In 1976, the English historian Conrad Russell published an article, “Parliamentary History in Perspective: 1604-1629.”1 Russell’s main views on that history diverge sharply from those of every specialist for the past century, and if he is right, then the interpretations of other historians of the years between 1560 and 1660 are surely askew. Russell himself believes that his findings call for a drastic revision of the “traditional view,” the “conventional belief,” the “received opinions.”
In his article, Russell points out that during the first quarter century of Stuart rule the House of Commons was not doing precisely what, in the “traditional view,” it was alleged to be doing. It was not a powerful and power-seeking ing institution. It was not engaged with the King in a hundred-year struggle for sovereignty, a conflict that in the “traditional view” made the 1600s a century of revolution.
Professor Russell’s recent Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629 describes in detail the parliaments of the 1620s. No historian up to now has ever known as much about them as Russell knows. With prodigious industry he has examined dozens of manuscript accounts of these parliaments on two continents, in three nations and a multitude of libraries and archives. What emerge from his effort are detailed portraits of those parliaments and of the relations of the King, the Lords, and the Commons in them.
Russell’s account is strictly chronological, considering each parliament of the 1620s as separate from the others, each with its own chapter and subtitle. Thus he calls one chapter “The Parliament of 1621: Business as Usual?” because, as usual, in the ordinary course of proceeding the members “put their county before their country.” Another chapter is called “The Parliament of 1624: The Prince’s Parliament,” because, for once, instead of struggling against the imminent heir to the throne and his favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, the House compliantly followed their lead. Then we have “The Parliament of 1625: The Plague and the French,” because Parliament gave little attention to the French (or to anything else) out of dread of a plague raging in London. “The Parliament of 1626: The Reformation of the Duke?” is so called because the plan of the noble leaders of that parliament to impose limits on Buckingham’s power went awry.
In any case, the effect of Russell’s old-fashioned march through one parliament after the other is to emphasize his view that to its members, the meeting of a parliament is an occasion, a sort of accident; it is not the manifestation of an institution. The members of Russell’s parliaments were not “parliament men.” That is, they did not make their service in parliaments the focus of their careers. Indeed, it was a good thing for them that they did not. Between 1611 and 1640 a career parliament man would have found himself employed less than one year in fifteen. Not much of a career.2 When he entitled his book Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629 rather than Parliament and English Politics 1621-1629, Russell was not just adding an “s,” but displaying his conviction about the way men perceived political life in those years.
We need to measure the devastation that Russell’s work has brought to the “traditional view” which it rejects. We can do so if, allowing ourselves the seventeenth-century license of conjuring up a mythical being, we describe “The Character of a True House of Commons Man” of the 1620s. In all the traditional views, the “House of Commons Man” dominates the scene of early seventeenth-century politics. This is so whether he stands for Progress against Aristocratic Reaction in the nineteenth-century Whig version of history, or for the Rising of the Capitalist Class against Feudalism in the Marxists’ version, or for the Rising Gentry, the only class with enough wealth and vigor to force meaningful change on a society suffering “multiple dysfunction,” in the most recent socio-cultural analysis.
From the Lower House, the True House of Commons Man towers over the Lords; from there, perhaps scarcely meaning to, by force of his political, economic, social, and religious dynamism and his inevitable consequent ambition, he begins to wrest political power from King and court. Against the weak pacific James I he seeks war with Popish Spain. As heir to the glories of Elizabethan England in the Whig version, or as precursor of imperial Britain in the Marxist one, he sows the seeds of empire. He is a robust Puritan, strong in his devotion. He fiercely hates Popery and the tyranny that comes in its wake. He despises the weak Anglicanism of Prayer-Book worship. He sees it as the ally, intentionally or not, of backward-looking, oppressive, feudal Romanism.
According to the conventional view, the life of the True House of Commons Man centered on the House itself. It is there that he fights the extravagance of the Stuarts; there that he opposes the fiscal measures designed to free the monarch from the pressure of parliaments; there that he attacks the misdoings of courtiers and impeaches the most flagrant of the King’s bad advisers. And it is there that he engages with the King in struggles to protect the liberties of the people and the privileges of parliament, and to take the initiative in affairs of state. These parliaments’ conflicts are the precursors to struggle for sovereignty and to the Revolution. In short, politically, the True Early Stuart House of Commons Man, in his rough but effective way, brings modern England into being, and he does so by intentional actions, not accidents or mistakes. Modern England was not born during a spell of parliamentary absentmindedness. In an intelligible sense, modern England was born because the Early Stuart House of Commons Man wanted it born.
