The Short Parliament, April-May 1640

The fourth Parliament of King Charles I's reign was called during the crisis brought about by the Bishops' Wars between England and Scotland. It was the first Parliament to be called in eleven years and brought the period of the King's Personal Rule to an end.

The Earl of Strafford had taken charge of the war-effort against the Scots. Despite the King's misgivings, Strafford realised that a Parliament was necessary in order to grant funds to continue the war. He successfully raised subsidies from the Irish Parliament in March 1640 and began recruiting an Irish army against Scotland. Strafford believed that an English Parliament could be similarly managed and controlled.

Elections were duly held during the spring of 1640 and Parliament assembled at Westminster on 13 April. The opening speech was delivered by Lord-Keeper Sir John Finch, who in his previous role as Lord Chief Justice had presided over the implementation of all the King's unpopular domestic policies during the Personal Rule. Finch's demand that Parliament should now grant subsidies to fight the rebellious Scots further irritated MPs, many of whom sympathised with the Covenanters. King Charles hoped to rally support against the Scots by revealing to the House of Commons a letter from the Covenanters to King Louis XIII of France apparently requesting his help against England. However, the revelation failed to impress the House and the letter was ignored.

Rather than prepare for war against Scotland, Parliament was anxious to discuss the nation's concerns over the King's religious reforms and his dubious methods of raising taxes. Leading members of the House of Commons questioned the legality of the dissolution of the 1629 Parliament and of the King's actions in imprisoning MPs who had opposed him. There were also demands that the ship-money case against John Hampden should be re-investigated.

John Pym, MP for Tavistock, emerged as the chief spokesman for the opposition. On 17 April, Pym gave a two-hour speech in which he clearly summarised the objections to the King's policies and stated that the Commons would grant no subsidies unless the nation's grievances were first addressed. To the King's alarm, Pym and his colleagues set about establishing special committees to collect and investigate complaints against royal policy during the Personal Rule.

The Earl of Strafford attempted to divide Parliament by appealing to the House of Lords on the King's behalf. On 24 April, the King appealed in person to the Lords for support against the Commons. The following day, a conference was held between members of the two Houses. The Lords supported the King in insisting that money for the wars should be granted before the Commons' grievances were addressed. This led to protests from the Commons that the Lords' intervention was a breach of privilege but Pym and his friends in the Lords — Saye, Brooke and Warwick — remained resolute in their efforts to prevent a breach. Strafford advised patience but Charles was unnerved by Parliament's hostility and by rumours that his opponents in Parliament were in communication with the Covenanters. Against Strafford's advice, the King announced the dissolution of Parliament on 5 May 1640.

The Short Parliament was dissolved only three weeks after it had first assembled. It was named in contrast to the succeeding Long Parliament called later in 1640.

At the same time as Parliament, the Convocation of the Church of England met in London with authority from the King to make new canons to legitimise Laud's ecclesiastical reforms. Traditionally, Convocation sat only while Parliament was in session, but after the abrupt dissolution of the Short Parliament, it was allowed to continue sitting in order to complete its work, which included the granting of subsidies to the King. The Convocation introduced seventeen new canons, including an affirmation of the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, and the introduction of an oath to be taken by all members of the learned professions who were to swear never wittingly to subvert established Church doctrine. This oath, known as the "Etcetera Oath", provoked widespread opposition.


Paul Hooper, John Hampden in the Short Parliament (Archives)

David Stevenson, The Scottish Revolution 1637-44 (Newton Abbott 1973)

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace 1637-41 (London 1955)