From 1629 Charles tried to rule without parliament; either a Personal rule of peace and prosperity, or the 11 Years Tyranny, depending on your point of view. By 1638 there plenty of kindling had been placed around the tree of hte Commonwealth, but no sign of a fire.
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Last time we heard how Charles surfed up to the beach of kingship on a wave of popularity, in the wake of his rejection of Spain and a new enthusiasm for fighting the good protestant fight. But we heard how Charles’ failure to resolve concerns about the authoritarian nature of Stuart government and his enthusiasm for Aminian religious views had flipped his board and buried his relationship under the rollers. How’s the surfing metaphor going, by the way? By the end of the 1620s, at the dramatic events of the parliament of 1629 Words had been spoken that couldn’t be unsaid – the concept of Treason against the people for example, had been floated.
Charles turned his back on the Tudor tradition of consensual rule, convinced that a small group of unprincipled malignants had taken parliament hostage, and were determined to usurp his rightful authority for no good reason. He would listen to ‘new Counsels’, and he called them, and he would rule alone, without utensils. Just as a king comes naked and alone into the world so he would rule. Well not naked, obviously. But alone, without parliament. It was reported that in March 1629 as he dissolved parliament, he warned his courtiers grimly that
We shall account it presumptuous for any to prescribe at any time unto us for parliaments
Well, in this episode we are going to hear how that goes for him, and for his people. Now when the world was happy and whiggish, this is a period known as the 11 years tyranny, when England and Wales groaned under the Stuart Jackboot until we rose up to put on the flip flop of liberty. Of course, then funsuckers known as proper historians came along and pointed out that it’s quite hard to describe it as tyranny, he’s hardly Joe Stalin, and many at the time would have seen the king merely exercising his proper prerogatives. So the proper historians they passed a law, and now it is forbidden to speak those words and we must instead talk of the Personal Rule. But the question remains similar; was this in fact the 11 years tyranny which lead, as night follows day and glory follows English cricket, to Revolution? Or was it in fact 11 years of peace and prosperity, or as Edward Hyde would later describe it
‘The greatest calm and the fullest measure of felicity that any people in any age had been blessed with, to the wonder and envy of all parts of Christendom’
And it was only the Scots and their rebellion, and the king’s need to raise money to supress them, that opened the door to those malignants once more? Let me know what you think at the end. Tyranny or Triumph?
First of all, Charles reckoned that revenge is a dish better eaten at least lukewarm, no point letting it go off, so he immediately pursued those 9 vipers in parliament, those MPs he saw as the parliamentary hostage takers. The manner in which he did this is hugely instructive, sui generis you might say. If this was indeed the 11 years tyranny, you’d expect these 9 MPs to be hauled out of their beds late one evening and never seen again. But Charles does not see himself that way – he was a good king, and though he was entitled by divine right to absolute obedience, the forms were important. In a few years’ time when things are getting hot, the French Ambassador will look around him at the chaos, amazed, and remark something along the lines of sacred blue, guv’, back in France if there’d been all this protests the streets would be running with the red stuff, and I don’t mean ketchup. He said it in French though.
So Charles tried to have these 9 Vipers slung in the cooler by law, and duly arrested them. They then objected that under the petition of right just signed by him in 1628 he had to give them a reason for their imprisonment. Instead of slitting their throats just before dawn , he brought a prosecution in the courts of common law and told the judges to do their duty – the judges duly warned him that he didn’t have a case, so he slung the Vipers into the Tower of London, out of the jurisdiction of Common Law, and ordered the Judges in February 1630 to declare them guilty. Or Else. Since the reason were urgent matters of State Charles felt he did not need to go through the rigmarole of presenting evidence, having a jury, all that sort of the-ancient-rights of- the English jazz. The bravely judges caved in. The point I am trying to make here is this; Charles was no blood thirsty beast in the main; he frequently followed the protocols of law; but he was a king, above ordinary folks, so the law must bend before the royal prerogative. Several of the men prosecuted here – Denzil Holles and William Strode for example – will get their own back in a few years’ time.
Now then, personal rule. Charles is often considered the architect of the Revolution, as an inflexible and politically inept sort of ruler. That may have some truth in it, but he wasn’t an idiot. There were some rules Charles decided he must adhere to.