The True House of Commons Man of the 1620s who emerges from Russell’s close scrutiny of the parliaments of that decade does not look a bit like the above character. In fact, he is not really a House of Commons Man at all. His life is not centered there, but in the King’s court, or the courts of law, or the country, or in two of those, or sometimes in all three. Before 1641, the so-called True House of Commons Man has in fact never spent the better part of a single year of his life in the House of Commons. Although he despises papists above all things, he is probably not a puritan; he is almost certainly a solid predestinarian Protestant who subscribes to the thirty-nine articles of faith of the Anglican Church. Of course he believes in the divine right of kings, or at least of his particular king—James I or Charles I. That is, he believes that the source of their authority is God, who makes legitimate their rule, and according to Scriptures smites in wrath those who do not, uncomplaining, bear the burden of subjection.
The very notion of opposing the King’s government shocks the True House of Commons Man. Disobedience to the King violates the laws of God and the realm, and opposition to him smells of the sulphur of disobedience. The True House of Commons Man worries a good deal about the ways the King gets his revenues. They are a grievance to him and to his friends and neighbors in the country. He spends much of his time trying to dry up some sources of revenue and reform others.
Almost uniformly he fails. Purveyance, wardships, impositions, tonnage and poundage—one way or another the King goes right on collecting them despite the expostulation and laments of the True House of Commons Man. In 1627, Charles I by a forced loan has collected quite successfully the equivalent of a “parliamentary” tax that the True House of Commons Man had not willed to vote him. The King has even found a way to reward his servants with monopolies despite the Statute of Monopolies. The True House of Commons Man is modest, not to say desperate, about his ability to exercise effectively his so-called power of the purse.
After all, he has a lot to be modest about. What historians have thought of as the muscle of the Commons Man turns out, when applied, to be mainly fat. To suppose that this tradition-bound, often windy, rather incompetent fellow is purposefully attending to the birth of the modern world is laughable. He has no notion of the modern world and therefore of course has not and cannot have any intention of bringing it to birth. In so far as he has a vision at all, it looks backward into a remote, muddled, and mythical past. The most conspicuous trait of that past is that it gives the sanction of lawful antiquity to the appropriation and possession by the House of Commons Man and his kind of most of the good things of life available in England in the 1620s. And he rarely sees back even to that rosy illusion about the past. Rather he sees forward about an inch or two beyond the end of his nose.
What he sees there are the immediate interests of the King, the immediate interests of his own constituents, but mainly and most vividly, the interests of himself. All those interests were forthright, clear, short-sighted, and not especially virtuous. Under James, the interest of the King was to keep the peace and to have enough money to keep courtiers and favorites in the style they wanted to become accustomed to. Under Charles it was to establish his honor by war in Europe, and to have enough money to maintain war, an increasingly expensive favorite, and a tasteful love of elegant display. The interest of the constituents of the House of Commons Man are to have England defend true religion from Popery even by war if it can be done on the cheap, to obtain any local patronage or favor of King or court magnate that is not already battened down, to have their taxes cut back or to evade them, and to have their “grievances” redressed.
Getting grievances redressed almost always entails getting the King to renounce on behalf of the government some part of its and his current income. The House of Commons Man wants for his constituents the things they want for themselves: he also wants for himself what many of them want—local status, office in local or central government, sinecures, escape from taxes. Left to himself, he would try to strike a deal with the King so that each got something—King, country, himself—but the people back home do not want to deal. Consequently, the King and court do not get their money, the country does not get its grievances redressed, and the House of Commons Man gets scarcely any laws passed through Parliament. He appears to have become redundant. His lot is not a happy one.
In so far as Russell has got the picture of the True House of Commons Man right, the traditional heroic views will have to be revised. And most of the time he does have the picture right. His patient day-by-day accounts of the parliaments of the 1620s turn out to be clearly the best way to describe things the members of the House of Commons were doing in those parliaments. In Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629 we can watch them doing the particular things that Russell in general had alleged they were doing in his earlier paper “Parliamentary History in Perspective.”
