Constitutional Monarchy Established
Under the feudal system, introduced into England by the Norman Conquest of 1066, the king habitually raised the money he required for his own and the country’s use by the levying of various feudal dues. As the centuries went by, however, it became increasingly evident that other forms of taxation would be needed if the life of the nation was to progress smoothly and at the same time allow for the orderly development which the passing years inevitably brought to a people as lively and strong-charactered as the English.
But as is only too clear in the mid-twentieth century, though the English recognize the need for taxation, probably more acutely and reasonably than any other people in the world, no others pay their taxes so promptly nor with less attempt to avoid them, equally they make it their business to resist the imposition of crippling taxation unless they are convinced of the dire need for it, as, for instance, in times of war. This resistance to arbitrary taxation has always been at the heart of the relationship between people and ruler, and the safeguards which became part of the means by which the people protected themselves, at the same time became part of their constitutional rights.
The beginnings of the processes may be observed in the relationship between Edward I and the emergent Parliament. By 1295, when Edward summoned his so-called Model Parliament, it had already become practice for the great council to levy the taxes which the king stated he required for his needs. But the grants made by the Parliament of 1295 did not relieve Edward of his financial troubles, which continued rather to increase because of the difficulties and the success of his war with Scotland and France. Neither barons nor commoners were as interested in the war as he, and he found it impossible to obtain by regular grants the money he needed for its continued prosecution.
In these circumstances Edward believed that he was justified by the necessity of defending the nation in levying taxes without the previous consent of Parliament, and he excused his actions in appeals to the nation on this ground. He obtained a grant from the barons and the towns in an irregular assembly which could by no means be called a Parliament or even a great council. But as even this was not enough, he seized the wool which the merchants were on the point of exporting, handing out receipts and promises-to-pay. He also practically outlawed the clergy who had been opposing the taxes levied on them and seized the greater part of their property.
All these exactions were a great burden on all classes of the people, and it was inevitable that the general situation should sooner or later develop into a crisis between monarch and people. Action came from the barons, who made their views unquestionably plain and at the same time refused to serve him. Edward ignored both the views and the “mutiny” and went on with his preparations for crossing to Flanders with an army in the summer of 1297.
Before he set out, about the middle of August, the barons presented to the king in their own name and that of “the whole community of the land” a formal statement of their grievances which they asked the king to redress. They complained particularly of the heavy burden of taxation which reduced them to poverty, that they were not treated according to law and custom, that the provisions of Magna Carta were not observed and of the new customs duty which the king had imposed on wool.
Edward was on the point of sailing and attempted to stall. He could not reply, he said, without consulting his council, part of which was already in Flanders, and he did sail on 22 August, leaving his young son Edward as regent. It seems that Prince Edward had his father’s permission to grant the barons’ demands, and this he did in what has become known as the Confirmation of the Charters. Clauses 6 and 7 of these documents were to have a permanent effect on the future.
After setting out the taxes which Edward had exacted, in the previous clause, clause 6 stated: “Moreover we have granted for us and our heirs, as well to archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors and other folk of holy church, as also to earls, barons and to all the community of land, that for no business from henceforth will we take such manner of aids, mises nor prises from our realm, and for the common profit thereof saving the ancient aids and prises due and accustomed”; while the following clause (relating to the new tax on wool, “the maletote”) provides that the king “shall never take this nor any other without their common assent and good will; saving to us and our heirs the custom of wools, skins and leather granted before by the commonalty.”
It cannot be doubted that the men who drew up the Confirmation of the Charters intended it to cover all forms of taxation, except the feudal dues. Indeed, their belief that they had done so is confirmed by the fact that every time the issue was raised in the future, this was the interpretation placed upon it. Various kings might try to avoid being bound by it by inventing new forms of revenue to which, they could argue, it did not apply, but from 1297 it was established as a fundamental law of the constitution that the king was dependent for his revenue upon grants previously made by parliament.
