On January 4th 1642 Charles I attempted to arrest five Members of Parliament in the Commons.
The day before the Kings Attorney General had accused Lord Mandeville, and the five members, of High Treason in the Lords. As a result John Pym MP, John Hampden MP, Arthur Haslerig MP, Denzil Holles MP and William Strode MP were alerted to the Kings intentions. The Kings agents made the mistake of not arresting the peer and the five members immediately they made the accusations.
A day later, on January 4th, the five MPs remained in the Commons, with people outside watching the Kings movements for them. They attended the morning session, adjourned for lunch and resumed their seats in the afternoon. At about 3 pm news came that the King himself was on his way, backed by his own armed guards.
As Charles approached from Whitehall Pym asked the Speakers permission that he and his friends could leave. They left by river barge and went to the City.
Charles himself arrived a little later in the chamber of the Commons, accompanied by his nephew, the Elector Palatine. Charles took off his hat and asked the Speaker to vacate the chair. Charles assumed the chair and asked if Mr Pym was there. Speaker Lenthall fell on his knees and said it was not his part either to see or to speak but as the House desired. ??Tis no matter?? said the King ?? I think my eyes are as good as anothers.??????All my birds have flown??. (based on C.V.Wedgwoods account)
Why did this extraordinary event happen, and why did it matter?
It happened, because in John Pym and his associates Parliament had developed a formidable opposition to the executive power of the Crown. They had planned and plotted their way to such a day. They had passed the Grand Remonstrance on 23rd November, setting out a list of errors in the Kings policy over his reign. They were hinting at impeachment of the Queen. They were determined to force the King into a clumsy move which would alienate moderate opinion and inflame the excitable London mobs against him. The attempt to start a Treason charge in the Lords against five in the Commons, and then to arrest them in the very Chamber itself, was a huge mistake by Charles, given his failure to execute the plan.
It mattered, because it was an important moment in the long seventeenth century struggle for Parliament to limit the power of the Crown and to have influence over the conduct of policy. Pym and his allies fought for Parliament to have control over raising taxes. They fought for the Protestant and puritan religions, seeking a foreign policy that was both anti Spanish,allowing themselves and the City ample opportunity to extend Englands colonies and trade overseas. They fought for the principle that Parliament should expect redress of grievances from the government before voting extra taxes. The failure to arrest and prosecute them for treason alienated the King from both the City and Parliament and prefigured his defeat inn the civil war..
Parliament grew strong by opposing Kings and establishing some democratic control over policy and taxation. Those of us who thought these arguments had been settled over the centuries have been shocked to discover Parliament giving up so many important powers it had won for democracy by previous brave actions of men like John Pym. As government cedes powers to the EU,it is time to remember John Pym and his four honourable friends, who chanced their lives for Parliament.