The Jacobean Parliaments

It has been a common misconception in historiography to see a great ideological division in the Jacobean parliaments. Thus in traditional interpretations there was a great rift between the king, bent on imposing his interpretation of the theory of the divine right of kingship, and the House of Commons, determined to advocate its 'rights' by virtue of the Ancient Constitution and the supremacy of the common law. James' speeches to the Commons in which he upheld his regal supremacy over Parliament were largely rhetorical used to be a significant part of the justification for the notion of some great ideological rift.

Parliament held a number of weapons it could potentially deploy against the crown - namely the refusal to grant subsidies and the power of impeachment [6]. That these were not deployed, or apparently even considered, during James' reign despite important grievances, is symptomatic of Parliament's respect for the King, and desire to contribute to effective government of the realm. The study of Roman history together with the study of the Common Law and the reading of medieval chronicles (popular from the Tudor period and further encouraged by Shakespeare's English history plays) gave rise to the theory of the 'Ancient Constitution'. This was fundamental to the political assumptions during the seventeenth century, though it was however gradual to emerge. The final impetus came from Sir Edward Coke, whose account of medieval history remained unpublished until 1642.

[6. Impeachment: The prosecution of a government minister by Parliament. Contentious during this period because it challenged the Crown's prerogative to choose its advisers, and further it clashed with the divine right of the Stuart kings. Impeachment was one of several powerful weapons Parliament had at its disposal, though was reluctant to use it. However high-flying ministers Francis Bacon and Lionel Cranfield were impeached under James I. Though Charles I prevented Parliament from impeaching his favourite the Duke of Buckingham, he was powerless to prevent the it impeaching his principal ministers William Laud and Thomas Wentworth in the early 1640s.]

To James, Parliament was not a major feature of government; this does not mean he wanted to destroy it, but he did not consider it an important component of policy-making. During 24 years as king of England, Parliament sat for just 154 weeks. Furthermore, to a king who expected Parliament to be subservient to the Crown's wishes, he became frustrated by the Commons' persistent attempts to press their grievances. The charge that James was ill-prepared for dealing with the English Parliament is largely unfounded as he had gained considerable experience as King of Scotland in managing disputations in parliament and the Kirk. When the Commons blocked James' statesmanlike proposal for a union between his kingdoms of Scotland and England, the King began to have reservations about the usefulness of Parliament. On the failure of the Great Contract in 1612, James was convinced. James ruled without Parliament from 1611 to 1621 with only the briefest of intervals in 1614 (the Addled Parliament [7]).

[7. Addled Parliament, 1614: The Parliament summoned in James I's reign to vote subsidy for and confirm Elizabeth of the Palatinate as the rightful successor after Charles (I). It was dissolved by the King after just two months without legislating or voting the Crown money. Though many historians have seen this Parliament as reflecting the tensions that led to Civil War (criticism of royal interference in elections and attacks on the royal prerogative). However, it appears that the collapse of the Addled Parliament was due more to aristocratic faction of the Jacobean court spilling into and sabotaging the assembly.]

Though content to consult Parliament for subsidy (a grant of money to the Crown by Parliament - a subsidy was parliamentary authorisation for the King to tax the nation, which he could not do unless in a state of emergency or wartime), James was sceptical about the willingness of the Commons to vote the crown revenues. Though there was no ideological division between James and Parliament, there were growing fears among MPs about arbitrary government.

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