Even the Tudor monarchs, who were the most despotic of all English sovereigns of modern history, considered themselves bound by the principle, however much irked by it they might feel themselves to be. Elizabeth might try to line her purse with ill-gotten treasures of her mariner pirates, but she did so only to relieve herself of absolute reliance on parliament’s vote of finance; and it would never have occurred to her to flout parliament on this issue, however much she might determine to impose her will in all other matters upon parliament.
By this time it had been discovered by parliament that its power to withhold financial aid from the monarch was a strong instrument in curbing the personal policies of the monarch, and it was this which underlay the struggles of the first two Stuart kings with parliament. James VI of Scotland, I of England, was something of a student and it was in the course of his delving into current philosophical writings that he came upon the arguments in favour of the Divine Right of Kings. The theory appealed to him, and he fastened on to it and was soon expressing himself in writing on the subject.
It is not strange, therefore, that when he came to the throne of England he should do so with the determination to continue the practical absolutism which the Tudors had exercised, reinforced by his conception of his own right as the particular monarch divinely selected. On the other hand, just as determined was parliament that the Tudor absolutism should come to an end; or rather, was determined that the king should be held to the law when the law existed. So, at the beginning of the seventeenth century the stage was set for one more of those active phases which punctuate the development of English constitutional progress.
At the same time, however, the particular events in which the determination of parliament expressed itself were so shaped by the action of the king that it is not possible to say that it began its fight with the Crown on the basis of any definite plan or any preformulated end in view. Baldly, the issue was: the king was determined to continue with absolutism and parliament was determined that he should be limited by the law; and the great practical question to be solved was: would it be possible in practice to mark off a boundary line between the king’s prerogative action and those things in which he must allow parliament to be supreme?
The conflict was slow in developing, and equally relentless; and it contained two main features: the strength and spirit of the Puritan party, which has risen in the reign of Elizabeth, and the state of the national finances. The financial problem which confronted the parliament at the beginning of James’s reign would have been a serious one at any time, and now it was exacerbated by the king’s extravagance and his complete ignorance of the value of money.
James came to the throne of England in 1603. In the following year he called his first parliament, and it was in this first parliament that the fundamental issue was expressed, though it was to take a century to develop fully. In summoning parliament the king undertook to rule that certain classes of persons of doubtful character should not be elected to the Commons and to assign to the Court of Chancery the power to determine whether his regulations in this respect had been complied with in individual cases.
Now, the offset of this would be to deprive the House of Commons of the right to decide on the qualifications of its own members. In the course of the conflict which immediately rose between the Commons and the king over the matter, the king asserted that the Commons “derived all matters of privilege from him and by his grant”. To this the Commons retorted that “our privileges and liberties are our right and due inheritance, no less than our very lands and goods”.
Though this was a square issue squarely drawn, it was not developed further at this time, and it was not until 1606 that financial difficulties led to action which was typical of what was to follow. The king needed money for the ordinary running expenses of the country, but instead of applying to parliament, “in the exercise of his prerogative” he raised the tax on imported currants by five shillings a hundredweight.
In the past it had been recognized that the king had the right to raise or lower import duties without consulting Parliament; but it was equally recognized that he should use this prerogative purely and solely to regulate trade and not to raise revenue, as James was doing. In the test case, which was brought before the courts, the judges pronounced in the king’s favour, and James, instead of proceeding cautiously, brought in a new schedule of tariffs covering a large range of goods. For the time being parliament acquiesced, but at last realizing that this was the thin end of a wedge which must not be allowed to be driven further in, now began with slow and ponderous, but with equally irresistible, action to resist.
The conflict was fully developed by the last years of James’s reign. The technique parliament used was to attack what they considered to be abuses committed by the king’s advisers and ministers and to refuse to consider his requests for money. Matters were brought to a head by a petition drawn up by the House of Commons, calling attention to the alarming spread of popery and expressing the hope of a Protestant marriage for the Prince of Wales instead of a marriage with a Spanish princess which the king hoped to make in order to cement the alliance he desired.
