History

The King that stormed the Commons



Charles I was never popular with his Parliament. Upon his accession to the throne in 1625, members made clear that they would not be bullied. In an unprecedented break with tradition, England’s law-making body decided to allow the king to collect customs duties for only one year, as opposed to previous monarchs who had been granted the right for life. Despite this, Charles decided to levy tax anyway – an act which angered Parliament greatly.

In 1628, lawmakers forced the king to sign the Petition of Right, which recognised that martial law Charles had imposed in many parts of England was illegal. The following year, amid a storm of controversy, the king decided to disband Parliament. It did not meet for another 11 years. This was the beginning of what many recognise as Charles’s ‘personal rule’.

However, the passage of time would not heal the wounds left by Charles’s abrasive dealings with Westminster. Early in January of 1642, plans were drawn up by members of Parliament to transfer command of the army away from the king, whose relationship with lawmakers had become, yet again, extremely strained. Charles believed that as part of the plan a group of members had encouraged Scotland to invade England so that Parliament would have justification for taking control of the armed forces. Charles was to take drastic action.

On 4th January, the king and a group of soldiers arrived at Westminster, ready to arrest five conspirators that were believed to be the architects of the plot, Denzil Holles, William Strode, John Hampden, John Pym and Sir Arthur Hesilrige. In an unprecedented breach of tradition, the king stormed into the House of Commons, sat in the Speaker’s Chair and demanded to know whether any of the accused were present in the House. The Speaker, William Lenthal, famously answered: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me.”

As it turned out, the five members had been warned of their potential arrest and had fled before Charles and his soldiers arrived. Without being able to capture the men responsible for leading the plot against him, the King was forced to leave amid a chorus of booing and shouts.

The event is seen as the final catalyst for the English Civil War, and is commemorated every year at the State Opening of Parliament. In the ceremony, Black Rod, The Queen’s Messenger to Parliament, walks from the Lords to the Commons and knocks. The door is slammed in his face before he is finally allowed to enter, symbolising the chamber’s independence from the monarch. After knocking again, Black Rod is then allowed to enter and leads MPs to hear The Queen’s Speech.

Photo Credit: Elliot Brown via flickr