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The House of Stuart and the Commonwealth (1603-1714)

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James I

James I of England

With the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the Crowns of England and Scotland united under James I. In 1567, when he was just a year old, James' mother Mary was forced to abdicate, and James became King James VI. Despite his mother's Catholicism, James was brought up as a Protestant.

One of James' first acts as King was to conclude English involvement in the Eighty Years' War, also called the Dutch Revolt. Elizabeth had supported the Protestant Dutch rebels, providing one cause for Philip II's attack. In 1604, James signed the Treaty of London, thereby making peace with Spain.

James had significant difficulty with the English Parliamentary structure. As King of Scots, he had not been accustomed to criticism from the Parliament. James firmly believed in the Divine Right of Kings—the right of Kings to rule that supposedly came from God—so he did not easily react to critics in Parliament. Under English law, however, it was impossible for the King to levy taxes without Parliament's consent, so he had to tolerate Parliament for some time.

King James died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son Charles.

Charles I

King Charles ruled at a time when Europe was moving toward domination by absolute monarchs. The French ruler, Louis XIV, epitomised this absolutism. Charles, sharing his father's belief in the Divine Right of Kings, also moved toward absolutist policies.

Charles conflicted with Parliament over the issue of the Huguenots, French Protestants. Louis XIV had begun a persecution of the Huguenots; Charles sent an expedition to La Rochelle to provide aid to the Protestant residents. The effort, however, was disastrous, prompting Parliament to further criticise him. In 1628, the House of Commons issued the Petition of Right, which demanded that Charles cease his use of arbitrary power. Charles had persecuted individuals using the Court of the Star Chamber, a secret court that could impose any penalty, even torture, except for death. Charles had also imprisoned individuals without a trial and denied them the right to the writ of habeas corpus. The Petition of Right, however, was not successful; in 1629, Charles dissolved Parliament. He ruled alone for the next eleven years, which is sometimes referred to as the eleven years of tyranny or personal rule. Since Parliamentary approval was required to impose taxes, Charles had grave difficulty in keeping the government functional. Charles imposed several taxes himself; these were widely seen as unlawful.

During these eleven years, Charles began instituting religious reforms in Scotland, moving it towards the English model. He attempted to impose the Anglican Prayer Book on Scottish churches, leading to riots and violence. In 1638, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland abolished the office of bishop and established Presbyterianism (an ecclesiastic system without clerical officers such as bishops and archbishops). Charles sent his armies to Scotland, but was quickly forced to end the conflict, known as the First Bishops' War, because of a lack of funding. Charles granted Scotland certain parliamentary and ecclesiastic freedoms in 1639.

In 1640, Charles finally called a Parliament to authorise additional taxation. Since the Parliament was dissolved within weeks of its summoning, it was known as the Short Parliament. Charles then sent a new military expedition to Scotland to fight the Second Bishops' War. Again, the Royal forces were defeated. Charles then summoned Parliament again, this Parliament becoming known as the Long Parliament, in order to raise funds for making reparations to the Scots.

Tension between Charles and Parliament increased dramatically. Charles agreed to abolish the hated Star Chamber, but he refused to give up control of the army. In 1641, Charles entered the House of Commons with armed guards in order to arrest his Parliamentary enemies. They had already fled, however, and Parliament took the breach of their premises very seriously. (Since Charles, no English monarch has sought to set foot in the House of Commons.)

The unsafe monarch moved the Royal court to Oxford. Royal forces controlled north and west England, while Parliament controlled south and east England. A Civil War broke out, but was indecisive until 1644, when Parliamentary forces clearly gained the upper hand. In 1646, Charles was forced to escape to Scotland, but the Scottish army delivered him to Parliament in 1647. Charles was then imprisoned. Charles negotiated with the Scottish army, declaring that if it restored him to power, he would implement the Scottish Presbyterian ecclesiastic model in England. In 1648, the Scots invaded England, but were defeated.