The first was that now that he was a man, he should put aside childish things, which meant no more favourites – there would be no replacement for Buckingham, and he sticks to this for the rest of his life. Charles will prove a man who is quite capable of listening to advice, and even acting on it. However, he shows this level of flexibility only on tactics – ways to get to an end, means to an end. Never the principle itself. The ultimate objective is to be decided by the king, his God and his conscience, and most importantly. His honour. Charles sets much store by his honour. The one time he is forced to go against his honour will haunt his conscience to his death. Everyone must bow before Charles’ conscience.
Second though, and more practical. Money. Money was too tight to mention. He didn’t have any, and he owed a bundle, and now getting his hands on more would be harder – because he would not call parliament, perish the thought, a plague on both those houses, white horses and all that. No what costs money…um…War, war costs loadsamoney, and so there can be no war. Within 12 months of the closing of parliament, the Three Kingdoms were at peace with both Spain and France.
That does not mean that foreign policy was no longer important; but everything abroad now was bent towards dynastic objectives, no longer religious. His Sister Elizabeth and her Hubby Frederick, Winter Queen and King, must still be restored to the Palatinate. But it would now be for diplomacy to achieve that. That would be tricky; if effective diplomacy was to speak softly and carry a big stick, well, the English could speak anyway they chose, but everyone knew full well that without money they carried but a small twig. The Venetian Ambassador cruelly reported home that
England may be considered as no longer existing in the world, for she will be impotent for good or harm, and will have to attend to domestic affairs, and the means to raising money.
This is a cruel reality I suspect Charles always failed to grasp.
Nonetheless, I have a feeling that Charles thoroughly enjoyed his personal rule – this was how things were meant to be, no messy commoners to get in the way, an oik free zone. His rule was directed through his privy council. composed of the right kind of people, great men of the realm, PLUs; there were 42 councillors, but a core of 12 regulars; and a completely separate Scottish Privy Council. The two factions we have talked about still formed the main faultline at court, the Protestant patriot faction and Spanish party. But the Patriots were now in the doldrums, with a copybook so blotted as to be unreadable given their love of parliament. For most of the personal rule the Spanish party were in the ascendant.
In terms of foreign policy, friendship with Spain seemed the most likely way to get the Palatinate back – because the Spanish had influence with the Emperor, and notoriously large sticks. Not a euphemism. But it’s not just about foreign tactics; the Spanish faction were fully in favour of the king ruling alone, they had recommend he dissolve parliament. They fully supported the absolutist view of kingship. Religiously they were often in agreement with Laud and his beauty of holiness, Arminian zeitgeist, and indeed a significant number were either Catholics, or Catholics on the quiet.
The Spanish party were therefore of Charles’ mind, and as parliament had found out to its cost, Charles favoured those who were of his mind, don’t we all; as long as they bowed to his priorities, tactics could be discussed until the king made his decision. Although historians disagree a little, Charles was generally assiduous as a ruler, taking his duties of governance seriously. He read papers extensively and carefully annotated them in long hand, and usually giving very clear instructions. He was almost always the ultimate decision maker, and once decided expected the PC to simply implement; once again, inflexible on ends, though persuadable on means. He frequently attended Privy Council meetings, and even chaired them – the very thought of that would have brought his father out in spots to retire to a dark room with his favourite damp towel on his head.
In general, then, Charles provided clear decisive leadership, but allowed his counsellors very limited influence. And deep down, he seems to have lacked confidence; and was therefore uncomfortable with debate. He was inclined to equate disagreement with disloyalty. If someone disagreed, he was inclined to believe they thought him and idiot. This lay behind his fury with parliament – he could not quite believe that it was possible for people to have a genuine, principled alternative view of the way to achieving the nation’s and his best interests. If they argued with the objectives he laid down, they must be up to no good. Out for power or personal profit. This was demotivating for advisors, and politically dangerous – small issues quickly became big ones, a crucial matter of loyalty.
