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Mike Duncan (00:01):
So last time, we blazed through a lot of necessary background and followed King Charles through the first four years of his reign, culminating with his decision in March 1629 to dissolve parliament and then, so help me God, never call another one.
If Charles wanted to rule without parliament, that was fine, but he was going to have to figure out a way to fund his administration without levying any taxes. This week, we are going to explore some of the admittedly creative, but ultimately self-defeating ways, Charles raised money without having to raise a parliament. We’re also going to grapple with the other big question that loomed over the era of personal rule, what will the religion of Britain be? These two threads, finance and religion, will both come to a head in 1637, at which point events start sloping dramatically downhill toward revolt, civil war, and revolution.
The first thing Charles did after closing up shop on parliament was close up shop on the wars he and Buckingham had pursued in the first years of his reign. As I said last week, the main reason a monarch needs parliament is to fund their wars, so as long as the monarch avoids war, he has a shot at avoiding parliament. So King Charles worked out a treaty with France in April 1629 and then concluded peace with Spain in November 1630. The trick, of course, would be staying out of future wars, which was not impossible, but with the Thirty Years’ War raging on the continent, it was not necessarily probable.
The funny thing, though, is that while Charles managed to avoid getting dragged into the Thirty Years’ War, he wound up needlessly picking a fight with the Scots in 1637, which is what we’re going to get into next week. With parliament out of the picture, Charles governed his domains through a semi-formal group of councilors. Some of them sat on the more formal privy council, the standing body of peers who advised the king, but other councilors were men of lower rank who simply held positions within the royal household that put them in close proximity to Charles on a daily basis.
Some of these advisors were dependable administrators, some flaky courtiers, but two men were by far the most talented in terms of intelligence, drive, and ambition. Bishop William Laud, who we met last week, and a tall Yorkshireman named Sir Thomas Wentworth. Wentworth was born in 1593 and inherited a baronet from his father in 1613. He sat in the first of Charles’ parliaments, but famously distinguished himself as an outspoken member of the opposition, so much so that when the second parliament was called, Wentworth was one of the members appointed sheriff to keep troublemakers out of Westminster.
When Charles issued the forced loans in 1627, Wentworth refused to pay and he was locked up for six months, which so far is, you know, not exactly the early career arc of someone who was about to become so identified with the tyrannies of King Charles.
But the break came when Buckingham was assassinated in 1628. Because unlike other members of parliament who seemed to be using Buckingham as a proxy through which they could wedge wider political, economic, and religious reforms, Wentworth really just hated Buckingham, thought he was terrible for England, refused the forced loan because he thought Buckingham was going to embezzle half of it and blow the other half on embarrassing military boondoggles, which is pretty much what happened. When Buckingham was killed, Wentworth was satisfied.
Charles was alerted to the fact that this smart, energetic, and capable member of the opposition could probably be had at the right price, so the king made Wentworth a Viscount and appointed him Lord President of the North in 1628. The North being the northern county centered around York, which at the time formed its own administrative district. Wentworth whipped the North into shape and was named to the Privy Council in 1629. He probably would have risen even higher even faster, but as talented as he was, he was also harsh and despotic, and he alienated subordinates, colleagues, and superiors wherever he went.
So some of those alienated rivals on the Privy Council convinced King Charles that Wentworth was the best man to run Ireland. Technically, being made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1633 was a promotion, but it also meant being shipped off to Dublin, which is a long way from Whitehall, exactly where Wentworth’s rivals wanted him.
But still, he managed to stay in contact with the court, most especially through his friend Bishop Laud, because of course the two most friendless men in England would wind up becoming friends. Together, they hammered out what has become known to history as the Thorough Policy, which is basically a scheme to establish absolute monarchy in Britain.
The religious aspects of this policy were spearheaded by Laud from his new position as Archbishop of Canterbury. As I mentioned last week, King Charles and his new Archbishop were of one mind about religion. It should be formal, it should be ceremonial, it should be exalted, and most important, it should be uniform across all the king’s domains.
So with Charles’ blessing, Laud launched an effort to bring some uniformity and order to the Church of England, no more of this turning a blind eye to local custom as had been the norm since the Elizabethan settlement. Through the 1630s, Laud slowly but surely started to establish a harder principle of one set of religious practices for everybody, no exceptions. First he focused on small fish, congregations of expatriates living in Holland, for example, who had started adopting the practices of their Dutch neighbors. Then he focused on foreigners living in England, who had been allowed to maintain their own forms of worship.
