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Stuart England 1603 - 1714

The Stuart monarchs, James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II, Mary, who ruled with her husband William III, and Queen Anne, marked the effective end of government by monarchy in England. The great change to modern parliamentary government took place in this period. It would be very interesting to know why this happened, and many historians, and school children, have written about the causes of the Civil War between Parliament and Charles I, and the reasons why Parliament developed. Inspite of all this effort there are some historians who claim that we simply don't really know why things happened as they did. Barry Coward, for example, summarises the main reasons put forward for a weakening of monarchy during the Stuart period - the ruling of multiple kingdoms, the state's financial weakness and divisions in the Church. These arguments are not as respected as they once were. England itself has a long history of multiple kingdoms, and is itself created out of disparate kingdoms. Similarly the state had often been in a position of financial distress. Indeed being short of money is probably a governments' normal situation. And the Church had always been full of people arguing. All of these things were not new, so why should they now suddenly bring about the development of parliamentary power?

 

In the early twentieth century J.E. Neale and Wallace Notestein told a seemingly sensible story. The turning point was seen as the 1530s Reformation Parliament during Henry VIII's reign. Henry's decision to carry out the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the break with Rome by using parliamentary statutes is supposed to have whetted MPs appetite for wider power and influence. Neale then went on to describe procedural innovations in the reign of Elizabeth I - the introduction of rules to allow orderly debates, the practice of sending bills to committees for example. Neale saw Parliament's adolescent period completed by 1597, just as the Stuart period began with the rule of James I. Then Notestein continued the story into the seventeenth century, with procedural development appearing to indicate that the House of Commons was working to free itself from royal control.

 

 

In the Royalist ranks at a re-enactment of the Battle of Maidstone, 1st June 1648

This story of development could, however, be something of an illusion. As Barry Coward points out, late fourteenth and fifteenth century parliaments were called more frequently, and sat for longer periods than two centuries later when parliament was supposed to be consolidating inevitable power. It is also the case that procedural developments are not necessarily indicators of parliamentary power.

"MPs were not protected by privileges of free speech or freedom from arrest. After many of the parliaments of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I the Crown had no compunction in arresting and imprisoning those MPs with whom it was displeased" (The Stuart Age P102). It should also be remembered that in 1648, after the deposition of Charles I by Parliament, Colonel Pride led a purge of Parliament, leaving only those MPs the revolutionary army considered acceptable. In no sense is there some inevitable progress towards parliamentary power.

 

Nevertheless Parliament came to predominate in government over monarchy, setting a trend for many other countries. A likely explanation for what happened actually involves the usual bottom line, money. In 1688 Parliament clumsily deposed James II, and replaced him with William and Mary. Following this watershed event England's financial situation changed. Before the Glorious Revolution the debt ran up in managing national affairs was a monarch's debt. This debt caused many conflicts between monarch and Parliament, since it was Parliament who provided tax revenue, and it was Parliament who used this revenue as a lever to gain control over a monarch. Disputes over tax revenue led to bitter divisions, and were a fundamental cause of the English Civil War. After 1688 British monarchs were obliged to work within the constitution set out by Parliament. Now debt ran up by the country became the "national debt". Now lenders could have more confidence in the institution they were lending to. This wasn't one man or woman who may or may not have been a competent economic manager. This was a government, a reassuringly large and impersonal public body. In Wealth of Nations the eighteenth century economist Adam Smith describes how the Bank of England was created in July 1694, and advanced the government £1,200,000 at an interest rate of a rather steep 8%. This was a debt that belonged in a sense to everyone, rather than the monarch alone. Debt became an accepted fact of life. This in turn meant that usury, the practice of lending money at interest, was rapidly losing its sinful connotations, and this new attitude was a major factor in Britain's rise to superpower status in the eighteenth century. Britain's system of spending on credit allowed it to defeat its principal rival, France. As P.G.M. Dickson writes, public borrowing: "enabled England to spend on war out of all proportion to its tax revenue" (The Financial Revolution In England P 9). France, with greater natural resources, did not enjoy the advantage of an advanced system of credit. Debt was a way of magically multiplying money. Quite simply parliamentary government made better economic sense than monarchy. Queen Anne was monarch in the early eighteenth century as these economic changes began to gather momentum, and Queen Anne was to be the last monarch to veto an act of Parliament.

 

 

Rubens' painting portraying the divine right of kings, Banqueting House, London

But of course it might be hard to accept that it all comes down to money. People in Stuart England thought causes and effect in life must be linked to something more profound than that. In 1688 many Tories in Parliament were dismayed at the idea that Catholic James II could be deposed in favour of James's Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. The Tories tied themselves up in knots trying to show that events had a divine cause. They wanted events to appear to follow God's inevitable pattern, even if it seemed that a divinely appointed king was being overthrown by a human institution. As G. Staka in The Final Phase of Divine Right Theory in England 1688 - 1702 points out, many Tories tried to portray the deposition of James II as somehow divinely ordained, even though God was supposed to have divinely ordained James as king in the first place. Perhaps God had second thoughts.

Beyond all this bluster lies the inevitable bottom line. Economics, the attractions of a system based on national debt rather than monarch's debt, meant that the time of monarchs had passed. Monarchy survived in Britain in an increasingly ceremonial capacity.

Read more in History of the British Monarchy.

 

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