The ‘Cavalier’ Parliament – so-called because of the predominance of royalist MPs elected to it – was to last without intermission from 1661 until 1679. Although initially the Commons could be described as a ‘house of courtiers’ giving solid support to the King’s administration, by 1667 a stern body of critics had emerged among them. Growing friction between King and Parliament over the shape of the restored Church and over the lack of sufficient revenue, weakened the position of the King’s principle minister, the Earl of Clarendon (the former Lord Hyde), and led to his downfall in 1667.
Anglicans and royalists had felt they had been insufficiently rewarded by the restored monarch. More had been done to sweeten the King’s former enemies than themselves, and it was in this changed, cynical atmosphere that the elections took place in March and April 1661. Venner’s January rising in the capital had stoked fears of a continuing threat from religious radicals. Presbyterianism was deeply entrenched in London and the four parliamentary seats were easily secured by opponents of the Church amid the crowd’s shouts of ‘No Bishops! No Lord Bishops!’ In the provinces, however, the government intervened extensively, playing on fears of political instability and preventing the election of Presbyterians wherever possible. Contests were fought all the way to a poll in 11 counties and 32 boroughs, with double returns occurring in a further 28 boroughs.
The return of many ‘Cavalier’ MPs reflected the strength of pro-royalist feeling throughout the kingdom. They included at least 108 who had fought in arms for the King during the civil war, and together with other royalist sympathisers amounted to over half the House, while Presbyterians were reckoned at less than a third. But the presence of over 100 MPs whose parliamentary experience dated from the 1640s was enough to ensure that royal policy would not be uncritically endorsed.
The government’s candidate for the Speakership, Sir Edward Turnor, was elected without challenge. Recognising the Court’s need to keep watch on its majority, Clarendon chose Sir Hugh Pollard, 2nd Bt., to manage the Commons and convene regular meetings during the session between MPs and ministers. By 1665 Pollard was replaced in this role by Thomas Clifford, the rising protégé of Lord Arlington (Sir Henry Bennet), the secretary of state (south), who became one of the Court’s chief spokesmen.
In continuing the work of reconstructing the monarchy, the Cavalier Parliament avoided a complete restoration of Charles I’s powers. The deeply unpopular prerogative courts and conciliar bodies associated with ‘personal rule’, which had been abolished in 1641, were not revived. However, the King’s right to appoint ministers and state officials went unchallenged, thus effectively restoring executive power to him. Where Parliament was concerned the monarch still possessed considerable power. In 1664 the repeal of the Triennial Act of 1641 effectively freed him from the requirement to summon Parliament at least once every three years. This, and his power of dissolution gave him ultimate control over the timing and duration of proceedings. Foreign policy, too, was the King’s sole preserve, though his need for adequate funds could only be answered by Parliament.
With such a strong royalist-Anglican majority determined to root out religious and political nonconformity, any prospect of a broadly based state Church embracing Anglicans and Presbyterians quickly faded. The new Parliament promptly restored the bishops to the House of Lords, and began passing a series of measures imposing severe penalties on any who refused to conform to the restored Church of England. These statutes, enacted between 1661 and 1665, became known as the ‘Clarendon Code’ although initially Clarendon, alongside the King, was anxious to curb the Anglican reaction. The King’s adherence nevertheless to a tolerationist viewpoint led him to issue a Declaration of Indulgence in December 1662 towards Catholics and Protestant dissenters. But his request to Parliament to alleviate some of the harshness of the penal laws by granting him powers to ‘dispense’ individuals from the new penal laws produced a storm in the Commons and was rejected in February 1663.
Parliament continued during Clarendon’s administration to keep the King short of ordinary revenue. The innovative Hearth Tax, introduced in 1662, fell short of expectations. Many MPs became critical of the King’s lavish lifestyle and were reluctant to provide anything more than incremental grants of revenue. Mounting pressure for war with the England’s trading rival, the Dutch, received a sympathetic hearing in the Commons in April 1664. In February 1665, despite Clarendon’s fears concerning the financial implications, the Court engineered the colossal and unprecedented grant of £2.5 million, enabling the planned naval war against the Dutch to commence in March. (For more information, see 'Dunkirk, Tangier, the Dutch and the French, 1660-1690')
Due to the ‘great plague’ in London, Parliament met at Oxford in October to agree on a further war supply of £1.5 million. As a condition, the Commons for the first time required the money to be ‘appropriated’ as directed, a move proposed by the financier Sir George Downing.