In this petition, it must be admitted, parliament exceeded its rights and James at once came to the defence of his prerogative. He commanded the Speaker to make it known to the House “that none therein shall presume henceforth to meddle with anything concerning our government or deep matters of state,” including the Spanish marriage, and declaring his right and determination to punish misdemeanours and insolent behaviour in Parliament.
The Commons replied by a second petition in which they prayed the king to recognize “the ancient liberty of parliament for freedom of speech, jurisdiction and just censure”, which, they asserted, was their “ancient and undoubted right and an inheritance received from our ancestors”. This the king refused, but the Commons had at last come to an appreciation of what was at stake, and came out with an unqualified declaration: “That the liberties, franchises, privileges and jurisdictions of parliament are the ancient and undoubted birth right and inheritance of the subjects of England.”
It was on this note that the reign ended, and it was the defence of this principle to which the new and equally obstinate and short-sighted king was opposed and for his refusal to see sense was deprived of his head. This, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, was the chief turning-point in the eventual establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
The Commonwealth primarily represents a swing to the other extreme, ending with the absolutism of a dictatorship exceeding that which the first two Stuarts attempted to impose. This shook parliament, and when Charles II was restored it was without any constitutional guarantees whatsoever. But Charles was wise. He realized that a great constitutional change had taken place, and that he could not resist the will of parliament beyond a certain point. By this knowledge he shaped his conduct.
During Charles II’s reign parliament, step by step, consolidated its progress towards supremacy, but before the king’s sudden and unexpected death it found its way blocked by the king in the matter of James II’s succession, which parliament tried to prevent. Nevertheless, had it not been for Charles’s secret pact with Louis which made him quite independent of parliament financially, and which allowed him to treat his last parliament with the great contempt he did, there can be little doubt that either he would have had to submit or a very serious constitutional crisis would have broken.
This, however, was to be left to James to provoke, and he did so in no uncertain fashion. Reverting to the full-blooded Divine Right theory of his namesake and grandfather, he took upon himself the right of making appointments to offices previously made by parliament. He packed the Bench, the Army, Oxford University, even the Privy Council, with his own nominees, most of whom were Catholics. In his persistence and blindness of where his obstinacy was leading him, he eventually fell afoul of the English Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury and six bishops refused to read in their churches a second declaration of indulgence, and on the king’s, orders were arrested, and their trial promoted.
Before the trial could begin, however, the birth of an heir to James brought matters to a head. Parliament, which before had been content to bide their time in the knowledge that James’s Protestant daughter and her Protestant husband, William of Orange, would succeed him, was now faced with the possibility of a long line of Catholic kings being established. Without further ado they invited William to come to England to take the lead against the king.
Foolishly James fled, and by doing so put an end to all chances of his direct heir ever succeeding to the English throne.
When the invitation to accept the Crown was made to William and Mary it was made on the basis “that it hath been found by experience inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant Kingdom to be governed by a Popish Prince”. In other words, the succession of William and Mary’s heirs would be conditional upon their being undisputed Protestants. This was the first attempt of parliament to depart from the practice of direct succession and to make the wearing of the English Crown conditional upon other considerations.
But these were not the only conditions the new monarchs were required to accept. Parliament issued a “declaration of rights” in which it set out the arbitrary acts of James and declared each specifically illegal. This declaration was later embodied in a statute known as the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights is the most interesting English historical document after Magna Carta. It sets out a series of constitutional laws which are fundamental to the British system of government, and besides this is a contract between the king and the nation. In doing this it established once and for all the supremacy of parliament. From this time onwards, though in the early phases the king still retained considerable personal powers, he could no longer act in anything touching the welfare of the realm without the consent of Parliament, and it was in this, in its broadest sense, that William III instituted the line of British constitutional monarchs. It was a relationship between king and people towards which the English system of government had been progressing from the days of Henry II.
- BBC – History
- House of Orange
- Het Loo Palace
- N. Japikse, ed., Correspondentie van Willem III en van Hans Willem Bentinck, eersten graaf van Portland
- “Archival material relating to William III of England”. UK National Archives.
- Portraits of King William III at the National Portrait Gallery, London