Merchants and the Revolution


In the early seventeen century, merchants and tradesmen of the City of London were getting annoyed with king James I who arbitrarily raised taxes or granted monopolies. In 1622, the Venetian ambassador reported that “although favoured by various privileges, the companies are declining owing to the charges laid upon them by sovereigns...and because to maintain themselves they are compelled to disburse great sums to the favourties, the lords of the Council and other ministers...”52 There was therefore a tendency for the sons of merchants to enter legal profession in order to be elected to parliament and influence state politics. Middle Temple, the Knights Templars' former headquarter, had been the most popular choice for the sons of merchants. It has been recorded that among the minority called to the Bar at the Tudor and early-Stuart Middle Temple, there were rather more men from commercial, professional, yeomanry and lesser gentry backgrounds, and fewer sons of peers or knights, than among the whole body of entrants.53 A Middle Templar, Sir George Buck, complained about dilution of the social quality of the Inns by the “sons of graziers, farmers, merchants, tradesman and artificers.”54 In other words, the Inns of Court were becoming the centre of advocacy for the commercial interests of the City of London.

The best bargaining card that the parliamentarians could play with the king was money. No money could be raised without the consent of the Parliament and the king needed it to finance his wars. When assuming power in England in 1603, king James I was affronted by the constraints the English Parliament placed on him in exchange for money. Thus, he resorted to making decisions based on the “divine right of kings” - the royal prerogative claiming “the mistery of the King's power is not to be disputed.”55 The Court of Star Chamber which was made up of corrupted judges and privy councillors, was used to enforce the increased number of king's royal proclamations, dominating the intermittent sphere of parliament. Parliament functioned only as a temporary advisory committee and was summoned only if and when the monarch saw fit to summon it. Sir James Whitelocke of the Middle Temple, son of a London merchant, whose twin brother served under Francis Drake, was the first person in the history of England to call in question the validity of the ruling of the Court of Exchequer, which in 1610 approved king James’ decision to set the impositions on imported goods without a consultation with the Parliament.56 Impositions were among the prerogative rights that King James I was eventually willing to give up under the Great Contract of 1610, drawn up by Lord Treasurer Robert Cecil, in return for an immediate sum to pay off Royal debt but the ensuing negotiations became so protracted that king James eventually dismissed Parliament in December 1610. The same pattern was repeated four years later with the so-called “Addled Parliament”, which James dissolved after a mere nine weeks when the Commons hesitated to grant him the money he required. King James then ruled without parliament until 1621, employing merchants such as Lionel Cranfield, to arrange finance. When king James' son Charles ascended to the throne in 1625, he further annoyed the City of London by marrying French Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria. In 1628, Sir Edward Cooke of the Inner Temple, the Attorney General, who worked in partnership with Cecil family and took part in sham trial of Walter Raleigh and prosecution of Gunpowder Plot conspirators, drew up Petition of Right, which attempted to challenge the royal prerogative by introducing restrictions on non-Parliamentary taxation. King Charles I ignored it completely and from 1629 until 1640, he ruled by decree, resorting to other fiscal expedients. Those MPs who challenged king's authority or opposed illegal taxation were often imprisoned. Worse still, king Charles I undertook various religious reforms, exposing preference to a High Anglican form of worship, with ceremonies, rituals and lavish ornamentation. This set him on the confrontation course with the more extreme Protestants, the Puritans, who sought to "purify" the Church of England from its "Catholic” practices, as well as with the Scottish Presbyterians who eventually signed a Covenant, whereby they promised before God to defend and preserve the true religion. In order to raise money for a planned campaign in Scotland to endorse the new religious practices, in April 1640, king Charles called another Parliament but it lasted only three weeks. The House of Commons was willing to vote the huge sums that the king needed to finance his war against the Scots, but not until their grievances had been redressed. As the king refused to cooperate, no funds were granted and an untrained, ill-armed, and poorly paid force trailed north to fight the Scots facing defeat. The king had no alternative but to recall parliament.

The new Parliament was dominated by John Pym of the Middle Temple, a strong supporter of Puritanism and the treasurer of the Providence Island Company, that was formed in 1629 and engaged in privateering and slave trade in the Caribbean. Pym immediately called for the impeachment of king's privy councillor and Lord Deputy of Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, who worked closely with Archbishop Laud, implementing new religious reforms in Ireland. Wentworth alienated the predominantly Catholic "Old English" aristocracy in Ireland by promoting the interests of the new wave of Protestant settlers from England and Scotland, and then alienated the settlers by enforcing Archbishop Laud's anti-Puritan religious reforms and by bringing in new taxes. He now stood charged with treason, a charge that has been brought by his puritan enemies in the Parliament. He defended himself ably, and since the case of treason could not be proved, Pym resorted to a Bill of Attainder, which meant execution without trial. King Charles I had a serious problem with signing Strafford's death warrant, especially as he had explicitly promised him that no matter what happened, he would not die. Under the pressure from Parliament, however, king Charles I breached his given word and gave his consent to execute one of his most devoted servants

King Charles I's agreement for the execution of Earl of Strafford convinced the English Parliament that he was susceptible to pressure. Thus, the Parliament proceeded to make a series of demands upon the king. It passed the Triennial Act that required that Parliament be summoned at least once every three years, and that when the King failed to issue proper summons, the members could assemble on their own. This act also forbade ship money without Parliament's consent. Monopolies were cut back severely and the Courts of Star Chamber was abolished. In May 1941, a puritan MP for Cambridge, OLIVER CROMWELL, nephew of Thomas Cromwell who oversaw the Reformation Parliament in Tudor court, presented the Parliament with Root and Branch Petition, calling for abolition of episcopacy from the 'roots' and in all its 'branches'. The Cromwell family was well connected to the world of Venetian finance. Oliver Cromwell’s uncle had married Anne Hoftman, the widow of the Venetian financier Sir Horatio Pallavicini, principal agent of Queen Elizabeth. His family enriched themselves by expropriation of the church assets and dissolution of monasteries, advocating interests of the new merchant oligarchy. Cromwell studied at Cambridge and between 1617 and 1620, at one of the Inns of Court in London, probably at Lincoln's Inn as this where Oliver's father, grandfather and two of his uncles had attended.57 In 1620, Cromwell married Elizabeth Bourchier whose father was a London leather merchant who owned extensive lands in Essex, and had strong connections with Puritan gentry families there. The marriage brought Cromwell into contact with Oliver St John and with leading members of the London merchant community, and behind them the influence of Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, admiral and privateer, associated with Virginia Company and Providence Island Company. Cromwell was related by blood to several other parliamentary leaders like John Hampden.

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52 Grey, A History...., p. 160 »

53 The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, History of the Middle Temple.., p. 89 »

54 Wilfrid Prest, Inns of Court (Prentice Hall Press, 1972), p. 25 »

55 Davies, The Isles, p. 574 »

56 Liber Famelicus of Sir James Whitelock, A judge of the Court of King's Bench, In the reigns of James I and Charles I (Westminster: J.B. Nichols and Sons, Printers, 1858), introduction, viii »

57 Antonia Fraser, Cromwell Our Chief Man (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), p. 24 »