In a flurry of letters, he demanded that both follow the Liturgy of the Church of England or face prosecution. This process then extended out to the various English counties, where Puritan-leaning congregations faced demands that altars be placed on the east end of the church and that they be railed in, that parishioners approach the minister for communion rather than taking it at their seats. Basically, a slew of ceremonial tweaks that the more Puritan congregations had ditched a long time ago because it all smacked of potpourri.
The idea, like I said, was to bring some uniformity to religious worship in the king’s domains. But to an awful lot of people, it came across as an attempt to undermine the Reformation and pave the way for a return to Catholicism. And it did not help at all that through this same period, Charles was busy indulging the Catholicism of his French-born wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. So on the one hand, you have godly Protestants being prosecuted for resisting Laud’s Popish innovations, and on the other, you have Catholics now practicing right out in the open.
It did not look good, especially to the Puritan-leaning lords who were also getting pretty ticked off at Charles’s batch of illegal fundraising schemes, and who would form the core of opposition when Charles was forced to call a new parliament in 1640 after trying to extend his policy of religious uniformity up to Scotland, which yeah, he should not have done that. So who were these Puritan-leaning lords who formed the opposition? And is it even fair at this point to call them an opposition?
Historian Conrad Russell, who knows of which he speaks, makes the point repeatedly that right now we should think of these guys as forming a faction within the ruling party rather than a distinct opposition party. Which is to say that they may have personally opposed the king’s policies, but still dutifully carried them out back in the home counties. But subtleties of tension aside, in a few years there is going to be a civil war. So who formed the core of what became the parliamentary cause?
In no particular order, we have first of all the Earl of Warwick, who was one of the largest landowners in England, and whose great-grandfather had been one of the key figures in the English Reformation. After being raised to the Puritans in 1619, Warwick had focused a great deal of his time and money on privateering expeditions against the hated Spanish and colonization projects in the New World. Then there was the Earl of Bedford, who had been a strong supporter of the petition of right, and stood as one of the main centers of gravity around which this network of dissenting Puritans swirled.
Lord Brooke, for example, an up-and-coming young Puritan peer, married Bedford’s daughter in 1631, and began working closely with his father-in-law on various commercial projects. Viscount Saean Sealy formed another center of gravity, and that’s one guy, his name is Viscount Saean Sealy. He was a staunch Puritan and clever politician, whose home at Broughton Castle became something of a home base for the godly dissidents. Sae and Brooke were also both heavy investors in New World colonization, and if you’ve ever been to Old Saybrook, Connecticut, well, that’s where the name comes from.
Finally, I’ll mention young Lord Mandeville, who married one of Warwick’s daughters in 1626, and who we will get to know much better after he inherits his father’s title in 1642 and becomes the second Earl of Manchester. As depressed as these lords were about the state of true religion in England, you’ll notice that most of them looked to the Americas as a place where the godly could build communities untainted by heresy. And there was one colonization project in particular that kept them all tied together during the long years of personal rule – the Providence Island Company.
The point of the company was to set up a community in the West Indies that would be run on strict godly principles and maybe engage in a little anti-Spanish piracy on the side. Most of the Puritan lords I’ve just mentioned were shareholders, and company business was, if not necessarily an excuse, then certainly a reason for them and their men of business to stay in regular contact. And if talks strayed into larger matters from time to time, well, you know, things happen.
Of the men of business who were brought into the dissident godly circle by the Providence Island Company, two deserve special attention. The first is Oliver Syngin, whose name when you read it is clearly Oliver St. John, but apparently it was pronounced Oliver Syngin. Syngin was brought in by Bedford to serve as a lawyer for the Providence Island Company, and he distinguished himself as a brilliant, if humorless, attorney. Syngin is about to catapult to national fame when we get into the ship money case at the end of this episode.
The other man of business we need to introduce is of course John Pym. John Pym. He is really important. Pym was born in 1584, so he’s actually a little bit older than most of the guys I’ve just rattled off. He had been a member of all three of Charles’s first parliaments, which would distinguish him from most of his colleagues in the short and long parliaments, the vast majority of whom were sitting for the first time. The Earl of Warwick took notice of Pym and hired him to serve as treasurer for the Providence Island Company through the 1630s, where he earned the trust and loyalty of the godly peers. So even though the attempt to establish a Puritan Commonwealth in the Caribbean wound up a dismal failure, the company formed a critical link between the men who would emerge as the leaders of the parliamentary opposition in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the 1640s.