The House of Commons began to pass laws without the consent of either the Sovereign or the House of Lords, but many MPs still wished to come to terms with the king. Members of the army, however, felt that Charles had gone too far by siding with the Scots against England and were determined to have him brought to trial. In December 1648 an army regiment, Colonel Pride's, used force to bar entry into the House of Commons, only allowing MPs who would support the army to remain. These MPs, the Rump Parliament, established a commission of 135 to try Charles for treason. Charles, an ardent believer in the Divine Right of Kings, refused to accept the jurisdiction of any court over him. Therefore, he was by default considered guilty of high treason and was executed on January 30, 1649.

Oliver and Richard Cromwell

At first, Oliver Cromwell ruled along with the republican Parliament, the state being known as the Commonwealth of England. After Charles' execution, however, Parliament became disunited. In 1653, he suspended Parliament, and as Charles had done earlier, began several years of rule as a dictator. Later, Parliament was recalled, and in 1657 offered to make Cromwell the King. Since he faced opposition from his own senior military officers, Cromwell declined. Instead, he was made a Lord Protector, even being installed on the former King's throne. He was a King in all but name.

Cromwell died in 1658 and was succeeded by his son Richard, an extremely poor politician. Richard Cromwell was not interested in his position and abdicated quickly. The Protectorate was ended and the Commonwealth restored. Anarchy was the result. Quickly, Parliament chose to reestablish the monarchy by inviting Charles I's son to take the throne as Charles II.

Charles II

During the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II remained King in Scotland. After an unsuccessful challenge to Cromwell's rule, Charles escaped to Europe. In 1660, when England was in anarchy, Charles issued the Declaration of Breda, outlining his conditions for returning to the Throne. The Long Parliament, which had been convened in 1640, finally dissolved itself. A new Parliament, called the Convention Parliament, was elected; it was far more favourable to the Royalty than the Long Parliament. In May 1660, the Convention Parliament that Charles had been the lawful King of England since the death of his father in 1649. Charles soon arrived in London and was restored to actual power. Charles granted a general pardon to most of Cromwell's supporters. Those who had directly participated in his father's execution, however, were either executed or imprisoned for life. Cromwell himself suffered a posthumous execution: his body was exhumed, hung, drawn and quartered, his head cut off and displayed from a pole and the remainder of his body thrown into a common pit. The posthumous execution took place on the anniversary of Charles I's death.

Charles also dissolved the Convention Parliament. The next Parliament, called the Cavalier Parliament was soon elected. The Cavalier Parliament lasted for seventeen years without an election before being dissolved. During its long tenure, the Cavalier Parliament enacted several important laws, including many that suppressed religious dissent. The Act of Uniformity required the use of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer in all Church services. The Conventicle Act prohibited religious assemblies of more than five members except under the Church of England. The Five Mile Act banned non-members of the Church of England from living in towns with a Royal Charter, instead forcing them into the country. In 1672, Charles mitigated these laws with the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, which provided for religious toleration. Parliament, however, suspected him of Catholicism and forced him to withdraw the Declaration. In 1673, Parliament passed the Test Act, which required civil servants to swear an oath against Catholicism.

Parliament's suspicions did turn out to be accurate. As Charles II lay dying in 1685, he converted to Catholicism. Charles did not have a single legitimate child, though he did have, while living in Europe, several illegitimate ones (over 300 by some estimates). He was succeeded, therefore, by his younger brother James, an open Catholic.

James II

James II (James VII in Scotland) was an extremely controversial monarch due to his Catholicism. Soon after he took power, a Protestant illegitimate son of Charles II, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, proclaimed himself King. James II defeated him within a few days and had him executed.

James made himself highly unpopular by appointing Catholic officials, especially in Ireland. Later, he established a standing army in peacetime, alarming many Protestants. Rebellion, however, did not occur because people trusted James' daughter Mary, a Protestant. In 1688, however, James produced a son, who was brought up Catholic. Since Mary's place in the line of succession was lowered, and a Catholic Dynasty in England seemed ineveitable, the "Immortal Seven"—the Duke of Devonshire, the Earl of Danby, the Earl of Shrewsbury, the Viscount Lumley, the Bishop of London, Edward Russell and Henry Sidney—conspired to replace James and his son with Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. In 1688, William and Mary invaded England and James fled the country. The revolution was hailed as the Glorious Revolution or the Bloodless Revolution. Though the latter term was inaccurate, the revolution was not as violent as the War of the Roses or the English Civil War.

