Chapter 4. Parliament against King
When Elizabeth I died without children, James Stuart, the Protestant son of Mary Queen of Scots, became king. He was already King James VI of Scotland. In 1603 he moved south to London as James I of England.
James discovered that English and Scottish parliaments had very different ideas about their powers. In Scotland, Parliament passed any laws that the king wanted. In England, Parliament wanted to make decisions too. This made James’s rule very difficult, and brought even more trouble to his son. An important battle for control of the country was beginning.
The Magna Carta
James wasn’t the first king who disagreed with his people about his powers. Back in the 13th century, King John had similar problems. But in those days there was no parliament.
John wasn’t a strong ruler. He started his rule with an empire in France, but he soon lost most of his French lands — even Normandy His lords chose this time to put controls on the power of the king. In 1215, with armies behind them, the lords told King John to agree to the Magna Carta - a list of rules for good government. For example, the state couldn’t put someone in prison without a good reason. Under the Magna Carta, even the king had to follow the law. John didn’t want to sign the Magna Carta. In the end he did, but he broke its rules almost immediately. The lords attacked him with their armies. Before he was defeated, John died.
John’s nine-year-old son became King Henry III and the lords went home. But then, as an adult, Henry decided to start an expensive war in Sicily (now in the south of Italy). The lords worried that he was becoming like his father, John. He was interested only in power and not in his people. They decided to ask Henry for a parliament of priests, lords, and ordinary landowners and businessmen. Without the agreement of this parliament, the King couldn't have tax money for his Sicilian war. (This idea of a parliament was very new, tried before only on the Isle of Man, a small island between Britain and Ireland.) The King refused to accept a parliament. So there was war closer to home. The lords defeated King Henry at the Battle of Lewes (in the south of England) in 1264. Henry and his son, Prince Edward, were taken prisoner. For the next 18 months England was ruled by a parliament. But Prince Edward escaped, formed an army and defeated the lords. King Henry was in control again.
Parliament lost much of its power, but it didn’t disappear. When Prince Edward became King Edward I, he needed money for his wars in Scotland. Higher taxes were more acceptable to the people when they were agreed by a people’s parliament.
Slowly, over the next few centuries. Parliament started to vote for and against new laws too. But it was nearly 400 years before parliament had as much power as in 1264.
When James I died in 1625, his son Charles became king. Charles I made the problems between king and parliament even worse. He started a very unsuccessful war against the Catholic countries Spain and France. Parliament tried to stop Charles’s unfair taxes for the war, so Charles closed Parliament. He ruled without it for the next eleven years.
Without a parliament, Charles couldn't have his people’s tax money. He found other, unfair and unpopular, ways to get money. Then, when Charles made changes to the Church of Scotland, violent demonstrations started in Scottish cities. Charles didn’t have enough money for an army to stop the demonstrations. So he had to have a parliament again.
This new parliament didn’t act as the king wanted. So Charles closed it after only three weeks. Charles fought the Scots with men who weren’t professional soldiers. The Scots won, and took control of a large part of the north of England. Charles had to have another parliament.
This parliament stopped Charles’s unfair taxes. But Charles needed soldiers again when there was violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The politicians were worried. ‘Maybe the king will use the soldiers against us,’ they thought. So they passed a law that Parliament, not the king, was now in control of the country. And that meant war.
King and Parliament at war
In many families, brother fought brother and father fought son. The King’s men won the first battle, but four years later, Charles I was defeated by Parliament and its army.
Parliament couldn’t agree what they should do next. But in the end a court of law decided that Charles was an enemy of the people. In 1649, he was killed in front of a large crowd. His son, Charles II, was made king in Scotland, but Parliament soon defeated the Scots. Charles II had to escape to the Netherlands, leaving Parliament and the officers of its army in control of Britain.
Oliver Cromwell was an officer who fought for Parliament against the King. He introduced new ideas to his army and turned his men into excellent professional soldiers. At the end of the war, he was the most powerful man in Britain. Parliament offered him the title ‘King’. Cromwell refused it, preferring the title ‘Lord Protector'. But for eight years he ruled the country like the kings before him. Cromwell was a Puritan, so he disliked music and dance. Soon all the theatres were closed. Even Christmas was against the law.
The return of the King
When Cromwell died, his son became Lord Protector. But he wasn’t a strong ruler and he couldn’t control the army. So a group of politicians invited Charles II to return home.
Most people were very pleased to have Charles II as king. But Charles didn’t like Parliament, and for most of his time as king he ruled without it. That meant no tax money, so he used money from the King of France.
Britain’s last Catholic king
Charles II and his wife had no children. When Charles died in 1685, his Catholic brother James became king. James II started giving all the important jobs in the army and the universities to Catholics. He tried to get Catholics into Parliament. This was a bad idea because Catholics were hated by most of the population.
In 1688, a group of politicians invited Prince William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch husband (and cousin) of James’s daughter Mary, to bring his army to England. When James’s own army joined Prince William, James escaped to France.
A new law for kings and queens
Parliament was tired of kings who ruled without them. William and his wife Mary were asked to be king and queen. But first they had to agree to a new law. There could be no taxes, no army and no new laws without the agreement of Parliament. Politicians were now chosen every three years. And no Catholic could ever become king or queen.
William and Mary agreed to Parliament’s new law. But the law didn’t give Parliament all the power that some politicians were hoping for. William was a strong king who didn't leave the important decisions of government to Parliament.
Parliament didn’t have to wait long for more power. William and Mary had no children, so Mary’s sister Anne became queen after them. But when all Anne’s children died young, there was a serious problem. Who could rule Britain after Anne?
There was only one possible person who wasn’t Catholic: the German grandson of James Is daughter. He didn’t speak English and he didn’t like Britain. But when Anne died in 1714, he became King George I. For Parliament, George I was the perfect king. He wasn’t interested in Britain, so Parliament was left in control of the country. And Parliament was careful that it never lost its power again. After 1714, the important decisions were made by politicians. Today’s queen, Elizabeth II, is from the same family as George I. She is Britain’s head of state, but she has no real power.