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Reign of Charles I. page 12


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Sir John Elliot now pointed out his criminal subservience to the worst designs of the king. "In his person," he said, "all evil is concentrated, both for the innovation of religion, and the-invasion of our liberties. He is now the great enemy of the Commonwealth. I have traced him in all his actions, and I find him building on those grounds laid by his master, the great duke. He secretly is moving for this interruption; and from this fear they go about to break parliament, lest parliament should break them."

This was tender ground, and Sir John Finch, the speaker, who was a regular courtier, immediately said he had a command from his majesty to adjourn the house till Tuesday come seven-night following. Several members declared the message to be vexatious and out of order; that adjournment was a function of their own, but since the speaker had delivered the message and that was sufficient, they would settle a few matters, and do as his majesty desired. Sir John Elliot produced a remonstrance addressed to the king against levying tonnage and poundage, and desired the speaker to read it, but he refused, saying the house was adjourned by the king. Elliot then desired the clerk of the house to read it, but he also refused, and so Sir John read it himself; but the speaker refused to put it to the vote. Selden then told the speaker that if he would not put the question to the vote, they would all continue sitting still.

The speaker, however, declared that he had his majesty's command immediately to rise, when he had delivered the message; whereupon he was rising, but Hollis, the son of the earl of Clare, and Valentine, who had placed themselves on each side of him for the purpose, held him down in his chair. He made a great outcry and resistance: several of the courtiers rushed to his assistance, but Hollis swore that he should sit as long as they pleased. The doors were locked, and there was a great scuffle and blows, but the opposition members compelled the speaker to continue sitting, notwithstanding his struggles, tears, and entreaties. Selden delivered an address to the imprisoned speaker, on his duties and his obedience owed to the house, which sate under the great seal, and had power of adjournment as the king had that of prorogation. Sir Peter Hayman told him that he blushed at being his kinsman, that he was a blot on his family, and would be held in scorn and contempt by posterity; and concluded by recommending that if he would not do his duty, he should be brought to the bar of the house, dismissed, and another chosen at once in his place. Mr. Hollis proceeded to read the following set of resolutions, which were loudly cheered, and assented to by the house, namely: - 1. That whoever shall seek to bring in popery, Arminianism, or other opinions, disagreeing from the true and orthodox church, shall be reputed a capital enemy to this kingdom and commonwealth. 2. Whoever shall advise the taking of tonnage and poundage, not being granted by parliament, or shall be an actor or instrument therein, shall be reputed a capital enemy to this kingdom and parliament. 3. Whatever merchant or other person shall pay tonnage and poundage, not being granted by parliament, shall be reputed a betrayer of the liberties of England, and an enemy to the same.

Whilst these extraordinary scenes were acting, the king had come down to the house of lords, but not finding the speaker there, as he expected, sent a messenger to bring away the sergeant with his mace, without which there could be no house. The doors were locked, and the messenger could get no admittance. Charles then sent the usher of the black rod to summon the commons to his presence, but he could no more obtain an entrance than the messenger. On hearing this, in a transport of rage, the king ordered the captain of the guard to break open the door; but this catastrophe was prevented by the house just then adjourning to the 10th of March, according to the king's message.

On the 10th of March the king went to the house of lords, and without summoning the commons, proceeded to dissolve parliament. He then addressed the lords, complaining grievously of the conduct of the commons, which compelled him at that time to dissolve parliament. He expressed much comfort in the lords, and conceded that there were in the commons many who were as dutiful and loyal subjects as any in the world, but that they had some vipers amongst them, that created all this trouble. He intimated that these evil disposed persons would meet with their rewards, and bade the lord keeper do as he had commanded. Then the lord keeper said, "My lords, and gentlemen of the commons, the king's majesty doth dissolve this parliament;" though the commons, with the exception of a few individuals, were not there, nor represented by their speaker.

