In today’s blogpost, Dr Paul Hunneyball, Senior Research Fellow on the Lords 1603-1660 section, reports back on his recent ‘Parliaments, Politics & People‘ seminar paper, Privilege versus prerogative: tensions between the House of Lords and the Crown, c.1603-30…
In the early-seventeenth century, the royal prerogative became an increasingly contested issue. As relations between the first Stuart monarchs and their parliaments deteriorated, both James I and Charles I made greater use of their prerogative powers, particularly with regard to taxation. Episodes such as the notorious Forced Loan of 1626-7 in turn provoked backlashes in Parliament against arbitrary government, notably the 1628 Petition of Right, which sought explicitly to restrict the exercise of the prerogative. Although both Houses ultimately backed the Petition, the Lords have traditionally been seen as a moderating influence on the Commons’ attempts to limit the Crown’s powers during this period. However, that is not an entirely accurate picture. While the peers did generally side with the monarch over the kind of grievances raised by the Commons, such as arbitrary taxation and the measures used to enforce it, they were rather less cooperative when they believed that the prerogative was encroaching on their own privileges.
James I’s sale of peerages was implicitly challenged in 1621 when a group of mostly junior peers drafted a petition criticising the king’s practice of granting Scottish or Irish titles to Englishmen who had no real stake in either of those realms. An attempt to have this petition adopted by the Lords failed, and the protesters were faced down by James. Nevertheless, a number of the petitioners were appointed to the Lords’ new committee for privileges, which was from the outset given a brief to address peers’ concerns inside and outside Parliament. This was in marked contrast to the equivalent body in the Commons, which dealt only with parliamentary privilege. The committee promptly commissioned a detailed survey of peers’ privileges, a collection of precedents covering a spectrum of issues from the Lords’ powers of judicature in Parliament, to the right of individual peers to testify in court on their honour rather than under oath. James favoured a distinctly limited exercise of the latter privilege, and immediately sought reassurances from the committee. When Parliament went into recess during the summer, the king confiscated the collection of precedents, but the Lords, undeterred by this intimidation, simply commissioned a replacement once the session resumed that autumn. An uneasy truce ensued for the rest of the reign.
Under Charles I, the confrontations over peers’ privileges resumed and intensified. In 1626 the king arrested the earl of Arundel, a prominent opponent of the royal favourite, the duke of Buckingham, while Parliament was sitting. His refusal to justify this move prompted a three-month dispute with the Lords. After repeated petitions for Arundel’s release were ignored, the peers suspended business for a fortnight, whereupon Charles capitulated, preferring to free the earl rather than defend his own exercise of the prerogative. During the 1628 session the Lords reasserted their own position on testimony on honour, and challenged the king’s habit of tinkering with the peers’ collective order of precedence, which governed their seniority inside and outside Parliament. On the latter issue, Charles was again forced to back down. In 1629 the Lords returned to the question of Englishmen with Scottish or Irish peerages, and this time the House itself petitioned the king, though the matter was still unresolved when the session collapsed. The Lords’ resolutions on all four of these issues were formally entered in their standing orders, as a quasi-legal record for future use. Charles himself never conceded the point that Parliament could be used to guarantee peers’ privileges outside the legislature. Nevertheless, the peers’ repeated attempts to do precisely this demonstrate that, in the decades preceding the Civil War, it was not only the House of Commons which believed that the royal prerogative should be curbed, and that Parliament was the appropriate vehicle for reform.