Parliament and Politics from 1603 to 1714

The English Parliament under the Stuart monarchs was at the centre of politics as never before. It established itself in practice as the ultimate political authority in the country. Its debates and actions of the period remain at the heart of British constitutional and legal ideas, and the English Civil War and Interregnum of 1642-60, the result of a bitter confrontation between the king and Parliament, is perhaps the most dramatic series of political events in British history. The English Parliament also became, in 1707, the British Parliament, after the formal union of England and Scotland created a new country.

Parliament became so firmly embedded in the state because it became clear that parliamentary taxation was the only practical and legal means to finance the rising costs of the English government. Like their predecessors in the middle ages, Members of Parliament vigorously defended the principle that only through parliamentary agreement might taxes be levied. The issue was at the heart of politics in the reigns of James I (1603-25) and Charles I (1625-49). It was Charles’s frustration with the way politicians tried to bargain with him before granting him taxation which made him push well beyond its legal limits his right to raise money without its approval, and ended up in an acrimonious confrontation with the House of Commons in the Parliament of 1628-9.

The most bitterly contested debates during much of the period, however, related to religion. It began with arguments over the nature and direction of the Church of England: whether it should move closer to the reformed Protestant churches of Europe, or whether it should remain a sort of hybrid, with features of both Catholic and reformed traditions. The debate was made worse by suspicions about the Stuart kings' interest in exacerbating the Catholic tendencies in the Church, and in concerns about the threat posed by continental Catholic powers to the Protestant movement.

After the confrontation of 1628-9, Charles abandoned his efforts to negotiate with Parliaments for eleven years of ‘Personal Rule’. But a revolution in Scotland forced him to return to the English Parliament in 1640 to find the money to contest it, and revived, with interest, the confrontations of the 1620s. Within two years, the king and Parliament were at war, and by 1646 the king had been defeated.

A new power struggle ensued between Parliament and the army it had created. In part this was a religious struggle too, for Parliament’s strongest faction was ‘Presbyterian’, with views similar to those of their predecessors, the puritans. The army, though, was dominated by more radical views, in religion and politics. Gaining the upper hand in 1648, it removed the Presbyterians from Parliament. The purged Parliament put the king on trial and executed him in 1649. It instituted a new regime, a republic. But the army’s relationship with a still relatively conservative Parliament was never an easy one, and was ended by Oliver Cromwell’s military coup and assumption of power in April 1653, and his acceptance of the position of ‘Lord Protector’. Cromwell’s confrontations with the Parliaments he summoned, in an attempt to clothe his regime with legitimacy, echoed the Parliaments of his monarchical predecessors. After his death in 1658, the army divided and disintegrated. It opened the way to what was, by then, a hugely popular restoration of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles I’s son, Charles II.

Under Charles II and his brother, who succeeded him as James II in 1685, the ‘normal’ relationship between kings and Parliaments was, in theory, restored. But some things had changed. Neither king attempted to raise money without Parliament’s consent, and the way in which government had begun to seem impossible without partnership with Parliament was underlined by the fact that Charles II retained the 1661 Parliament for eighteen years without a general election.

Religion, however, continued to be a dominant political issue. The Church of England, with its bishops and cathedrals, all abolished during the Civil War, was reconstructed after the Restoration. Public worship by the other religious groups which had mushroomed during the Civil War and Interregnum, such as Quakers and Baptists, was outlawed. Many Presbyterians, too, felt that they could not be part of the re-established Church. The most explosive issue, though, was the desire of both Charles II and James II to enable Catholics to worship freely, without the restrictions which had been introduced in the sixteenth century. Blocked from doing so by Parliament, they both tried to find ways of changing the law using the royal prerogative. When Parliament passed the Test Act in 1673, removing Catholics from public office, the resignation of James, then heir to the throne, showed that he had converted to Catholicism himself. The discovery of a supposed ‘popish plot’ heightened panic about Catholic influences. Attempts to pass legislation to exclude him from the throne during 1678-81 inflamed public opinion, divided politicians in ‘whigs’ and ‘tories’ and created an atmosphere which people believed similar to that of 1641, just before the Civil War broke out.

James II’s attempts to secure the election of a Parliament which would repeal the Test Act led to his deposition in 1689 and replacement by his elder daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, Prince of Orange. After 1689, Parliament was dominated by two preoccupations. One was the perennial one of financing the now very rapidly rising costs of government. William had invaded England in order to ensure it would be a Dutch ally in his impending war against France, and the costly war of 1689-97, and its successor in 1702-14 forced a revolution in British state finance, a rapid growth in state institutions, the army, navy and civil service. Resisting the growth of the state and ensuring the proper oversight of all of this activity became major parliamentary preoccupations.

The other preoccupation was the party battle. The 1689 revolution had temporarily confused the old ideological dividing lines, but from the mid-1690s politics was defined in terms of whig and tory ‘parties’. The Triennial Act of 1694 ensured that elections had to be held for a new Parliament every three years, making politics almost a permanent preoccupation. Although the restrictions on Protestant dissenters were lifted in the Toleration Act of 1689, the party struggle continued to focus around religion, particularly the integrity of the Church of England, which tories felt in danger under governments dominated by whig ministers. After the death of William III in 1702 (Mary had already died in 1694) Tories felt that James II’s younger sister Anne would be more sympathetic to their views. But as she had no direct heirs, the question of the succession after her death loomed large in the late years of her reign, and split tories forced to come to terms with the reality that the succession would again be settled by Parliament, under the terms of the 1701 Act of Settlement, this time on the elector of Hanover, Prince George.

Author: Paul Seaward