One of the reasons I suspect Charles adored the personal rule was that he was able to exercise a lot of control over his life; he craved control, order, decorum. He had been fascinated and awestruck by Europe’s grandest, most formal and glittering court, when he had visited the court of Spain. The English court became as structured as that, if not more so. The Venetian Ambassador again noted this:
The king observes a rule of great decorum. The nobles do not enter his apartments in confusion as heretofore, but each rank has its appointed place…the king has also drawn up rules for himself dividing the day from his very early rising, for prayers, exercises, business, eating and sleeping
His court revolved around his family and formal occasions – certain meals for example were taken in full view of the court with painstaking rules and protocols of who did and said what – not a belch out of place. And his household was enormous – between 1,800 and 2,600 people, which made it the 7th or 8th largest community in the kingdom. It cost about £260,000 a year, or 40% of total royal income to 1635.
But there was none of the Elizabethan popularism – no pressing the flesh, no grand public processions; this was a private, closed, structured world. In this bubble Charles was able to indulge his passion for art collecting, patronising artists and he was a real expert. Hidden away, he built his own comfortable vision and image of his rule – marked by grand masques organised enthusiastically by HM, many written and decorated by the greatest artists of the day Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones. HM’s masques presented an idealised world of Kingship, rescuing a grateful people from the threats of chaos and social disorder through his divinely inspired leadership. You can find out more about this world and Charles relationship with Reubens as well in episode 359. But for here, the thing about this was that Charles no longer had much of a feedback process – there was no parliament in this hermetically sealed world to bring the rude and jarring voice of the people with their real problems and worries.
One more point to make about this happy, closed, ordered court world. It’s said that 2’s company and three’s a crowd, and once the third party of Buckingham had been surgically removed by Tom Felton’s scalpel, HM and Charles’ marriage blossomed. Children appeared – 9 of them from 1629 to 1644, 5 of whom survived infancy. Through the 30’s Charles firmly kept home and the office separate, but he and HM were close, and the health and security of his family was always top most in his mind. In the troubled time of the 40’s the security of his Queen and family would be a major factor in his decision making, and during that time HM would become his closest adviser.
Now, in the words of the song – money’s too tight to mention. Ooh money money money money I think I goes on – great song, catchy chorus. Anyway here’s the scale of the problem; it’s not just that there’s not enough cash around to carry out the favourite English activity of trying to beat up the French, there’s minus money – Royal debt stood at £2m which was more than 3 times annual income in peacetime, which stood at about £600,000. Since he wasn’t calling parliament, Charles now had to do what was expected of kings – to ‘live off his own’ as the phrase went. Taxation such as raised by parliament was only supposed ever to be in extremeis anyway – a war to fight, the security of the realm threatened that sort of thing. In every other circumstance, the king was supposed to live off the income from his land or traditional dues owed to him by nobles.
It is worth mentioning something at this point in letters of fire. I mean I know running the country is a team effort, and there’s no I in team and all that, but if can just slip into the blame game here, before we accuse Charles of responsibility for all the coming mayhem to, we might just point out how toweringly unreasonable this is in the more complicated world o Early Modern Europe. Monarchs were expected to run the nation, keep everyone safe, hand out goodies, be glorious and all that, with the financial equivalent of the annual takings of the Nether Wallop annual Village fete. They had no truck with this sort of thing in France and Spain, where the national and regional medieval bodies that might restrict royal power had been closed down or marginalised, and massive prerogative taxes collected centrally like the Taille or Gabelle in France. From a later perspective, the failure of Robert Cecil’s Great Contract in 1610 was hugely significant – that was the last effort to establish a reasonable, reliable income for the crown. As a result, Charles’ desperate efforts to make ends meet would raise resentment and opportunities for protest.
Over the decade in fact, Charles and his PC were to be pretty effective in raising money. But it’s all rather desperate and hand to mouth – really no way to run an early modern state. And many of the methods he resorted to were deeply unpopular, and some were so old they looked like innovations, and many were deeply dodgy. So here’s a list – hie thee to episode 361 for the devilish detail. First and Best – would have been Customs dues. Now obviously, Parliament hadn’t voted those, and Charles of course respected the traditions of his people and kept his hands off them.
Not. Good Lord no, Charles collected away. It’s not just that merchants didn’t like these dues, and could piously object that they’d not been approved by parliament, the method of collection by tax farmers was also pretty nasty. Tax Farmers paid the king for a patch; if they could collect more tax than they paid to the king for the right to collect customs there, they kept the difference as profit. So whereas these days were pay our taxes with a happy smile because we know they have been scrupulously worked out by people called jack and Maureen in an office In Cardiff, merchants in Charles’ day were paying customs they hadn’t voted more and were hounded for to within an inch of their lives by people who looked like grubby, self interested private citizens.
