Charles I’s Relationship with the Parliament


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died without any direct, legitimate heirs. So, a cousin—the Scottish king James VI—succeeded her, becoming James I of England. And the monarchy passed from the House of Tudor to the House of Stuart. James I began his rule with strong convictions about the divine right of kings, and also with enormous debts from his predecessor. This combination created a tense relationship with Parliament.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth being carried by four men, preceded by knights
Queen Elizabeth I didn’t have any legitimate heirs with a claim to the throne. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Eleven Year Tyranny

In 1610, James declared:

The state of monarchy is the supremist thing upon earth, for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God’s throne…Kings are justly called Gods for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power on earth.

Portrait of King James I
James’s lofty conceptions of the monarch’s power never materialized. (Image: John de Critz/Public domain)

And, just in case members of Parliament didn’t get the message, James told the legislators, “Do not meddle with the main points of government; that is my craft.” Any attempt to circumscribe what he considered his ‘ancient rights’ would be interpreted as a dangerous transgression. James’s lofty conceptions of the monarch’s power never materialized into an outright contest with Parliament. But the same cannot be said of his son. 

When James I died in 1625, his crown, and his ideas of kingship were passed to his son Charles I and a calamitous confrontation lay ahead. The new king chafed at what he considered to be Parliament’s interference in royal affairs. And parliamentarians resented Charles’s dismissive attitude toward the body. Twice when Parliament tried to rein in Charles, the king disbanded the legislative body.

On the heels of one of these conflicts, Charles suspended Parliament in 1629, and avoided convening a new legislative session for years. This period was known as the Eleven Year Tyranny, during which time frustrations over the crown swelled. Many among the English gentry chafed at Parliament being blatantly ignored.

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How Religion Complicated Things

Portrait of Henrietta Maria of France
Charles I’s marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France made many people anxious. (Image: Anthony van Dyck/Public domain)

Charles I was married to a Roman Catholic woman. So parliamentarians were also anxious about the possibility of a power play with religious implications. Tensions between Catholics and Anglicans had played out with bloody results in the 16th century, when Elizabeth I’s long reign finally established the supremacy of the Anglican church and the authority of the English monarch as head of the church. 

Charles’s marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France raised alarm bells that a new era of doctrinal violence would begin. Although Charles offered assurances that his marriage posed no threat, he still abolished previously existing restrictions on Catholic subjects in the realm.

Book of Common Prayer

Further, the new Book of Common Prayer—which Charles introduced in Scotland in 1637—stressed ceremony rather than the more austere forms of worship familiar in Scottish and English churches. This led to widespread protests that flared into a general state of unrest. By 1640, the situation in Scotland had spiraled out of control. Religious protesters, known as the Covenanters, led a rebellion that scored significant victories against Charles.

As they took their fight southward into England, the Covenanters found support among many English subjects who also found Charles’s religious reforms offensive. The Puritans, having long argued that the Church of England needed to be cleansed of the vestiges of Catholic practice, publicly condemned the king’s religious reforms. From pulpits around the country, Puritans preached that resistance to a wicked ruler was justified and necessary.

War with the Parliament 

As the new decade of the 1640s dawned, England stood divided on both political and religious issues. And so when Charles finally reconvened Parliament to secure funds to put down the rebellion, the opposition against him came to a head. Because he was desperate for money, Parliament had Charles over a barrel. Not only was he forced to agree to the execution of some of his closest advisers, but he also acceded to the erosion of some of his power.

For instance, Charles agreed that Parliament could not be dissolved without its consent. And the king agreed that no more than three years could elapse between parliamentary sessions. Still, the animosity escalated at the end of 1641, as Parliament prepared a list of grievances known as the Grand Remonstrance which criticized Charles’s actions since coming to power. Parliament also impeached 12 bishops. It even attempted to impeach the queen!

Charles responded by attempting, and failing, to arrest the men who’d authored the document. Members of Parliament, who were loyal to the crown left the body. Others, resolving to squelch the monarch, remained. By the summer of 1642, both sides were raising armies. A civil war was underway.

Common Questions about Charles I’s Relationship with the Parliament

Q: What was the nature of the period of the Eleven Year Tyranny?

Charles I’s relationship with the Parliament was bad to put it mildly. He had twice disbanded the legislative body after they had tried to rein in his power. Eventually, Charles I suspended Parliament in 1629 and the legislative body didn’t assemble again for years. These years were called the Eleven Year Tyranny.

Q: Why was Charles I’s marriage to a Roman Catholic woman problematic?

Members of Parliament were anxious after Charles I’s marriage to a Roman Catholic, since religious tensions between Catholics and Anglicans were high at that time and history seemed to prove that. They were worried that their marriage would implicate power plays that may have dangerous religious implications.

Q: What were some of Charles I’s religious reforms?

Charles I abolished the existing restriction for Catholics. Also, the Book of Prayer that he introduced in Scotland led to much civil unrest. Though he promised all who were worried, among them the Parliament, that his marriage to a Roman Catholic wife won’t change anything, he still changed a lot.

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