St George’s day in York: an invitation from Charles I, 1642

Continuing with our patron saints blog series, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons 1640-1660 project, explores the loyalty of peers to Charles I during St George’s Day celebrations at York in April 1642…

A spring break in the north.  Easter solemnities and rejoicing in York Minster.  Celebrating the feast day of the nation’s patron saint with the king’s court.  Under other circumstances, this might have been an opportunity not to be missed.  But in 1642 the offer was potentially costly and accompanied by plenty of small print.

On 13 April 1642 Denzil Holles reported to the Commons on a joint conference the previous day with representatives from the House of Lords.  The latter wished him to communicate to the Commons a series of letters some of their lordships had received from Charles I over the previous three weeks, and the response of the Upper House.  Immediately after establishing his new capital at York on 19 March, the king had begun inviting leading peers to join him to keep Easter (that year, 20 April) and the feast of St George.  Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, former lord chamberlain, and Henry Rich, 1st earl of Holland, groom of the stool, had received their invitations by 21 March; Robert Devereux, 3rd earl of Essex, current lord chamberlain, William Cecil, 2nd earl of Salisbury, captain of the gentlemen pensioners, and Yorkshireman Thomas Savile, 2nd baron Savile, a privy councillor, revealed theirs to the Lords on 28 March.  This was no exercise in friendly seasonal sociability.  Essex’s letter was clearly a summons:

We hold it therefore very requisite and necessary, that, for Our Honour and Service, the chief Officers of Our House attend Us here in Person. Our Will and Command therefore is, That you repair hither to Our Court, as soon as you may conveniently, to give your Attendance in the Place and Charge which you hold under Us, as a Prime Officer of Our House, and Counsellor of State; wherein as We doubt not your ready Observance of this Our Command, so We shall expect your present Answer thereunto.      [Lords Journal iv. 675]

King’s Manor, York, Charles I’s royal headquarters

Put on the spot by this appeal to their obligation and personal honour, and probably anticipating that they would all be called upon to respond in due course, the Lords had ‘entered into a great debate of this Business, as a matter of great Importance’.  The conclusion reached that day had been defiant.  The noblemen named above ‘and all other Lords that have not Leave of this House to be absent, shall give their Attendance on this House, in regard of the great and weighty Affairs of the Kingdom now in Agitation’ – a resolution of which the king was to be officially informed [LJ iv. 675].  Furthermore, learning that Francis Seymour, 1st baron Seymour, who had obtained leave of absence from the House of Lords to attend to affairs at his home in Wiltshire, had been intercepted en route and commanded to York, peers ordered him to attend the House before journeying north.

As their lordships saw all too clearly, Charles was trying to detach his peers from Parliament one by one, gather them round him at York, and from there reassert control over his kingdom.  That much was confirmed on 29 March when it was learned ‘That the Gentleman Usher of this House and of the Black Rod hath lately received Summons to attend the Celebration of St George’s Feast at Yorke’.  Considering him indispensable to the conduct of ‘the great and weighty affairs of this kingdom, causing the sitting of this Parliament’ peers ordered him to stay put, and ‘attend his duty and charge here’ [LJ iv. 679].

The royal coat of arms, King’s Manor, York

By 11 April, numerous peers had defected to York and the cost of ignoring the king’s summons was becoming clear.  That day the earls of Essex and Holland reported to the Lords royal letters sent to them on the 9th.  Charles told Essex he was ‘so much unsatisfied with the Excuse you have made for not obeying Our Command for your Attendance on Us here, according to the Duty of your Place in Our Household’, that he was reissuing it, and, ‘that you may be the more inexcusable’, also sending ‘a Licence and Dispensation … for your Absence from Parliament’.  If Essex and Holland failed to present themselves at court by 18 April – in good time for the festivities – and ‘persisted in [their] Disobedience’, they were ordered to resign their household offices to Secretary of State Lucius Cary, 2nd viscount Falkland – as, the king alleged, they had promised to do on request three months earlier.  In response, the Lords were equally implacable.  Ordered to ‘give their Attendance on this House, in regard of the present great and urgent Affairs now depending in Parliament, notwithstanding His Majesty’s Letters and Dispensations’ the two earls obeyed, and ‘went forth and delivered’ their resignations to Lord Falkland.  Raising the stakes, their colleagues then proceeded to pass resolutions that the two peers’ ‘attendance … upon the service of this House, according to the order of this House, is no Disobedience to the King’s Commands’, that removing them from their court offices was ‘against the Privileges of Parliament’, that the king could not dispense any peer from attendance at Parliament, and that any peer not attending upon command of Parliament should be punished [LJ iv. 709-14]. 

Having heard this narrative and more in the same vein from Holles on 13 April, the Commons endorsed the Lords’ resolutions, and indeed expanded them.  No Member of either House was to absent himself without leave from Parliament on the king’s command.  What had transpired as a result of Charles’s festive invitation was ‘the Effects of evil Council, to discourage good Men from doing their Duty, and tend to the Increase of the Division between the King and his People, and to the Disturbance of the Peace of the Kingdom’ [CJ ii. 525].  Despite the spin here, incompatible red lines were drawn and the slide towards civil war accelerated.

Yet allegiances declared in the spring of 1642 were not set in stone.  Not all those who then declined the invitation to celebrate St George’s day in York were to prove inveterate parliamentarians in the conflict that followed.  William Fiennes, 1st viscount Saye and Sele, who had contributed significantly to the Lords’ defiance of the king during March and April, was at the heart of much ensuing political strategy at Westminster, and the earl of Essex became the first commander-in-chief of Parliament’s forces.  But the subsequent loyalties of other peers were more ambiguous.  By May Savile was in York and in June was disabled from sitting in the Lords, but he sat uneasily among the royalists thereafter.  Within seven years Holland was executed by Parliament for royalist plotting.  Pembroke and Salisbury steered rather ambiguous courses through the 1640s before reinventing themselves as Members of the Commons following the regicide and abolition of the House of Lords.


Further reading:

Biographies or further biographies of Lucius Cary, 2nd viscount Falkland, William Cecil, 2nd earl of Salisbury, Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, Denzil Holles and Sir Francis Seymour are being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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