It then gets hookier and hookier. Selling Monopolies to the highest bidder for example. Ordinary people hated monopolies. It meant the person who bought the monopoly could charge whatever they liked – so prices went up; and choice there was none. Parliaments were constantly raising grievances and petitions against monopolies, but no monarch could bear to keep their hands out of the till, such an easy way to raise a bit of cash. Similar to that are selling the rights to large scale projects; the Fen drainage projects are a case in point. The king sell the rights to develop vast swathes of marshy land to contractors if they drain and improve what had been common land. I mean in the end it’s for the greater good; the fertile fenlands are now at the heart of English agriculture. But at the time – thousands of ordinary people were thrown off common land they’d worked for generations, were deprived of their traditional way of life. They fight tooth and nail and often take the king to court – but Charles overturns many of these cases simply by referring them to Star Chamber. Ah the infamous Star Chamber – a royal prerogative court, not subject to the rules of Common Law; deeply influenced by the king, where, according to Charles’ principle, law must bend to the will and needs of the king, not to Lady Justice. It’s in one of these cases, but the way, that one relatively humble fenland farmer wins a reputation for standing up for ordinary folk, by leading a legal case against an improvement project – Oliver Cromwell by name. It earns him the contemptuous insult from royalists of ‘Lord of the Fens’. Again there’s more about the Fens in episode 361.
Another source of cash are the array of ancient feudal rights – do you remember Scutage? Shield tax, a way of paying someone to fight for you. Or the Knights fee – money to be paid on inheritance of your land. Or payment for use of Royal forest. Purveyance – money to pay for the up keep of the king’s court on the road; courts of wardship. All of these are researched, revived and exploited to the full. Some of them are well known and hated – selling wardships for example; others such as the knights fee and forest fines were considered long dead and looked like a new tax. Until the court they appealed to save them, put them right.
All this was working financially; debt reduced, Charles controlled his expenditure, no one was paying anyone to grab a musket and go and die of disease on the continent while costing a fortune. But all this digging for a few quid down the back of a sofa was very messy; the Venetian Ambassador wrote home that all these fines were
Good for once only and states are not maintained by such devices.
They all undoubtedly cost a lot of political capital, and caused resentment and anger. But there was no focus, no one big tax to get together about, it was divide and rule, and without parliament to act as a lightening rod for grievances, no effective way to protest other than small scale fenland riots and court cases. So resentment simmered, but did not achieve critical mass.
There were other and even greater causes for resentment though, and here we must turn briefly to Archbishop William Laud and his religious reforms. There’s a long standing debate about whether or not the English Revolution was really part of the European wide religious wars; and certainly religion figured every bit as high in the pantheon of Carolean crimes that would put him up against the wall come the revolution, particularly with the de facto leader in the House of Commons of that revolution – John Pym. Pym would be as convinced of the absolute infallibility of his religious views as was Charles, or indeed the pope. The central importance of religion and the form of religion in people’s lives is the hardest thing I think to really grasp and feel when looking back at this period. But the English revolution is incomprehensible without it.
William Laud is as much the architect as was Charles of the religious reforms that outraged opinion in England and Wales of the 1630s; Charles had his deeply embedded belief in the sanctity of Bishops, but in terms of the details of doctrine, he listened to Laud, and Laud’s view of what the term ‘Elizabethan church’ really meant. So there are a blizzard of reforms. Some of them are very subtly introduced and very fundamental – like teaching that peoples’ actions could affect the status of their immortal soul not, as Calvinists believed, that only God’s grace only could do that, it was predestined; the Arminian view that rejected the completeness of Calvinist Predestination was slowly and steadily enforced in preaching, and many objected.