William and Mary

Parliament wished then to make Mary the sole Queen. She, however, refused and demanded that she be made co-Sovereign with her husband. In 1689, the Parliament of England declared in the English Bill of Rights, one of the most significant constitutional documents in British history, that James' flight constituted an abdication of the throne and that the throne should go jointly to William (William III) and Mary (Mary II). The Bill of Rights also required that the Sovereign cannot deny certain rights, such as freedom of speech in Parliament, freedom from taxation without Parliament's consent and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. In Scotland, the Estates General passed a similar Act, called the Claim of Right, which also made William and Mary joint rulers. In Ireland, power had to be won in battle. In 1690, the English won the Battle of the Boyne, thereby establishing William and Mary's rule over the entire British Isles.

For the early part of the reign, Mary administered the Government while William controlled the military. Unpopularly, William appointed people from his native Holland as officers in the English army and Royal Navy. Furthermore, he used English military resources to protect the Netherlands. In 1694, after the death of Queen Mary from smallpox, William continued to rule as the sole Sovereign.

Since William and Mary did not have children, William's heir was Anne, who had seventeen pregnancies, most of which ended in stillbirth. In 1700, Anne's last surviving child, William, died at the age of eleven. Parliament was faced with a succession crisis, because after Anne, many in the line of succession were Catholic. Therefore, in 1701, the Act of Settlement was passed, allowing Sophia, Electress and Duchess Dowager of Hanover (a German state), and her Protestant heirs, to succeed if Anne had no further children. Sophia's claim stemmed from her great-grandfather, James I. Several lines that were more senior to Sophia's were bypassed under the act. Some of these had questionable legitimacy, while others were Catholic. The Act of Settlement also banned non-Protestants and those who married Catholics from the throne.

In 1702, William died, and his sister-in-law Anne became Queen.


Even following the passage of the Act of Settlement, Protestant succession to the throne was insecure in Scotland. In 1703, the Scottish Parliament, the Estates, passed a bill that required that, if Anne died without children, the Estates could appoint any Protestant descendant of Scottish monarchs as the King. The individual appointed could not be the same person who would, under the Act of Settlement, succeed to the English crown unless several economic conditions were met. The Queen's Commissioner refused Royal Assent on her behalf. The Scottish Estates then threatened to withdraw Scottish troops from the Queen's armies, which were then engaged in the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe and Queen Anne's War in North America. The Estates also threatened to refuse to levy taxes, so Anne relented and agreed to grant Royal Assent to the bill, which became the Act of Security.

The English Parliament feared the separation of the Crowns which had been united since the death of Elizabeth I. They therefore attempted to coerce Scotland, passing the Alien Act in 1705. The Alien Act provided for cutting off trade between England and Scotland. Scotland was already suffering from the failure of the Darién Scheme, a disastrous and expensive attempt to establish Scottish colonies in America. Scotland quickly began to negotiate union with England. In 1707, the Act of Union was passed, despite mass protest in Scotland, by Parliament and the Scottish Estates. The Act combined England and Scotland into one Kingdom of Great Britain, terminated the Parliament and Estates, and replaced them with one Parliament of Great Britain. Scotland was entitled to elect a certain number of members of the House of Commons. Furthermore, it was permitted to send sixteen of its peers to sit along with all English peers in the House of Lords. The Act guaranteed Scotland the right to retain its distinct legal system. The Church of Scotland was also guaranteed independence from political interference. Ireland remained a separate country, though still governed by the British Sovereign.

Anne is often remembered as the last British monarch to deny Royal Assent to a bill, which she did in 1707 to a militia bill. Due to her poor health, made worse by her failed pregnancies, her government was run through her ministers. She died in 1714, to be succeeded by George, Elector of Hanover, whose mother Sophia had died a few weeks earlier.