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The members of the Long Parliament were for the most part well-to-do landowners, nobility and gentry, who shared similar social and educational backgrounds, similar economic interests, and similar ideas on religion and politics. They disliked 'popery' and what they regarded as the 'popish' tendencies of Archbishop Laud and his party, who had dominated the church during the 1630s. But they were not inclined towards presbyterianism and they feared the more radical puritans and 'sectaries'. Although they had no love for bishops, most of them wished to keep episcopal government of the church, provided that it could be reformed so as to be under the supervision of the common law and parliament and the squirearchy; and provided that the bishops were men of the same middle-of-the-road views in religion as most of the nobility and gentry. They disliked the policies and methods of government of Charles I in the 1630s; but once unpopular taxes such as Ship-money had been made illegal, unpopular courts like Star Chamber and High Commission abolished, and the summoning of a parliament at least once in every three years assured by the Triennial Act, there remained only one obstacle to agreement between the king and the two Houses of Parliament - distrust.
Could Charles I be trusted to act moderately and keep within the limits imposed on him by the legislation of the Long Parliament? A majority of the House of Commons and a minority of the House of Lords answered in the negative: the king was still surrounded by evil advisers and he could not be trusted until the Privy Council and government offices were filled by men in whom 'parliament may have cause to confide'. A majority of the House of Lords and a minority of the House of Commons answered in the affirmative: the time had come to give the king the benefit of the doubt and not antagonise him further by restricting his right to choose his own counsellors and officers. Charles asked whether there would be any end to the demands of the majority in the House of Commons: so far he had agreed to all they asked but without being able to win their confidence, and still they made more demands.
He distrusted the leaders of the House of Commons and their friends in the House of Lords, and suspected them of ambition for power and of a secret design to convert the monarchy into a virtual republic. He refused to surrender his right to choose his own advisers. He could count on the support of a majority of the House of Lords, and he might have been able to gain the support of a majority in the House of Commons if at this moment he had not embarked upon a course of action which intensified distrust of his intentions.
Charles was persuaded that the discontent of the majority of the Commons was due to the machinations of a small faction. He believed that if the trouble-makers were removed or discredited the loyalty to the crown and instinctive conservatism of the majority would reassert itself. So he accused six of the leaders, one peer and five members of the House of Commons, of treason, and on 4 January 1642 went in person to the House of Commons with armed guards in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the five members. 'The attempt on the Five Members' confirmed the majority's distrust of the king and their confidence in their leaders. It also disquieted those members of the two Houses who were coming to prefer the risks of trusting the king to the dangers of continuing disagreement between the king and the House of Commons and between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. But although such men had their confidence in the king shaken and were reluctant to take his side, they shared his distrust of the leaders of the House of Commons.
In the early part of 1642 only two small minorities saw a resort to force as either necessary or inevitable. There were a few wholehearted royalists who for some time had been telling the king that if he did not show a willingness to defend his rights by force he would never be able to stop the steady erosion of his power; and there were a few radical puritans who were ready to resort to force to bring about sweeping changes in the government and doctrine of the church. But the vast majority of the two Houses of Parliament, of the nobility and gentry in general, of the government officers, of the lawyers, of the mayors and aldermen of towns, of the leading merchants, in other words, the great bulk of the governing classes, still deplored the thought of resolving the disagreement by force, and still hoped for and expected agreement between king, Lords and Commons. Yet they were steadily being divided into two parties during 1642; parliamentarians, who distrusted the king and demanded more restrictions on his power, at least for a time until they could trust him with greater power again; and royalists, who were unhappy about reducing the power of the crown too much, and longed to be able to trust the king. This was not a division over religious or political ends. Thus men from the same social background and with the same economic interests, with similar political and religious ideas, found themselves in opposite parties, for the decision they had to take in 1642 was not a decision about the best form of government for the church or for the state, nor about changes in the social or the economic order, but simply whether or not to trust Charles I. Men of the same class and the same political and religious views gave different answers to this question and found themselves on opposite sides; men of different classes and different political and religious views gave the same answer to this question and found themselves on the same side. Many of those who distrusted the king and regarded his obstinacy as the only obstacle to agreement consented to the raising of an army under the command of the Earl of Essex because they thought that a show of force would make the king more reasonable. They believed that no more than a show of force would be necessary because the king appeared to have few supporters and small means to raise an army: he would not be able to fight and would be obliged to negotiate. But the king proved to have more supporters and greater resources than at first appeared. For many were willing to trust him now that he seemed almost powerless. They did not wish to see him forced into an abject surrender which would permanently weaken the crown. They supported him because they thought that when parliament saw that he had the means to fight it would moderate its demands and reach an agreement without bloodshed. So by the end of the summer of 1642 there were two armies on foot in England, and the country found that it had drifted into a civil war that few wanted to fight.
Distrust was the main obstacle to agreement between king and parliament, but it might not have been an insurmountable obstacle without the conjuncture of other factors, which involved the lower classes in the crisis and drove a deeper wedge into the ruling class. These other factors were the fear of papists, the sharp decline of trade and industry, and an upsurge of class-feeling and class-hostility.
