This blog from Paul Seaward, British Academy/Wolfson Research Professor at the History of Parliament Trust, is part of our Named Parliaments series. He explores the so-called exclusion crisis of the late seventeenth century. You might also be interested in Paul’s recent blog on the Cavalier Parliament.
Three short Parliaments – those that assembled in March 1679, in October 1680, and March 1681 – are collectively referred to as the ‘Exclusion’ Parliaments, for they were dominated by the issue of the exclusion from the throne of Charles II’s heir, his brother, James, Duke of York. The astonishing revelation that York had undergone conversion to the Roman Catholic faith – confirmed in 1672, but widely known well before – was the central element in a political crisis that destabilised the English government for much of the rest of Charles II’s reign. The issue of how England’s Protestant church could be shielded from harm under a head who was of a different religion – and of a religion that most English people assumed was dedicated to its destruction – was mixed with other anxieties about the drift of Charles II’s government, particularly its deference to the powerful monarchy of France’s Louis XIV and its willingness to bypass some of the constraints of law and Parliament in pursuit of its other goals. The government’s use of doubtful prerogative powers to lift the restrictions on religious worship outside the Church of England in 1672 was taken by some as an indication of how easy it would be to reintroduce Catholicism. But the Church had other enemies as well – Protestant nonconformists, who had to choose between seeing the Duke of York as a threat to Protestantism, or an ally against the Anglicans.
Attempts to find ways of dealing with the prospect of a Catholic king started in the previous Parliament, the ‘Cavalier Parliament’, which had been originally elected in 1661 and was still in existence in 1678. But over the summer of that year, two crucial events wrecked what remained of the equilibrium of Charles II’s government. The first was the discovery of the body of a Westminster magistrate, apparently murdered, led to a series of increasingly lurid allegations about a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate the king – the so-called ‘Popish Plot’. The second was the exposure of a secret request made by the king’s chief minister, Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, to the French for a financial subsidy.
The ensuing uproar, exploited very effectively by prominent politicians, including Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, and Denzil Holles, Lord Holles, led to the eventual dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament at the beginning of 1679 and the summoning of a new one – something which these politicians had long demanded. Charles II thought the concession would calm the situation. It didn’t: instead, the Commons revived their predecessors’ attempts to impeach Danby, initiated the trial of Catholic members of the House of Lords supposed to be involved in the ‘Plot’, and, most dangerously as far as the king was concerned, passed a bill that would exclude York entirely from the succession.
At the end of May, the king pulled the plug on the session, dissolving the Parliament in July and calling new elections for a replacement. Though the elections were held in August and September, Charles delayed its actual assembly, ignoring a huge campaign of popular petitioning requesting that the new Parliament be allowed to sit. Not until October 1680, more than a year later, did it actually meet. But when it did, it resumed its inquiries into the ‘Plot’ and its trials of Catholic peers, and revived its bill for York’s exclusion. In early January 1681 the king prorogued, then dissolved, this Parliament, just as he had done with its predecessor, and called another. The new Parliament met at Oxford in March, moved out of London in response to concerns about public order. It fared no better than its predecessors. It sat only for a week before the introduction of another bill for the exclusion of York brought the king dramatically to Parliament to dissolve it, swiftly and without warning in order to prevent any attempt to frustrate the dissolution. Charles did not summon another Parliament before his death in 1685, and the accession of his brother James, whom the politicians had tried so hard to bar from the throne. In his remaining four years, Charles would benefit from a backlash against the atmosphere of political crisis that they had generated, built on the claim that many of them had conspired to create a new revolution, like that of 1641, to destroy the monarchy itself.
There is no doubt that the crisis of 1678-81 – known traditionally as the ‘Exclusion’ crisis – was as profound a struggle over the government of England as any, save, perhaps, for the Civil War itself. There is no doubt that it brought about a deep and in some respects lasting polarisation of politics – into camps known for eternity as ‘Tory’ (supporters of the Church and the King) and ‘Whig’ (those on the other side). But is it right to call it the ‘Exclusion’ crisis, and these three Parliaments the ‘Exclusion Parliaments’? For while the exclusion bills were at their centre, they were about far more than the future James II. Some historians have emphasised how the crisis split the country along religious lines. Supporters of the Church of England tended to uphold the right of the Duke of York to succeed, despite his Catholicism; its opponents tended to be his opponents too. Others have pointed out that to stress ‘Exclusion’ and the emergence of ‘Whigs’ and ‘Tories’ is to emphasise the role of some of the most divisive politicians, especially the earl of Shaftesbury, and to obscure other proposed solutions to the problem of James (including explicit limits on his power). It’s fair to say that political crises are complex events involving many people with different concerns and objectives, bringing together issues and problem that may have been long brewing. But as the most audacious and dramatic idea on the table, presented by a politician, Shaftesbury, with a genius for grabbing, and holding political attention, Exclusion accurately enough indicates the depth and character of the crisis that paved the way to Revolution within a decade.
- Jonathan Scott, Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis, 1677-1683 (Cambridge, 1991)
- Mark Knights, Politics and Opinion in Crisis, 1678-81 (Cambridge, 1994)
See Paul’s blog for more posts relating to his current research project, From Reformation to Referendum: Writing a New History of Parliament.