Sir John Corbet – and the Five Knights Case

King-Charles-ICharles I dismissed Parliament in 1626 because it was rather keen on the idea of impeaching the Duke of Buckingham for his incompetence in the handling of foreign policy not to mention his influence over Charles I.  The king, on the other hand, wished to preserve his favourite so dissolved Parliament and its radically minded members.  Unfortunately Buckingham had dragged Charles into a war against both the Spanish and the French which was a costly exercise and which Charles could not afford – hence the need to call Parliament to raise the cash.

Charles dealt with his problem by raising Forced Loans.  Essentially wealthy folk were required to dip into their pockets and “lend” the king money.  It was generally accepted that loan was an euphemism for taxation.  The king could not have managed this himself. He used the administrative system that had been in place since before the Norman Conquest i.e. the county administrative system based on sheriffs and justices of the peace.  During the first year of the loan in excess of £250,000 was raised.  It is perhaps unnecessary to say that the loan and the commissioners who raised the money were not terribly popular.

Seventy-six gentlemen across the country refused to pay and were carted off to their local jails as an example to the rest of their peers.   Sir John Corbet, a moderate sort of Puritan who represented Great Yarmouth in Parliament, took exception to the forced loans and was rather vocal in his objections.  He also refused to pay the £20.00 that his rateable value suggested that he could afford. This may have caused some familiar difficulty as his cousin Sir Andrew Corbet of Moreton Corbet was the commissioner in Shropshire collecting the taxes on behalf of the Earl of Northampton who was President of the Council for the Welsh Marches.

Sir John found himself in prison without any charges being drawn up against him.  This was strategic in that the king wanted some examples of what would happen if you weren’t loyal to the Crown but he was also bothered by the idea that if one of the gentlemen ended up in a courtroom that the judge might side with the accused. Thus the gentlemen sat in their cells at the king’s convenience.

Five of the imprisoned men – the five knights of the title brought a writ of habeas corpus.  One of them was Sir John Corbet. Essentially, habeas corpus is the writ which requires someone under arrest to be brought before a judge to demonstrate that their arrest is legal. Magna Carta was used as the precedent amongst other things during the trial to prove that the five knights detention was illegal.  The case did not go in the knights’ favour although the judges were sympathetic and refused to rule conclusively saying that the law required further clarification but that they could do no more because both James I and Elizabeth I were prone to arresting people without charges being drawn.  (Interestingly they were also prone to chopping off various bits of their prisoners’ anatomies but History does not record them as tyrants whilst Charles did none of the above and got labelled a tyrant – just a thought.)

Corbet was released at the beginning of January 1628 but died three weeks later from small pox contracted whilst in prison. As for Sir Andrew, he would vote for the  Petition of Rights when Parliament sat in 1628 and he would eventually lose faith in the Crown. In died in 1637.

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