Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Dr Andrew Thrush, ‘The Fall of Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk and the revival of impeachment, 1621’

Our own Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-1660 section, discusses his recent ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar paper on the link between the fall of Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, and the Stuart parliament’s rediscovery of their right to impeach ministers…

The revival of impeachment has received little attention since the publication of Colin Tite’s seemingly exhaustive monograph nearly forty years ago. As is well known, the immediate impetus for its revival lay in the parliamentary attack on the monopolists in February 1621, and in a crucial speech given by the leading lawyer Sir Edward Coke, who had resumed his Commons career after an interval of nearly thirty years. Less well known is how Coke came by his knowledge of medieval practice: as recently as 1610 the Commons had been labouring under the mistaken belief that they enjoyed an independent right of judicature.

In this paper I provided an answer to this intriguing question. Like Prof. Allen Horstman, I believe that the key event was the trial of the former Lord Treasurer, Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk. However, unlike Horstman, in the paper I demonstrated the importance of the circumstances behind the trial of Suffolk, whose dismissal in 1618 was precipitated by an unsuccessful attempt to topple the royal favourite, George Villiers.

In order to ruin Suffolk, Villiers and his allies demonstrated that Suffolk was spectacularly corrupt, thereby destroying the King’s already flagging confidence in him. However, what nobody had anticipated was the widespread sympathy for Suffolk which followed the latter’s fall. It was virtually unknown for the King to dismiss one of his leading ministers. The most recent case had been that of Sir Edward Coke, who had been removed from office as Lord Chief Justice of King’s Bench in 1616 for a variety of offences. However, as Sir John Holles remarked, there was a world of difference between ‘unbenching’ a Lord Chief Justice and sacking a Lord Treasurer, particularly one who belonged to one of the most ancient noble families of the kingdom.

It was because of this widespread criticism that James felt compelled to put the former Lord Treasurer on trial. By subjecting Suffolk to judicial censure, James hoped to demonstrate publicly that he had acted reasonably. This key political objective was clearly understood by Sir Edward Coke, who was employed as one of the prosecutors in the case and was anxious to be restored to favour after his own fall three years earlier. Consequently, Coke demonstrated that, during the medieval period, monarchs had often called their ministers to account for corruption. Among the precedents he uncovered was that of William, 4th Lord Latimer, who had been impeached by Parliament in 1376. From this precedent Coke thereby stumbled upon impeachment, and that he shared this information with his colleagues in the Commons less than two years later: Latimer’s case was the most widely cited of the precedents advanced in 1621 to justify impeachment’s revival.

Following the paper, it was observed that Suffolk had held office only during pleasure, and therefore the King had been entitled to dismiss him. However, while this was certainly true, the dismissal of a minister for corruption was contrary to accepted convention. There followed a lengthy discussion on the extent to which Coke may have used his knowledge of impeachment in 1621 to engineer the downfall of his longstanding rival, Lord Chancellor Bacon.


Our next ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar will take place on Tuesday 19 November. Jonathan Eagles (Author of ‘Stephen the Great and Balkan Nationalism’) will speak on Stephen the Great and the Moldovan election crisis of 2009‘. Full details here. Hope you can join us!

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