On this Day in Royal History: January 4, 1642, King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland (1625-1649) marches into the House of Commons with troops intending to arrest five Members of Parliament for disobeying his orders. This historic and brazen action was the catalyst for the English Civil War 1642-1649.
This act greatly angered the MPs who saw this behavior as a breach of parliamentary privilege. Members of the House slammed the doors of the chamber in the faces of the King’s men. When King Charles finally entered the House of Commons, the Speaker, William Lenthall, refused to reveal the location of the wanted men, famously saying: “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.”
What lead to this breech of privilege? It came in the aftermath of rebellions in Ireland and Scotland. Charles suspected, and there is evidence his suspicions were correct, that some members of the English Parliament had colluded with the invading Scots. On January 3, 1642, the day before this historic event, Charles directed Parliament to give up five members of the House of Commons – John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, William Strode and Sir Arthur Haselrig– and one peer from the House of Lords, Lord Mandeville – to be arrested on the grounds of high treason.
When Parliament refused there is some evidence to suggest Queen Henrietta Maria had persuaded Charles to arrest the five members by force and that Charles himself should intended carry out the arrests. However, news of the warrant reached Parliament ahead of him, and the wanted men slipped away by boat shortly before Charles entered the House of Commons. Charles abjectly declared “all my birds have flown”, and was forced to retire, empty-handed.
The failed arrest attempt was politically disastrous for Charles, for in one smooth stroke Charles destroyed his supporters’ efforts to portray him as a defence against innovation and disorder. Parliament quickly seized London, and Charles fled the capital for Hampton Court Palace.
No English sovereign has ever entered the House of Commons since this unprecedented breach of parliamentary privilege. Every year this event is commemorated during the State Opening of Parliament when Black Rod tries to enter the Commons, the door is slammed in his face to symbolise the independence of the elected House of Commons from the monarchy.