Initially, the war against the Dutch went well but turned to failure in 1666. When Parliament met on 18 Sept, a few days after the Great Fire, angry MPs attacked the mismanagement of the navy, demanded an inquest into naval accounting and held up the grant of supply until January 1667. These were the first signs of an emerging ‘Country’ opposition. Both at court and in Parliament Clarendon found himself increasingly isolated and condemned on grounds of incompetence.
Peace negotiations with the Dutch began in the spring, but in June the English fleet were badly caught off guard by a daring and devastating Dutch raid on the naval base at Chatham. When Parliament met briefly in July, shortly after the conclusion of peace with the Dutch, Clarendon was roundly attacked for the humiliating outcome of what had been a hugely expensive war. At the end of August the King dismissed him, urged on by such senior courtiers and ministers as the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Arlington, Sir William Coventry and Lord Ashley (Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, 2nd Bt.), who had come to regard Clarendon as an obstruction to their own ambitions and advancement.
During 1668-73 Charles II pursued policies that bred increasing disharmony between crown and Parliament. With Clarendon gone, the King was determined not to be reliant on a single minister, and entrusted government business to a group of five ministers known as the ‘Cabal’. Their sympathy towards religious toleration for both Protestant dissenters and Catholics became a matter of growing concern to the Anglican gentry who dominated the Cavalier Parliament. The King’s pro-French foreign policy in particular raised fears about the spread of Catholicism and that Charles appeared to be pushing in the direction of French-style absolute rule.
The word ‘Cabal’ was an acronym of the names or titles of the five privy councillors who between them held most of the principal offices of state: Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington (Sir Henry Bennet), the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley (Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, 2nd Bt.) and the Earl of Lauderdale. They were not, however, a unified faction, nor were they wholly agreed on public policy. Instead they were consulted and directed by the King on an individual basis as he formulated different aspects of policy. Arlington was the pre-eminent minister most of the time.
During these years the Cavalier Parliament maintained its steadfast attachment to the support and maintenance of the Church of England through the rigorous persecution of non-Anglicans. It was against this background that the King’s pro-French and pro-Catholic course began to unfold, giving rise to deepening suspicion among parliamentarians of his true intentions.
The King was sharply reminded of Parliament’s position in religious matters when he addressed it in February 1668. His words in favour of toleration caused much annoyance among MPs who afterwards refused to vote their usual ‘address of thanks’ for the King’s opening speech. After voting an inadequate supply the session ended in May amid bitter acrimony between the Lords and Commons over jurisdiction on the legal case of Skinner v. the East India Company.
Parliament was not brought out of prorogation until October 1669. But in December as the Commons set about renewing the recently lapsed Conventicles Act of 1664, one of the keystones of the ‘Clarendon Code’, Charles prorogued Parliament once more. When it met again in February 1670 he this time assented to the conventicles bill and its tough penalties against the dissenters. The Commons responded in a new spirit of generosity, and during the course of this long session the King was able to secure what were to be the largest supplies of his reign, financed through new duties on imported wines and an extension of the excise. These successes were largely due to Clifford’s prowess in holding together a Court party in the Commons. The King’s presence at some of the debates undoubtedly played its part, as did the defection of several leading men of the ‘country party’ to the Court: Sir Robert Howard, Edward Seymour, Sir Richard Temple, Sir Robert Carr, and Sir Frescheville Holles.
One MP, Sir John Coventry, was foolish enough to comment on the King’s taste for actresses. A few days afterwards he was set upon at night by officers of the King’s Life Guards and had his nose slit. So appalled were MPs that progress on the supply was halted until a bill was passed making such woundings a felony.