A lot of the issues seem really petty to us now; and fall under the general title of Laud and the Aminians’ love of Ceremony and formality. So – the kind of vestments ministers wore; whether you should bow at the name of Jesus, the amount of decoration in church, stained glass, images. One in particular was the new demand now to place the Alter at the east end of the church and separate it and the priest from the mucky old congregation, by an altar rail. This was not the way of the Elizabeth church, where the altar was usually brought into the body of the church, and the congregation gathered round it for Communion. This will be a big one, and let me turn to John Milton to explain why people hated it
The table of communion, now became a table of separation, stands like an exalted platform upon the brow of the quire, fortified with bulwark and barricado, to keep off the profane touch of the laity…which is what the prelates desire, that when they have brought us back to popish blindness, we might commit to their disposal the whole management of our salvation
There’s so much more in episode 363 about all of this, but let me just emphasise a few points. Firstly, it’s very clear that Laud was about all of this because he wanted to improve the condition of the church in his view. One of his initiatives, for example, was to improve church finances by increasing rents from church land, and reclaiming church lands from lay landowners where possible. The objective is surely reasonable – but no one likes to pay more.
Secondly, the spread of Arminian and Laudian viewpoints, practices and opinions pervaded the church. George Abbot the reassuringly Calvinist ABC had been removed by Charles, and when he died, William Laud was appointed. Laud made sure that all the senior appointments in the church were of his persuasion; they in turn appointed Arminians, and corrected approaches among the ministers of their diocese with which they disagreed. As their influence spread, anyone coming new into the church could see the way to preferment and cut their jib accordingly. Now, many of these practices had been part of the church for generations; suddenly they were being changed, and as with any culture war there are always many who do not want and saw no reason to change. With the added kicker here that by making these changes many feared that
- they were beginning to look a lot like the catholic church, or what one Suffolk gent called it, ‘but a dance before popery’; and
- That they were being told to adopt practices they believed put into jeopardy something quite important – i.e. their immortal souls.
Mo biggie then.
The last point though, is that not only were altar rails, altars at the East end, ceremony and images all these things, objectionable to many; but also Laud and Charles saw that the changes were carried through, and implemented with dome rigor; and if ministers or congregations objected, they were punished. The Elizabethan church had always worked by being flexible; encompassing a range of opinions and approaches from Puritan to traditional. Now only one approach was permissible. Make no mistake, Laudians were every bit as aggressive and demanding as any puritan, and they had the law of the land on their side and the public institution that became seen as an instrument of religious oppression – the Church High Commission. The High Commission rigorously and energetically prosecuted both ministers and laity, and punishments could be severe – from ministers being thrown out from their posts to public humiliation and mutilation.
There was a feeling of religious turmoil, change and oppression, and of a church hierarchy gone rogue; members of the church, Bishops in particular began to be seen as the enemy, and revived the more radical Calvinists who in their hearts had always thoughts Bishops were anti scriptural. People who had been grudgingly reconciled to the Elizabethan church. But who now felt they’d prefer to separate from it. In addition, Charles’s support for Laud meant he was very much associated with the policy. Plus he’d taken quite a shine to some of the Queen’s confessors and priests – Charles was more than once seen in happy company with Father Con, he even opened negotiations with the Papal court, his Privy Council held several Catholics. English Catholics loved the whole Arminian thing and celebrated that
Every day grow better and better for Catholics
Which is a nice sound to today’s ears, but sadly, did not make for public confidence at a time of deep division and sense of danger on behalf of protestants, from what they saw as the tyranny and aggression of Catholic Europe. And yet here was a king who seemed to view puritans as a greater threat and with more distaste than Catholics. And then there was the Queen of course, a Catholic, and with her very public, flamboyant and in yer face Catholic services at Somerset house which drew big congregations. HM made no attempt whatsoever to calm nerves.
The king himself has a wife recusant, why then could he not be one?
Some said. The takeaway from this is to go back to the court and country thing we talked about a couple of gallops back. Despite ending the wildness and licence of James’ court, Charles and his court still looked like a dodgy, neo catholic and untrustworthy champion of Protestantism, to the wider protestant countryside and provinces. Again, there was no real focus for protest; but many simply left, in what is sometimes called the Great Migration. They left for Ireland, for the Caribbean, and for the new colonies in North America.
