Charles I is relevant again today – 370 years after his execution. Responding to the suggestion that Tory leadership hopeful Boris Johnson may be willing to prorogue (suspend) parliament in order to force through a no-deal Brexit, former UK prime minister John Major recently evoked the spectre of the 17th-century monarch, ominously remarking that such a move “didn’t end well” for Charles I in the 1640s.
And Major isn’t alone. Others have taken to Twitter, warning that “Boris should remember what happened to #CharlesI”. Campaigner Gina Miller is also launching a legal campaign to prevent Johnson from proroguing parliament.
But what exactly is it that Johnson should be remembering? And what should we make of the reappearance of a 17th-century king, who played fast and loose with parliament and lost his head to the executioner’s axe, in 21st-century politics?
In early modern England, monarchs weren’t obliged to call a parliament, but they did need parliamentary approval to levy new taxes, and this often proved to be a powerful incentive to do so. In 1628, following a pretty disastrous series of overseas military campaigns, Charles summoned parliament in the hope of raising money for further military action. Parliament, however, was in no mood to give the king something for nothing.
Two years earlier, Charles had attempted to implement the so-called “forced loan” – a tax by another name for which he had not sought parliament’s consent. And so when he wanted more money in 1628, parliament attempted to preserve its authority by pressuring Charles into accepting the Petition of Right, a document which laid out certain constraints on the king’s powers, including a ban on levying non-parliamentary taxation. Charles conceded just enough for parliament to grant him the money – and then he prorogued it, suspending its sitting.
When parliament met again the following year, proceedings were scarcely more amicable. When Charles ordered MPs to take a break for a week, they refused. Two members held the speaker in his chair, another locked the door, and they refused to leave until they had voted on their own adjournment. Exasperated, Charles dissolved parliament altogether.
From the spring of 1629 until the spring of 1640, Charles ruled without a parliament. This was unusual, but it wasn’t illegal. What was more questionable were some of the measures Charles was forced to enact to sustain this state of affairs.
“Ship money”, for example, was one of the few taxes a monarch could legitimately levy without the approval of parliament. It was usually paid by coastal communities to fund naval defences in times of threat.
Charles, however, demanded payment from inland as well as coastal areas every year, even during peacetime. This caused discontent, but it wasn’t as unpopular as some of his religious policies, such as the imposition of a new prayer book, which eventually provoked a war with his Scottish subjects, who objected to the king’s attempts to impose an unpopular form of worship on them.
‘Some fewe cunning and ill affected men’
With Scottish armies at the border, in February 1640 Charles was once again forced to summon a parliament. In the 11 years since its last sitting, grievances had been growing and this time Charles dissolved the body after only three weeks. In his closing speech, Charles blamed the dissolution on “some fewe cunning and ill affected men” in the Commons who were plotting against him.
When a new parliament was called in the autumn of 1640, one of its chief concerns was how to ensure that it could not be as casually dismissed as its predecessors. One solution was the Triennial Act, which required that parliament meet for at least a 50-day session once every three years.
His back against the wall, Charles was forced to accept. He also accepted other concessions, including the outlawing of ship money. Even so, the trust between king and parliament was gone, and in 1642 the ongoing political, religious and constitutional disputes exploded into armed conflict. The civil wars that followed lasted for nearly a decade and culminated in the king’s execution for treason on January 30, 1649.
While Charles did prorogue the 1628 parliament, in 1640 he favoured complete dissolution, a move which, in the 21st century, would provoke a general election. Yet the memory of the 1630s and 40s as a time when a tyrannical ruler rode roughshod over parliament, split the country, and triggered civil war clearly lives on.
This, in itself, is nothing new. These events have cast a long shadow over politics down the centuries, and even across continents. From 1681, Charles II – who was restored to the throne after a period when the country was a republic – ruled without a parliament.
For his opponents, this was a state of affairs comparable to the days of Charles I, a parallel that emphasised the dangerous consequences of a king who tried to govern without a legislature. For his defenders, by contrast, one of the main lessons to be learned from this period were the dangers posed by overly zealous politicians, who had forced a rupture between the king and his country, and, ultimately, a civil war.
Nearly a century later, during the American campaign for independence, the imposition of a stamp tax on Americans without their consent was likened to Charles I’s ship money, a shorthand for a despotic and illegal imposition of taxation. Meanwhile, in the early 19th century, the Hampden Clubs, meetings of radicals who sought political and social reform, took their name from John Hampden, the 17th-century MP famous for his opposition to ship money.
Fast forward to Major’s evocation of the civil war era. It might best be read as a warning about the dangers of political chaos and constitutional crisis. The uncanny timeliness of BBC4’s new mini-series on the fall of Charles I, which aired recently, also reminds us that England’s most remarkable period of political turmoil continues to stalk the popular imagination.
So, Charles I may be back in the headlines – but perhaps the bigger question is whether he ever really went away.