Thursday, November 17, 2005

The First Exclusion Parliament, March-July 1679

Having dissolved the Cavalier Parliament, Charles had to summon a new parliament because he needed money - Louis XIV was refusing a subsidy and there was a customs shortfall because of the embargo on French wines and brandy. The general election of February 1679 swept away Danby’s supporters and much of the older generation. Half the MPs had never sat before. They were comparatively young and many of them had a high level of political consciousness.

The new parliament met on 6 March and sat to 27 May. This parliament, the first new House of Commons for eighteen years, has achieved fame as the first Exclusion Parliament. In its initial sessions it secured the impeachment of Danby. The debates were as virulent as those on the impeachment of Strafford, and Danby had good reason to fear for his life. Charles advised him to leave the country, but, fearing Clarendon’s fate, Danby refused. Though the articles of impeachment and the bill of attainder failed, he spent five years in the Tower.

Charles further tried to conciliate his opponents by bringing Shaftesbury and William Russell, now MP for Bedfordshire, into the Privy Council and to agree to disband the standing army. Parliament also secured the Habeas Corpus Amendment Act, requiring judges to bring a prisoner to trial within a specific period of time (usually three days). Retrospectively this was a great step forward in human rights, though at the time its motive was more narrowly partisan: an attempt to tie the hands of a Catholic monarch. Charles further conciliated parliament by the delivery of the plot victims to execution, the formation of a new extended Council, and the disbandment of much of the army.

What galvanized the opposition in this parliament was the public disclosure on 27 April 1679 of parts of Coleman’s correspondence which seemed to indicate that James was in negotiation with both France and Rome - and therefore by implication in the Popish Plot as well. On 27 April 1679 Russell addressed the Commons, declaring that if the succession were not changed
‘we must resolve when we have a Prince of the Popish Religion to be Papists, or burn ... and I will do neither’ (New DNB)
On 11 May Thomas Pilkington moved that James be impeached for high treason. On 15 May the commons passed a resolution nem con that a bill be brought in ‘to disable the Duke of York to inherit the Imperial Crown of this Realm’. (The court did not insist on a division because it was clear it would lose). On 27 May (the day that the five Catholic peers were to stand trial in the Lords) Charles prorogued (and on 10 July dissolved) the parliament. The Popish Plot was running out of steam but for a while the Exclusion Crisis was gaining strength.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this moment. The reign of Elizabeth I had been plagued by the succession issue, and it was to remain a live issue until the death of Queen Anne in 1714. As in 1572, Parliament was claiming the right to determine the succession to the throne on confessional lines – a claim that struck at the roots of divinely appointed hereditary monarchy.

Ten days after the prorogation, there was a major armed revolt in Scotland against the ‘popish’ and ‘arbitrary’ tyranny of Lauderdale. The rebels were termed ‘Whiggamores’.

In August 1679 the king was taken ill and for two days he seemed to by dying - perhaps of a stroke. This made everyone realize that the succession was a real not a hypothetical question - James could become king. During the crisis, James rushed over from Brussels. In the same month another general election was held, which returned a Parliament dominated by exclusionists, which Charles immediately prorogued. In October, Charles sent James to Edinburgh.