PLACE GAP HERE 31:57
Now this is one of the areas I just can’t cover in at a gallop, which is a shame because I produced 4 episodes on the topic , episodes 364 where I talk very briefly about some of the cultures that were to be disrupted and their futures changed for ever by the arrival of the English, albeit the impact on native populations is universally disastrous, and episodes 365-367 on the main focusses of colonisation – the Caribbean, Virginia and New England. A couple of things; one that amazed me was how different all these areas were. In particular, in the Caribbean and Virginia plantation agriculture emerges quickly, although in our period now indentured labour would form the basis of the colonies’, almost from the start chattel slavery would form part of it, and was growing fast, particularly in Barbados, and would get progressively more vicious, again especially in the Caribbean. And the hub of empire is the Caribbean, and trade begins to flow, and the market there for corn feeds the growth of New England which services that need. New England society is very different, much more religiously oriented, egalitarian.
Either way, I simply don’t have space here. But about 540,000 people emigrated from England during this period in the 1620s and 30s. Give or take, I would say it’s important to add. About 377,000 to the Americas – the lion’s share of 222,000 to the Caribbean, 116,000 to Virginia, about 40,000 to Maryland. 130,000 odd go to the Irish plantations we’ve already heard about, a large proportion of those being Scots to add to the English and Welsh.
Some of them went to practice religion as they wished, other went to build a new life, still more went to make themselves rich. As a historian neatly put it, empire was
A haven for the Godly, a refuge for the oppressed, a challenge to the adventurous and the last resort of the scoundrel.
In Ireland, in 1633, very significantly Charles appointed a new Lieutenant General, one Thomas Wentworth, a Yorkshireman mainly known to history from the title he’d assume in 1639, the earl of Strafford. To the outside eye and casual observer, it looked as though he’d achieved the impossible in Ireland. A debt and budget deficit at the start had been turned into to a £100,000 contribution to Charles’ budget by 1638, as Strafford manipulated the Irish parliament to fund an army in Ireland of 9,000 men and more money besides. He had been an energetic, talented, efficient and even-handed administrator; not for nothing would be become feared as Charles’ enforcer and hatchet man. When he returned to England, Ireland had been at peace for a couple of decades, was undergoing something of an economic and population boom, unlike elsewhere in the Three Kingdoms, and now it was making a contribution to the budget. Charles’ cup runneth over.
There’s a but, gentle listeners, a but. Strafford, as I shall anachronistically call him, had achieved the impossible in Ireland in another way. He had united all its component parts in hatred against him. The section of Irish society critical to the success of Stuart rule in Ireland, the Old English, still retained a strong sense of loyalty to the Crown; though rocked by the Reformation, since most, though not all, remained staunchly Catholic. But what really troubled them was their land rights; unless these had been specifically regranted under English law, they could be taken from them, and Strafford had repeatedly threatened and done just that. Therefore they had entered into a bargain – they voted taxation for Strafford and Charles, in return for what were called the Graces. These were concessions which assured their land rights and gave them limited religious toleration. But the Graces had in the end only been partially confirmed, and then only by royal prerogative, not by statute. The Old English were outraged, and horrified by Strafford’s enrichment of himself. They wanted him gone.
Many of the Native Irish wanted him gone too. As it happens, there were a number of the native Irish who participated in English government, but some hated the impact of the reformation, and the continued plantations of Ulster and elsewhere were deeply unpopular and destablishing to landowners. Though it is again worth noting that many Native Irish landowners participated fully in them. Meanwhile not even the Protestant colonists in the plantations were happy; many of them were radical protestants, especially the Scots; Strafford as a good C of E man, deeply distrusted them, and forced them to swear an oath of allegiance to Charles as governor of the Church which the planters described as ‘the Black oath’. So although Ireland looked peaceful enough – once the firm hand of Strafford was removed, who knew what might happen.
Towards the later 1630s though, some high profile events began to provide a focus. One of them came from the demands of foreign diplomacy, and the absence of that big stick. Charles had no leverage, but continued to believe that he was achieving something in his constant relationship building with Spain, and the Spanish were happy and delighted, in between giggles, to string the lad along. There’s a lovely engraving referred to in Clare Jackson’s book, ‘Devil Land’ of Charles asleep in a chair while the French and the English fleet are ready for war, but the king cannot be woken from his slumber because the Spanish ambassador was lulling him to sleep by playing pan pipes. It has some truth in it.
