Since the beginning of governments, heads of state have had difficulty getting along with elected bodies within their nations.
The conflict is natural — the executive against the legislative — but perhaps nowhere on Earth were the growing pains of government more pronounced than in England.
The first modern example of a manifesto dedicated to the rights of citizens – Magna Carta – came from England. And for years afterward, monarchs struggled with various Parliaments over the rights of kings versus the rights of subjects.
One such conflict came to a head on this date in 1629. The monarch in question was King Charles I, and the main issue, among many, was known as “tunnage and poundage.” On this date, Charles dissolved Parliament for eleven years.
Tunnage and Poundage allowed a levy to be laid on every tun, or cask, of wine entering the country, and on every pound in weight of merchandise either imported or exported. The tax was one of the king’s main sources of income.
Usually, the granting of tunnage and poundage was issued for the life of a monarch by Parliament, but Charles’ predecessor, King James VI, had used the fact of his lifetime grant to issue extra taxes unauthorized by Parliament known as impositions.
As such, Charles’ first Parliament in 1625 allowed the grant for one year only, with the idea being to compel the monarch to ask Parliament each year for an income grant.
This did not sit well with the House of Lords, which refused to ratify the measure — and, of course, with Charles for a variety of reasons; first being his idea of absolute royal authority, and second, his eventual need to find a way to pay for an ongoing war with France.
Two years earlier, in 1627, George Villiers, the First Duke of Buckingham, had led a military expedition to France which had, to be kind, not gone well. It ended with English troops under siege at La Rochelle and another expedition was needed to extract them, again under the command of Buckingham.
Before it could sail, though, Buckingham was murdered – to the general relief of the populace and the consternation of the king. The expedition failed and discussion then centered around the king’s right to levy tax.
Since the Lords had quashed Parliament’s measure for an annual levy four years before, Charles had raised tunnage and poundage on his own authority. But now the claim was made that the king’s officials had made the levy to benefit themselves. This was a serious charge.
The king was not willing to sacrifice his officials and announced that they had acted under his express command. This was unfortunate since if he had simply acknowledged the issue, it was likely Parliament would have granted his request for levying power. Instead, his reaction threw Parliament into a frenzy, and Charles asked the Speaker, Sir John Finch, to recess for five days.
During the next session, Finch attempted to leave the room and thus render Parliament unable to act – but members physically held the Speaker in his chair until they could vote on a series of resolutions, one of which denied the king the right to collect tunnage and poundage.
Charles dissolved Parliament and had nine of the elected officials involved in what he saw as rebellion arrested. One of the leaders, Sir John Eliot, died in the Tower of London three years later.
The king ruled alone for eleven years, until his defeat against the Scots in the Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40 made reconvening Parliament a necessity.
From there, though, things only got worse for Charles. What became known as the “Long Parliament” passed a measure which required a Parliament every three years, known as the Triennial Act, and in May 1641 Charles was forced to agree to another Act which forbade Parliament’s dissolution without its own consent.
One year later, England was embroiled in Civil War – which lasted for five years until the royalists were defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. Charles became the only English monarch ever to be executed on January 30, 1649.
Charles’ death first brought about the “Commonwealth of England” from 1649-53 and then to Cromwell’s “protectorate” – which itself had difficulties with Parliaments of its own construction until its abolishment in 1659.
England’s travails — which grew so severe that Cromwell’s corpse was exhumed after the coronation of Charles II, so it could be hung and beheaded — were far from over, showing that the struggle for power, even in past centuries, could be every bit as ruthless as it is today.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!