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How will YOU be celebrating “Presentation of the Grand Remonstrance to Charles I” Day?

December 1, 2013
charles 1
On this day in 1641, a document was presented to the king which staged a key moment in the history of how a nation was, is, and should be governed.
The Grand Remonstrance of December 1st 1641 reads strangely today. In style it seems rather deferential towards Charles I. In substance it appears disturbingly sectarian. However, it represents a crucial moment in constitutional history, a moment when parliament asserted its authority in unprecedented terms. The remonstrance was so radical in terms of the urgency of its demands that it was only narrowly passed in the Commons and many were afraid of the royal reaction it might provoke. Oddly enough one crucial item – the insistence that bishops be removed from the English legislature – remains on the agenda of republican campaigning organisations to this day.
Events like these are rarely commemorated or discussed, because Britain’s constitutional history is all too often occluded with a version of “royal history” that is more concerned with personalities than principles.  People argue about whether or not Charles I was “a good king” (to my mind, a bit like arguing about whether so and so was a good or a bad phrenologist) rather that chart decisive clashes between legislative and executive expressions of authority.

The 1641 remonstrance was part of the critical political preamble to the English Civil War.   Once upon a time, names like Pym and Eliot were renowned the world over as authors of a new concept of governance.  It would be laughable to talk of such parliamentarians as democrats, but the history of democracy needs to acknowledge the pivotal significance of this remonstrance, this primitive, partial, prejudiced and passionate attempt to put down on paper where the limits of executive power should lie.

Charles, who acknowledged only two legitimate players within any constitutional framework (himself and God)  also believed that he was allowed to make verbal and written agreements with mortals as often as he liked if it made them shut up for a while, but that he could break such agreements at will.  God would understand.  His eventual decapitation occurred because you cannot cut a binding deal with someone who thinks they’re accountable only to God.He should have taken the remonstrance a bit more seriously.  But to have respected the long term implications of the remonstrance would have involved unpicking the very fabric of his political imagination.

If European and North American societies enjoy certain freedoms, then the template for such freedoms can be extrapolated from the remonstrance.  Today’s anniversary serves as a reminder that such freedoms (inestimably valuable and chafingly incomplete as they are) are never the gracious gifts of hereditary rulers but have been wrenched painfully from their unwilling grasp.


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