, no longer hiding behind the technicalities of individual assessment, such as in Northamptonshire when the bailiff’s came to enforce the tax in 1638:

women, boys and children with pitchforks and their aprons full of stones…were shouting ‘Knock them down.’ ‘Beat out their brains.’ ‘Hang them rogues.’

John Hampden’s stand brought the issues about the personal rules and royal prerogative into the public space for open discussion. The judgements of Croke and Hutton were reprinted and widely circulated and read. Salt was rubbed into the king’s wound.

Some of the king’s supporters, were outraged by Hutton’s disloyalty; one of them, an Arminian clergyman Revd Thomas Harrison, accused Hutton publicly in Westminster Hall of high treason. Harrison was prosecuted, fined £5,000 and Hutton awarded £10,000 damages by a sympathetic jury. Not only was that a public vindication of Hutton’s case, a further humiliation for the king, but a great opportunity once more to discuss the issues. Croke, meanwhile, was so popular that he became a bit of a hero with a popular gag that ship money could be gained, said the wags, ‘by hook but not by crook’. Arf, and if you will, arf.

Dissent and debate extended well beyond London, and  all across the provinces. Some complained about the number of taxes. In March 1638 a Gloucestershire woman Elizabeth claimed that because of ship money ‘she would not be able to live’. Though in point of fact, England was lightly taxed by comparison with Europe which was part of the problem. When a neighbour loyally said ‘The King must be served’, Elizabeth’s son retorted

If that be so, the king must have all, I would the king were dead’

A constable in Northamptonshire described Ship Money as

An intolerable exaction, burden and oppression

Th Venetian Ambassador reported that the Hampden verdict was received

With incredible bitterness and malediction against the judges, as influenced more by authority than justice,

And he worried that

There was a disposition to revolution in England, to force the king to observe the law

Well, those are doom laden prescient words. Let’s be clear, even the Warwick circle that supported Hampden, and still less Hampden himself, had any thought at all of rebellion. Their earnest desire was to serve the king. But all of them felt excluded from Charles’ council.

“In a monarchy, what drives a man into an ‘opposition’ stance, is not his convictions, but the king’s attitude to those convictions. A man is pushed into opposition not because the king disagrees with him, but because the king no longer wishes to hear him or be served by him.”

The only way to give council to the king if not one of his inner circle, like Warwick and Saye and Sele, was parliament. After Hampden’s stand, the pressure to recall parliament would grow stronger yet.

[1] Adamson, J, ‘Noble Revolt’ p33

[2] Purkiss, D ‘The English Civil War: A people’s history’, p24

[3] Harris, T ‘Rebellion’ p297

[4] Gill, Alison ‘Ship Money’ p480

4 thoughts on “362 Free Men not Villeins

  1. I found it interesting that with respect to the John Hamden case Laud was recommending that Charles go slow.

    1. Yes, outside of religion he seems to have been a reasonably canny political operator. Also I read – I think Richard Cust – that Laud isn’t really a political adviser, but he does keep popping up, especially in the context of privy council

  2. One thing I find odd; we’ve heard about the “Tax Farmers” for ages. Apparently it used to be a doddle for some rich bugger to snaffle up a tax farming contract and then, with the help of som burly lowlives proceed to squeeze the citizens to within an inch of their life.
    Now we hear the tax collectors whining about people being mean to them and actually complaining and refusing to pay.
    What changed?
    Why weren’t there the usual brutalities and coercion?

    Enquiring minds… etc…

    1. Hi Jan

      The English system varied according to the tax. So, if Tax Farmers were employed it was a conscious decision to do so, and seems to have been common for customs and excise, as in Bate’s Currants. In the case of subsidies through parliament, it is the local gentry and sheriff organisations who collect. Those are fairly, local communities have worked out who’s got themselves a lower assessment to keep things moving, that sort of thing
      The Ship Money tax was collected through that route, through Sheriffs. And yes in days medieval we used to hear about how sheriffs were king of the shire, very powerfil. us since then, the gentry have very much taken over, the new position of Justice of the Peace really rule local society, being a sheriff is now not an attractive position – it’s an administrative pain in the neck. And Ship money was a new tax, which affected many more people – and so everyone, but everyone, moaned..

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