Personal Rule

The Personal Rule (also known as the Eleven Years' Tyranny) was the period from 1629 to 1640, when King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland ruled without recourse to Parliament. The King claimed that he was entitled to do this under the Royal Prerogative.

Charles had already dissolved three Parliaments by the third year of his reign in 1628. After the murder of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who was deemed to have a negative influence on Charles' foreign policy, Parliament began to criticize the king more harshly than before. Charles then realized that, as long as he could avoid war, he could rule without Parliament.


Whig historians such as S. R. Gardiner called this period the "Eleven Years' Tyranny", because they interpret Charles's actions as authoritarian and a contributing factor to the instability that led to the English Civil War. More recent historians such as Kevin Sharpe called the period "Personal Rule", because they consider it to be a neutral term, and some such as Sharpe have emphasised the positive aspects of the period.[1]


In the Medieval period, government in England was very much centred on the King. He ruled personally, usually assisted by his Council, the Curia Regis. The council members were chosen by the King, and its membership varied greatly, but members often included powerful nobility and churchmen, senior civil servants, and sometimes certain members of the King's friends and family.

Early parliaments began to emerge under Edward I, who wished to implement taxation changes and wide-ranging law reforms, and sought to gain the consent of the nation. Nevertheless, calling a parliament was an expensive and time-consuming process, requiring many personal invitations (for the House of Lords) and elections in the shires and chartered cities and boroughs. So parliaments would only be summoned on particularly important occasions. Once a parliament had finished its business, the King would dissolve it, and perhaps not summon another for an extended period; in the meantime, the Curia Regis – that is, the King with his chosen advisers – would make laws ("ordinances"), spend money, and carry on the business of government.

From the 14th to the 16th centuries, the acknowledged powers of Parliament grew. In particular, it was established that Parliament was the only body that could authorise nationwide taxation and excise. There were practical underpinnings to these powers, for those who elected representatives to Parliament at this time were the same people the monarch had to rely on to collect and remit taxes on a large scale: the landed gentry. If a sovereign were to attempt to impose new taxes without consulting the gentry then the gentry could have simply refused to collect the taxes, and the monarch would have had little feasible recourse.

Once summoned, a parliament could take the opportunity to submit policy proposals to the monarch ("bills"), which would be expected to take precedence over ordinances if signed into law by the monarch, although the monarch was under no obligation to grant the Royal Assent to any such proposal. However, monarchs did increasingly use parliaments more widely in lawmaking as a way of gaining popular support for their policies. One example was during the English Reformation, when the Reformation Parliament acting at Henry VIII's instigation passed a succession of laws regulating the church in England.

The first of the Stuart monarchs to rule England, James I, was perennially short of money and he was obliged to summon parliaments often. Successive parliaments thereupon sought to turn the King's financial woes to their advantage, requiring various policy concessions before voting taxes. In 1625, James was succeeded by his son Charles I, who immediately plunged England into an expensive and ultimately unsuccessful war with Spain, in an attempt to force the Catholic Spanish King Philip IV to intercede with the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II on behalf of Charles's brother-in-law, Frederick V, Elector Palatine, the husband of Charles's sister Elizabeth, to regain the Electorate of the Palatinate and his hereditary lands, which the Emperor had taken from him.

Parliament's protests about the war's mismanagement by the Duke of Buckingham, and others of Charles' policies, primarily regarding taxation and other methods of acquiring funds, and Charles' refusal to compromise, eventually led to Charles dissolving Parliament in March 1629. He also made peace with Spain and France, largely because the financial burden of waging these wars could not be sustained without funds that Parliament alone could provide. For the next eleven years, Charles governed with only an advisory council of royal appointees.


The greatest problem Charles initially encountered at this stage was a continued lack of funds. The main sources of income for the King were customs duties, feudal dues and income from the King's personal estates. Nationwide taxation was widely understood to be for emergencies and special purposes, such as war, and it was by this time generally accepted that only Parliament could authorise a general tax. But even in peacetime, the traditional sources of the King's revenue were stretched to the limit to fund the business of government. So Charles and his advisers developed various schemes to raise additional revenue without recourse to Parliament.

A large fiscal deficit had arisen in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.[2] Notwithstanding Buckingham's short-lived campaigns against both Spain and France, there was little financial capacity for Charles to wage wars overseas. Throughout his reign Charles was obliged to rely primarily on volunteer forces for defence and on diplomatic efforts to support his sister, Elizabeth, and his foreign policy objective for the restoration of the Palatinate.[3] England was still the least taxed country in Europe, with no official excise and no regular direct taxation.[4] To raise revenue without reconvening Parliament, Charles resurrected an all-but-forgotten law called the "Distraint of Knighthood", in abeyance for over a century, which required any man who earned £40 or more from land each year to present himself at the king's coronation to be knighted. Relying on this old statute, Charles fined individuals who had failed to attend his coronation in 1626.[5][lower-alpha 1]

