Seen through the pages of John Buchan’s biography of The Lord Protector
Cromwell takes his Seat in Parliament, and Charles I demands money. John Buchan heads for Oxford…
On the 23rd of January, 1628, Oliver Cromwell was returned as an MP, to represent the Borough of Huntingdon.
When Cromwell took his seat in the Commons, England was at war with France, with Charles I demanding money for a new fleet, with many ‘worthy gentlemen’ sent to prison for refusing to give the King ‘forced loans’.
There were some serious questions to be asked, but the King seemed prepared not to listen.
Oliver Cromwell took his seat in Parliament on February 11th, 1629, and there can be no doubt that he, in his first week in Parliament, made an impression, with the common denominator being his ‘fervour’ and ‘passion’ when speaking. Cromwell was a man to be taken notice of.
On returning to Huntington, after that first session, the thirty-year-old Oliver Cromwell had much to think about. John Buchan writes:
“ He had sat in the great council of the nation and watched the wheels of government. He had observed and listened to the king — heard him speak the insolent sentence that he did not threaten the House, since he would scorn to threaten any but his equals; he had been present at the wild scene at the session’s close when the king was defied. His opinion of royalty had not risen. He had heard the convictions to which he had been feeling his way expounded with eloquence and precision.”
Oliver had, with others, also defied Charles I’s demands for money in Parliament and realised deep inside that a battle had to be fought. He was also feeling unwell, and in September 1629, six months after entering Parliament, he visited the distinguished London doctor, Sir Theodore Mayerne, and as Antonia Fraser writes:
“ Cromwell had apparently been drinking the medicinal waters of Wellingborough…which were sufficiently esteemed at the time for the King and Queen to have spent a season there…But this had only aggravated Cromwell’s condition. Otherwise Cromwell’s flesh was very dry and withered, he had a recurrent pain in his stomach three hours after meals which had not so far yielded to any remedy, and a persistent pain in his left side… [and was] extremely melancholy.”
There are suggestions that Cromwell’s first experience of Parliament, and the severity facing the nation through the king’s inability to comprehend and compromise, may have, in part, brought on Oliver’s physical manifestations of illness.
The London that Cromwell experienced in those early days as an MP in 1629, would not have been dissimilar to the Glasgow Buchan came across as he made his way to school in the late 19th century. Ursula Buchan writes:
“ The boy’s walks to school took him into the heart of the Gorbals. In the 1880s and 1890s it was busy, noisy, grimy and, in places, absolutely poverty-stricken. As a result of the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s, people had fled Ireland for the west of Scotland, which had the virtue to them of already sustaining a substantial Catholic population. They settled in Glasgow districts such as the Gorbals, which were already overcrowded; the population was ever at risk of epidemics and sometimes even starvation…”
Oliver Cromwell would have recognised, in the Gorbals of the 1880s, the London he encountered in 1629. Poverty and disease was everywhere, which would fire him quickly to anger.
In the couple of year after Oliver’s first experience of parliament, Europe was heading toward peace, with England heading slowly toward unrest and eventually a Civil War: with Cromwell already at war with himself: something that he fought to keep in check, with his household steward declaring that his [Cromwell’s] temper was “…exceeding fiery, but the flame of it kept down for the most part…”, with two other observers writing that, “…He expressed himself with some kind of passion…”, “ but with such a commanding, wise deportment till at his pleasure, he governed and swayed the house…”, both his own house and the House of Commons.
In other words he was frustrated and impatient to see changes made, showing such during committee meetings, where, in argument with Lord Manchester, “…Mr Cromwell did answer and reply upon him with so much indecency and rudeness, and in language so contrary and offensive…” that the chairman of the committee threatened to adjourn the meeting and report him to the House. Of course Cromwell was the first to admit that his temper had run away with him, and was “…exceeding self debasing…”, for which he was sorry, before continuing that his cause was right, although his methods had, “…served it so ill.”
Charles I was having none of this kind of unseemly argument which he felt was very much beneath him, and in which he would take no real part, asking if ministers might not be found who could counteract such rabble rousing (as he saw it), and as John Buchan writes:
“ He [Charles] did not rank high the practical sagacity of the tearful House which had carried the Petition of Right…[ The Petition of Right was written by the Parliament of 1628, as an objection to an overreach of authority by the king, and keenly supported by Cromwell]. Moreover the safety of the nation in a crises might depend upon an executive power above and beyond the ordinary law…”.
And as Charles told the Commons, “…Let us make what law we can…there must be — nay, there will be — a Trust left in the Crown.” But that trust was declining quickly, and as Hilda Johnstone has written, it was also about money:
“ In the Petition of Right, parliament had reaffirmed its right to control taxation. A clause of the petition had prayed ‘that no man hereafter be compelled to make or yield any gift, loan, benevolence, tax, or such-like charge [which Charles had been prone to do], without common consent by act of parliament.’ This was probably intended to cover direct taxes only, and, given time and peace, the third parliament would almost certainly have gone on to provide for indirect taxation specially customs duties. It was cut off, however, in mid career, and Charles was left to provide himself with a revenue.