This question of the right of the commons to determine their own adjournment, and to deny to the king the right of preventing the speaker putting any question from the chair, was a most vital one, and hitherto undetermined. If the king could at any moment adjourn the commons as well as prorogue parliament altogether, and could decide what topics should be entertained by the house, there was an end of the existence of the commons as an independent branch of the legislature: it sunk at once into the mere creature of the crown. There was a great battle for this as for other popular rights, and the determined conduct of the members showed that it was coming fast to a crisis. But at this moment Charles was as determined to conquer the parliament, as parliament was not to be conquered.

No sooner did this unprecedented scene with the speaker take place, than he adopted measures to punish those most prominently concerned in it. The compulsory detention of the speaker took place on the 2nd of March; on the 5th he issued warrants to arrest the "vipers" - Elliot, Selden, Hollis, Valentine, Hobart, Hayman, Coriton, Long, and Stroud, and commit them to the Tower or other prisons. Stroud and Long were not immediately caught, but on the issue of a proclamation for their apprehension they surrendered. The houses of Elliot, Hollis, Selden, Long, and Valentine, were forcibly entered, their desks broken open, and their papers seized.

Charles issued a proclamation dated 22nd of March, explaining the reasons for his now dissolving parliament, and plainly intimating that he meant to do without parliaments unless he could make them submit passively to his will. "We have showed," it said, "by our frequently meeting our people, our love to the use of parliaments; yet, the late abuse having for the present driven us unwillingly out of that course, we shall account it presumption for any to prescribe any time unto us for parliaments, the calling, continuing, and dissolving of which is always in our power; and shall be more inclinable to meet in parliament again, when our people shall see more clearly into our interests and actions, and when such as have bred this interruption shall have received their condign punishment."

From the last expression it was expected that the irate monarch would endeavour to bring these offenders to the block; but he found the judges more sensible of the real power of parliament and public opinion than himself. He put a series of questions to the judges, whose answers did not prove very satisfactory, and judge Whitelock even ventured to attribute the mischief to Laud, and said that if he went on in that way he would kindle a flame in the nation. The judge proved quite prophetically right. The prisoners sued for their habeas corpus, and were brought by its means into the Court of King's Bench, where the court counsel stated that they were imprisoned for notable contempt, and for stirring up sedition. Their own counsel argued that they had acted expressly on the king's confirmation of the Petition of Eight, and had been perfectly within the law in their proceedings. But the attorney-general Heath openly avowed that the king had bound himself to nothing that was not law before, and that a petition was no law; that the matter stood just as it had done before the Petition of Eight. Whilst he thus made a most deplorable case of it for the king, describing the granting of the petition as a mere excusable shuffle to get rid of a difficulty, and thus sinking Charles deeper than ever in the public opinion, as unprincipled and unworthy of all credit, at the same time, by admitting that what the Petition of Eight defined as right, was already the old established right of the kingdom, he convicted the king of having violated that right wilfully and repeatedly, and by consequence fully justified the prisoners.

Heath, who was a thoroughly bred tool of despotism, declared that prisoners committed by the king or privy council were not bailable; but the judges wrote to the king to apprise him that they were bound by their oaths to bail the prisoners. On this the lord keeper informed them that his majesty desired to see them at Greenwich. There he gave them a sharp lecture, and forbade them to grant bail till they had consulted the rest of the judges. These other judges, obviously prepared to serve the crown, delayed their opinion till the end of term, and when the writs of habeas corpus were served on the keepers of the prisons where the prisoners had been first confined, to whom they were addressed, they were found to be removed to other gaols, so that the writs became void. This was one of the ingenious tricks of tyranny which Charles had hit upon, and extensively practised to defeat justice; "prisoners," says White-lock, "being removed from pursuivant to pursuivant, and thus could have no benefit of law."

