Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

which the law does not provide; and there were many more in the seventeenth century than there are
to-day. These cases constituted the debatable land between the crown and parliament. Parliament

assumed that the crown could neither diminish parliamentary privilege nor develop its own prerogative

without parliamentary sanction; and it read this assumption back into history. Nothing was legal unless it

had been sanctioned by parliament; unless the crown could vouch a parliamentary statute for its claims

they were denounced as void. This theory would have disposed of much of the constitution, including the

crown itself; even parliament had grown by precedent rather than by statute. There were, as always,

precedents on both sides. The question was, which were the precedents of growth and which were those

of decay? That could only be decided by the force of circumstances, and the control of parliament over

the national purse was the decisive factor in the situation.

The Stuarts, indeed, were held in a cleft stick. Their revenue was steadily decreasing because the direct
taxes, instead of growing with the nation's income, had remained fixed amounts since the fourteenth

century, and the real value of those amounts declined rapidly with the influx of precious metals from the

New World. Yet the expense of government automatically and inevitably increased, and disputes over

foreign policy, over the treatment of Roman Catholics, over episcopal jurisdiction, over parliamentary

privileges, and a host of minor matters made the Commons more and more reluctant to fill the empty

Treasury. The blunt truth is that people will not pay for what they do not consider their concern; and

Stuart government grew less and less a popular affair. The more the Stuarts demanded, the greater the

obstacles they encountered in securing compliance.

James I levied additional customs which were called impositions, and the judges in 1606 properly
decided that these were legal. But they increased James's unpopularity; and, as a precaution, parliament

would only grant Charles I tonnage and poundage (the normal customs duties) for one year after his

accession instead of for life. Charles contended that parliament had, owing to non-user, lost the right of

refusing these supplies to the crown; he proceeded to levy them by his own authority, and further

demanded a general forced loan and benevolence. For refusing to pay, five knights were sent to prison by

order of the privy council "without cause shewn," whereby the crown avoided a judicial decision on the

legality of the loan. This provoked the Petition of Right in 1628; but in 1629 Charles finally quarrelled

with parliament over the question whether in assenting to the petition he had abandoned his right to levy

tonnage and poundage. For eleven years he ruled without parliament, raising supplies by various obsolete

expedients culminating in ship money, on behalf of which many patriotic arguments about the necessities

of naval defence were used.

He was brought up sharply when he began to kick against the Presbyterian pricks of Scotland; and the
expenses of the Bishops' War put an end to the hand-to-mouth existence of his unparliamentary

government in England. The Long parliament went to the root of the matter by demanding triennial

sessions and the choice of ministers who had the confidence of parliament. It emphasized its insistence

upon ministerial responsibility to parliament by executing Strafford and afterwards Laud. Charles, who

laboured under the impression common to reactionaries that they are defending the rights of the people,

contended that, in claiming an unfettered right to choose his own advisers, he was championing one of

the most obvious liberties of the subject. Parliament, however, had realized that in politics principles

consist of details as a pound consists of pence; and that if it wanted sound legislative principles, it must

take care of the details of administration. Charles had ruled eleven years without parliament; but so had

Wolsey, and Elizabeth had apologized when she called it together oftener than about once in five years.

If the state had had more financial ballast, and the church had been less high and top-heavy, Charles

might seemingly have weathered the storm and let parliament subside into impotence, as the Bourbons

 

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