Most of Charles I’s problems with Parliament during the first years of his reign stemmed from financial difficulties. Sir Thomas Crewe, the speaker at Charle’s first parliament, was delighted not only that Parliament had been summoned but that Charles expressed the desire to regain the Palatinate.
Charles soon found the whole process frustrating. He understood Parliament to be for the provision of money. He did not understand why Parliament which had agreed to England’s alliance with other Protestant countries against the Hapsburgs refused to grant him the money to go to war against Spain. Parliament had been enthusiastic in its support of the Palatinate and Elizabeth of Bohemia, the so-called Winter Queen, but was critical of the Duke of Buckingham as a commander and felt that whilst war was desirable there should be a better plan than the vague proposals presented. In addition to which taxes had been levied only shortly before and it seemed to many Parliamentarians that the money had not been used wisely. There had been no account given Sir Robert Philipps stated of money or men and there was already a heavy burden on people- “We no yet of no war nor of any enemy.” Taking these three things into consideration Parliament did not vote Charles tonnage and poundage for life as had become normal with the ascent of a new monarch to the throne but for a year only.
Sir Edward Coke, who had been James I’s Chief Justice had fallen from favour (thanks to Bacon and Buckingham) and now used his legal knowledge to advantage in Parliament. He noted that tonnage – the tax levied on the tuns of wine imported into the country and poundage – the tax on imports and exports- equalled £160,000 annually and was within the gift of parliament rather than being a royal right. Parliament wanted to discuss the book of rates which needed reform. The question of monopolies needed addressing (Coke argued that only new processes/items should require licences and that the practise of introducing new license requirements for “old” things was illegal).
There was also the question of Buckingham’s competence to consider. Buckingham had been the power behind the throne since 1618. Since 1621 his impact on royal policy and his monopoly of offices meant that he was a de facto prime minister – even though the office hadn’t yet been invented. This would end only with his assassination in 1628.
Limited royal funds gave Parliament leverage over the king. MPs felt that they held a financial carrot, or possibly stick, by which they could make Charles enforce the recusancy laws. Charles actually refused to sign the bill that granted him subsidies for a year. He regarded them as his right and he maintained that he was entitled to them for his lifetime. He claimed that it was his right to collect the customs dues until such time as Parliament passed the necessary bill. He did not regard himself as doing anything illegal.
Parliament was adjourned on account of an outbreak in Plague in London but reconvened in Oxford on 1st August 1625. Charles once again insisted that Parliament was called to aid him in his war against Spain. He estimated that the war would cost £700,000. Parliament felt free to discuss where the king’s income was being wasted and mismanaged and the fact that Buckingham had so many different offices and monopolies. Charles promptly dissolved parliament in order to avoid difficult questions about the Duke of Buckingham, it had sat for only two weeks.
Essentially Charles’ first parliament identified the difficulty which faced England during this period. Charles was applying the theory of absolute monarchy to his interactions whilst Parliament, with Common Law behind it, increasingly saw itself as a representative body – which is odd really as Charles did not have all the powers of an absolute monarch. Nor could Parliament be described as representative of the whole population. Charles clung to what he believed was his by right and royal prerogative whilst Parliament clarified and expanded on what they believed to be their rights and privileges.
Taken together with the Thirty Years War, conflict over religion and the radical viewpoint of some of the members of Parliament it is not surprising that Charles’ determination upon personal rule was ultimately destined for disaster.