Federalism, Parliament, Religion and Monarchy

Comparing Prorogation in the 17th Century with Prorogation in the 21st Century

By Dr. Andrew Black, Digit Ltd
Senior Research Fellow at Global Policy Institute; Senior Research Fellow, Brunel Business School

13th September 2019

“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

Douglas Adams, in “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish” (1984) ch. 36


The main aim of this article is to compare and contrast recent events in Parliament in 2019 relating to the Prorogation of Parliament, with that of another serious constitutional crisis, the lead up to Civil War in the 1640s in England, Scotland and Ireland. Necessarily this will be a relatively high level account, and aims to pick up some of the more striking similarities that have appeared, including the recent disagreements over the prorogation of Parliament.

While there was a long period of disagreement between Parliament and the executive, as represented by the monarch (CEO) in the seventeenth century,  the actual slide into a fundamental split between executive and legislature occurred relatively quickly. With the benefit of hindsight it might be said that there was a process of tit for tat that “inevitably” led to a complete breakdown in communications, and to Civil War. Yet, it is not clear that observers at the time saw this as being an inevitable process. Rather it was one of forced experimentation driven by factors outside of the direct control of both the King and Parliament.

As will be shown below, there are similarities between then and now. True, the “executive” today sits within Parliament rather than outside of it. Yet, the official government is still conducted on behalf of the “crown”, and the Prime Minister has a number of powers and attributes that smack of a continuation of the former royal prerogative by other means. And as recent disagreements have shown, there appear to be worrying gaps in the UK’s unwritten constitution that make a shift to more authoritarian government behaviour easier to achieve than some might imagine.

The main part of the article pulls together the sequence of events that led up to Civil War in the seventeenth century. If this was an unintended consequence of other interactions, so something similar might be argued for the Brexit debate today. It too is revealing deeper rifts and fractures in the system of British political and social governance that may have further, as yet unknown, consequences.

The main conclusion is that the executive should avoid picking fights with the legislature. When riled, Parliament prevails and ultimately controls executive decision and policy making. The fate of close advisors to the executive is also highly insecure, and conflicts between the legislature and executive end badly for them – indeed can be terminated with “extreme prejudice” as the current expression goes. 

In some respects, Parliament achieved greater autonomy in the seventeenth century. In particular as the Long Parliament seized the initiative in a number of areas, including in the right to prorogue itself without recourse to the monarch/chief executive.

Setting the Scene

The recent uproar over the sneaky way in which the Johnson government has smuggled in a closure of Parliament under the guise of “pretending” this is just any normal prorogation encourages one to cast around to find earlier examples of when this kind of behaviour was last seen.  

And for this it is useful to cast our eyes back to the stormy days of the seventeenth century and to the events that led up to the English Civil War – always considered a crucible of English democracy. Are there any lessons to be drawn from a comparison of events around prorogation then, and how its misuse has been resuscitated by the latest form of Conservative government in the UK? 

A comparison suggests that there are indeed several points in common, and that the general policy advice to anyone serving as a chief executive (as King in the seventeenth century, and as Prime Minister in the twenty first century), is to be fearful when MPs take to the war path. It does not end well for the chief executives involved.

The crises of the twenty-first and seventeenth centuries have another point in common. In both of them issues of regionalism and federalism played a crucial role in the overall development of what later became the United Kingdom, and might today possible change into a “former UK”. Indeed, there is a direct continuity between the crises of the seventeenth century and today as can be seen in the (still) unresolved difficulty with Ireland, and increasingly in the case of Scotland too.

All of these crises came together in the seventeenth century to create the circumstances leading to a Civil War between Parliament, the chief executive, and the regional administrations in Ireland, Scotland and England. All of which suggests that the arguments and emotions awoken by Johnson’s attempt to hoodwink Parliament on the prorogation issue have lit a fuse that may well eventually blow up in his face, leading to much larger disruptions than he could have ever envisaged.

