In the second in our series of blogs marking the release of the Commons’ proceedings of the 1624 Parliament – with those for March 1624 available here from today – Professor Chris Kyle, of Syracuse University, considers the historical significance of the assembly and the publication of its debates.
The last Parliament of James I was a unique and unusual assembly: it was legislatively successful. It followed in the wake of two failed Parliaments (1614, 1621) which had been bedevilled by conflict between the crown and the House of Commons. The premature dissolution of the 1614 and 1621 Parliaments meant that virtually no legislation had been enacted since 1610 – the grievances of the people remained unanswered in statute and the business of law and administration flagged under out-dated legislation and the need for new acts. The Parliament of 1624 was also one in which high politics and foreign policy took centre-stage, as MPs and peers debated if or how Protestant England should intervene in the religious conflict of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that had engulfed Europe. This, then, was a Parliament bustling with important debates on foreign policy and wrestling with an enormous number of bills.
The elections to this Parliament were marked by the active intervention of Prince Charles to secure seats in the Commons for his clients, councillors and members of his household. Charles and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, the King’s favourite, wished to force James into providing military assistance for the recovery of the Palatinate of the Rhine, the territory of James’ son-in-law, Frederick, and daughter, Elizabeth. To this end Charles and Buckingham organized a group of privy councillors, MPs, peers and courtiers into the ‘patriot coalition.’ As the Parliament opened it was this coalition that set the agenda and actively promoted a war against Spain – an enterprise that ultimately failed despite James’ agreement to break the existing treaty with Spain and allow the establishment of a Council of War.
In legislative terms the outcome of the Parliament was the enactment of seventy-three acts of Parliament, the highest number in any single session since the reign of Henry VIII. Probably the most important and noteworthy act was 21 James I cap. 3, the act of monopolies and the first copyright and patent law in English history. The act itself was later adopted as the foundation for patent law all around the world and is today still widely cited in legal cases from Britain, to the Commonwealth and in America as well. The monopolies act was not the only significant piece of legislation. The practice of usury was restricted, the crown’s right to confiscate ‘concealed’ lands was curtailed and numerous trade statutes also came into force. It was, in addition, a Parliament that continued to expand and utilize the tool of impeachment, a medieval practice that had been revived in 1621 and used to bring down the Lord Chancellor, Viscount St Alban (Sir Francis Bacon). In this instance, the corruption of the Lord Treasurer, Lionel Cranfield, was laid bare for all to see, and he was convicted and removed from office. Thus, this last Parliament of James I is of enormous importance in understanding the politics of early Stuart England from foreign policy to legislative interests that continue into the twenty-first century.
An edition of the parliamentary record for 1624 is long overdue and these proceedings of the 1624 Parliament will complete a very long-standing publication enterprise. Although some parliamentary material was published in the nineteenth century under the auspices of the Camden Society, it was in 1920s America that a team of scholars started work on these materials in a serious fashion. The first volume, Commons Debates in 1629, was published in 1931 and this was followed by the monumental seven volume set of Commons Debates 1621 (1935). More recently both Yale and other American presses published the remaining debates from early Stuart Parliaments, while in England, Leicester University Press printed the three volume set, Proceedings in Parliament, Elizabeth I. Thus, until now, 1624 remained the only Parliament in the entire Tudor and early Stuart period for which the record of proceedings was largely hidden and difficult to access. As the diaries come online over the next few months, a wealth of political argument, religious debate, legislative action and legal wrangling will for the first time be freely available, not only to specialist scholars, but to all those with a general interest in history and the machinations of politics in early Stuart England.
Chris R. Kyle is Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University. He is the editor of Parliament, Politics and Elections (2001) and has recently published ‘Theater of State: Parliament and Political Culture in Early Stuart England.’ Full details are available here.