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“I see the birds have flown…” A Delicious Showdown with Monarchy

January 5, 2014


Today in 1642 or (as people immediately concerned still on the Julian calendar with its New Year’s Day in late March called it) 1641, a critical showdown occurred between a hereditary monarch and an elected legislature.

The symbolism of this day’s drama was powerful.  A legislature declared its autonomy and its refusal to defer to the authority of a monarch. The occasion is re-enacted every year when “Black Rod” knocks on the door of the House of Commons to request the presence of MPs in the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s Speech.  The door is initially slammed in his face in recognition of this anniversary.  Indeed, the reason why the monarch’s speech is always given from the House of Lords is because traditionally, the monarch isn’t really allowed in the Commons.  It’s a rare bit of pageantry that actually celebrates resistance rather than deference.

Charles I was finding that the increasingly assertive and demanding parliament was straining his patience beyond endurance and came in person to Westminster on January 4th to arrest five particularly irksome MPs…

John Hampden

Arthur Haselrig

Denzil Holles

John Pym

William Strode

If nations claiming to be representative democracies really cared about their heritage, these names would be memorised by every child in school.  In the event, the day turned out to be anticlimactic and climactic, bathetic and sublime at one and the same time.  The MPs had been tipped off and did not show up.  When Charles marched about the House of Commons, he therefore exclaimed “I see the birds have flown”.

The Speaker when asked by Charles where these errant members were, replied with sublime and pointed eloquence “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”.  This was too prove the highlight in a political career otherwise marked by timidity and vacillation.  This sentence is a kind of masterpiece of heroic deference – in a good cause.

Charles had to leave, defeated by the Commons in a first bloodless battle, later to be defeated in some bloody ones.  Now of course the parliament wasn’t anything resembling a democratic chamber.  Of course it didn’t represent any satisfactory percentage of even just the male population of England and Wales.  But the House of Commons was about the idea of representation, and thanks to this facing down of hereditary prerogative, ideas of representation and entitlement became widely debated and asserted in the coming decades.  Despite attempts to put the genie back in the bottle after 1660, such claims of representative parliamentary sovereignty were never to be forgotten.

It would have been something to have been there, at such a tipping point of history, a dramatic moment when power is seen to drain away from a dynasty and infuse a legislature.  The kind of thrill of empowerment in the room must have been palpable.  It can still thrill (small “r”) republicans to this day, if they remember it, and maybe re-stage it, often enough.

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