On 5 May 1641 the crisis over the Earl of Strafford was approaching a climax. The Bill of Attainder had passed the Commons and was now before the Lords. The king was making desperate efforts to save the earl from execution: it was still doubtful whether the bill would pass the Lords, and, if it did, even more doubtful whether the king could be brought to give his consent. Parliament and London were beset with fears. It was known that there had been a plot to rescue Strafford from the Tower; it was believed that there was a design to bring the army to London to overawe the parliament; and it was rumoured that a French army was coming to the aid of the royal family. A debate in the House of Commons was interrupted by a sudden noise from the direction of the gallery:
The gentlemen in the gallery most of them ran away into the committee chamber, where they drew their swords.... All the gentlemen under the gallery in an amaze leaped down, and some fell one upon another; some ran away out of the House, as my Lord Cranborne, and others. The people also running amazed through Westminster Hall, old Sir Robert Mansell drew his sword, and bade them stand like true Englishmen, no man being able to report the cause of their fright; but no man stayed with him. But he advanced alone out of the Hall towards the House of Commons, with his sword drawn. Mr Thomas Earle broke his shin, and Sir Frederick Cornwallis had his hat all dusted with lime...
The cry spread through London 'that the Papists had set the Lower House on fire, and had beset it with arms'. 'In a clap all the city is in alarum; shops closed; a world of people in arms runs down to Westminster.' When they got there the panic was over and its cause had been discovered - a fat member had dropped a paper over the back of the gallery and in bending down to pick it up 'with his weight broke a few lathes, which made a sudden noise'.
Fear of papists reached panic proportions in the autumn of 1641 when the Catholics in Ireland rose in rebellion and slaughtered the Protestants. Richard Baxter wrote that 'there was nothing that with the people wrought so much, as the Irish Massacre and Rebellion.... This filled all England with a fear both of the Irish, and of the papists at home.... Insomuch, that when the rumour of a plot was occasioned at London, the poor people, all the counties over, were ready either to run to arms, or hide themselves, thinking that the papists were ready to rise and cut their throats.'
On 12 November 1641 Sir William Acton, an alderman of London, brought to the House of Commons John Davis, servant of an inn at Ross in Herefordshire, who had come to London and told an alarming story to the alderman's coachman. Davis was 'a plain country-fellow, and not able so fully to express himself', but his story was that he had acted as a guide to several gentlemen who had come to his inn and wanted to get to Raglan Castle, the seat of the Earl of Worcester, a Catholic. There a groom took Davis's horse to a stable where there were about sixty horses. Then the groom showed him a vault underground where he told him there were another forty horses, and another place underground where furniture for about 100 or 120 horses was kept, 'with great store of match and powder, and other ammunition belonging to war', enough 'for about 2000 men'. 'He told me', continued Davis, 'that his master the Earl of Worcester, gave notice privately, that any man would be entertained, should have thirteen pence a day, good pay from him, in case they would be true to him.... He told me that his master had at this time 700 men under pay.' Davis's story was published in a pamphlet, which concluded with the query: 'Whether we have not as just cause to fear the Papists in England, as they had in Ireland and Wales, and if they should once take a head, and be not prevented, what evil consequence may ensue thereof?'
Then on 15 November a young man named Thomas Beale came to the door of the House of Commons 'and sent in word that he had matters of a high nature to reveal'. He was a tailor and was probably out of work and in some sort of trouble with the law. Being without lodgings he had decided to spend the night in a ditch on Moor Fields, an open space to the north of the city where the citizens went for recreation. There, so he told the House of Commons, he overheard two gentlemen talking about a plot. 'There was 108 men appointed to kill 108 persons of the Parliament, every one his man; some were lords, and the others were to be members of the House of Commons, all puritans...'; '... those that were to kill the lords were brave gallants, in their scarlet-coats, and had received every man £10 a-piece...'; those that were to kill the members of the House of Commons had 40s each, and 'Dick Jones was appointed to kill that rascally puritan Pym; and that four tradesmen, citizens, were to kill the puritan citizens which were parliament-men'. The assassinations were to take place on the night of 18 November, as the members were 'coming down stairs, or taking their coaches, or entering into their lodgings, or any other way as they should see opportunity'; and while London was in tumult, the papists would rise in Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Buckinghamshire, Lancashire, and two 'other places he remembers not'. The object was to prevent the sending of forces from England against the Catholics in Ireland, 'because, if they prevailed there, they should not have cause to fear here'.
Sir Robert Harley, a member of the House of Commons, after hearing these stories, wrote to his wife at Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire, warning her of the danger of a rising of the papists and instructing her to put the house in a state of defence. He also wrote to John Aston at Ludlow to 'look well to your town, for the papists are discovered to have a bloody design, in general, as well against this kingdom as elsewhere'. On the night of 19 November rumours spread through Herefordshire, Worcester and Shropshire that the papists had risen. '... At Brampton Bryan they were all in arms upon the top of Sir Robert's castle, and took up provisions thither with them, and in great fear....' It would seem that the panic spread from Brampton Bryan, which is in the northernmost parts of Herefordshire on the border with Shropshire, along the main road to the east as far as Kidderminster, on the way gripping Ludlow and then Bewdley, where it 'caused them all in the town to be up in arms, with watch all night in very great fear'. And so to Kidderminster; then it sped north to Bridgnorth, where the bailiffs and townsmen made a great fire in the high street, near the market cross, and kept watch all night, fortifying their courage with beer and mulled sack. In one night a rumour had been carried fifty-five miles. The next day, the fact that this rumour proved to be false did little to reassure Lady Harley, who reported to her husband:
I have, according to your directions caused a good provision of bullets to be made and the pieces charged. There are no men in the house except Samuel and another. I do not propose this out of fear, but out of care for the children, whether you think it would be best for me and the children with no more servants than necessary to take a house in some town. I think Shrewsbury is the best to go to. If the Papists should rise or there should be any commotion, to my apprehension a town is safest.... If we should be put to it, I do not believe we at Brampton should be able to stand siege....
Excerpted from The English Civil War and After, 1642-1658 Copyright © 1970 by R.H. Parry. Excerpted by permission.
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