“ At first, at anyrate, he did not play traitor to his recent concessions: yet, without asking on his own authority for a general tax, he contrived to use means equally irritating.”
Which meant bullying land owners who had estates worth £40 a year to either sign up to a Knighthood — and be seen as a supporter of the king — or pay a fine of £10. Cromwell paid his fine and cursed the king, especially when old forestry laws were revived, with land owners who had remnants of the Royal Forests on their land, were prosecuted and fined for encroachment. Nevertheless this tax, and fines, brought the king £170,000, many hundreds of millions in today’s values. And it didn’t stop there, as Johnstone write:
“ There was one class of customs duty which had been exciting angry feeling now for some time — tonnage and poundage. This was a duty on every tun or cask of wine and every 20s [£1] worth of dry goods, entering or leaving the country. Kings had long been accustomed to receive this, and it formed an indispensable part of the revenue.”
Parliament tried to explain to the king that he no longer, due to the Petition of Right, had the right to such revenue, as useful as it might be to his income source, and that if such an income source was to come to him it had to be as a result of “…the goodwill of the subject…” and be granted by parliament, which was not going to happen.
The mood was changing in the nation, with Charles I in no way representing the “…religious and political desires of the English people.” In other words parliament was the only mouthpiece of the people, and if parliament was overridden the people were impotent, as Buchan explains:
“ The old constitution had broken down and must be put together again. The solution by means of adjustment of powers and a balance of functions was made difficult by the current unitary habit of thought, which sought a single fount of authority…” namely the king.
The result was that Charles I shut parliament down. He had no real interest in the English people.
Although parliament had achieved a good deal with its Petition of Rights, it knew that compromise was impossible with a king who demanded more and more taxes toward not only his income, but (during the parliamentary closure of 1629 -1640) for the building of a new navy by a levy on each county. Most counties refused to pay, knowing full well their people were already living precariously. By refusing they faced court and imprisonment. The most famous case being that of Cromwell’s cousin, John Hampden, who fought a lawsuit, a suit that went in favour of the king and of the tax. It brought great hardship to his county of Buckinghamshire, and to other counties who had to “…wring forth the tax like drops of blood.”
During the years of the closure of parliament, Oliver Cromwell ran his Huntingdon estate, saw the birth of his daughter Elizabeth in 1629, his favourite child, and was forced by law to participate in newly reformed local politics. And during this time Charles I continued to make enemies amongst his subjects by the imposition of more and more taxes, and worse, as Hilda Johnstone writes:
“ Charles… proceeded to more active measures. In 1637 the Scottish church was ordered to use a prayer-book similar to that in use in England. This was accepted as a sign of the king’s general aim [that the king wished to introduce Roman Catholicism into England and Scotland]. Small and great united in opposition. The Edinburgh mob threw stones through the windows of St. Giles’ Cathedral, while the dean read the new service in a deserted church, behind locked doors. A weightier protest was embodied in the National Covenant of 1638…” . As Reformation History describes:
“The National Covenant pledged those who swore it to defend the true religion against innovations, such as those that had recently been introduced, that were against the Bible, the teachings of the Reformers and the acts of Parliament listed — and which would lead to Roman Catholicism. This desire of the covenant was to maintain ‘the true worship of God, the majesty of our King, and the peace of the kingdom’, for the happiness of those who swore it and their children. They also promised to live lives that showed they were in covenant with God, and to be good examples to others.
“The covenant was first signed at Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh on the 28th of February 1638, after any objections to it had been heard and answered. Within days it had been signed by the people of Edinburgh and copies were then sent around the country for other people to sign. In a few weeks it had been signed by people throughout the Lowlands of Scotland, including almost all the nobles. The covenant made slower progress in the north of Scotland, but many eventually signed it. Signing the covenant was not rebellion but an appeal to the law of the land against the tyranny of the king. To sign it was to say that Jesus Christ was the only head of the church, and so it should be free from any control by the king or the government. The first free General Assembly for 36 years was held in Glasgow in November.”
This document and the response to it put the wind up Charles I, who agreed to negotiate with the signatories of the covenant, but no common ground could be found, with the consequence that two short wars, in 1639 and 1640, called the Bishops’ War, were fought on the Scottish border where the Scots’ rag tag army twice sent the king’s army running for their lives.
To Be Continued…
John Buchan — Oliver Cromwell (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1934, republished in 2009 by House of Stratus); Ursula Buchan — A Life of John Buchan: Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019); Hilda Johnstone — Oliver Cromwell and His Times (The Peoples Books, London, 1912); Antonia Fraser — Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1973)