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Attack on Parliament and flight of the King

Updated Sunday 7th January 2001

A monarch facing down his parliament, and losing: The attack on parliament and the flight of the king

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The King's resolve stiffened when he heard of the Remonstrance. He could see that he now faced a concerted opposition to his kingship which no number of concessions would mollify. With every inch, they wanted a mile. He purged his Council of those sympathetic to Parliament. In this new militant mode, he enjoyed the full support of his most influential adviser, Queen Henrietta Maria. There was no love lost between the steadfast Puritan John Pym and the Catholic Queen. Pym accused Henrietta Maria of all sorts of Catholic plots. The Irish rebellion became known as the "Queen's Rebellion." When rumours began to circulate that Pym was on the verge of impeaching the Queen herself, Charles was forced to act. He accused the leaders of the Parliamentary opposition of high treason. By arresting them he hoped to quash rebellion and rip the heart out of the Parliamentarian party. This was the King's counter-coup. He could play hard-ball too. And when Charles baulked at the enormity of the move, Henrietta Maria was there to stiffen his resolve :
"Go, you coward, and pull these rogues out by the ears, or never see my face more."
Charles agreed and said he would be back within the hour.

On January 4th 1642, Charles marched out of Whitehall followed by 400 armed guards and made his way to the House of Commons. Tipped off by his lover, the Queen's friend Lady Carlisle, Pym learnt of Charles' approach as the Commons was in full session. Pym and his four fellow accomplices slipped out of the chamber. They left Westminster Palace by a back exit and stepped onto a waiting barge to take them downriver to the City of London. Charles burst into a shocked Commons, removed his hat, and demanded of Speaker Lenthall, 'Is Mr Pym here?' Lenthall famously replied, 'I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak except as this House is pleased to direct me.'

No matter, replied Charles as he scanned the Chamber, 'I see all the birds have flown.'

Failing to find Pym, Charles turned tail and pursued the fugitives deep into the City where he was met with hostile cries of 'Privilege!' from the encircling crowds. London seemed to be turning against him. Frightened by the mobs and the growing air of rebellion, Charles returned to Whitehall, gathered his wife and children and fled the capital. At dead of night, their coaches hurtled out of Westminster following the Thames down to the safety of Hampton Court. Hearing commotion and heavy knocks, the staff opened the gates to find a frightened and bedraggled royal family. With no rooms prepared, the family had to sleep together on an unmade bed.

While Charles was in Hampton, London was collapsing into anarchy. Shops closed, barricades were erected, and chains were pulled across streets. It became a capital under siege - mental siege. Fears of plots and invasions drove the populace into a frenzy. To appease the blood-lust of the anti-Catholic mob, Parliament sanctioned the execution of several priests. In Charles's absence the Parliamentarians seized control of key strategic sites, most notably Tower Hill with its vast arsenal. Supported by the violent and excitable London mobs, the Parliamentarians gained the derisory nickname of Roundheads - because of the short-haired, bullet-headed apprentices who supported the Commons, a seventeenth century version of 'skinhead'.

Charles' decision to flee London was calamitous. One of his worst mistakes. He would never see it again as a free man. His flight separated King from Parliament and made civil war between them inevitable. Charles had lost control of the situation, felt threatened and legged it. It was a panic reaction that would have terrible consequences. The flight of Charles ended the phoney war and helped to create two sides - the fundamental prerequisite for civil war. The country's social and political elite, nestled in the Lords, the Commons and the great country houses, now had to face the choice between King and Parliament.

With the emergence of a Royalist party, the country was on the path towards civil war. What split the Parliamentarians from the Royalists, the Roundheads from the Cavaliers, was not wealth or class but religion. The War of the Three Kingdoms was a conflict driven by religious divisions - beliefs that would split men from each other and inspire them to die for their cause.

 

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