Peers and MPs assumed that the money granted was for preparing the fleet for war against France in accordance with the Anglo-Dutch alliance of 1668. They were unaware that Charles was in fact in the process of committing himself to ‘Catholic’ policies, and had signed a secret treaty with the French at Dover in May 1670. Charles and Louis XIV agreed to wage war on, and destroy the Dutch Republic, while Louis was to subsidise Charles and advance a further sum (plus military support) at such time as he publicly declared his conversion to Rome. The crypto-Catholics Clifford and Arlington were the only ministers aware of the treaty’s existence until another but still ‘secret’ version omitting the ‘Catholic clauses’ was arranged in December. In April 1671, as the Lords came close to completing consideration of a bill to exclude Catholics from office, Charles abruptly prorogued Parliament.
Parliament was not recalled until February 1673. The King had declared war on the Dutch in March the previous year having concluded a ‘public’ treaty with France. His ‘Stop of the Exchequer’ had freed Treasury money for naval expenditure by suspending all payments of interest to creditors. Just two days before declaring war he had issued, urged by his ministers, a new Declaration of Indulgence suspending all penal laws against dissenters and Catholics. It was a calculating attempt to obscure his Catholic strategy.
The war went badly, however, and Charles was forced to seek further grants from Parliament. In the Commons MPs were more concerned about the implications of the Declaration than the war. The King’s claim to be able to suspend legislation in religious matters was regarded as a dangerous and arbitrary encroachment on parliamentary right. On 14 Feb. 1673 MPs voted by 168 to 116 that penal statutes could only be suspended by Act of Parliament. Charles withdrew the Declaration after several weeks of haggling, but the Commons refused to consider the supply until he had agreed to a new Test Act excluding all non-Anglicans from public office.
The session revealed in no uncertain terms the growing mood of anti-Catholicism among Anglican and dissenting MPs alike. Shortly after the King adjourned Parliament on 29 Mar., the Duke of York, the King’s brother and heir, exacerbated matters by publicly signalling his own Catholicism and in June resigned as lord high admiral as required by the Test Act. Clifford, the lord treasurer, also reigned. Francophobic and anti-Catholic reaction ran high during the summer, and the King began to turn against his helpless remaining ministers. In October, during a session that lasted barely a week, MPs complained of betrayal by ‘evil counsellors’ close to the King. It was clear that the Cabal had had its day.
In the aftermath of the unsteadying crisis of 1673-4 the earl of Danby emerged as the minister best suited to recover the King’s damaged relationship with Parliament. Danby (as Sir Thomas Osborne) had been appointed to succeed Clifford as lord treasurer in June 1673. He was never able to win Charles II’s full support, but for a while managed the complex task of keeping Parliament on an even keel in the face of the King’s determination to maintain his unpopular alliance with France. This awkward status quo was to prove short-lived, however, as distrust of Charles caused increasing disruption in the Commons from 1677.
During the session of January-February 1674 the remaining Cabal ministers – Arlington, Buckingham and Lauderdale (Shaftesbury had been dismissed the previous November) – were attacked in the Commons as popish and dangerous, their reputations beyond all repair. In response to the Duke of York’s recent marriage to the Catholic princess Mary of Modena, MPs’ efforts to legislate limitations on the power of a future Catholic king were cut short by the King’s prorogation of Parliament.
Danby, now head of the King’s administration, set about establishing a solid base of support among MPs. He had already gained respect for his constructive efforts to improve the government’s chaotic financial situation. Moreover, he was attached to the ‘Cavalier’ policies that satisfied intolerant Anglican Members: wholehearted support of the Church, persecution of Catholics and Protestant dissenters, and hostility towards France.
Most importantly, he was more systematic in co-ordinating parliamentary support for government policies than either Clarendon or Clifford had been. His improvements in financial administration enabled him to make use of pensions and salaries. Sir Robert Howard claimed that Danby’s ‘secret service’ expenditure on the Commons during the critical 1676-8 sessions was more than £300,000. Less penurious MPs were wooed by early techniques of ‘whipping’ whereby Danby made personal requests for support in the approaching session by letter. His chief managers in the House were the two secretaries of state Hon. Henry Coventry and Sir Joseph Williamson assisted by Sir Richard Wiseman.
