Parliament and the Duke of Buckingham
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
In the interval between these two latter dates [12 June and 26 June, 1628] the fact that peace had not been achieved became manifest. Parliament proceeded with the deferred attack upon Buckingham by drawing up its Remonstrance, and it also proceeded with a bill to grant the king tonnage and poundage for one year. Now in this lay the crux of the financial question. Was it or was it not within the king's right to levy that impost? Parliament assumed that it was not. The king assumed that it was.
Hitherto he had acted on that assumption throughout his reign. The claim of the Commons was an exceedingly doubtful one. In the first place, for two hundred years the grant had been made as a matter of form at the beginning of every reign for the whole period of the reign. Even if it were assumed that the Commons had never technically surrendered their right to withhold that grant, the attempt to exercise a technical right which had been in abeyance for two hundred years was doubtfully constitutional. Further, the Law Courts were the appointed authority for interpreting the law; in Bate's case the judges' decision for the Crown covered tonnage and poundage.
The Commons had indeed passed a traversing resolution, but the resolution of one chamber could not override the authority of the Courts, Thirdly, when the Commons in 1625 had departed from precedent and made the grant for one year only, the Lords had rejected the bill because of the unconstitutional limitation. Obviously then the king had an exceedingly strong case for his view.
Further, if tonnage and poundage fell within the prerogative before the Petition of Right, no difference was made by the statute because according to the king's argument, and according to the claim of the Commons in presenting the petition, it deprived the king of no existing prerogatives, but was an Act declaratory of the existing law. No mention had been made in the petition itself of indirect taxes, but only of specified forms of taxation against which the Commons had an adequate case as be opposed to constitutional practice.
The only possible retort for the Commons was that the phrase "or other such charge" was intended to cover indirect taxation that the king was perfectly well aware that this was the meaning of the Commons and that in assenting to the petition he was accepting the doctrine of the Commons that the legal decision in Bate's case had been wrong and that the practice of two hundred years had not deprived the House of a right which it had always held in reserve.
To the plain man the plain fact would appear to be that both the Crown and the Commons shirked the issue in the Petition of Right, and left the taxation clauses intentionally indefinite because each party intended to insist on its own interpretation of the indefinite phrase as part and parcel of the terms on which the subsidies had been granted.
Each hoped indirectly to score the victory on the vital point which both thoroughly recognised. The king would be completely under the financial control of the Commons if he had annually to obtain their authority for levying indirect taxes; which was precisely what the Commons were bent on securing and the king was bent on avoiding.
The Tonnage and Poundage Bill
Such, then, was the. position of affairs when the House of Commons sent up its Tonnage and Poundage Bill accompanied by a declaration that the levying of the impost without parliamentary authority had been illegal.
The king met the Commons with a flat refusal to accept the bill, or to surrender his constitutional right to levy tonnage and poundage without parliament's consent. He was able to do so because the subsidies were already secured. The weight of opinion undoubtedly favours the view that Charles was technically in the right, and that on this question the Commons were the innovators, not the Crown.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.