Charles I in search of friends: government in crisis and the rewards of loyalty, 1640-1644

Today we hear from Dr Vivienne Larminie, editor of our Commons 1640-1660 project, who discusses Charles I’s attempts to secure loyalty by giving out peerages and other honours in the early 1640s…

By late 1640 the government of Charles I was in deep trouble. A treaty signed at Ripon on 26 October signalled the end of three years of war against his Scottish subjects – the so-called Bishops’ Wars – but peace came at a price. The Scots maintained an army of occupation in Northumberland and were to be paid £850 a day until a final settlement was ratified by the English Parliament. That Parliament assembled on 3 November in no mood to oblige the king, but instead set about attacking key components of royal policy. On 11 November, impeachment proceedings were launched against Thomas Wentworth, 1st earl of Strafford, Charles’s chief minister in Ireland; a fortnight later he was languishing in the Tower of London. On 7 December Ship Money, a tax the cash-strapped king had imposed on inland counties when Parliament was not sitting and which had led to the controversial conviction of objector John Hampden, was declared illegal. Before Christmas the judges who had supported the crown against Hampden were also impeached, as was Charles’s other political right-hand man, William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury.

In time-honoured fashion, the king tried to win over new allies. Earlier in the year he had already cultivated support among the nobility – the great council of peers he had called to York in September had been behind the treaty – and now he sought to increase his influence in the House of Lords. One new recruit from an ancient family of courtiers was Charles Howard, viscount Andover, the heir of Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Berkshire. Although tinged with suspicion of Catholicism like most of the clan, through his father’s patronage he had been re-elected on 12 October as an MP for Oxford. But on 19 November he was summoned to the Lords as baron Howard of Charlton, and he took his seat there the next day. Inasmuch as the new peer was to be a keen promoter of the royalist cause in the months leading up to the outbreak of civil war – to the extent that he too was impeached by the Commons in June 1642 – the ploy worked. However, his replacement in the Oxford seat, elected within a few days, was a mere John Smith, who was at least at first aligned with those who resisted the king’s friends in the city, so there was a trade-off.

Francis Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Trowbridge
William Platt, published by Edward Harding, 1799
© National Portrait Gallery

In the meantime, Charles had good reason to believe that even the more determined of his critics in the Commons might be ‘turned’, to become loyal servants. After all, in the 1620s Strafford himself had been a troublesome MP. A particularly eloquent ennumerator of subjects’ grievances against an encroaching central government in the early months of the Long Parliament was Sir Francis Seymour, younger brother of William Seymour, 2nd earl (and soon to be 1st marquis) of Hertford. In the Short Parliament he had been pre-eminent in attacking ‘innovations and errors’ in religion and in the law courts, especially Star Chamber, which imposed ‘heavy and deep fines which were so insupportable that they tended to the utter ruin and destruction of men’s estates and fortunes’. His apparently sincere Calvinist faith was far removed from Charles’s theological and ecclesiastical preferences, while his assertion of the need for MPs to speak truth to power seems to have been the more effective and incisive because he avowed subjects’ loyalty to the crown and acknowledged the king’s need for money. For the opening weeks of the Long Parliament he was as vigorous as ever in pursuit of rectifying grievances, yet on 19 February 1641 Charles raised him to the peerage as baron Seymour of Trowbridge, and he departed the Commons for the Lords. Probably Seymour was already uneasy at the extent of reform being contemplated by MPs and the heated language in which debate was being conducted. At any rate, Charles had once again identified a loyal supporter for the future.

John Digby, 1st Earl of Bristol
early 17th c.
© National Portrait Gallery

But the king’s judgement was not always vindicated. Also on 19 February, hoping to win them over to mercy for the earl of Strafford, Charles appointed seven opposition leaders in the Lords to his privy council. In two cases – Seymour’s brother Hertford and John Digby, 1st earl of Bristol – he gained long-term friends, and in another – Thomas Savile, 1st baron Savile – loyalty for a while. But Strafford was not saved from the executioner’s block; Savile was to prove a turn-coat; Francis Russell, 4th earl of Bedford was dead within three months; Robert Devereux, 3rd earl of Essex, and Edward Montagu, viscount Mandeville, were to command parliamentarian armies from 1642; and William Fiennes, 1st viscount Saye and Sele, became a key member of the Independent war party at Westminster. Other favours sometimes missed their target too. For instance, the MP for Bletchingley, usually called by contemporaries John Evelyn of Surrey to distinguish him from his somewhat more prominent nephew, Sir John Evelyn of Wiltshire, was given a knighthood in June 1641, but he was not deflected from his role in ensuring security for Parliament and keeping arms and gunpowder out of the hands of Strafford’s friends during that summer’s proto-royalist Army Plots.

Once armed conflict was underway and Charles had established his capital at Oxford, his opportunities to buy new friends were limited, although he continued to reward existing ones with honours. Savile became earl of Sussex, for example. Lesser men had to be content with degrees, as the king handed out accolades that were not his to give and which cost him nothing – to the fury of some in the University. Among MPs who chose to attend Charles’s Oxford Parliament, one of several unlikely recipients of a doctorate in civil law in 1644 was John Bodvell, constable of Caernavon Castle, whose sole preparation was a spell spent studying common law at the Inner Temple in earlier days. Robert Croke, awarded a doctorate in medicine [and later party to a particularly colourful inheritance dispute played out in Parliament], had at least qualified as a barrister, but the same degree granted to Sir John Poulett appears to have rested solely on his record as a royalist administrator in Somerset. By this time, however, Parliament was also coming under fire for dispensing other people’s resources to inappropriate people…

VL

All the MPs mentioned are the subject of biographies or further biographies by the House of Commons 1640-1660 project, to be published in 2023, while the later careers of those who became peers are being investigated by the new House of Lords 1640-1649 project.

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