The Development of the English Constitution in Stuart England

James I | Charles I | Cromwell | Charles II | James II

James I and the Divine Right of Kings

James I came to the throne of England on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. He was already king of Scotland. His reign over both countries brought them effectively together as one political unit, although this would not become official for over a century (Act of Union - 1707). The blunt James was a big change from the subtle Elizabeth. While she governed behind the scenes, James was bold and insisted that he held his crown because God willed it. This doctrine was known as the Divine Right of Kings. This was the same James that commissioned a new English version of the Bible in 1611 which is still popular today (known as the King James Version).

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James I spent more money than he gathered in taxes. He needed to raise revenue, but granting the king revenue was considered a privelege of Parliament. Every time the king asked for money Parliament would ask for more power in exchange for the grant. To avoid this, the king attempted to increase his revenues from certain import and export duties, especially those called tonnage and poundage. At the same time, King James was attempting to relax penal laws against Catholics. Many in Parliament were opposed to this on both religious and policy grounds. Many felt that to allow several sects within the country would divide the loyalty of the people. To counter the king, in 1621 Parliament adopted the Great Protestation in which it declared its own authority to power over the purse and religious settlement.

Charles I and the Petition of Right

Toward the end of the reign of James I, England became involved in a war with Spain. James died before the financial crisis caused by efforts to fund the war came to a head. He was succeeded by Charles I, his son, who was no less adamant about the rights of kings to rule. In order to prosecute the war, he needed to levy even more taxes. To do this he forced loans from individuals and corporations. He billeted troops in private homes. He raised taxes without consent of Parliament and imprisoned individuals who disagreed with him without due cause. In 1628 Parliament passed the Petition of Right insisting that the king was not above the law, that he could not usurp the authority of Parliament. (If this sounds familiar to American readers, it is. The same arguments would occur over 100 years later in the American colonies and led to the Revolutionary War.)

In order to get the money he needed to fight the war, Charles signed the Petition of Right. However, he did not abide by its provisions. Perhaps he felt he had been coerced into signing. This entire episode made Charles determined not to call Parliament. From 1629 to 1640 he managed to eke out enough revenues to avoid it. However, in 1637 trouble began in Scotland due mainly to Charles attempting to impose Anglican forms on the Presbyterians. The Scots resisted and rebelled in 1639. Charles had insufficient resources to put down the rebellion and was forced to call Parliament in 1640.

This new Parliament proved unsympathetic and demanded its rights from the king before it would approve any new revenues. The king, disgusted, dissolved Parliament after only 3 weeks. This was called the Short Parliament. The king marched on the Scots with what he could muster and was defeated at Newburn-on-Tyne. The king signed a treaty with the Scots, but needed even more money to abide by the treaty. He was forced to call another Parliament which met in November of 1640. This was to be known as the Long Parliament and would sit until 1653. It tried and executed several of the king's ministers and passed the Great Remonstrance which was a list of grievances. Parliament also passed acts which re-asserted its claim to control revenues, and stipulated that Parliament must be called at least every three years.

In 1641 the King got fed up with Parliament and entered its chamber with soldiers to arrest the its leaders. However, these men escaped, precipitating the English Civil War.

Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England

Oliver Cromwell

The southeast region of England was controlled by Parliamentary forces known as Roundheads because of the round helmets they wore. The king's men, situated in the north and west, were called cavaliers because of the preponderance of the nobility in their ranks. In 1643 the Scots joined the Parliamentary cause. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, was selected to lead the Parliamentary forces. He developed what was to be called the "New Model Army". It was a professional force that was well officered and supplied. It was also made up largely of Puritans who wanted to "purify" the Anglican church. After the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby, Charles was captured. The radicals in Parliament and the army wished to execute Charles I. However, the Presbyterians in Parliament were not ready to vote for this extreme measure. A Colonel Pride of the New Model Army entered Parliament and expelled the Presbyterian members, leaving mainly the Puritans in charge of the Rump Parliament. The sixty members who were left voted to dissolve the Monarchy and to try and execute the king.

Map of the English Civil War

Led by Oliver Cromwell, the Rump Parliament ruled England until 1653. This Parliamentary body persecuted Catholics and Anglicans. It closed the theaters, ended dancing, and enforced observance of the Sabbath. Meanwhile, Cromwell fought a war with Holland and Spain. The expenditures of state quickly produced a budget that was three times what it had been under Charles I. In 1653 Cromwell got tired of even the radicals' demands and decided that the country could only be led by one man, and he was the man to do it. He dissolved Parliament and made himself Lord Protector of England. He ruled with the support of the Army until 1658 when he died. His son took over for a short time, but soon resigned. A leading moderate general in the army, Monk, decided to call back the monarchy.

Charles II and the Restoration

Charles II who had been living in France was asked to return to England. Unlike his father and grandfather, he was a political and pragmatic individual. He did his best to get along with a restored Parliament. He proved to be a popular king as he reopened the theaters and lifted the gloom that hung over England from the strict dictatorship of Cromwell.

The reign of Charles II mainly deferred or patched over the continuing conflict between royal absolutism and Parliamentary rights in England. There was a war with the Dutch, and wars had a way of draining the monarchy of money so that it had to come to Parliament for subsidies. However, the king adroitly avoided this problem by accepting money from the French king (Louis XIV). There continued to be religious problems during his reign with intolerance now by Anglicans, who were back in power, excluding Catholics from office. This intolerance led to problems with the succession. Charles II did not have any sons to take his place and on his death his very Catholic brother James II, the Duke of York, became king.

James II and the Glorious Revolution of 1688

On coming to power James decided to issue the Declaration of Liberty of Conscience which proclaimed that all Christians could worship as they saw fit. This was opposed by many in Parliament. When James had a son, Parliamentarians were afraid that they would have another Catholic king on the death of James and decided to rebel. It was unusual to have an alliance of political parties so completely against the king. The Whigs and Tories found their interests aligned for once, and, without support, James II simply escaped the country.

To replace James II as king, Parliament chose his eldest daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange (Stadtholder of Holland). They agreed to abide by a Parliamentary Bill of Rights (1689) that included free speech protection in Parliament, power of the purse for Parliament, and restricted the king's right to maintain a standing army.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was bloodless. However, James II would make an unsuccessful attempt at a comeback in Ireland, that resulted in a battle and disaster for the Irish. 1688 marked the end of the struggle in England between absolutism and Parliamentary rule. From this point in English history the king could not rule by fiat. He or she would continue to hold executive power but would cease to be a law-giver. Parliament ever after would hold the power of the purse.

The struggles of the 1600s were the forge wherein the rights of Englishmen were finally established. They were also the basis from which Americans claimed their own liberties over one hundred years later. Throughout this history we can find words familiar to Americans, "Bill of Rights", "No taxation without representation", etc. Americans owe a great debt to the people of England for founding the principles upon which their own government is based.

James I | Charles I | Cromwell | Charles II | James II


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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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