December 1641 was a month of high tension in Parliament, as Dr Vivienne Larminie from our Commons 1640-1660 project explores…
It was after fierce debate that on 9 December 1641 MPs expelled three of their number from Parliament. After months of leaks, rumours and investigations, the Commons finally resolved that Henry Wilmot, William Ashbournham and Sir Hugh Pollarde stood accused of misprision of treason, a felony punishable by life imprisonment. Their offence was to have witnessed other army officers and courtiers making plans to stage some kind of military coup and rescue Charles I’s chief minister from the Tower of London before his execution, but then to have failed to inform the relevant authorities. The trio – and co-accused Sir John Berkeley – were lucky. Their implication in the ‘Army Plots’, first revealed back in May, and their blatant perjury in subsequent testimonies about it, had prompted energetic, if unsuccessful, calls for the charge of treason itself. Now out on bail after previous imprisonment, they had not answered summons to the House for interrogation and had put themselves beyond easy reach.
And there they remained. Despite the longstanding alarms, the affair rapidly became submerged in a month of notable turmoil. A perfect storm was brewing.
In Parliament certain peers and MPs were pushing the boundaries of complaint to the king. On 22 November, while Charles was absent from London visiting his rebellious Scottish subjects, the Commons had passed, by a narrow 159 votes to 148, the Grand Remonstrance. This document, presented to the king at Hampton Court on 1 December, summarised the manifold grievances of the kingdom since the beginning of his reign. The finger of blame was pointed at Charles’s ministers and advisers – bishops and Catholics prominent among them. It was they who had misused the prerogative courts, promoted illegal taxation, undermined the Protestant settlement of the Church of England, and sown division between king and Parliament. But the remonstrance came closer than any previous representation from the legislature to criticising the king himself. It was he, after all, who had chosen his counsellors.
According to Sir Ralph Hopton’s account to the Commons the next day, in response Charles vehemently denied any attempt to alter the church, saying ‘with a great deal of Fervency, “The Devil take him, whomsoever he be, that had a Design to change Religion”’ [Journal of the House of Commons, ii. 330], but in other respects he attempted to brush the matter aside. However, circumstances were against him. For one thing, rebellion had broken out in his third kingdom of Ireland. With lurid tales reaching London of escalating unrest and atrocities committed against Protestants, it was obvious that an army was needed to quell it. It could not be funded without money from Parliament, but was Parliament prepared to entrust its control to the king and the officers he would choose? On 7 December one of the leading critics of Charles’s government, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, brought in a militia bill, which proposed that Parliament should nominate commanders of both naval and land forces. At its first reading in the Commons that day, it passed by 158 votes to 125.
Meanwhile, now daily gatherings ‘of great numbers of people … in a tumultuous, unusual and disorderly manner about the Houses of Parliament’ impacted on MPs and peers within it, ‘Tumults’ in the streets erupted around several causes. Fears surrounding the Irish crisis stirred up latent anti-Catholic sentiment. On 3 December MPs Oliver St John and John Maynard were deputed to prepare a bill to disarm Catholic recusants; the penalty for failure to comply was forfeiture of their lands to fund the wars in Ireland. Ten days later, as newspaper Diurnall Occurrences reported a riot in Newgate by condemned prisoners who seized arms and demanded that Catholic priests sentenced under the treason laws as agents of a foreign power ‘goe before them to execution’, the Commons voted to increase the number of priests who would die.
Other demands by the crowds were more contentious. On 10 December a petition with as many as 15,000 signatures was presented, calling for the exclusion from the House of Lords not just of Catholics but also of bishops. This chimed with the desire of the fiercest parliamentary critics of royal government to cement their alliance with the Presbyterian Scots, and by the end of the month the measure had not only passed but twelve bishops who had objected were arrested and imprisoned. However, by now a gulf was opening between those pursuing reform of grievances and previous sympathisers who could not bring themselves to challenge their king and give in to popular pressure.
Among the latter was Sir Edward Dering. In the debates surrounding the Grand Remonstrance he had rejected its tarring of all bishops with the brush of undesirable influence on the king. Going further, he expressed profound dismay. He had ‘imagined that like faithful counsellors, we should hold up a glass unto his majesty’ and ‘represent unto the king the wicked counsels of pernicious counsellors, the restless turbulency of practical papists, the treachery of false judges, the bold innovations of some superstition brought in by some pragmatical bishops, and the rotten part of the clergy’. On the other hand, he ‘did not dream that we should remonstrate downward, tell stories to the people, and talk of the king as of a third person’ [E. Dering, A Collection of Speeches (1642), 109, 119]. He was a teller for those MPs who voted against the printing of the Remonstrance, but failed to garner enough support, and on 15 December it was duly published. After 20 December Dering apparently withdrew from the Commons.
By such processes sober and pious men like Dering – Hopton was to be another – made their way to espousing royalism in the civil wars to come. While Wilmot, Ashbournham, Pollarde and their fellow conspirators of 1641 returned to take commands in the king’s army and to embody archetypal cavalier officers, without the support of those who rejected both plotting and popularism, Charles would not have been able to fight his corner.
Biographies or further biographies of William Ashbournham, Sir Edward Dering, Sir Ralph Hopton, John Maynard, Hugh Pollarde, Oliver St John, and Henry Wilmot are being prepared for publication by members of the Commons 1640-1660 project.