Charles, sensible of the odium of this proceeding, informed the judges of the King's Bench that he had done this, "not, as some people might say, to decline the course of justice, but because the prisoners had carried themselves insolently and unmannerly to himself and their lordships." Thus the prisoners were compelled to lie during the long vacation, without books, without papers, or admission of their friends. On the first day of Michaelmas term, they were brought into court, and ordered to find bail, and also to give security for their good behaviour. They were all ready to give bail, but all positively refused to give security for good behaviour, as that implied the commission of some crime, which they denied. They were then put upon their trial, but excepted to the jurisdiction of the court, being amenable only to their own high court of parliament for what was done therein. But they were told that their conduct had not been parliamentary, and that the common law could deal with all offences there by word or deed, as well as anywhere else. This was another attack on the privileges of parliament, which, if allowed, would have finished its independence; and these were not the men to surrender a jot of the outworks and defences of parliament. They were then sentenced as follows: - Sir John Elliot to be imprisoned in the Tower, the other prisoners in other prisons at the king's pleasure. None of them to be delivered out of prison till they have given security for their good behaviour, acknowledged their offence, and paid the following fines: - Sir John Elliot, as the ringleader and chief offender, two thousand pounds; Hollis, one thousand marks; Valentine, fire hundred pounds.

Long was not included in this trial, but was prosecuted in the star-chamber, on the plea that he had no business in parliament, being pricked for sheriff of his county, and by his oath was bound to have been there. He was fined one thousand marks. This, however, deceived nobody: every one knew that the offence for which he suffered was for his conduct in parliament. The prisoners lay in gaol for eighteen months. Sir John Elliot never came out again, His noble conduct had made deadly enemies of the king and his courtiers, and even when he was dying, in 1632, after three years' confinement, they rejoiced in his melancholy fate, and refused all petitions for his release.

Charles called no more parliaments till 1640, but went on for eleven years fighting his way through the most maniacal attempts on the constitution and temper of the nation, towards the block. A case of particular oppression on the part of the king, and of bravery on the part of the sufferer, at this time excited great indignation. Richard Chambers, a merchant, was summoned before the privy council for refusing to pay duties on a bale of silks, imposed without sanction of parliament. Charles selected this case as an example of his intention to trample on the Petition of Right so lately granted. Chambers, a brave and independent man, boldly told the council that "merchants were more encouraged, and less screwed and wrung in Turkey than in England." This was considered so contumacious, that he was prosecuted in the star-chamber; and that infamous and illegal instrument of the despotism of so many kings and queens, Tudors and Stuarts, declaring that it was the intention of Chambers to represent this happy government worse than a Turkish tyranny, fined him two thousand pounds, and ordered him to sign an acknowledgment that his words were seditious, false, and malignant. The honest merchant signed what they had written for him, but added of himself, "All the above contents and submission, I, Richard Chambers, do utterly abhor and detest, as most unjust and false, and never till death will acknowledge any part thereof." He did not stop there, but added various texts of Scripture to express his sense of the violent government of the time; such as, "Wo unto them that devise iniquity, because it is in the power of their hand!"

The case was forthwith removed to the exchequer, where he took his stand on Magna Charta and other statutes; but the judges would not suffer the plea to be filed; and when he demanded trial by exercise of his habeas corpus, they remanded him without hearing, and the indomitable man lay in prison twelve years. The long parliament, to which he sought long and anxiously for redress, deferred his case so shamefully, that he died unrequited and in destitution.

The treatment of Chambers and the parliamentary prisoners was a fair demonstration of the kind of government which now was to prevail. Laud was in the ascendant, and Wentworth, late a patriot, now bought over, was a slave and a generator of slaves. Laud was as great a stickler for the power of the church as Charles was of the state; their humours jumped amazingly, and this unexampled trio, Charles, Laud, and Wentworth, worked shoulder to shoulder in church and state, to reduce all to slavery. They invented a cant term betwixt them, to express what they aimed at, and the means by which they pursued it. It was "thorough," or, as the Americans have of late styled it in their slang, "going the whole hog."

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Pictures for Reign of Charles I. page 12

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