There was nevertheless a hardening body of opposition MPs who, besides their opposition to the court’s catholicising policies, took exception to Danby’s attempts to create a ‘court party’. It included such figures as Hon. Sir William Coventry, Lord Cavendish, Hon William Russell, Sir Thomas Meres and William Sacheverell. They saw such practices as worrying signs that the court was intent on increasing the power of the monarchy and the Church at the expense of the liberties of the people and the independence of Parliament.
Following the prorogation in February 1673, Parliament was not summoned again until April 1675. The impact of a numerically growing opposition was apparent during the two sessions of that year. Impeachment proceedings were started against Danby by a faction of Arlington’s friends, but ran aground. Danby’s test bill, introduced in the Lords, required all office-holders and MPs to subscribe to Anglican principles and take an oath swearing never to alter the established government of the Church, thus rendering impossible any future modification in favour of dissenters. The bill was vigorously opposed by Shaftesbury, Buckingham and others, and was rejected at the end of a debate extending over 17 days.
In the Commons, growing reaction against the extremism of Danby’s Anglican measures caused difficulties in procuring an adequate supply. During the October-November session a paltry £300,000 was offered. When the government attempted to obtain more, excuses were followed by the eruption of a quite separate jurisdictional dispute between the two Houses which broke the King’s patience. He prorogued Parliament, and kept it so for the next 15 months.
By the time Parliament reassembled in February 1677, French military success in the Netherlands had intensified public and parliamentary feeling against the King’s continuing attachment to the French alliance. Although Danby was able to engineer a more generous supply, MPs urged the King to assist the Dutch against France. There was understandable anger in May when Charles adjourned Parliament and blocked progress on Danby’s promised bill to impose limitations on the power of a future Catholic monarch. The concerns of many about the direction which the King’s absolutist tendencies seemed to be leading were expressed by the poet and MP Andrew Marvell in his widely-read Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government (1677).
The two sessions which sat during Jan-July 1678 were dominated by increasing distrust of Charles. There were fears that he was planning to govern without Parliament, using the army ostensibly intended to fight France. Titus Oates’ revelations during the summer of a ‘plot’ to assassinate the King added fuel to the anti-catholic hysteria that now gripped the nation. Parliament was recalled a few days after the murdered body of Sir Edmund Godfrey was found, the magistrate before whom Oates had sworn his story. Both Houses voted unanimously on 1 and 2 Nov. that a ‘damnable and hellish plot’ was afoot to undermine the government and subvert the Protestant religion, and established committees to gather evidence verifying Oates’ allegations.
On the 9th, the King appeared before Parliament, promising ‘to make you safe in the reign of my successor’. He accepted a second Test Act excluding Catholics from both Houses of Parliament, though through Danby’s machinations the Duke of York was exempted by 158 votes to 156.
Attention soon turned to Danby who had become widely suspected as a willing accessory of the King’s pro-French policies and apparent liking for arbitrary government. On 19 Dec. Ralph Montagu, recently dismissed as ambassador to France and newly elected MP for Northampton, produced evidence in the Commons revealing that Danby himself had authorised secret negotiations with France for subsidy payments in return for English military assistance against the Dutch. MPs were shocked and, by 179 votes to 116, ordered Danby’s impeachment. However, the King, anxious to prevent further revelations of his secret diplomacy with France, prorogued Parliament on 30 Dec. On 24 Jan. 1679 he dissolved it, thus at last ending what had become much reviled as a ‘standing parliament’.
P. Seaward, The Cavalier Parliament and the Reconstruction of the Old Regime, 1661-1667 (Cambridge, 1989)
D. Witcombe, Charles II and the Cavalier House of Commons 1663-1674 (Manchester, 1966)
M. Lee, The Cabal (Urbana, 1965)
J. Spurr, England in the 1670s: ‘This Masquerading Age’ (Oxford, 2000)
A. Patterson, The Long Parliament of Charles II (Yale, 2008)