The revision that Russell has made necessary may seem to require fantastic feats of dramaturgy, rather like revising King Lear to fit Polonius into the central role. It is a little less drastic than that. Here Sheridan provides us with a more useful analogy than Shakespeare does. We may think that Russell’s characterization of the True House of Commons Man is painfully exact in many particulars, as Sir Joseph Surface’s characterization of his brother Charles was. Charles had the traits Sir Joseph ascribed to him; but he had a few others that Sir Joseph omits to mention, and they make him a significantly different and better man. Granted that in detail Russell’s Character of a True House of Commons Man is accurate, granted that by comparison with the traditional view of him, Russell’s is drastically derogatory, does that character, that unhappy, irresolute nit, possess any redeeming traits which Russell’s account of him misconceives, blurs, or simply overlooks?
Perhaps. Consider the very first session of the first parliament of James I in 1604. In that session members of the House of Commons produced a document called “The Apology and Satisfaction of the Commons.” It spoke
of the fundamental privileges of our House and therein the rights and liberties of the whole Commons of your realm, which they and their ancestors from time immemorial have undoubtedly enjoyed.3
The Apology claimed these privileges, rights, and liberties
with uniform consent for ourselves and our posterity.
They are, it says,
our right and due inheritance, no less than our very lives and goods.
In the parliaments of the 1620s, these thoughts re-emerge and do so in language much like that of 1604. Thus in 1621:
Now is the time to defend the privilege of this House, which our ancestors have delivered unto us, and which we ought to preserve for our posterity.4
The good charter [i.e., Magna Carta] of our great inheritance, gained with so great cost, so often confirmed, we ought with all care…convey…to our posterity as our ancestors have done to us.5
And in 1628 a member advised the House to secure from the King a declarative affirmation of the liberties of Englishmen, and then
we shall return home with good news, and the peoples may make their wills, wherein they may give these legacies to their children which are the greatest that may be given, and that is the preservation of their ancient liberties.6
So repeatedly in the 1620s the House of Commons has in mind or is put in mind of its special and particular obligation to preserve for the present and the future a legacy from the past, an inheritance passing from the ancestors to posterity. This inheritance is not exactly the same each time. Twice it appears as the privilege of the House, once as the Great Charter of Liberties, once as immunity of the King’s free subjects from taxation without their consents, from quartering of soldiers without permission and compensation, and from imprisonment without due process of law.7 These casual differences should not obscure the shared elements of all the instances. They all had to do with claims of ancient and inherited fundamental rights of Englishmen of which parliament was the chief trustee in duty bound to ensure that the inheritance pass undiminished to posterity.
These are fine utterances, but, Russell suggests, talk is cheap. Most men are ready to proclaim their love of liberty or any other good thing when there is no price tag attached. Fewer are ready to put their money where their mouth is. Given Russell’s characterization of the members of the House of Commons, we might reasonably expect them to welch when the chips went down and the stakes got high. Did they?
On December 4, 1621, James I instructed the Speaker to tell the House that
None therein shall presume to meddle with anything concerning our government or mysteries of state,
and added that
We think ourselves very free and able to punish any man’s misdemeanors in parliament as well during their sitting as after, which we mean not to spare hereafter.8
The royal intervention into the doings of the House evoked the verbal defense of ancestral liberties for posterity that we have already heard. It also evoked a collective answer from the House itself. The members set about preparing a vindication of the privileges of the House, and
would not meddle in any other business, holding it needful we should have the King’s answer, before we enter on any other matter.9
In short, they went on strike, and stayed on strike, for nearly two weeks. Rather than give any sign of acceding to James’s restrictive definition of the privileges of Parliament, they were willing to destroy their own chances of making a respectable legislative record in the eyes of their constituents.
On May 11, 1626, Charles I had two members of the House, Sir Dudley Digges and Sir John Eliot, arrested for scandalous words they were alleged to have uttered in the impeachment proceedings against the Duke of Buckingham. Again a member spoke the next day of ancestral liberties and posterity; we have read his words. Again, and this time in spite of a threatening lecture from a royal official on the recent demises on the continent of insufficiently docile representative assemblies, the House decides to
lay all business aside till we be righted in our liberties concerning the imprisonment of two members.10
Again the House strikes. It transacts no other business until the two members are restored to their places.