Before commenting on events in the twenty-first century, let us turn to how things looked in the seventeenth century, and how the issue of prorogation played an essential part in contributing to the lack of trust between Parliament and the executive, that was to lead to Civil War. And in so doing  some parallels can be detected  between the different “planets” occupied by the main protagonists then, Parliamentarians, monarchists, Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians, with the similarly entrenched views of Hard Brexiteers, Soft Brexiteers and Remainers today.

Prorogation in the seventeenth century – the case of Charles I

Charles I inherited his thrones from his father, James I of England who was also James VI of Scotland, in 1625. He also inherited the title of King of Ireland, making him the King of the three Kingdoms, England, Scotland and Ireland. While this might be thought of as a source of strength, it turned out to be a cause of very grave problems for the King (chief executive). Due to serious money problems (see below), Charles spent a fair bit of time playing the interests of one of his kingdoms off against the others, in the hope that he might remain precariously perched on top of, and in control of his unruly lands. Part of this exercise involved suppressing various revolts that sprang up in both Ireland and Scotland that weakened his position in England.

His reign did not begin particularly well. He married Henrietta Maria, a member of the Bourbon family (then on the rise), who was also a Roman Catholic. In a strongly Protestant country, and one where Parliament was dominated by Puritan and Anglican interests – including a tranche of bishops in the House of Lords – this immediately set the King in a somewhat adversarial situation with his chief advisors, and financiers.

The situation for the King in Scotland was not helped when an Act of Revocation (an evocative word today) redistributed lands grabbed from the church since the Reformation by the Scottish aristocracy, a group whose support the King actually needed.

In England Parliament dismissed one of the King’s chief supporters and executives, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, after he failed to rescue the Huguenots in La Rochelle. In order to protect his loyal supporter, the King then prorogued Parliament in 1626, after only one year into his reign.

The King, in need of funds to conduct expensive foreign and regional wars, recalled Parliament in 1628. As part of a deal to secure funding, Parliament presented a Petition of Rights to the King, which he reluctantly accepted. The Petition of Rights included the following conditions:

  • Restrictions on non parliamentary taxation
  • The ending of forced billeting of soldiers
  • The ending of imprisonment without due cause
  • Restrictions on the use of martial law.

Furthermore, Parliament firmly restated principles contained in the Magna Carta and on the use of Habeas Corpus which had been eroded with the passage of time.

Thus the decision to prorogue Parliament was closely associated with deeper debates about constitutional and policy issues as well as issues around the fundamentals of the role of Parliament in governing England. After Parliament was prorogued in 1629 it did not meet again until 1640.

And it was during this time, referred to as the Tyranny, that other important constitutional issues festered, just as the situation in Scotland and Ireland continued to deteriorate. Not the least of it being efforts by the Chief Executive to raise funds without having to call Parliament by resorting to such ruses as ship money.

Scotland falls off the edge

Religious feelings and loyalties played a substantially greater role in the seventeenth century than they do today. Religious sentiments were often mixed with nationalist feelings as well.

In 1628 the King appointed Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican church. He leant towards practices closer to the Catholic church, unfortunate given the Calvinist protestant leanings in another direction in Scotland, where the Reformation had been far harder than in England. In 1637 the King tried to impose Anglican, Church of England, rites on Scottish Presbyterians, which infuriated them. This drove the Presbyterians to form a group of Covenanters, who were determined to defend their religion at all costs. Trust broke down between the Covenanters and the Scottish monarchy (Charles I). The Covenanters went on to raise their own army[1] , that then defeated an army sent up from England to restore “order” in Scotland.

Here Charles’ refusal to recall Parliament came home to wreck his plans and hopes for remaining in control of Scotland. An English army, raised mainly from levies in the North was poorly equipped and trained and armed with bows and arrows. It never came to a proper fight, yet while negotiations continued, the victorious Scottish army invaded Northumberland and Durham. With no funds at that time, Charles had to sign the humiliating Treaty of Ripon effectively ceding control of Durham and Northumberland, including the city of Newcastle, until various costs of the war could be paid by the King to Scottish forces.

