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date: 07 August 2022

Five membersfree

(act. 1641)

Five membersfree

(act. 1641)
  • Stephen K. Roberts

Five members (act. 1641), were five members of the House of Commons whom Charles I attempted unsuccessfully to arrest for high treason on 4 January 1642. They were John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, William Strode, and Sir Arthur Hesilrige. The king never personally confronted them, they were not the only targets of the botched arrest, and were not working as an exclusive group either before, during, or after January 1642, but were nevertheless quickly and enduringly apotheosized as symbols of parliamentary privilege and of heroic resistance to the absolutist pretensions of the Stuart monarchy.

The immediate origins of the attempt to arrest the five members lay in a fevered atmosphere of popular unrest in the City of London and in the streets around the Palace of Westminster immediately after Christmas 1641. But a climate of mutual suspicion had steadily developed since parliament had assembled on 3 November 1640 to infect relations between it and the king. The appearance in November 1641 of the grand remonstrance, a catalogue of the government's failings and a statement of the conditions on which parliament would co-operate with the king in the future, only served to intensify the pressure to which both sides felt themselves subjected. On 28 December a joint committee of both houses of parliament met to draw up a petition to the king which protested the innocence of the members of Commons and Lords in the face of rumours that a group of peers and MPs had plotted to seize Queen Henrietta Maria in order to neutralize her influence as a fomenter of Catholic intrigue. Holles was sent to the Lords in order to convey the hopes of the lower house that the riots in the streets could be quelled, but even as he was doing so a mob burst into Westminster Abbey, causing loss of life. On 31 December the king sent a message to the common council of London, the City's ruling body, implying that it was somehow behind the tumults, provoking the council into a denial of involvement; and in a pattern of claim and counter-claim the Commons, whose leadership was in active co-operation with the council, requested its own guard against a feared attempt by the 'malignant party' close to the king against parliament. The Commons proposed Robert Devereux, third earl of Essex, lord chamberlain of the royal household, as commander. No immediate answer to this message was forthcoming, so the House of Commons hastily appointed its own lightly armed guard, thus providing Charles with grounds for claiming that the Commons had resorted to arms. But behind the scenes it is possible that attempts were still being made by the king's advisers to incorporate elements of the opposition leadership into government, by the offer of the chancellorship of the exchequer to John Pym.

After two days of continued tension and speculation within the Palace of Westminster, and disturbances outside it, the king replied on 3 January 1642. His message to the Commons conveyed his disappointment that after more than a year's sitting the assembly should be so wracked by jealousies. But Charles did not confine himself to mere expressions of disappointment. That day the attorney-general, Sir Edward Herbert, went to the Lords to accuse Edward Montagu, Baron Montagu of Kimbolton and Viscount Mandeville (later second earl of Manchester), of high treason, and included the names of the five members in the charge. Thus purists would argue that the five members should more correctly be the six, since Mandeville was distinguished from the others only by virtue of sitting in the other chamber. The seven articles of impeachment ranged over generalities such as subverting the fundamental laws, alienating the affections of the people from the king, and inviting in a foreign power, by which was meant the long-standing contacts between the Commons leadership and the Scots covenanters. The format was an echo of the impeachment by parliament of Thomas Wentworth, first earl of Strafford, whose death warrant Charles had signed in May 1641, to his own lasting self-torment. The king's men also that day sealed the trunks, doors, and papers of Pym and Holles, and later those of the others. A flurry of parliamentary activity inevitably ensued, in which the breach of parliamentary privilege, inherent in the king's confiscation of the members' property, figured strongly. The arrival of the serjeant-at-arms at the bar of the Commons to demand the persons of the five members, and the delaying answer of the house that it would consider the king's message, set the scene for the attempted arrest by the king himself.

The five members were all men whom the king had decided were troublemakers. They were not the only members of the so-called junto of opposition MPs, nor were they even the only leaders of it, but they were all memorable to the king for their boldness, either in the current parliament or in previous ones. Charles's personal intervention to arrest them was nearly aborted through his own loss of nerve, but the queen steeled him to the attempt, allegedly by means of a contemptuous outburst against her husband. On 4 January the five were given sufficient notice of the king's intentions by the good offices of the earl of Essex, the French ambassador (the marquis de la Ferté-Imbaut), and Lucy Hay, countess of Carlisle, a courtier who had recently become sympathetic to the parliamentary opposition leaders. The five were encouraged to leave the chamber and seek temporary refuge in the City, even as Charles approached with an armed retinue of bellicose, ill-disciplined former soldiers. A reluctant William Strode had to be virtually dragged from the chamber by a friend. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Accompanied by his nephew, Charles Lewis, elector palatine of the Rhine, the king entered the Commons chamber; the members stood as one and bowed as he made his way. The words spoken by Charles were recorded by John Rushworth, the assistant clerk of the house, and later edited by the king himself. Addressing himself to Speaker William Lenthall, Charles announced that he would have to 'make bold' with the chair for a while, and asked for Pym and then for Holles by name. The ensuing silence was broken by the king, who then demanded an answer of Lenthall, prompting the latter's celebrated respectful insistence that he was the servant of the house. After a few more remarks Charles concluded that 'all the birds are flown', and left the chamber, his self-control beginning to slip.

