Petition of Right

The Petition of Right allowed the English parliament to voice its grievances against King Charles I, marking a significant step in the evolution of constitutional monarchy in England.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Parliament’s relations with the English monarch were guided by the principle that the king could do no wrong. Under common law, the Crown could not be sued, for the monarch, as supreme lord of the courts, was not subject to their jurisdiction. There was, however, a tradition of petitioning a monarch for restitution or redress that dated back to the Magna Carta (1215). Such petitions were an accepted legal remedy for disputes with the Crown. [kw]Petition of Right (May 6-June 7, 1628)
[kw]Right, Petition of (May 6-June 7, 1628)
Government and politics;May 6-June 7, 1628: Petition of Right[1040]
Laws, acts, and legal history;May 6-June 7, 1628: Petition of Right[1040]
Social issues and reform;May 6-June 7, 1628: Petition of Right[1040]
England;May 6-June 7, 1628: Petition of Right[1040]
Petition of Right (1628)

Ultimately, Parliament found mounting petitions to be an effective technique in dealing with recalcitrant monarchs, especially when combined with their power of the purse: By tying petitions to money bills, Parliament could coerce monarchs into agreeing to limitations on the royal prerogative. The laws of England forbade the king from levying taxes: only Parliament could tax the people. The advantage of a petition, moreover, was that, as it merely confirmed existing rights, Parliament could secure significant concessions from the king while maintaining the appearance of a status quo. That is, when Parliament used this ploy, there would seem to be no extension of parliamentary rights at the expense of the Crown.

By the time of the accession of Charles I Charles I (king of England);Parliament and in 1625, the monarchy and Parliament had long been at odds over the royal prerogative. The issue was simple: Was there to be a balance between king and Parliament (constitutional monarchy) Monarchy, constitutional , or was the king to be supreme in his realm (absolutist monarchy)? Although not unusually learned, Charles I inherited from his father an authoritarian streak, stubbornness, and a tendency toward duplicity in dealing with those whom he considered to be his inferiors. Charles demonstrated little or no patience for Parliament, whose desires to limit his prerogative he saw as utterly without legitimacy, and he drastically underestimated the practical power of Parliament to enforce its desires, whether philosophically legitimate or not.

The first Parliament of Charles’s reign, which met in 1625, expressed its displeasure with the duke of Buckingham, Buckingham, first duke of who was head of the navy, for blundering and misusing resources in his conduct of the war against Spain. As an expression of its dissatisfaction, the House of Commons voted the tax known as “tunnage and poundage” for only one year. The tax, an import and export duty, had habitually been voted for each king’s entire reign, and limitation of the grant to one year indicated that Parliament did not trust Charles.

The House of Commons of 1625 also severely criticized Arminianism Arminianism in the Church of England Church of England . William Laud, Laud, William then bishop of London and a privy councillor to Charles, was a strong supporter of episcopacy and church discipline. As the theory of divine right of kings rested upon the concept of one king, one church, the king either controlled his established church as its Supreme Head, or he saw the diminution of his religious authority coincide with a diminution of his royal power. Laud was also High Church, which meant he favored a more ceremonial liturgy in the Church. These ideas were anathema to the Puritan Anglicans, who wanted to “purify” the Church of England along Calvinist lines. To them, lack of austerity and excessive ritualism smacked of “popery.” Puritans wanted less state interference in local matters and a simplified church service. Thus, for the Puritans no less than for the king, religious issues were also political issues.

Disgusted at what he regarded as the radicalism of the 1625 Parliament, Charles dissolved it. Before summoning a new one the following year, he eliminated certain radical members prominent in the previous Parliament by making them sheriffs and thus forcing them to remain in their own counties instead of coming to London. The leadership of the Commons passed by default, however, to an even more radical group led by John Eliot Eliot, John . The 1626 Parliament attempted to impeach Buckingham on charges of misconduct in the war. The impeachment was of questionable legality but showed the increasing boldness of the House of Commons. Once more failing to obtain grants of taxes to carry on the war, Charles soon dissolved Parliament again.

