Historian Lisa Hilton discovers how, in just fifty tempestuous days, Charles I’s rule collapsed, laying the foundations for civil war, the loss of royal power and, ultimately, the king’s head.
Ch 1: Two Worlds Collide
November 1641. King Charles I is in Edinburgh. While he is away from his capital, the leader of the House of Commons, John Pym, is plotting a move to limit the King’s power. The duel between these two men will spiral across the next weeks into an irrecoverable split across the country.
21st November: Pym dominates a stormy debate in the House of Commons over a document known as the Grand Remonstrance. It is a list of 200 complaints against Charles I. It claims he is under the influence of ‘evil counsellors’, a coded reference to the Queen – Charles I’s French Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria. In Ireland, a Catholic uprising, which has led to the deaths of thousands of Protestants, is focusing minds in Parliament.
It is one of the greatest debates in parliamentary history, lasting 14 hours. It is passed – 52% to 48%. The Grand Remonstrance – a vote of no confidence in the King’s rule – will now be presented to the King.
25th November: Charles arrives back in London. He makes a show of power and parades through the city with 500 horsemen. The King having returned, discussion turns to the rebellion in Ireland. An army must be sent to crush the Catholic rebels, but who should lead it? Pym fears the King will use the army to suppress his opponents. And Charles fears Pym will use the army to arrest his Catholic queen.
The King fights back. He issues a proclamation on 12 December ordering all MPs to London by 12th January 1642. He is confident that, with a full House of Commons, he will have a majority with which to stamp out John Pym’s faction. The clock is ticking. The deadline is set.
Ch 2: A Nation Divided
The King’s proclamation has been sent around the country. Soon, over 200 MPs will return to Westminster to aid Charles; he simply has to run down the clock.
Pym tries to pass parliamentary bills limiting the King’s power. But in the Lords, the casting votes are held by the bishops, who are loyal to Charles. Pym knows that, in order to succeed, he must remove them.
In mid-December, Pym’s group goes for a political ambush, demanding that the Grand Remonstrance be published. They launch a surprise vote in the dead of night and win. Now the public will read of the King’s supposed misdemeanours. Making matters worse for Charles, rumours spread that the Queen was involved in the Irish rebellion. The royal family now look as if they are in league with the Catholic rebels.
Trying to regain control on 22nd December, Charles puts Colonel Thomas Lunsford in charge of the Tower of London. He is a thug, believed ‘fierce enough to eat children’. Soon London goes wild with protests, swarming the Tower. After just a few days, with mobs braying at the palace gates, the King backtracks. This only encourages the rebels, who now see the King as weak and indecisive. Meanwhile, Charles’s backstop of bishops run in fear of the mobs; just two come to the Lords the next day. The King’s political frontline is broken. The way for Pym is open.
In a last-ditch attempt to win Pym round, King Charles offers him the top job, chancellor of the exchequer. Will Pym be bought off?
Ch 3: The Final Showdown
The beginning of 1642 has seen John Pym spurn the King’s attempt to bring him onside with a job offer and now Charles’s options are running short. He has just one chance left: arrest Pym and his colleagues. On Monday 3rd January, Charles strikes, accusing the ‘Five Members’ of high treason.
The Commons prevaricate. Pym hopes that Charles will throw caution to the wind and resort to violence. Pressure is mounting; rumours of the Queen’s imminent impeachment reach Charles. On 4th January, Charles marches on Westminster, backed by 500 troops.
Pym, however, has been tipped off by someone on the inside: the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lucy Hay. She is the viper in the nest. As Charles storms through the front door, Pym and his associates slip out by the back.
Charles enters the chamber of the Commons, breaching ‘parliamentary privilege’. Armed troops wait outside, pistols cocked. The atmosphere is tense, the politicians are silent; they fear a blood bath. The King soon realises that his quarry has escaped and is forced to retreat. MPs’ cries of ‘Privilege! Privilege!’ follow him. He has failed and leaves humiliated.
Pym’s plan has worked; Charles looks like a tyrant to all in Westminster. Moderates now flock to Pym’s side.
Within days, Pym compounds his win by gaining the support of the Citizens’ Militia – a force of 10,000 men. Charles realises his wife’s life is in danger. On 10th January, he escapes with his family to Hampton Court Palace. He has lost his capital and his power. The next time he returns to London, it will be for his execution.