Impeachment in the early seventeenth century

After an all-night debate, the Brazilian Senate voted today to begin impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. Impeachment was once a powerful tool for MPs in our own parliament. Here Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-1660 section, discusses the 17th century revival of impeachment…

Impeachment was a judicial procedure, carried out in the name of the king, whereby those suspected of serious misconduct in office were accused by the House of Commons and judged by the House of Lords. It first emerged towards the end of the reign of Edward III, in 1376, when it was used to attack the Lord Chamberlain, William, 4th Lord Latimer. It originated in a well-established procedure in the common law courts, whereby a group of litigants would lay a single charge in the King’s name. Penalties for those judged guilty included loss of office, fines and imprisonment. However, this important parliamentary power fell into disuse with the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses in the mid fifteenth century, when serious political differences tended to be resolved on the battlefield rather than in parliament. It remained dormant for the next 170 years, during which time it lay forgotten. Under Henry VIII, unpopular ministers, like Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley in 1509 and Thomas Cromwell in 1540, faced not impeachment but the block, the victims of trumped up charges of treason. However, it was rediscovered in 1619, during the Star Chamber trial of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, who had been dismissed as Lord Treasurer the previous year on grounds of corruption.

Many contemporaries were shocked at the forcible removal of Suffolk from office. There was a widespread assumption that offices were akin to personal property, and that senior crown ministers had tenure for life. In view of this disquiet, it became an important purpose of Suffolk’s trial to demonstrate that the king had acted reasonably in dismissing his lord treasurer. This task fell to one of the chief prosecutors in the case, Sir Edward Coke, who, having himself been sacked as Lord Chief Justice of King’s Bench three years earlier for misconduct, was only too eager to do the King’s bidding, in the hope that success might revive his flagging career, and even pave the way for him to succeed Suffolk as lord treasurer. During the trial, Coke set out to prove that many previous treasurers had been punished ‘legally and judicially’ for wasting or misspending the King’s treasure. In so doing, he cited numerous precedents, many of them of doubtful validity, among them one he gleaned from the medieval parliament rolls. It concerned William, 4th Lord Latimer, who was impeached by the parliament of 1376 for selling licences exempting merchants from the Calais staple, and for organizing loans to the king at extortionate rates of interest.

Although the Latimer precedent served its immediate purpose of helping to silence the crown’s critics, Coke was not slow to grasp its wider importance. When parliament met in 1621 he revealed what he had discovered to the House of Commons, of which he was now a member after an interval of 28 years. His ostensible objective was to solve the problem of what to do about two notorious monopolists, Sir Giles Mompesson and Sir Francis Michell. As early as 1610 the Commons, unaware of the power of impeachment, had been seeking in vain to punish those royal officials and others whose activities they considered injurious to the commonwealth. Coke, drawing upon his findings in the Suffolk case, now revealed that, in the medieval period, the Commons had ‘often resorted to the Lords for judicature’. In so doing, he set in train parliamentary legal proceedings against the two hated monopolists. However, it seems likely that Coke, in revealing to the Commons the power of impeachment, had an ulterior purpose in mind: the destruction of his great rival, the Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon. Coke had long hated Bacon, who had prospered following Coke’s fall from office, and by 1621 there were rumours that complaints of bribery were being prepared by the enemies of the Lord Chancellor for presentation to parliament. Since Coke had now given up hope of recovering high office, he probably had few qualms about revealing to the Commons the existence of a power which could now be turned upon Bacon who, ironically, had warmly approved of Coke’s use of precedents during the Suffolk trial. His tactics certainly paid dividends, as Bacon was subsequently forced from office and barred from every sitting in parliament again.

The revival of impeachment had a profound effect on the parliamentary landscape of the 1620s. Quite apart from adding a powerful weapon to the political arsenal, it breathed new life into the House of Lords, which for many years had lived in the shadow of the Commons. It quickly became clear that impeachment was just as much a political weapon as it was a judicial tool. When Lord Treasurer Middlesex refused to support war with Spain in 1624, he was impeached on charges of bribery and embezzlement at the behest of the King’s chief minister, the Duke of Buckingham. However, the Commons’ attempts to use impeachment to bring to book those they hated ultimately failed. In 1626 they accused Buckingham of mismanaging the war with Spain, of feathering his own nest at the expense of the crown, and even of helping to bring about the death of the late King, James I, but the Duke not only rebutted these charges but also tightened his grip on the Lords, forcing the Commons to change tack and present a remonstrance to the King calling for his removal. Two years later, in 1628, the Commons impeached the rector of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, Roger Manwaring, for preaching in favour of the Forced Loan (a tax levied without the consent of parliament). Judged guilty, Manwaring was fined, imprisoned, excluded from office and suspended from the ministry for three years. However, as soon as the session ended he was pardoned by the king who, in 1636, elevated him to a bishopric. The Commons had no more luck in 1641, when Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was tried for treason by parliament. Strafford put up such a convincing defence that the Commons were obliged instead to proceed by Act of Attainder – the same weapon used to destroy Thomas Cromwell a century earlier. Clearly, impeachment was only valuable when it enjoyed royal support, and under Charles I that support evaporated.


This blog is taken from Andrew’s forthcoming article, ‘The fall of Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, and the revival of impeachment in the Parliament of 1621.’

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