Parliamentary independence of thought, which may run counter to what those in charge would like to happen, is nothing new. In 1621 James I’s third Parliament was unhappy about the turn of events – relating to Europe as it happens. They had four main grievances: monopolies, sale of honours, corruption at court and James I’s pro-Catholic foreign policy. This post deals mainly with the last grievance.
James had decided that his heir, Charles, should marry a Spanish bride. The lure of a very large dowry and the thought of being seen as Europe’s peacemaker was sufficient for James to ignore Parliamentary anxiety about Protestant England allying itself with the Catholic Hapsburgs- who were busily engaged on the Thirty Years War against Europe’s Protestants at the time including James’ own son-in-law Frederick V of the Palatinate and King of Bohemia.
Many Members of Parliament not only opposed the so-called Spanish match but wanted to go to war with Spain – preferring a sea based campaign rather than a land war . They said as much in June and repeated it less politely on the 3rd December 1621. James told them to mind their own business given that foreign policy was a royal prerogative.
Meanwhile James did need money because his son-in- law, Frederick V King of Bohemia had been toppled from his throne by the Hapsburgs and James needed to show his support by providing cash for him to regain the aforementioned throne. This gave Parliament leverage because they would have to grant the subsidies for James to do this. Parliament took the opportunity to assert its rights. It declared they had rights and liberties to discuss matters even if they displeased the king. James was not terribly amused and answered that parliament did not have a right to discuss whether his son should marry a Spanish bride or not since foreign policy was the King’s business rather than Parliament’s and that further more whatever rights Parliament did have were in the king’s gift to give or remove as he saw fit.
In answer Parliament filed a “Great Protestation” of its rights and privileges on 18th December 1621. They claimed that Parliament held its rights through tradition i.e. inheritance from one generation to the next in that their rights had been given to them by previous monarchs – and that they intended to keep them rather than see them eroded because the current monarch held different views on the matter:
… concerning sundry liberties, franchises, privileges, and jurisdictions of parliament, amongst others not herein mentioned, do make this protestation following:—That the liberties, franchises, privileges, and jurisdictions of parliament are the ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England; and that the arduous and urgent affairs concerning the king, state, and the defence of the realm, and of the church of England, and the making and maintenance of laws, and redress of mischiefs, and grievances which daily happen within this realm, are proper subjects and matter of counsel and debate in parliament; and that in the handling and proceeding of those businesses, every member of the house hath, and of right ought to have, freedom of speech to propound, treat, reason, and bring to conclusion the same: that the commons in parliament have like liberty and freedom to treat of those matters, in such order as in their judgments shall seem fittest: and that every such member of the said house hath like freedom from all impeachment, imprisonment, and molestation (other than, by the censure of the house itself), for or concerning any bill, speaking, reasoning, or declaring of any matter or matters, touching the parliament or parliament business; and that, if any of the said members be complained of, and questioned for any thing said or done in parliament, the same is to be showed to the king, by the advice and assent of all the commons assembled in parliament, before the king give credence to any private information.
James was not impressed not least because James had given instruction to Parliament previously and dealt, he thought, with those very same issues. He thought that Parliament was just trying to extend their role. They weren’t just saying they had the right to debate matters they were also saying that they had the right to pass laws having discussed matters first and at the bottom of it all lies the right to freedom of speech. Furthermore James felt that Parliament were so busy trying to extend its rights that they weren’t actually doing very much that was actually useful. He sent for John Wright who was the Clerk of the House at that time. James then tore the record of the protestation from the Commons Journal.
The Parliament of 1621 had not been a good experience for James in that not only did they defy him over foreign policy and protest their rights but they had also sought to undermine the power base that George Villers, Duke of Buckingham (and James’ favourite) , had built up by impeaching two of the men that owed him patronage for corruption. Sir Francis Bacon was also impeached for corruption. In return for two subsidies Parliament demanded harsher penal laws. No wonder James dissolved Parliament at the beginning of January 1622 – but the tensions that would build during the early years of Charles I’s reign were already in place.
The so-called torn journal pictured at the start of this post is located in the National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/citizen_subject/docs/torn_document.htm
Henry Hallam, The Constitutional History of England from the Accession of Henry VII. to the Death of George II. (London: Ward, Lock, & Co.)