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How MPs' protest channelled 1629 and the English Civil War

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Opposition members of parliament hold signs around Speaker John Bercow after Britain’s parliament voted on whether to hold an early general election, in Parliament in London
Opposition members of parliament hold signs around Speaker John Bercow after Britain’s parliament voted on whether to hold an early general election, in Parliament in London -
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Amid chaotic scenes in the Houses of Commons, a call is made for parliament to be suspended. Outraged, MPs approach the speaker of the house - and then sit on him.

The year is not 2019, but 1629, and Charles I has had enough of MPs continued refusal to allow him to raise cash. But it is the third time Charles has prorogued parliament since 1624 and now it's MPs turn to act. Sir John Finch, the speaker, is the unfortunate victim.

“On hearing the summons to attend the House of Lords for a prorogation and in expectation that a dissolution would follow soon after, several MPs held the speaker down in his chair,” said Peter Gaunt, a professor of early modern history at the University of Chester and author of The English Civil War: A Military History. “He was horrified and reportedly burst into tears.”

Although MPs were able to pass three resolutions, prorogation eventually took place – and the parliament of 1629 never met again. Charles I would rule England alone until 1640 and two years after that, the English Civil War broke out.

Spoiler alert: The war didn’t end very well for Charles.

Fast forward to this week and MPs held a similar protest. In the early hours of Tuesday (September 10) they prevented — briefly — speaker John Bercow from leaving his seat. While no-one sat on him, they were making a symbolic point.

One of the MPs, Labour’s Clive Lewis, said explicitly that the protest had been inspired by 1629, and certainly UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been cast in a dictatorial light by his critics ever since he decided to suspend parliament.

But Gaunt cautioned that while there were some parallels to be drawn with 1629, the situation today is starkly different. In the 17th century, there was no separate government distinct from the monarch, and parliaments were only called from time to time.

“Parliaments could be summoned, prorogued and dissolved at will by the crown, many years could pass between parliamentary sessions or between parliaments and as yet the crown and royal executive were only vaguely, hazily and weakly answerable to parliament,” he said.

“There were no political (parliamentary) parties, no concept of an opposition party within parliament and no prime minister at the time, of course.”

Charles son, Charles II — who was restored to the throne in 1660 after Oliver Cromwell’s death — also prorogued parliament a number of times. But by the time his brother James II took power in 1685, parliament had begun to gain the upper hand over the king.

In 1689, it even deposed James II and replaced him with Queen Mary and William of Orange.

How parliament deals with this latest exercise of executive power remains to be seen. Suspended for the next five weeks, parliament will meet again on October 14 - just two weeks before the UK is due to leave the European Union.

Opposition MPs have passed a law that requires Johnson to ask the EU for an extension of Brexit until January 2020 - which he has refused to do. Rather than the Cavaliers and Roundheads, Johnson’s civil war is being waged inside his own party.

Unlike Charles I, it will not cost him his head - but it may cost him his leadership.

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