This “shock” from the North was instrumental in forcing the King to recall Parliament in order to raise funds by which to conduct “foreign” policy and wage more war. This led to calling of the Short Parliament that sat for less than one month, from 13th April 1640 to 5th of May 1640 – a point the present day Prime Minister might want to recall.

While the Chief Executive tried to get Parliament to raise additional funds for the war in Scotland, Parliament was much more concerned to bring petitions about the abuse of Royal power and privilege. Parliament insisted on these being dealt with before producing any  additional funding, in similarity to the current stance of Parliament refusing to hold another general election until the Bill to extend Article 50 has passed into law.  The Short Parliament refused to authorize any new taxes until the King agreed to abandon ‘ship money’. The King said that he would only abandon ship money if Parliament would grant him enough money to re-open the war with Scotland. Parliament refused and was dismissed after three weeks. Afraid that a full admission would have to be made about the disastrous situation in Scotland to Parliament, Charles decided to prorogue Parliament, and in essence run away. In a similar move today, the current PM is unwilling to provide a full account of his planned new Brexit deal with the EU for fear of admitting that it is a complete sham. Like Charles before him, he is running away from Parliament.

But after this prorogation pique, it remained clear that the King simply had to recall Parliament again, since he was entirely dependent on it for new funding, possibly realizing that his eleven years of Tyranny had failed. 

Parliament takes control

This ushered in the famous Long Parliament that ran from 1640 to 1660, thus outliving Charles and indeed most of its original MPs too. It was called on November 3rd 1640, and it seized control of the prorogation process, bypassing the monarch entirely, something the current Parliament might want to revisit.

Parliament had been called by Charles purely to raise additional finance. Parliament had different ideas and started to impeach two key supporters of the monarch, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. Laud was blamed for introducing reforms against the interests of the Puritans, while Wentworth was accused of treason in part due to his work in raising a royal army in Ireland that could have been used against Parliament. Stolen documents indicated that Wentworth was willing to use an army raised in Ireland against the English Parliament. After a lengthy trial and the use of the Act of Attainder, Wentworth was executed on 10th of May 1641.

This was then followed by a series of steps including the Triennial Act that ensured that Parliaments had to be called at least once in three years – effectively setting a time limit on the period a Parliament could remain in office – independent of the monarch’s wishes.

There were a large number of other complaints Parliament wanted to make about royal behaviour and the overweening power of the executive since 1625. These were compiled by John Pym in the Grand Remonstrance. It was handed over to the King on December 1st 1641

No response was forthcoming from the King, so Parliament went ahead and published the Grand Remonstrance. The King eventually replied on December 23rd 1641. He refused both to remove the bishops from Parliament. and to remove bishops from their positions in the church of England.  He also refused to sack other ministers.

This hardening of the fronts between Parliament and the King then led to a succession of events that greatly contributed to the breakdown in trust between the Chief Executive and Parliament. The King tried to seize 5 MPs and one Peer by marching into the House of Commons. They had fled. This was the last time a monarch stepped into the House of Commons.

Charles’s willingness to sacrifice his chief advisor has similarities with the current PM’s willingness to expel 21 leading members of his own party simply on the grounds they disagree with him.

 The Irish Backstop

The relationships and history of Ireland and England are complex and very often unhappy. It is ironic that the discussions on the Irish Backstop in the twenty-first century can trace their roots back to developments as long ago as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

To recapitulate on the modern day situation, the Good Friday Agreement was guaranteed by four parties in Northern Ireland, representatives of the Protestant community in Ulster, representatives of the Catholic community in Ulster, the British and Irish governments. It was an essential part of the agreement that both Britain and Ireland were members of the European Union, who could act as something of an honest broker to keep the arrangements on target. It was also convenient in that policy changes in both Eire and the UK would be moderated and channeled in a consistent direction as a result of the EU, rather than being conducted on a bilateral basis. And there is little doubt that the arrangements succeeded in bringing peace to the island of Ireland, with the prospects of “ever closer union” suggesting that at some point, an increasingly irrelevant border for economic purposes, would possibly cease to matter for political reasons as well.

