Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Opposition

Shaftesbury is reported to have said on his dismissal,
‘It is only laying down my gown, and putting on my sword’
The parliamentary session of early1674 was the stormiest so far, arousing historical memories of the Long Parliament. Among the bills passed was a habeas corpus bill (though it did not become law until 1679). Buckingham was attacked for corruption and removed from all his offices. And articles of impeachment were brought against Arlington, though he escaped a petition for his dismissal by a narrow majority. (But he resigned his Secretaryship in September.)

In the face of hardening opposition Charles made peace with the Dutch in the Treaty of Westminster, 9 February 1674). In the treaty the Dutch agreed to salute the English flag in what were defined as British waters, but the English abandoned attempts to gain a footing in the Spice Islands. However New York, which had been captured by the Dutch, was restored to English rule.

On 24 February Charles prorogued Parliament. He had now acquired a new minister: Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, who had succeeded Clifford as Lord Treasurer.

By this time something resembling an opposition party had come into existence, comprising men such as William Russell (afterwards Lord Russell). In 1673 an MP, Sir Thomas Meres, was able to speak of ‘this side of the house and that side’. A hard core of ‘country’ MPs were deeply exercised by the apparent spread of popery in high circles and opposed to anything that smacked of royal absolutism. In 1674 the Green Ribbon Club was founded at the King’s Head Tavern in Chancery Lane. The opposition had leaders in the former ministers, Buckingham and Shaftesbury. In May 1674 Shaftesbury was expelled from the privy council and the lord lieutenancy of Dorset, and from this date he worked to secure the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament and the exclusion of the Duke of York from the throne.

Looking back, thoughtful observers saw 1672-4 as the watershed of the reign, in which the king’s designs to establish popery and arbitrary government had become apparent. But it has also been argued that experience also helped Charles become ‘a wiser and ultimately more decisive politician’.