Part of the problem was this absence of big stick thing, and if Charles did have a stick worth the name of a preserver, as I think Bill Sikes’ stick might be called in Oliver, it was the English navy, once referred to as England’s garland. But England’s garland was a wilted, desiccated old thing now, after decades of neglect and corruption under James. And there was a new Cock on the Dungheap of the Channel – and its name was the Netherlands. So fearsome had the Dutch navy become that in 1636 at the Battle of the Downs, Admiral Tromp had destroyed a Spanish fleet under English protection while the English navy stood helpless, wringing their hands. Rather delightfully, as he sailed off after giving the Spaniards a drubbing, Tromp gave the English fleet a ceremonial cannonade in recognition of their suzerainty of the Downs, which you can’t help think had a tinge of mockery to it.
And the English Channel and Atlantic approaches was a dungheap, make no mistake. This is a period where Algerian raiders were taking shipping enslaving people all over Europe, including England and Ireland; between 1609 and 1616 alone they took over 400 English merchantmen; in 1626 the single Cornish village of East Looe lost 80 people to slaving raids, and a further 69 ten years later. The Barbary pirates were not alone; Dunkirk in the Spanish Netherlands was also a bed of pirates, who took 300 ships in 5 years, about 1/5th of the entire English Merchant fleet. You can find out more about all this in episode 360.
To be fair to him Charles implemented a lot of reforms and rebuilding under his hardworking Secretary of State, John Cooke. Administration was brushed up, corruption attacked, shipyards opened again, ships put to sea. The trouble is that many of those ships were simply unsuitable for the kind of demands facing them – what they needed were fast, small, nimble craft capable of chasing down raiders; what the navy had were big lumberers, Impresso-ships, and it’s more big lumberers that Charles wanted – he would build the 1,000 ton Sovereign of the Seas, largest ship on the Channel, and lord it was naval bling that ship, covered in shiny gilt.
Now you can criticise him for that, and I advise you to do so but, big impressive ships did have one advantage and a real use; they worried the bejesus out of foreign powers such as Spain and France. They looked like a big stick. They may tactically have been wrong to deal with raiders, but they were right for the strategic challenge of forcing England’s continental opponents into returning the Palatinate to Elizabeth.
And so we come to Ship Money. Seriously you need to do yourself a favour and take yourself to episode 362, it’s such a great story. What happens in outline is this. There was an ancient tax called Ship Money; in times of war and trouble, it was levied on coastal shires in lieu of their provision of armed ships for defence of the nation. As Charles searched around for money to build ships like the Sovereign of the Seas he hit on this wizard wheeze. Here’s the logic; the navy was there to protect the whole nation; so fair dos, the whole nation should pay for it, however far away from the sea they were.
The preparation that went into levying Ship Money was enormous; an army of commissioners armed with a full text and trained up to go round all the towns and villages of England and levy tax on its citizens.
The reaction from those citizens was one of confusion and general eye rolling in the best tradition of English queuing. This was unfair they said; there was no war and so no justification for this tax; nor had it had ever before been levied on inland counties; and parliament had not approved it. It was therefore illegal thricefold. There was in fact a lot of compliance, the tax was successful for three years, collecting over £200,000 a year. But the chorus of protests against assessments swamped the PC.
In response Charles summoned the 12 judges of the King’ bench and ordered them to rule whether he had the right to tax whenever he felt there was sufficient need. He sat on all 12 judges, threatened them with expulsion if they didn’t get the right answer – and back then the king could remove judges at will, at his pleasure as it was described, no separation between executive and judiciary – and duly got the right answer from Judges. Of course sire. The king could tax when he saw danger threatened, relying only on his judgement. There is no wedge end thinner than this. This was effectively a green light for English Absolutism and the end of the need to call parliament. Many of the judges deeply regretted their compliance and wanted a second chance.
Well, they were to get that chance, courtesy of Charles and an ordinary Buckinghamshire squire called John Hampden. Charles wanted a showdown to destroy resistance and objections. And a group of reformers wanted exactly the same thing, to provide a focus for protests, and force Charles to call a parliament. So that they could there, properly discuss their grievances with him, about the rights and liberties of the English over which Charles was riding roughshod, and the abuse as they saw it of his religious policy. Excluded from the King’s counsels, these were grand men like the Robert Rich the Earl of Warwick, and the rather ordinary sort like John Pym. They sought to force a new parliament, so they could be heard.
