Over the past few weeks the eyes of the world have been on Washington. As the United States prepares to swear in its 46th President, Joe Biden, after what has been a tumultuous transition of power, Dr Stephen Roberts examines the threat of violence against the seat of power in 17th century Britain in our latest blog…
The great achievement of the English Parliament between 1642 and 1646 was to create from nothing armies supported by complex administrative machinery that were capable of defeating the king and establishing an alternative structure of government. Because of Parliament’s power and authority, it is easy to overlook the extent to which its very existence was threatened by violence and action by large and uncontrollable crowds. In fact, this unruliness was never far away from Westminster in times of political crisis, and was either an actual or a feared backdrop to the debates and decision-making within the Palace of Westminster.
The Short Parliament of 1640, usually thought of as a mere brief, unsuccessful curtain-raiser to the Parliament that assembled in November that year, raised expectations on the London streets of action against the people’s enemies. No sooner had this Parliament been dissolved, than crowds from Southwark were milling outside Lambeth Palace. Their target was the archbishop of Canterbury, depicted by the opposition in Parliament to the government as a conspirator with others against English liberties. The crowd turned into a riot: one of the many prisons in Southwark was successfully breached, resulting in two deaths.
The idea of a conspiracy against Protestantism and against the people was central to the mindset of the most determined opponents of Charles I. Soon the disorder in Southwark was repeated on the other side of the Thames. Action by the parliamentary leadership against the king’s chief minister in Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, 1st earl of Strafford, was reaching its culmination by spring 1641. From late April, huge crowds, including ‘mechanic people out of Southwark’ (quoted in A. Fletcher, Outbreak of the English Civil War (1981), 15) and also more middle-class groups, milled in and around the City of London. Conspiracy was inevitably accompanied by rumour. The rapid spread of alarmist hearsay was a characteristic of crowd action throughout these years: perhaps of crowds throughout history. Word swept through the thronged London streets that Strafford was about to be sprung from the Tower of London, and that the French were on the point of invading. Londoners thought themselves witnesses to the greatest conspiracy since the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. On 5 May, a week before Strafford’s execution, rumour had it that Parliament had been deliberately set on fire.
Parliament needed to respond to the crisis and the challenge to its authority. Its leaders, headed by John Pym, foremost since April 1640 in promoting the idea of a conspiracy against the kingdom, came up with a Protestation (3 May 1641), whereby MPs, office-holders and eventually the public at large were required to assent to a set of principles that Parliament held dear. The focus for crowd action was coming ever nearer the palace of Westminster itself, and the political disposition of the crowd reflected the shape-shifting of crowd behaviour. In August, people thronged Westminster, their message an appeal to the king not to leave London to visit his kingdom of Scotland. It was after the king had left, and Parliament had organized a committee to intervene in affairs of state, that the name ‘King Pym’ was coined on the restive London streets. In the autumn, the Commons, nervous of reactions to the king’s return to the capital, readied the militias of London, Middlesex and Surrey. They did not wait long for their fears to be realized. News of a rebellion in Ireland in October 1641 deepened the atmosphere of crisis. A plot in the City to murder ‘rascally Puritan Pym’ (Lords Journal iv. 439) was exposed. Several days of disorder in Westminster in December included an incident on the 29th in which the bishops were jostled and threatened on their way into the House of Lords.
Pym’s strategy at this point was to try to utilize politically the energy of the crowd while trying to contain it. He increased the protection around the Houses, while expressing sympathy with the people: ‘God forbid that the House of Commons should proceed in any way to dishearten people to obtain their just desires’.(Journal of Sir Simonds D’Ewes ed. W. H. Coates (1942), 356). Soon, though, it was the king, not the mob, who attempted a coup against Parliament. His celebrated invasion of the Commons on 4 January 1642, in person and with an armed retinue at his back, was an attempt to arrest the parliamentary leaders. Had he succeeded, they would probably have been tried and executed for high treason. Even moderate opinion in the Commons recognised this as a dangerous moment for the kingdom, the quick exit of the five tipped-off members having prevented probable bloodshed in the chamber itself.
The events of 4 January have been captured as a noble tableau, not least by later representations of it in Parliament itself, and by the reported defiant but respectful words of Speaker William Lenthall. It was probably a more tawdry (and frightening) affair than most accounts suggest, the king having deliberately chosen ill-disciplined and aggrieved former army officers to accompany him. When four months later, the gates of the city of Hull were shut in his face, it was noted that with him still were soldiers ‘that were at the Parliament door’ (quoted in A. Fletcher, Outbreak of the English Civil War (1981), 411).
The outbreak of civil war in August 1642 of course institutionalised violence on a scale that dwarfed scuffles and riots in London. But even if Parliament commanded armies in the field and an effective navy, it could not escape from the threat of disturbance and disruption, any more than it could escape from the plague. In August 1643 the Westminster crowd was seemingly in support of Pym’s intransigent refusal to countenance peace with the king, but Pym was sufficiently fearful of this upsurge of popular agitation, which had caused the House of Lords to adjourn, that he launched an investigation into it. To demonstrate the volatility of the London crowd, the following day women petitioning for peace turned out in force. With the leaders of Parliament very obviously in their sights, they had to be dispersed by horse-guards and foot soldiers, reportedly acting on Pym’s orders.
During the course of these events, there had been pushing and shoving on the streets, and recurring waves of tension and fear, but Parliament had remained physically secure after January 1642. Ironically, it was after Parliament had defeated the king that its integrity was lost by force against it. In June 1647, the New Model army, camped at Uxbridge, overawed the Commons into expelling eleven of their members, and in July, it was the City of London authorities who lay behind the first of two outright invasions of Parliament. On 26 July, the crowd smashed down the doors and burst into the lobby of the Commons, calling out ‘Vote! Vote!’ to make the Commons pass legislation favoured by the conservative City fathers. The Speaker was held in his chair until the crowd was satisfied. Messages from Parliament to the City to send local military help went unheeded, and the New Model army supporters in Parliament fled to it for protection. The reaction of the New Model army was swift, and by 6 August the army occupied the City and restored their parliamentary friends to their places.
In the second, better-known, invasion of Parliament, it was the army’s turn to use force. The army had become increasingly radicalised, and had insisted that no further correspondence should take place with the king, whom it blamed for having fomented a second civil war. Parliament’s continued willingness to parley with the king goaded the army beyond endurance. On the morning of 4 December 1648, soldiers led by Col. Thomas Pride set about a purge of Parliament, turning some MPs away and imprisoning those they saw as their more intransigent enemies.
In the view of the Puritan clergyman, Richard Baxter, ‘war was begun in our streets before king or parliament had any armies’ (Richard Baxter, A Holy Commonwealth (1659), 457). Parliament’s relations with the London crowd were coloured by the parliamentary leadership’s attempts to harness the sympathies of the crowd, inconsistent and unstable as they inevitably were. Especially in the early 1640s, rumour and truth seemed impossible to distinguish, both in Parliament and on the streets. By the later 1640s, institutional rivalry, between City and army, army and Parliament, lay behind the violence, actual and threatened. The result was a decade in which the Westminster streets were secure, but in which Parliaments were never completely free from the patronage of the army.
A. Fletcher, The Outbreak of the English Civil War (1981)
D. Underdown, Pride’s Purge (1970)
K. Lindley, Popular Politics in Civil War London (1997)
S. Porter (ed.), London and the Civil War (1996)
I. Gentles, ‘Parliamentary Politics and the Politics of the Street: The London Peace Campaigns of 1642-3’, Parliamentary History 26 (2007).
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