The Great Protestation

In opposition to the monarchy, the English parliament asserted its authority over judicial and legislative affairs, intensifying the conflict between the king and Parliament that would eventually culminate in the English Civil Wars.

Summary of Event

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI of Scotland ascended the throne as James I James I (king of England) of England. Almost immediately upon his ascension, the king sought to increase his influence over the country’s legislative, judicial, and ecclesiastical affairs. While Puritan radicalism had been a thorny political issue throughout Elizabeth’s reign, James’s perceived sympathies toward Catholicism raised the pitch of religious debate considerably. As a result, political and religious opposition to the crown became more regular and overt, and the period from 1621 to 1642 was marked by a series of attempts by Parliament to curtail royal power. Catholicism;England
[kw]Great Protestation, The (Dec. 18, 1621)
[kw]Protestation, The Great (Dec. 18, 1621)
Government and politics;Dec. 18, 1621: The Great Protestation[0890]
Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 18, 1621: The Great Protestation[0890]
England;Dec. 18, 1621: The Great Protestation[0890]
Great Protestation (1621)

In defense of his claims to authority, James frequently cited the doctrine of the divine right of kings, according to which rulers of nations were anointed by God and therefore above religious or parliamentary scrutiny. James was successful in increasing the scope of his authority, perceived or actual, in part because he was able to use fines and imprisonment to enforce his proclamations and in part because most of his judges regularly sided with him on questions of jurisdiction. James also relied on his power both to call and to dissolve sessions of Parliament.

At the same time, however, although Parliament could only meet at the behest of the king, James was increasingly dependent upon Parliament to raise money for his foreign campaigns, since under British law, only Parliament could levy new taxes. The king was thus often compelled to call a Parliament despite himself, and once called, Parliament was able to pass laws in its own interests contradicting the will of the king. James had routinely been in need of money throughout his reign, and when Spanish troops invaded the Palatinate in 1620, the possibility of war preparations made the issues of royal funds even more pressing. It was in this context that James called the two parliamentary sessions of 1621. Taxation;England

The Parliament of 1621, instead of dedicating most of its time to the money-raising campaigns that James had hoped to instigate, ultimately devoted its energy to a series of actions designed to reform those aspects of James’s leadership that had become especially contentious. During this time, Sir Edward Coke Coke, Sir Edward became one of the leading members of Parliament who sought to advance these reforms. One of the more successful efforts by Parliament in this process was a series of impeachments of James’s royal officers. Following a legal precedent that had been in existence since the Middle Ages, the House of Commons began to exercise its power to impeach a government officer before the House of Lords.

In February, the Commons impeached one of the king’s commissioners, Sir Giles Mompesson, Mompesson, Sir Giles on the grounds that he had illegally used his administrative authority over certain monopolies to extort funds from the government. Mompesson was successfully impeached and sentenced to life imprisonment. The success of this trial made impeachment a popular method for dealing with James’s most controversial ministers, including the first duke of Buckingham a few years later, and the practice continued well into the eighteenth century.

The controversial role of monopolies in England’s economy had long been a sticking point for many members of Parliament, so the actions taken against Mompesson were hardly surprising. James, following his usual habit of trying to negotiate with contending factions in the government (at least for a while), had in fact made known his willingness to hear arguments in favor of reforming monopolies. In the spirit of this attitude of cooperation, James made several conciliatory gestures, including canceling several monopolies and loosening trade regulations. During a second session of Parliament in the same year, however, James angered the House of Commons by restricting them from any discussion of foreign policy. He made the additional mistake of putting forth an official statement reminding Parliament (correctly, but unwisely) that its authority had only been instituted in recent history by a royal grant and was therefore, presumably, contingent upon the Crown’s power.

Parliament responded quickly and vehemently to the king’s bravado and, during this same session, made one further significant attempt to mitigate the king’s authority over judicial and legislative affairs. On December 18, a bill was passed declaring that “the liberties, franchises, privileges, and jurisdictions of parliament are the ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England, and that the arduous and urgent affairs concerning the king, state, and defense of the realm . . . are proper subjects and matter of council and debate in parliament.” By this official act of “protestation,” Parliament hoped to secure their influence on judicial appointments, as well as interject themselves into the daily legislative activities of the government, both of which James had aggressively sought solely to control since his accession.

This act of open defiance immediately incurred James’s anger. Upon reading the official journal of the parliamentary session, it is reputed that he tore out the page containing the act of protestation in a rage. The king quickly denied the legality of Parliament’s claims to authority (in part, he claimed, because correct parliamentary procedure had not been followed), and he dissolved the session shortly afterward. In addition, James had several of the leading members of Parliament imprisoned, including Sir Edward Coke, John Selden, Selden, John and Henry Wriothesley Southampton, third earl of , third earl of Southampton (whose son, the fourth earl of Southampton, would become a staunch supporter of Charles I). Also arrested for a short time was John Pym, Pym, John who by that time had already established himself as a fierce opponent of Roman Catholicism and who would go on to become one of the most influential opponents of the king during the English Civil Wars, leading the Long Parliament of 1640. Although most of these members were soon released, the conflict was viewed as a breakdown of the English constitution, paving the way for further tensions between Parliament and Charles I upon his accession in 1625.


Although the king’s power to dissolve Parliament meant that the 1621 session was not able to realize its stated claims to authority immediately, the Great Protestation set down in unambiguous language many of the political arguments that Parliament was to draw upon over the next few decades in their attempt to wrest power from the monarch. More important, the 1621 Parliament had the effect of galvanizing anti-Royalist sentiment, which had already been developing in the Puritan faction in England since the sixteenth century. For this reason, the Great Protestation is often identified as the beginning of the Puritan Awakening Puritan Awakening , a period of intense opposition to the royal court that would culminate in the English Civil Wars and the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Further Reading

  • Cogswell, Thomas. The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621-1624. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Analyzes the immediate effects of the Great Protestation, particularly as an antecedent to the English Civil Wars. Index, bibliography.
  • Coward, Barry. The Stuart Age: England, 1603-1714. New York: Longman, 1994. An excellent analysis of the period that contextualizes the Great Protestation within the larger political and social movements in seventeenth century England. Bibliography, timeline.
  • Croft, Paula. “Capital Life: Members of Parliament Outside the House.” In Politics, Religion, and Popularity in Early Stuart Britain, edited by Thomas Cogswell, Richard Cust, and Peter Lake. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Interesting discussion of the meeting habits and customs of Parliament members during the Jacobean period.
  • Tanner, Joseph R. Constitutional Documents of the Reign of James I, A.D. 1603-1625. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1930. Includes the full text of the 1621 protestation, along with a general commentary.
  • Thrush, Andrew. “The Personal Rule of James I, 1611-1620.” In Politics, Religion, and Popularity in Early Stuart Britain, edited by Thomas Cogswell, Richard Cust, and Peter Lake. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Analyzes the king’s treatment of Parliament in the years immediately preceding the Great Protestation.
  • Tite, Colin. Impeachment and Parliamentary Judicature in Early Stuart England. London: Athlone Press, 1974. Analyzes the political maneuverings of the 1621 Parliament in its opposition to the Crown. Index, bibliography.

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

First Duke of Buckingham; Charles I; Sir Edward Coke; James I; John Pym. Great Protestation (1621)