So broadly speaking, when we talk about the opposition, what we’re talking about is an informal network of like-minded men connected by marriage, religion, and commerce who complained bitterly about the direction Charles was taking the country. Besides their obvious beef with Archbishop Laud for giving Satan the keys to the Church of England, the other thing these men complained about when they got together at Broughton Castle or wherever was the obnoxious schemes Charles and his royal treasurers had dreamed up to fund the monarchy without parliament.
Because if there were some small technical royal prerogative that could be exploited for profit, the king was all for exploiting it. And while Charles slept peacefully at night, satisfied that he was well within his rights as king, his subjects grew deeply annoyed by what they considered a batch of unjust and illegal money grabs. So for example, there were things like monopolies. Monopolies were royal grants giving a corporation exclusive rights to trade or manufacture something. You know, a monopoly.
These monopolies could apply to practically anything, salt, coal, wine. There was a particularly hated one on soap that was particularly hated because the monopoly soap was vastly inferior to the soap made by independent craftsmen in Bristol. But Charles made money both selling the monopolies and then collecting portions of the profit. The soap monopoly alone brought in something like 30,000 pounds a year, which was big money in those days. It also ticked off every merchant cut out of the loop because they didn’t have the right connections at court. Besides the monopolies, Charles also revived long dormant medieval laws and started applying them in pretty twisted ways.
For example, once upon a time gentry worth more than 40 shillings annually were supposed to be knighted so that they would be ready for service if, you know, the Vikings invaded. If they skipped knighthood, the king levied a fine. The fine was supposed to prod the unwilling in the direction of doing their duty to the king. But when Charles revived the fine, it was not to prod men in the direction of their duty. Because the king didn’t want the men to get knighted, he wanted them to stay unknighted so he could collect the fine every year. It was clever, but it was also annoying.
Another example were fines levied for living in royal forests and building outside designated zones in London. With the demographic bloat of the previous century, restless squatters had taken root in various forests in the country and urban dwellers had thrown up houses beyond the walls in the city. The king’s advisors found ancient finds still on the books for both activities. These finds were meant to keep families from squatting in the forests or living outside the city walls, but Charles didn’t want these people to move, you see. He wanted them to stay so he could fine them for staying.
The spirit of the law was being upended to service the lucrative letter of the law. It may have been technically legal, but it felt petty and unjust. Another major feudal holdover was the despised court of wards. In the sub tedium of English property law, some estates were held by families through a grant from the king. But this grant had long since ceased to mean anything, except that if a family held one of these properties and the head of the household died and left only a minority heir, the land technically reverted to the crown, from whom the family then had to repurchase it.
So Charles sent out royal agents to hunt around in county records, digging up properties that were technically royal grants, despite the fact that no one, not even the king, was actually aware of it anymore. Again, Charles was acting within the technical bounds of the law, and he was putting his regime on sound financial footing, but he was endearing himself to exactly no one.
But of course, the most infamous of Charles’ financial expedients was a thing called ship money. In theory, ship money worked like this. There was a national security crisis. The Spanish are on their way, that sort of thing. The king goes to the coastal counties and says, okay, we need to build a navy in a hurry, and there’s no time to call a parliament. So you each owe me one ship. If you don’t have the facilities to build a ship, then you owe me enough money to build one ship. And please do hurry, the Spanish are on their way. So the two key points here are, one, it’s an emergency, and two, it applies to the coastal counties. In 1634, Charles revived ship money. And then in 1635, he started applying it to all counties, which struck everyone as a little crazy because one, there’s no emergency, and two, I don’t live anywhere near the coast, why am I paying ship money?
But Charles was developing a pretty modern notion of the national interest, and reasoned that there was no difference between coastal counties and inland counties, we’re all in this together. Which, yeah, okay, that’s very progressive of you, but still, there’s no emergency, we’re not at war. Whereupon Charles, or more accurately, Charles’ lawyers, produced a nice body of precedence establishing that it was the king and the king alone who decided what did and did not constitute an emergency. So if he said emergency, it was an emergency, and that was that. So now everyone is rolling their eyes, but wow, okay, neat trick, here’s your stupid ship money.