Both sides had much to reflect upon after the incident. MPs were in no doubt that the voluntary withdrawal of the five members had averted a violent coup by the king's retinue which would have ensued had the five been confronted and then refused to surrender themselves. After Charles had left the chamber the house adjourned itself until the following afternoon, when, still in shock, it resolved that the king's intrusion had been a breach of privilege. MPs then adopted the convention of an adjournment until 11 January, but continuity of political debate was assured by the removal of meetings in committee to the safer environment of the London Guildhall. After he returned to Whitehall the king sent for Rushworth, and edited his account of the event so that an approved version of it should appear in print the following day. In comparison with what was to become just months later the ferocious use of propaganda in the civil war, Charles's attempts to manipulate the narrative were half-hearted and not notably successful. On 5 January he went to the Guildhall to demand that the City give up the five members, but was mobbed in the streets with cries of 'privileges of parliament!'. The pamphleteer Henry Walker went so far as to fling into the king's carriage a printed tract alluding to the downfall of the biblical king Rehoboam. The whole incident raised the political temperature and the political stakes enormously, but in the short term the loser was emphatically Charles. On 10 January he left the capital, having concluded that the volatile crowds made it too dangerous to stay.

The political lessons that were drawn from the attempted arrest of the five members were various. The king had to drop all proceedings against the members and, in response to the Commons' impeachment of Sir Edward Herbert for his part in the prosecution, was forced to send to them a confirmation that he had decided 'wholly to desist from proceeding against the persons accused' (Letter to the Lord Keeper). The posthumously published justification of Charles's actions, Eikon Basilike, depicts the incident as intended to bring the members to a trial by the normal course of law, and asserted that the king had at least as much right to fear physical violence on 4 January as did MPs. In 1642 the House of Commons immediately identified the king's attempt on the persons of the five members as a breach of parliamentary privilege, and widened the scope of the breach to jeopardize those involved in planning and executing the king's foray into the House of Commons, and any who might have attempted subsequently to effect their arrest on a warrant issued by the king alone. The members' sense of outrage blinded them to the usually accepted understanding that parliamentary privilege could not extend to high treason, the charge which the king had been attempting to lay against the five. The events of the civil war coloured later interpretations. For radicals such as John Lilburne, facing trial by the army-sponsored Rump Parliament in 1649, the principal privilege enshrined on 4 January 1642 was the right to trial by due legal process before civil magistrates and protection from the force majeure imposed by armed men.

As their individual entries in this dictionary show, the later careers of the five members, strikingly different from one another, reveal how transient and of the moment was their unity. Even as the members themselves were taking the paths that would lead Holles to become virtually a royalist by 1660 and Hesilrige a diehard republican, throughout the 1640s political commentators made use of the image of the six members, remembering Mandeville's inclusion in the warrant, as well as that of the five. But it was the memory of the latter that was more powerful, enduring, and talismanic, because it was rooted in Charles's personal invasion of the Commons chamber to seek them. The whole event was defined by the intrusion, the king's exchange with Lenthall, and the drama, not only of the brief if memorable dialogue, but of the chilling sense of bloodshed only narrowly avoided. Nor did the parliamentary side in the civil war exercise proprietorial rights over the image and memory of the five or the six. A standard captured from a royalist regiment at the battle of Marston Moor (2 July 1644) carried the image of five dogs all marked ‘Pym’ and another marked ‘Kimbolton’ attacking a lion, representing the king; with them went a motto from Cicero, 'For how long will you abuse our patience?' The rise of interest in Oliver Cromwell evinced by early Victorian intellectuals was followed by a recovery in the reputations of the parliamentary heroes of 1640–42. The writer John Forster devoted a whole volume to the Arrest of the Five Members by Charles the First: a Chapter of English History Rewritten (1860) and C. W. Cope included a tableau of Speaker Lenthall asserting the privileges of the House of Commons among his paintings in the corridors of the Houses of Parliament in 1860–61. A painting by John Seymour Lucas (1849–1923) elsewhere in the palace of Westminster entitled The Flight of the Five Members commemorates the event.


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  • The journal of Sir Simonds D'Ewes from the first recess of the Long Parliament to the withdrawal of King Charles from London, ed. W. H. Coates (1942)
  • To the king's most excellent majesty: the humble petition of the mayor, aldermen and common council of the city of London (1642)
  • A declaration of the House of Commons touching a late breach of their priviledges (1642)
  • His maiesties letter to the lord keeper of the great seale of England (1642)
  • Master Hollis his speech in parliament, the 21 of March 1642 (1642)
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  • Charles I, Eikon basilike (1649)
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