It was John Hampden, well connected and supported by this group of reformers, who stood up to challenge the powers of the king. He refused to pay his ship money assessment; interestingly, he paid most of it, but just held £1 back – it was quite clear that this was symbolic. Hampden was signifying his patriotism and willingness to contribute, but objecting to tax in this form and without consent. Charles decided that the relatively humble Hampden was vulnerable and could be browbeaten and crushed, so he accepted the challenge and had him taken to court.
The Ship Money Case became a cause celebre then and for ever after – you can see Hampden’s statue should you ever find yourself in Aylesbury for example. It was discussed in newsletters, broadsheets, libels, ballads, St Pauls walk rang with the latest moves, the courtroom was rammed. The Venetian ambassador was stunned by Charles’ tactic; What on earth was the man doing? Why not just take the bloke down a dark alley, give him the benefit of as big a Preserver as you could lay your hands on, and send him to the bottom with stone shoes on? But once more, Charles was an odd tyrant; he fully believed these were his proper rights, he was acting in his people’s interest, and the courts would prove it.
Well to cut a long story short as I must, this dramatic case was both won and lost by Charles. 7 of the 12 judges ruled in his favour, John Hampden was forced to cough up. But 5 of those judges, the same ones who had caved in before, 5 of them refused to bow before the king’s majesty. They ruled against the king, and they did so in some ringing tones. One declared in his judgement that
the subjects of England are free men not slaves
another declared it illegal without parliamentary approval and wept
That this kingdom which hath thus flourished by parliaments, should now forget her frequent kind of government by parliament.
In his later history of the Rebellion, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon saw the Ship Money case of 1637 as a turning point. People still paid the 1638 tax but disputes to PC soared, and by 1639 the receipts plummeted. People began to believe the tax was political not legal, and that they were
bound in conscience not to submit’.
There were further outrages against public opinion which drove the heat of public fury upwards to force steam screaming from the kettle of politics in 1637. In June in London sympathetic crowds gathered in large numbers to see an outspoken puritan called William Prynne, who had protested furiously against the Laudian reforms. They saw him, and 2 other companions, publicly branded and brutally maimed by order of the Church High Commission for religious practices a majority of Londoners heartily agreed with. They heard Prynne shout defiantly that they should
Stand firm….for the cause of God and his true religion
From Ireland, as Strafford heard about the Crowds enthusiastic support and sympathy for Prynne, their open defiance of the High Commission, and refusal to be cowed, he foresaw trouble:
When a prince loseth the force and example of his punishments, he loseth withal the greatest part of his dominion
In 1638 London followed the case of John Lilburne, who defied the king’s prerogative court of Star Chamber by writing in criticism of the Bishops, and the crowds gathered to see him stripped to the waist and tied to the back of a cart and whipped for 2 miles through the streets. The writer Lucy Hutchinson recorded her horror that her fellow puritans were
tormented in the bishops’ courts, fined, whipped, pilloried, imprisoned and suffered to enjoy no rest, so that death was better than life to them
In 1638 then, after 9 years of personal rule, England was at peace, there were no violent riots, no plots to overturn the king or government of the realm, Ship Money was still coming in, the royal court was a model of order and grandeur. And it is important to note, though I’m a little late in the day to add this, that there were many who felt the king was doing nothing that was not his right. Arminian clergy enthusiastically supported the absolute and divine right of kings. Many of the laity believed that right along with them; some even rather liked the return of church ceremony. For them, and maybe most, the king was the key stone of social order and stability. Revolution seemed a long way away.
None the less for many others something was broken. Pretty much none of them would have denied the king’s rights and importance as the head of society, that ordered all the limbs of the body of a healthy Commonwealth. But this king seemed to have forgotten the duties of that role. He was supposed to defend the true religion; and yet it seemed to them that he had indeed innovated and changed the religion of Good Queen Bess. He was supposed to rule according to the laws and customs of the land, and yet he had taxed against the customs of the land and used prerogative courts to bypass the Common law. And he refused to consult with his people, and hear their grievances through their representatives in parliament. Charles seemed to hold England in an iron grip. What could happen to break that grip?
 Hunt, T ‘The English Civil War at First hand’, p12-13