‘Matters far beyond their reach or capacity’: Parliament and foreign policy in 1621

As Parliament continues to debate Brexit, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-29 section examines how the House of Commons first won the right to influence policy towards Europe…

The scenario might seem familiar: a government deeply divided over the future direction of Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe; and an anxious Parliament, eager to have its say, but sucked into confrontation with the government over the extent of its right to influence foreign policy. But this is not 2018 and the struggle to determine the meaning of Brexit. Instead, we need to turn the clock back nearly 400 years to 1621, and the penultimate Parliament of James I. Back then, the battle-lines were drawn somewhat differently, since the king was actually trying to decide the best way to intervene on the Continent. Three years earlier, the Thirty Years’ War had broken out after Protestant Bohemia rose in revolt against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, and chose the Elector Palatine, James’s son-in-law, as its new king. James personally favoured a diplomatic solution to this crisis. For some years, there had been talk of a possible marriage between the king’s heir, Prince Charles, and a Spanish princess. The Habsburg kings of Spain were cousins to the Emperor, and James reasoned that if he formed an alliance with Madrid, this would give him greater leverage to broker a settlement between the warring parties in central Europe. However, this policy of rapprochement was deeply unpopular at home where, three decades after the Armada, Spain was still widely regarded as England’s principal enemy.

In 1620, Spain entered the war on the Catholic side, attacking the Palatinate, and forcing James into a limited military campaign to bolster the Protestant cause. This in turn obliged the king to summon Parliament in 1621, since he needed extra taxes to pay for the mercenary army he was employing in Germany. Nevertheless, James still hoped that his intervention would encourage the Habsburgs back to the negotiating table, and was keen to keep open the option of a Spanish alliance. The Privy Council, the seventeenth-century equivalent of the cabinet, was split over whether to support this balancing act, or to come down decisively on the Protestant side. In Parliament, however, and especially the House of Commons, there was a clear majority opposed to any deal with Spain. Even so, James was in a strong position, since at that time foreign policy was seen as part of the royal prerogative, those elements of government where the monarch’s wishes were decisive, and his subjects’ opinions carried no weight. Indeed, before the Parliament opened, James issued a proclamation warning people not to discuss foreign affairs.

Although Parliament broke with tradition, and granted taxes early in the session, the amount approved was too small to address the rapidly deteriorating situation in Germany. Accordingly, the king requested a further supply in the autumn of 1621. The Commons had in principle agreed to provide more money if James’s search for a diplomatic solution failed, but even so a double grant in a single parliamentary session broke with normal practice. Moreover, the burden of new taxes was usually offset by the redress of domestic grievances, but little progress had been made on that front, and MPs were nervous about how well a further grant would play in the country. In late November, despite the ban on discussion of foreign policy, some Members began openly questioning James’s military tactics, and proposing that a more effective approach would be a new war with Spain. Once this idea was broached, it quickly attracted support in the House. A naval campaign against Spain was much more likely to be popular with the voters, and a change of strategy would help to justify further taxes. However, there was no parliamentary mechanism for offering the king unsolicited advice on foreign affairs. Since the Commons was increasingly reluctant to agree a tax grant without James first listening to its views, an impasse was reached.

Then, on 29 November, Sir George Goring unexpectedly informed the House that the king had written to Philip IV of Spain, urging him to help bring about a truce in the Palatinate. Goring proposed a petition to James, urging him to declare war on Spain if his overtures were rejected. The MPs correctly deduced that Goring wasn’t using his own initiative, but was surreptitiously communicating advice from the royal favourite, George Villiers, marquess of Buckingham.

George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, by Dumonstier

What they failed to realise was that Buckingham’s strategy for ending the impasse had not been cleared with either the king or the Privy Council. When the councillors sitting in the Commons failed to react, bewildered by this turn of events, Members mistakenly read their silence as tacit approval, and quickly pressed ahead with the drafting of just such a petition. However, when news reached the king, he responded furiously to this clear breach of his prerogative authority over foreign policy, and refused to receive the petition, warning Members that they were debating ‘matters far beyond their reach or capacity’. The Commons, both embarrassed and aggrieved that they had fallen into this apparent trap, sought to justify their actions by asserting that they were, in fact, entitled to express their opinions on foreign affairs. Within days, this misunderstanding degenerated into a dispute between king and Members over freedom of speech and parliamentary privilege, culminating in the famous Protestation of the Commons, and the abrupt end of the session.

Ironically, when Parliament next met, in 1624, Buckingham and Prince Charles were dead set on war with Spain, and the Commons was openly encouraged to express its support as a means of pressurizing a now enfeebled James into agreeing. Almost without comment, the ban on Members intervening in foreign affairs was effectively abandoned. Even though the executive arm of government still today retains ultimate control over foreign policy, Parliament is entitled to have its say, and ministers are obliged to listen, whether or not they agree.


Further reading:

  • Robert Zaller, The Parliament of 1621 (Berkeley, CA, 1971)
  • Conrad Russell, Parliament and English Politics 1621-1629 (Oxford, 1979)
  • Richard Cust, ‘Prince Charles and the Second Session of the 1621 Parliament’ (English Historical Review, vol. cxxii, 2007), 427-41
  • A biography of George Villiers will appear in the History of Parliament’s forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-29

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