Averting the prorogation of Parliament, May 1641

In light of the attempt of the current government to prorogue Parliament, we thought it would be appropriate to offer examples of prorogation or the aversion thereof in Parliament’s past. Today, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons 1640-1660 project explains how prorogation was narrowly avoided in 1641 during a crisis in the early months of the Long Parliament. In an earlier blog, Vivienne has also explored how, a few months later in January 1642, the king deployed an alternative tactic to gain control over Parliament when he attempted to ‘decapitate’ Parliament by seeking to arrest prominent adversarial MPs.

Sir Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford

In early May 1641, six months in to what became the Long Parliament, Members sensed that a crisis point had been reached. On the one hand it had become clear that enormous sums had to be found to pay for an English army stationed in the northern counties and to pay off the Scottish army of occupation that they faced. On the other hand, as part of a series of initiatives aimed at redressing grievances arising from the personal rule of Charles I (1629-1640), Parliament was just about to take a momentous vote on the attainder and potential execution of the king’s former chief minister in Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, 1st earl of Strafford. Commons leader John Pym then alarmed – and gingered up – his colleagues by revealing the existence of a plot by disaffected army officers to seize the Tower of London, effect the escape of the earl of Strafford, and perhaps even invite intervention by foreign Catholic troops. One way or another, MPs and peers feared that Charles would be enabled to re-assert control of the situation and shut Parliament down. That was precisely what he had done after only three weeks of the so-called Short Parliament the previous spring.

Bulstrode Whitelocke

However reluctant to grant it, Parliament did not normally refuse the king money when it came to the crunch, but in this context Members were keen to retain a bargaining counter and to prolong their existence at Westminster. While conscious that the north was ‘so highly burthened’ with troops from both kingdoms that assistance was urgent, they were equally determined to secure reforms and the destruction of Strafford. On 5 May a solution was offered. In return for the resolution of complaints raised about himself, Sir John Harrison, MP for Lancaster, offered to secure an advance of £650,000 for the king ‘if he would pass a Bill, Not to prorogue, adjourn, or dissolve this Parliament, without the Consent of both Houses, to endure till the Grievances were redressed, and to give the Parliament Credit to take up Moneys.’ As Bulstrode Whitelocke, MP for Great Marlow, recounted later, ‘This was well liked by many Parliament-men, who upon the passing of such a Bill, would sit the surer and longer in their Saddles’. Indeed, Members were ‘so hot upon it’ that they nominated a committee that very afternoon, confiding to Whitelocke himself the prompt drafting of the bill [Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs (1732), 45].

Whitelocke duly obliged, and ‘An Act to prevent Inconveniences, which may happen by the untimely adjourning, proroguing, or dissolving this present Parliament’ passed the Commons after a third reading on 7 May. It was then sent to the Lords with the bill for Strafford’s attainder and, after some amendments were agreed, both soon received the consent of peers. But unsurprisingly, the king, who distrusted Parliament and valued his loyal minister Strafford, initially balked at giving his assent. As Whitelocke recalled, Charles ‘being much perplexed upon the tendring of these two Bills to him, between the Clamours of a discontented People, and an unsatisfied Conscience … took Advice (as some reported) of several of the Bishops, and of others his intimate Counsellors, what to do in this intricate Affair’ [Whitelocke, Memorials, 45]. 

Ultimately recognising that he had no room for manoeuvre, he supplied the necessary assent on 10 May, but to save himself embarassment or humiliation, he did so ‘by commission’: he himself was not present in the House according to the usual practice. As the lord privy seal unconvincingly declared when the two Houses convened for the purpose, ‘his Majesty had an intent to have come himself this day … but some important occasions have prevented him’ [Journal of the House of Lords, iv. 243].

Charles was to regret bitterly his decision to sacrifice Strafford. He was of course also in his own person to be the most high-profile victim of the passing of the act prolonging Parliament, when Members of the Rump signed and implemented his death warrant. Meanwhile, learning the lesson of 1641, Members of the first protectorate Parliament in 1654 tried to ensure that measures against arbitrary prorogation were enshrined in the accompanying constitutional settlement, although they were unsuccessful. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the issue of prorogation returned to haunt many a debate.


Further reading:

Biographies of Sir John Harrison, John Pym and Bulstrode Whitelocke are being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.


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