The chief tax imposed by Charles was a feudal levy known as ship money,[7] which proved even more unpopular, and lucrative, than tonnage and poundage before it. Previously, collection of ship money had been authorised only during wars, and only on coastal regions. Charles, however, argued that there was no legal bar to collecting the tax for defence during peacetime and throughout the whole of the kingdom. Ship money, paid directly to the Treasury of the Navy, provided between £150,000 to £200,000 annually between 1634 and 1638, after which yields declined.[8] Opposition to ship money steadily grew, but the 12 common law judges of England declared that the tax was within the king's prerogative, though some of them had reservations.[9] The prosecution of John Hampden for non-payment in 1637–38 provided a platform for popular protest, and the judges only found against Hampden by the narrow margin of 7–5.[10]

The king also derived money through the granting of monopolies, despite a statute forbidding such action, which, though inefficient, raised an estimated £100,000 a year in the late 1630s.[11][lower-alpha 2] Charles also raised funds from the Scottish nobility, at the price of considerable acrimony, by the Act of Revocation (1625), whereby all gifts of royal or church land made to the nobility since 1540 were revoked, with continued ownership being subject to an annual rent. In addition, the boundaries of the royal forests in England were extended to their ancient limits as part of a scheme to maximise income by exploiting the land and fining land users within the re-asserted boundaries for encroachment.[13]

Sales of Royal lands, especially the large expanses of under-developed Royal forests also contributed to finances. Courtiers were asked to survey the lands, to provide programmes to disafforest these areas. The focus of the programme was disafforestation and sale of forest lands for development as pasture and arable, or in the case of the Forest of Dean, development for the iron industry. This included providing compensation to people using the lands in common, especially manorial lords and their tenants. Others who had settled illegally were not entitled to compensation and frequently rioted. The discontent following a major wave of sales included what was known as the Western Rising, but extended beyond, for instance to riots in Feckenham Forest and Malvern Chase.[14]

The practice of granting extensive monopolies agitated the public, who were forced to pay higher prices by the monopoly holders. Against the background of this unrest, Charles faced bankruptcy in the summer of 1640 as parliament continued to refuse new taxes. The City of London, preoccupied with its own grievances further refused to make any loans to the king, and likewise he was unable to subscribe any foreign loans. In this extremity, Charles seized the money held in trust at the mint of the Exchequer in the tower of London. The royal mint held a monopoly on the exchange of foreign coin and from this the mint operated as a bank containing much capital of the merchants and goldsmiths of the city. In July, Charles seized all £130,000 of this money, and in August he followed it up by seizing all the stocks of pepper held by the East India Company, and selling it at distress prices.[15]

On the other side of the ledger, the government tried to reduce expenditure, especially by avoiding war (thus pursuing an isolationist foreign policy) and also avoiding large-scale innovations on the domestic front. Of equal importance, Charles learned to spend less extravagantly compared to his father.


The Personal Rule began to unravel in 1637, when Charles, along with his advisor Archbishop Laud, attempted to reform the then-episcopal Church of Scotland to bring it into line, especially in its liturgy, with the Church of England. This met with immense Scottish opposition and when negotiations broke down, a Scottish army invaded England (see Bishops' Wars). Charles could not afford to pay English troops to fight the Scots, and was obliged in 1640 to call the Short Parliament. This ended the Personal Rule, though Charles dissolved the Short Parliament after only a few days. By the end of the year, with the Scots still in England and no other routes left to him, he summoned what became the Long Parliament. In the months that followed, the Parliamentary leaders, turning their attention to domestic matters, demanded from Charles ever more sweeping concessions over government policy. In 1642, Charles left London to raise an army and regain control by force, and the English Civil War began.


  1. For comparison, a typical farm labourer could earn 8d a day, or about £10 a year.[6]
  2. The statute forbade grants of monopolies to individuals but Charles circumvented the restriction by granting monopolies to companies.[12]
  1. Seel & Smith 2005, p. 67.
  2. Gregg 1981, p. 40.
  3. Sharpe 1992, pp. 509–536, 541–545, 825–834.
  4. Gregg 1981, p. 220.
  5. Carlton 1995, p. 190; Gregg 1981, p. 228.
  6. Edwards 1999, p. 18.
  7. Carlton 1995, p. 191; Quintrell 1993, p. 62.
  8. Adamson 2007, pp. 8–9; Sharpe 1992, pp. 585–588.
  9. Cust 2005, pp. 130, 193; Quintrell 1993, p. 64.
  10. Cust 2005, p. 194; Gregg 1981, pp. 301–302; Quintrell 1993, pp. 65–66.
  11. Loades 1974, p. 385.
  12. Coward 2003, p. 167; Gregg 1981, pp. 215–216; Hibbert 1968, p. 138; Loades 1974, p. 385.
  13. Carlton 1995, p. 190; Gregg 1981, pp. 224–227; Quintrell 1993, pp. 61–62; Sharpe 1992, pp. 116–120.
  14. Sharp 1980, p. [page needed].
  15. Scott 1912, pp. 224.


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