The Five Members

Early in January 1642, King Charles I ordered the attorney-general to indict for treason the five members of the House of Commons and one member of the House of Lords who were most prominent in Parliament's attempt to transfer control of the armed forces away from the Crown. The King believed that these members had encouraged the Scots to invade England in the recent Bishops' Wars and that they were intent on stirring up riots and tumults against him in London. A rumour that they were planning to impeach Queen Mary for alleged involvement in Catholic conspiracies prompted Charles into taking drastic action.

King Charles in the House of Commons
Speaker Lenthall Asserting the Privileges of the Commons (detail) by Charles West Cope

On 3 January, a herald was sent to the House of Commons to order that the Five Members surrender themselves to answer the charges against them. The House refused to comply with the King's command because it was an infringement of parliamentary privilege. The following afternoon, 4 January 1642, King Charles marched to Westminster at the head of a body of soldiers and retainers, intending to arrest the Five Members in person.

Leaving his followers at the door, the King entered the chamber of the House of Commons and occupied the Speaker's chair. This was unprecedented in parliamentary history; it was customary for the monarch to address Parliament from the House of Lords and never to enter the Commons. Charles' intrusion was regarded as another major breach of privilege.

Warned of the King's approach, the Five Members had already escaped and gone into hiding in the Puritan stronghold of Coleman Street in the City of London. Asked by the King whether he saw any of them present or knew where they were, the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, famously replied, "..I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me." Realising that his "birds were flown", King Charles was obliged to leave the House empty-handed to angry shouts of "Privilege, Privilege."

The Five Members were: John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Sir Arthur Hesilrige and William Strode. Lord Mandeville (the future Earl of Manchester) was also to be arrested.

The King's disregard of parliamentary custom and privilege did great political damage to his cause. The House of Commons presented the intrusion as an armed assault on Parliament itself, and the King's reputation never recovered. Amid uproar and wild rumours of civil war, the London trained bands were mobilised in support of Parliament. The Five Members were sheltered in the City, probably by the militant Puritan alderman and future regicide Isaac Penington. The situation became so volatile that the King and royal family were obliged to leave London for Hampton Court on 10 January. The Five Members made a triumphal return to Westminster the following day.


Pauline Gregg, King Charles I (Berkeley, 1984)

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1958)


The charges against the Five Members