The Exercise of Power
Ireland’s role in establishing the British Parliament’s supremacy over the executive.
This piece first appeared on the writer’s website in October 2016. It seems just as relevant today, following Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliement. The last paragraph has been changed to reflect this.
It was the English civil war, a brutal affair that lasted, on and off, for six years and pitched brother against brother and father against son, that established the supremacy of parliament. And it began with the trial of a man who had the temerity to threaten to raise a mostly Catholic army of Irish men to assist King Charles in his campaign against Scottish protestants. And Ireland was to suffer some of the worst horrors perpetrated during the course of the war.
Thomas Wentworth had been appointed as the king’s representative in Ireland. As such he succeeded in maintaining an uneasy peace on the island, between Catholic ‘Old English’, Protestant ‘New English’ and Scottish Presbyterians who had been granted land in the north and west taken from Irish clansmen. Meanwhile, on the mainland, many in parliament and outside were becoming uneasy about the king’s continuing support for a reforming arch-bishop who, in their eyes, wanted to take the Church of England back to something resembling the Roman Catholicism they had grown to detest.
So when the king asked Parliament for the funds to mount a war against a protestant led invasion from Scotland they refused. The king dissolved parliament and went ahead anyway. However, the army he raised was inadequate to the task. The Scottish force took control of Newcastle and Durham. The king re-called parliament. The Scottish leaders demanded that the arch-bishop and Wentworth be brought to trial for what they deemed to be acts of treason.
Parliament went ahead, against the wishes of the king. The trial lasted 7 weeks. The prosecution was unable to come up with sufficient conclusive evidence against Wentworth. Parliament therefore changed tack and instituted something called an ‘act of attainment’. This required only a body of suspicious evidence in order to secure a conviction. The problem was that the act required the king’s signature. At first he refused to sign.
In an act of extraordinary courage, Wentworth, fearing that his acquital would lead to riots and unnecessary bloodshed, wrote to the king begging him to sign, concluding with this sentence: “To set Your Majesties (sic) Conscience at liberty, I do most humbly beseech Your Majesty for prevention of evils, which may happen by Your refusal, to pass this Bill.”
In as much as the king signed, Wentworth’s plea was successful. It failed, however, to prevent the coming hollocaust. Wentworth was hung, the arch-bishop was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In the country people began to wonder if parliament had taken too much power upon itself. And, in Ireland, the Catholics and the native clansmen began to fear the prospect of domination by the Protestant New English and Scots Presbyterians. They staged a rebellion, making the spurious claim they were suppporting the king. Exaggerated tales of massacres of Protestants by Catholics in Ireland, not all of them erronious, reached England. This did the king no favours and the stage was set for a revolution in England.
Both king and parliament began recruiting armies. On 23rd October 1642 the two armies met at Edge Hill in Warwickshire and fought the first of many bloody battles. By the end of that day about 3,000 lay dead and there were countless injured. By the end of the war, a quarter of a million had died in England, Scotland and Wales and a similar number* in the much smaller island of Ireland.
I hope the Prime Minister’s decision to add 4 days to the October break when MPs attend their annual party conferences won’t lead to civil war, although the opprobium that has existeted in the UK since the referendum of June 2016 is of a kind that few Britons have seen in their lifetimes. But there is no doubt it has made a lot of citizens very angry and with good reason.
*The number of deaths in Ireland during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign in 1649 has been estimated at as many as 600,000. This was the figure originally estimated by Sir William Petty, Charles II’s surveyor-general in Ireland, and is now widely regarded as a gross over estimate.