It has been extraordinary how little this appears to count amongst dyed-in-the-wool Brexiteers in England, who remain as ignorant of Irish affairs much as their predecessors were in the seventeenth century.

It is a truly convoluted story, since the original religious divisions were caused by the establishment of the Ulster plantations by Charles’ father, James. Protestants from Scotland – Presbyterians in part – were offered land, as a means of pacifying the angry Catholic population who had rebelled against English rule.

In the summer of 1641, a revolt broke out in Ireland.  Parliament critical of the King’s handling of matters in both Ireland and Scotland, passed propositions that the Parliament and not the King should be responsible for the country’s defence. This was made a condition if the King was to obtain any additional funds.

The Irish revolt started as a reaction to and fear of an invasion by both Parliament and Scottish Covenanters of Ireland – a fear that came to be realized much later. There were basically two groupings in Ireland on opposite sides. One consisted of Gaelic Irish and old English Roman Catholic aristocracy (dating back to medieval times). They were opposed by a combination of ethnic English inhabitants, and Protestants and Scottish Covenanters (Presbyterians) settlers.

In October 1641 a Catholic rebellion broke out in Ulster and quickly spread across the country. Many Protestant settlers were driven from their homes and the rebellion became war. The Catholic revolt led to the formation of a Catholic Confederation which basically ran most of Ireland until the 1650s.

Thus at this critical time the Triple Stuart crown basically fell apart, with disastrous consequences for the monarchy. It could be argued that it was into this power vacuum that the English Parliament decided to step. As has already been seen, the raising of a royal army in Ireland under Wentworth’s management was seen as a red flag to the Parliamentary bulls in England.

Covenanters to the rescue?

So how was the situation to be retrieved? In steps that have echoes in the bargaining taking place around the Brexit crisis, the Chief Executive tried to play the various sides against each other – to no real effect. The King tried to “bribe” Covenanters in Scotland to invade Ireland and help re-establish royal rule there[2]. Given Charles’ hamfisted efforts to get the Covenanters on side earlier, this seems scarcely credible. Charles realized that in a Protestant England he could not be seen to rally his forces in Catholic Ireland as a means of re-establishing his power in England[3] – a mistake made by James II later. So for the executive, the situation was parlous.

How did the situation look from Parliament’s and the Covenanters point of view ? the answer is that it looked very different.. Just as a Roman Catholic confederation became the effective government over much of Ireland, so the Covenanters post the Treaty of Ripon (the surrender document of the English) became the effective government over much of Scotland. As an act of religious solidarity they sent soldiers to Ulster to protect Protestant settlers there, and supported English forces there, thus contributing to the Irish civil war.

The more significant development was that the religious similarities between the Scottish Presbyterians and the Puritans in the English Parliament led to a coalition of interests that was to tilt the outcome of the English Civil War decisively in favour of Parliament.

In 1643, when the Civil War was still in the balance, English Parliamentarian forces were looking for help from their co-religionists in Scotland. Military help was offered from Scotland on the condition that the Scottish (Presbyterian) system of church governance was adopted in England. While this led to a huge debate in England, it led to the Solemn League and Covenant Treaty between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters. This entailed a further reform of the English church and a consolidation of the Presbyterian position in Scotland – although this was not explicitly mentioned in the documents.

This appeared to settle things in Scotland and for the Parliamentarians. A well trained and powerful Scottish army headed south, helping to suppress royalist forces in the North of England. Unfortunately, this bid for power by the Calvinists in Scotland then unleashed a civil war in Scotland itself, eventually won by the Covenanters.

And how did it end?