But then ship money came back the next year. And now we have a problem. Because, as you’ll recall, legally, only parliament can levy a tax. So you can have your fines and your monopolies, you can even have your emergency ship money, but if you try to make it a regular, annual thing, I’m sorry, it’s a tax, I don’t care how you dress it up, it’s a tax, and it’s illegal, and we’re not going to pay it.
In 1637, the two main sources of tension during personal rule came to a head. The religious tensions burst out into the opened in June 1637, with the very public punishment of three radical Puritans who had been found guilty by the Archbishop Laud-controlled Star Chamber. The particular beliefs and crimes of William Prynne, Henry Burton, and John Bastock are not nearly as important as the sentence that was handed down on them. They were marched through the streets of London, surrounded by large sympathetic crowds, tossed into the stocks with pillories thrown across their necks.
Then, after a couple of hours, the executioner came along and cut their ears off. Then, Prynne, who had raised Laud’s particular ire, had the letters S-L for seditious libeler burnt into his cheeks. Then the three broken men were exiled to distant castles, the idea being that they would never be heard from again. The crowd roared at sympathy for the suffering of the three men, and underground circulars started getting passed around, wondering aloud what kind of kingdom England was becoming when Catholics walked free while godly men suffered such gruesome punishment.
The political tensions burst into the open when John Hamden was brought to trial in November 1637 for refusing to pay ship money. Hamden was the son of a Puritan landowner, and he had inherited the family estates at the tender age of two when his father died. He, like Pym, served in all of Charles’ initial parliaments, and had garnered a reputation as a man of both strong will and strong principle. He refused to pay the forced loans and was imprisoned, but was released on the eve of Charles’ third parliament. He kept his head down through the 1630s, but when Charles rolled out ship money, Hamden decided to take a stand.
Even though his share of ship money was one measly pound, he refused to pay. But this was not just some random point of pride. The network of dissident Puritans had been looking for someone to run a test case through, and Hamden, blameless, well-regarded, well-spoken John Hamden, seemed like the right guy for the job. Now Hamden was not the only one refusing. Viscount St. Sealy, for example, was also refusing in the hopes that the king would prosecute him, but Charles let it go because he didn’t want to give Lord Seay the spotlight, much to Seay’s great annoyance.
So in November 1637, John Hamden was brought before the court of Exchequer and tried for his refusal to pay. The case was a bona fide national sensation, and crowds in London thronged to hear the arguments of both sides and then waited impatiently for the verdict. Hamden was represented by a group of lawyers, but the most famous of them was Oliver Syngin, whose eloquent and let’s face it damn convincing argument that ship money was a tax and therefore illegal without parliamentary approval, made the Puritan lawyer a legal rock star.
On the other side, Hamden was prosecuted by the Attorney General himself. This case was a big deal. The 12 judges of the Exchequer listened carefully to both sides and then retired to consider how they would rule. In the weeks that followed, their decisions began to be published one by one, with the crowds of London hanging on every yea or nay. In the end, the court found 7-5 against Hamden, which was, yes, a win for the king, but only by the narrowest margin possible.
It was another of Charles’ Pyrrhic victories, and despite the legal triumph, the court of public opinion found decisively for Hamden. So, just as the king was reveling in the legal sanctioning of ship money, the number of men refusing to pay shot up dramatically. Charles had been doing a fine business with ship money receipts until he won the Hamden case, then revenue dropped off a cliff. The ironic part was that ship money was about to die due to massive popular resistance right at the moment when England was actually facing a national emergency.
Because in between the punishment of Prynne, Burton, and Bastock in June and the ship money trial in November, Charles had gone and shot himself in the foot up in Scotland, shot himself in both feet, shot himself in the head, and then fired himself out of a cannon. Next week, we will see the attempt to establish religious uniformity head north, where the Scots and their beloved Presbyterianism had long been left to their own devices. But in July 1637, Charles and Laud would attempt to force the Scots to bend to the Church of England. It was an attempt as ill-conceived as it was ill-fated, and it would mark the beginning of the end for King Charles.
- John Pym
- Henry Burton (theologian)
- Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford
- Henrietta Maria
- William Prynne
- William Laud
- Conrad Russell
- Oliver St John
In the 1630s, King Charles ruled without Parliament. His financial policies and religious innovations annoyed many of his subjects.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
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- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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