For two years Charles attempted to rule without Parliament. Unfortunately, Buckingham foolishly entangled England in a war with France while the nation was still at war with Spain. Claiming that England should aid French Huguenots, in 1627 the duke personally led an expedition to La Rochelle. It was an unmitigated disaster: The expedition was costly, troops were quartered in the homes of English citizens until they were ready to sail, and nothing was accomplished. To raise money, Charles attempted to secure a huge forced loan from the more substantial men of the kingdom, an expedient that had been used in England before but never on so large a scale. More than seventy rural landowners, including Eliot, were jailed for refusing to pay. They petitioned the courts, which ultimately upheld the king but only after the case had been thoroughly publicized and had aroused considerable opposition.

Without taxes, Charles’s financial situation was becoming desperate, and in 1628, he again summoned Parliament. Prominent among the new members were Eliot, who had recently been released from prison, Sir Thomas Wentworth, Wentworth, Thomas who had also been imprisoned in connection with the loan but was more moderate and later became Charles’s chief adviser, and the elderly Sir Edward Coke, Coke, Sir Edward the former lord chief justice who had been removed from office by James I. The king again requested taxes for the support of the war, but Eliot and others asserted that the war was going badly because of Buckingham and demanded that he be removed before Parliament would consider granting money. In the meantime, the House of Commons discussed the grievances which it had against the king’s government. Taxation;England

For more than a month, the Commons debated the drawing up of a Bill of Rights guaranteeing fundamental liberties to English subjects against the encroachments of royal power. Private conferences were held with members of the House of Lords, who also had to approve bills. On April 28, the king summoned the Lords and the Commons together and assured them of his respect for traditional English liberties embodied in Magna Carta and other documents, but some members still distrusted him. By May 5, however, it was decided that the Bill of Rights had no future, because the king and the Lords would never accept it.

On May 6, Sir Edward Coke suggested that the Commons attempt to join with the Lords in presenting the king with a Petition of Right. This petition would not have the status of a bill but would take the form of a plea to the king, which Parliament had the right to present without limit. Wentworth supported the suggestion and so did Eliot. The Petition of Right was formally drawn up the same day. It was a protest against those actions of the king’s officers that the Commons claimed violated the fundamental rights of Englishmen, the taking of forced loans, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without charge and without trial, and the forced billeting of soldiers in private houses. On May 8, a fourth clause was added protesting the proclamation of martial law in peacetime.

The king’s chief minister, the duke of Buckingham, who had supported the policies that led Parliament to adopt the Petition of Right in protest, was assassinated less than three months after Charles I accepted the petition.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The Lords were ready to concur in the Petition until a letter arrived from the king promising never again to imprison men arbitrarily, especially in connection with forced loans. On May 17, the Upper House proposed adding a clause to the petition proclaiming that the king’s power would in no way be diminished. The Commons refused to accept the amendment, and the Lords finally gave in and passed the unamended petition on May 26. Two days later, the Petition of Right was formally presented to the king. He was promised new taxes if he agreed to accept the restrictions of royal power set forth in the petition. On June 2, Charles met with the two Houses of Parliament, and although he promised that he would do nothing contrary to the laws of the kingdom, he made no mention of the Petition of Right.

In the Commons, Eliot gave a long speech detailing the maladministrations of Charles’s servants, especially Buckingham. On June 5, Charles sent word that the Commons should not engage in any speeches that cast aspersions on the government or its ministers, a message which the delegates took to be an illegal interference with their right of free discussion. Protracted debate followed over whether to submit a formal protest to the king, but on June 7, he summoned the two Houses of Parliament unexpectedly, had the Petition read, and in a brief statement in French indicated his acceptance of it.

Continuing in session for the consideration of several tax bills, the Commons then drew up a less formal remonstrance to the king, in which Buckingham was again mentioned in connection with a number of grievances throughout the kingdom. Charles received it with sarcasm and did nothing about it. He had obtained the taxes that he had sought, so he adjourned Parliament, though he did not dissolve it. One of Parliament’s major grievances was soon removed, when Buckingham was assassinated by John Felton, Felton, John a disappointed office-seeker, on August 23.

When Parliament met again in 1629, however, feelings still ran high. When the king realized the mood of the Commons, he ordered Parliament dissolved, but the radical party, led by Eliot, held the speaker in his chair, thereby keeping the House officially in session, while protests were passed against Arminianism and against tunnage and poundage, which Charles had been collecting without authorization. Eliot was prosecuted for this act and died in prison in 1632. Wentworth, alarmed at what he regarded as the radicalism of his colleagues, went over to the king’s side. Charles made it clear that he would not summon another Parliament unless he were in dire financial necessity, and for the following eleven years, he attempted to rule without the cooperation of Parliament.