The Civil Wars eventually came to an end, largely as a result of the invention of the English New Model Army[4], a purposefully trained military force, properly funded, and led by Oliver Cromwell. However, in the various peace moves, Charles, who surrendered to the Scots in 1646, was approached by the Covenanters who tried to persuade him to adopt their cause! Further disagreements, and efforts by Charles to play one side off against another, led to him being transferred back to England, where he was ultimately tried and executed – all under the auspices it has to be said of the Long Parliament, that was no longer under any pressure to prorogate itself.

This history shows clearly how developments in England were heavily influenced by both events and forces in Scotland and in Ireland. In 1643 the decision by Parliament to link arms with the Covenanters was critical to their final success. And in the lead up to the Civil War it was the problems of funding military action by the Stuart monarchy to defend its position in Scotland and Ireland that created the conditions that led to the supremacy of the Long Parliament, and to the establishment of Parliamentary government.

Echoes of the past in the Brexit Crisis

The situation in the United Kingdom today bears some similarity to events in the seventeenth century. There is an executive (admittedly now part of Parliament) that is trying to force through a policy that does not enjoy the support of the legislature, just as Charles did. The executive is riding rough shod over the opinions of the western and northern nations of Ireland and Scotland, as was the case in the seventeenth century. The executive is also dismissing the views of the Remainers who may well now form a majority in both the country and in Parliament. Under pressure, the executive today is willing to sacrifice its supporters in an effort to try and simplify things and gain access to a critical resource – money in the case of Charles, achieving a parliamentary majority in the Brexit situation. The efforts to push through executive policies are made by appealing to the “will of the people” – the 4% majority achieved in the 2016 referendum today. In the lead up to the Civil War, Charles stood by his “divine right”, tempered by a realization that he had to bend to Parliament’s will, sometimes, when it suited him. In both situations the advice of advisors was often thrown overboard, and some advisors were even sacrificed. Laud and Wentwoth for Charles, many ministers and recently over 20 long standing MPs of the Conservative party who have been expelled for disagreeing with the “monarch” or CEO. [5]

The elevation of the “will of the people” bears a resemblance to the divine right of kings. The majority in the 2016 referendum was in fact only 37% of the registered voters of the UK, and therefore does not represent an absolute majority of the people. Yet this, plus the official status of the 2016 referendum as being advisory only, leaving the final decision to Parliament, appears to have been ignored by the Hard Brexiteer cult.

In the seventeenth century there was, if you will, a “coup” from the monarch, as he tried to rule without Parliament. This was eventually followed by a swing back to pure Parliamentary rule, without a monarch. In the subsequent restoration of the monarchy a number of improvements made by the Long Parliament were undone, and remain undone. These include:

  • Parliament’s right to self prorogation, without royal assent being needed
  • The expulsion of bishops from the House of Lords
  • The rights of individual freedom (eroded in modern times e.g the Prevention of Terrorism legislation)
  • The overweening power of the executive at the expense of the legislature

Over the 3 years since the Brexit referendum the country has become more and not less polarized. Opinions have hardened on both sides. Extensive materials and analysis prepared by the Remain side have been ignored or rejected by the Brexiteers. Efforts by the previous PM to find a compromise with the EU have foundered after the ruling Conservative party could no longer agree within its own ranks as to how to proceed. While it might be precipitate to think that England is on the brink of an actual civil war, conditions today bear an uneasy resemblance to those of nearly 400 years ago.


[1] The Scottish Covenanters were trained by battle hardened Scottish mercenary troops who gained their experience in the 30 Years War that was raging at this time.

[2] At an earlier point, Charles had tried to use Irish mercenaries to put down the rebellion in Scotland during the Bishops War.

[3] This appears to contradict the earlier policy of raising a royal army in Ireland for possible use in England.

[4] Sometimes referred to as the “Ironsides”.

[5] There was also a string of cabinet resignations from the May and Johnson administrations.