Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Third Exclusion (Oxford) Parliament, 21-28 March 1681

In the general election of March 1681 Whig party organization reached a peak of effectiveness, backed by an extremely expensive and extensive propaganda campaign. The Whigs retained their hold both on the electorate and the popular masses and achieved a series of unopposed returns and runaway victories. The newly elected MPs assembled at Oxford with distinguishing ribbons in their hats and great trains of armed men. They were given centrally drafted instructions by the party leaders that they were to insist on exclusion when Parliament met.

In fact the Oxford parliament was a cleverly planned trap contrived by Charles himself. The switch to Oxford was a sign of confidence - unlike his father, he had control of London. Nearly 700 troops were drafted into the city. On 22 March he concluded another secret treaty (a verbal not a written agreement) with Louis XIV for a further subsidy. This subsidy was not enough to make him financially independent but combined with the increase in customs revenue it meant that he could now subsist without having to summon parliament. The treaty also meant that Charles was forced to allow Louis a free hand and that he had, in effect, withdrawn from Europe.

At the opening of the Oxford parliament Charles appeared to compromise and said that he was prepared to consider expedients other than exclusion (such as offering a regency: Mary and William were to take charge of government during James’s lifetime). This had the advantage of not taking any powers away from the monarch (something William would never have agreed to). It also wrong-footed the Whigs, who would not accept any alternative to exclusion. The Commons immediately got to work on a new exclusion bill while in the Lords Shaftesbury proposed that Monmouth be named as Charles’s successor. Their intransigence suited the king perfectly. He responded that he would rather die than abandon the prerogative or alter the true succession.

24 March the Whigs voted for the new bill. On 28 March Charles came to the Lords in his ordinary clothes. Then he slipped into his robes and dissolved parliament (without going through the preliminary stage of prorogation). In his speech he made no promise to call another parliament. He left Oxford immediately and they had no alternative but to do the same. They were powerless to prevent this or to force the king to call new elections. They had brought armed men with them to Oxford, but never used them. This showed their final and fatal weakness: they were no more willing than the Tories to plunge the nation into another bout of civil war.

On 8 April Charles caused a statement, Declaration Touching the Reasons that Moved Him to Dissolve the Two Last Parliaments to be read from all pulpits. In it he compared the Whigs to those who had started the Civil War; he also promised to rule according to the law and to summon parliaments frequently (ho, ho!). With encouragement from the clergy, addresses poured in to the king thanking him for his declaration. A popular Toryism developed which copied the Whigs’ organisational tactics and printed its own newspapers.