The absence of Parliament provided only one inconvenience for Charles, namely the difficulty of raising money. He resorted to a number of extralegal or dubious methods, including revival of forgotten medieval feudal dues, and extending existing taxes beyond the limits intended for them. “Ship money,” for instance, was ordinarily collected from coastal towns, but it was now extended to the entire kingdom. He also imposed various customs duties. Fierce resentment against these expedients grew throughout the country, especially when those who refused to pay were prosecuted and imprisoned. Resentment increased when Charles refused to intervene on the Protestant side in the Thirty Years’ War in Germany.

A second major source of grievance in these years was renewed activity against the Puritans, instigated by Charles’s most trusted adviser, Bishop Laud, who had become archbishop of Canterbury. Although Puritans were still members of the established church, Laud forced Puritan ministers from their pulpits and dealt brutally with the more outspoken Puritan pamphleteers, who were imprisoned and mutilated. King Charles and Archbishop Laud were suspected, unfairly, of being secret Catholics. Persecution, religious;Puritans in England

In 1637, Laud attempted to impose a revised Book of Common Prayer on Scotland. The Scots resisted and swore to the National Covenant, in open defiance of the king’s authority over ecclesiastical affairs. Charles decided to fight, and in 1639 the First Bishops’ War Bishops’ War, First (1639)[Bishops War, First (1639)] erupted. It was this conflict that, in 1640, forced the king to end his eleven years of absolutist rule. Desperate for money, he summoned Parliament, but the so-called Short Parliament Short Parliament (1640) was too aggressive and was quickly dissolved. A second Parliament proved to be no less aggressive, for the Long Parliament Long Parliament (1640-1648) sat for thirteen years and brought about the most sweeping changes in English history. Civil war, the abolition of the monarchy, and the execution of Charles I clearly limited the royal prerogative. Unfortunately, Parliament without king proved to be as absolute as king without Parliament. Only in 1688, with the Glorious Revolution Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) , were England’s constitutional and religious issues finally resolved.


The seventeenth century is arguably the most significant period in the evolution of a constitutional monarchy Monarchy, constitutional in England. It was the Petition of Right that began this period of constitutional development. In English government, no single document exists that establishes a separation of powers with checks and balances. The Petition of Right, coupled with the Bill of Rights Bill of Rights, English (1689) of 1689, which was passed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, are two of the most significant documents limiting the power of the monarchy. Both draw heavily upon the Magna Carta of 1215, which asserted that no one in England, not even the king, was above the law. This understanding of constitutional monarchy is one of the great legacies of Great Britain to the world.

Further Reading

  • Cust, Richard. The Forced Loan and English Politics, 1626-1628. New York: Longman, 1987. Provides a detailed analysis of the issues and personalities that led to the Petition of Right.
  • Guy, J. A. “The Origins of the Petition of Right Reconsidered.” In Law, Liberty, and Parliament: Selected Essays on the Writings of Sir Edward Coke, edited by Allen D. Boyer. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2004. Reexamination of the Petition of Right and Coke’s role in its creation.
  • Hirst, Derek. Authority and Conflict: England, 1603-1658. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. Analysis of the forces, religious and political, that resulted in war between king and Parliament.
  • Hulme, Harold. The Life of Sir John Eliot. New York: New York University Press, 1957. Detailed account of Eliot’s parliamentary motivations and maneuvers.
  • Kenyon, J. P., ed. The Stuart Constitution, 1603-1688: Documents and Comments. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Includes the Petition of Right.
  • Mosse, George L. The Struggle for Sovereignty in England. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1950. Argues that the rule of Parliament theoretically involved arbitrary and absolute power to the same degree as rule by the king.
  • Reeve, L. J. Charles I and the Road to Personal Rule. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Studies the motivations of Charles I and analyzes the historical forces with which he dealt.
  • Sharpe, Kevin. The Personal Rule of Charles I. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Examines Charles’s personality, principles, and political views to explain his decision to dissolve Parliament.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

First Duke of Buckingham; Charles I; Sir Edward Coke; John Eliot; James I; William Laud; John Pym; First Earl of Strafford. Petition of Right (1628)