Throughout its history, Parliament has been no stranger to meeting in Oxford. Dr Vivienne Larminie, editor of our Commons 1640-1660, continues our look at Parliaments away from Westminster by exploring the unusual so-called ‘Mongrel Parliament’, which gathered in January 1644…
As has been noted previously, four times in the seventeenth century alone, a Parliament met at Oxford. Epidemic or the threat of popular unrest led to relocation. But what made the Oxford Parliament convened for January 1644 different from all the others across the centuries was that, far from being the Westminster body meeting elsewhere, it was a rival assembly, proceeding for a while in parallel.
On 22 December 1643 Charles I issued a proclamation from Oxford, where he had established his capital nearly 14 months earlier after the inconclusive battle of Edgehill. With what may now carry a chilling resonance, it began by referencing a previous statement, on 20 June, which ‘upon due consideration of the miseries of this Kingdom, and the true cause thereof’ had warned ‘all our good Subjects no longer to be misled by the Votes, Orders and pretended Ordinances of one or Both Houses [of Parliament], which appears by several instances of Force and Violence, and by the course of their proceedings…’. Since that time, Charles’s Scottish subjects had ‘made great and Warlike preparations to enter and invade this Kingdome with an Army, and have already actually invaded the same, by possessing themselves, by force of Armes, of our Towne of Barwick, upon pretence that they were invited thereunto by the desires of the two Houses’. The king was in no doubt that ‘all Our good Subjects of this Kingdome’ would regard this ‘as the most insolent Act of Ingratitude and disloyalty’; it was ‘indeed no other then a designe of Conquest, and to impose new Lawes upon this Nation’. Confident that ‘the Major part of both Houses of Parliament, doe from their souls abhorre the least thought of introducing that Forraigne Power to increase and make desperate the miseries of their unhappy Country’, and protesting his willingness to forget previous ‘injuries & indignities’ offered to him, Charles called them to assemble at Oxford. To those who ‘may be conscious to themselves of having justly incurred Our displeasure by submitting to, or concurring in unlawfull actions’, he promised a ‘free and Generall Pardon’ if they presented themselves at Oxford on or by 22 January 1644 [Stuart Royal Proclamations, ed. J. F. Larkin (2013), vol. 2, pp. 987-9].
From one perspective, this justification had compelling logic and might be expected to command acceptance. There was ‘misery’ in the country. It was the king’s prerogative to summon a Parliament and traditionally his to dissolve it; it was he who had inaugurated what was becoming the Long Parliament. The Scots, who had been in rebellion for six years, had previously occupied parts of northern England and were preparing to do so again. But this was also war propaganda. While the Scots and the Westminster Parliament had sealed an alliance with the passing in September 1643 of the Solemn League and Covenant, and while on 1 November the latter had indeed ordered the rendezvous of an invasion force, the Scots did not cross the Tweed until late January 1644, and they did not at first succeed in capturing Berwick.
There were also diverging narratives of how many obeyed Charles I’s call. According to MP Edward Hyde, who had rallied to the king as early as spring 1642 and who claimed responsibility for suggesting an Oxford Parliament, the response was overwhelming. ‘Very near 300 of the House of Commons appeared [there], when there were not above 100 remained at Westminster’ [Clarendon, History of the Rebellion, iii. 370]. Yet other sources tell a different story. It is evident from divisions and committee nominations recorded in the Commons and Lords Journals, from diarists and commentators at Westminster, and from the London newspapers, that even if a majority of peers were loyal to the king, the figures for the Commons were closer to the inverse of what Clarendon asserted.
Furthermore, the assembly at Oxford proved to be less pliable and less productive than Charles had hoped. After an audience with him at his headquarters in Christ Church – where the college was too crowded with his entourage to accommodate them – peers and MPs repaired to the Bodleian Library to hold their meetings. The visible result of their preliminary deliberations was not the securing of funds to crush the rebellion and defeat the Scots but, on 19 March 1644, what was published as The Declaration of the Lords and Commons assembled at Oxford. This was an appeal to the parliamentarian commander-in-chief, Robert Devereux, 3rd earl of Essex, to promote peace – something to which he was well-known to be predisposed. The document was signed by 43 peers and 118 MPs, giving Hyde’s claim the lie. At few of those, like Oxfordshire MP John Whistler, were probably present under duress; rather more probably had complex allegiances.
Since the Oxford Parliament destroyed its own records later rather than see them fall into enemy hands once parliamentarian sieges secured their objective (as they did in June 1646), our knowledge of its other activities is very limited. Apart from the Declaration, it is largely from testimonies given by those who later applied to compound with Parliament that we can piece together who participated and for how long. Those concluded to have ‘been at Oxford’ were individually expelled from their seats at Westminster.
As for the king, he prorogued the Parliament in April 1644 and adjourned it in March 1645, after which it met only spasmodically. It was a ‘mongrel Parliament’ as he told his wife Henrietta Maria in exasperation.
Biographies of Edward Hyde and John Whistler are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 project.