In March 1628 at the opening of Parliament, Charles I told the members that the purpose of the session was to provide him with funds for war. He threatened to take “other courses” in the future if Parliament held back on supply. The House of Commons was not moved. It held back for three and a half months. It spent those months preparing and passing a declaration of four “ancient” and fundamental liberties of Englishmen in the Petition of Right—the first modern character of liberty.11 In the face of threats to the very existence of Parliament it refused the King funds until he had affirmed by statute that future Englishmen would enjoy the liberties that their ancestors had.
Are these starchy fellows who for a time effectively took control of the parliamentary process in 1621, 1626, and 1628 and used it in opposition to stated purposes and specific actions of the King, are they the same True House of Commons Men as the sad specimens that Russell describes, caught in the conflict of Court and Country? Of course they are. Should anyone doubt that such a thing is possible, let us recall the names of Cohen, Fish, Hogan, Railsback, McClory, Butler, and Froehlich. Who were they? They were seven True Republican House of Representatives Men of the 1970s, faithful to their party and their President. They properly tried to bring home from Washington whatever benefits they properly could for their districts and themselves. In 1974, they voted charges of impeachment against a Republican President who two years earlier had been elected, with majorities in every state but one. These not very remarkable men decided that, on the evidence, Mr. Nixon’s abuse of his executive power was a breach of the fundamental law he was sworn to uphold, a breach so grave as to imperil the American system of liberty under law.
In the early seventeenth century the House of Commons, sometimes unanimously, asserted that it was the rightful guardian of a fundamental law that was the rightful inheritance of free Englishmen. It often acted as though the preservation of this heritage was its most important business. The inheritance, it thought and said, was in jeopardy. Even though to do so placed its very existence at risk, Parliament, in the eyes of the True House of Commons Man, was bound not only morally but by law to resist the encroachment of state power on the immemorial liberties that every free Englishman was rightful heir to. Perhaps the True House of Commons Man of 1628 and the True House of Representatives Man of 1974 are not so different.
To see Russell’s flimsy scarecrow of a True House of Commons Man in this perspective may save a most useful element of the traditional view. That view was rooted in the conviction that modern English-speaking peoples were in debt for their liberty to the men who came to the House of Commons under James I and Charles I. Alert to the perils of despotism in a European world where ” ‘the prerogatives of princes may easily and daily do grow,” those men had stood fast in a time of danger to the rights that preserved freedom and government under law for their posterity. Despite the many true things that Russell sees clearly about the parliaments of the 1620s, this is a thing he squints at. To us it is perhaps the most important thing of all. To say that is to express a view of those parliaments at the same time traditional and whiggish. Perhaps for once this is excusable. That Early Stuart House of Commons Man who saw it as his duty to pass on from his ancestors undiminished the inheritance of liberty of which posterity was rightful heir—after all, he was a bit traditional and a bit whiggish himself.
December 18, 1980
History 61, No. 201 (1976), pp. 1-27. ↩
More precisely, in the 352 months between the dissolution of parliament on December 6, 1610, and its opening on April 13, 1640, a span of 354 months, it had been in session for twenty-two months in toto. ↩
In Constitutional Documents of the Reign of James I, edited by J.R. Tanner (Cambridge, England, 1930), p. 221. ↩
Sir Edward Nicholas, Proceeding and Debates in the House of Commons in 1620 and 1621, edited by T. Tyrwhitt, two vols. (Oxford, 1766), 2:280. ↩
Trinity MS E.5 17 (Trinity College Library, Dublin), The Diary of Sir Richard Grosvenor, p. 78. I have used the transcription at the Yale Center for Parliamentary History. ↩
Commons Debates 1628, edited by R.C. Johnson, M.I. Cole, M.F. Keeler and W.B. Bidwell (Yale University Press, 1977-1978), 4 vols., 2:64. ↩
In 1604 and 1621, 1626 and 1628 respectively. ↩
Nicholas, op. cit., 2:277. ↩
Ibid., 2:289. ↩
Trinity MS E.5.17, p. 85. ↩
To say whether these liberties were really ancient would require a complex unpacking of the meaning of “really.” That the House of Commons held them to be ancient, requiring declaration as old law rather than formulation as new, is evident on the face of the record. ↩