On the afternoon of 4 May 1614, an irate James I issued the House of Commons with a blunt warning. Unless its Members voted him subsidies forthwith, he declared, they ‘must not look for more Parliaments in haste’. Rather than rely upon Parliament to provide him with money, he warned, he would rely instead upon the powers of the royal prerogative. Far from instilling fear into his listeners, as he had hoped, James merely provoked expressions of disbelief. Speaking the following morning, John Hoskins declared that there was ‘no fear of not calling of Parliament[s]’, as ‘the king gains by them, not the subject’, while Edward Alford announced that ‘his only fear’ was that ‘we shall not part with the king in love’. One of the few Members to take James’s threat seriously was the future diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, who, four weeks later, famously described the impending dissolution as ‘the ending, not only of this, but of all Parliaments’.
It would be easy to dismiss Roe’s observation as mere scaremongering, and to forget that, four hundred years ago, the English Parliament teetered on the brink of extinction. Parliaments were such a regular feature of the political landscape, meeting once every three or four years, that for most Englishmen it was difficult to imagine life without them. However, despite medieval legislation requiring annual meetings, in the early seventeenth century it was entirely within the gift of the monarch to decide whether England’s representative assembly met. Despite the confidence of Hoskins and Alford, the king’s threat to refrain from holding further Parliaments was real. Over the course of the next six-and-a-half years, James strained every nerve to avoid another meeting with his subjects. In 1616, for instance, he sold back to the Dutch the Cautionary Towns of Brill and Flushing (which had been granted to Queen Elizabeth as security for repayment of the money lent to the fledgling republic to help finance its war with Spain), rather than call a Parliament, thereby losing England’s only foothold on the Continent. The following year he entered into negotiations with Spain for a marriage between his son, Prince Charles, and a Spanish Infanta, in the hope of obtaining a dowry of £600,000, a sum sufficient to eliminate most of his debts and remove the need to summon another Parliament. James continued to cling to the dream of a Spanish marriage for the Prince even after Spain invaded the Rhineland territories of his son-in-law, the Elector Palatine, in 1620. When, that November, James finally agreed to summon another meeting, he did so with the greatest of reluctance and because he had, for the time being, run out of other options.
James had no experience of English Parliaments before he ascended the throne in 1603. In Scotland, the country which he had ruled since infancy as James VI, representative assemblies had been much smaller and more pliant. He was thus ill prepared for the shock of the defeats inflicted upon him by the English House of Commons in his first Parliament, which sat between 1604 and 1610. In 1604, and again in 1606/7, James attempted to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland, but was successfully opposed by the Commons, whose Members feared that the Common Law would be extinguished and increased competition for property and office. He suffered a further serious setback in 1610 when the Commons decided not to proceed with the Great Contract, a bargain designed to rescue the royal finances from James’s own mismanagement.
Publicly humiliated by these experiences, it had only been with the greatest difficulty that in 1614 James had been induced to summon another Parliament. Like its predecessor, this assembly quickly ran into difficulty, as James and the Commons fundamentally disagreed over the Crown’s right to levy certain customs duties without parliamentary approval. Known as impositions, these duties formed a vital part of the Crown’s income; without them, James’s debts, already mountainous, would have been even greater. However, impositions aroused great passion in the Commons. Sir Edwin Sandys, for instance, declared that they had increased to such an extent that ‘it is come to be almost a tyrannical government in England’, while Thomas Wentworth implied that unless James abandoned impositions he would be murdered like the French king, Henri IV. Instead of voting subsidies, as James wished, the Commons gave two readings to a bill to abolish impositions, thereby threatening to exacerbate the Crown’s financial difficulties. For James, this was very nearly the final straw. Unless the Commons could be induced to drop the subject of impositions and vote supply, the Parliament – and indeed Parliaments in general – appeared to have no future.
It was against this backdrop that in late May the House of Lords, a majority of whose Members sympathized with the King, declined to confer with the lower House, whose Members wanted the peers to join them in petitioning James over impositions. This was a considerable affront, as the Lords had not refused to confer within living memory. It was nonetheless justified by Thomas Howard, first Earl of Suffolk, on the grounds that it would ‘make them surcease their suit’. Far from bringing the Commons to their senses, however, the Lords’ snub merely fanned the flames. The lower House vented its frustration on the bishop of Lincoln, Richard Neile, who observed that the Lords could not confer with the Commons over impositions without infringing the oath of allegiance, which obliged the members of both Houses to uphold rather than strike down the prerogative rights of the Crown. Neile’s remark was tantamount to accusing the Commons of sedition, and although the bishop subsequently protested that he had intended no offence, the damage was done. When the Lords declined to punish Neile, there was fury in the Commons, Hoskins declaring that unless the King’s Scottish courtiers – who were widely believed to be the recipients of James’s financial largesse – returned to their native land they would be massacred. Not surprisingly, James dissolved the meeting the following day.
The failure of the 1614 Parliament confirmed James I in his belief, which had emerged following the dissolution of 1610, that the English Parliament was more trouble than it was worth. It also led to the widespread realization that the very existence of Parliament was now under threat. Of course, as is well known, James summoned two more Parliaments before his death in 1625. However, had it not been for the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, he might have succeeded in avoiding Parliament for the rest of his reign. Be that as it may, rule without Parliaments first became a reality not under James’s son, Charles I, as is widely supposed, but under James himself.