King Charles I attempts to arrest five members of Parliament. – 1866, Charles West Cope/ public domain.
On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray was peppered by senators’ questions about Trump supporters’ Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol as Congress worked to formalize President Donald Trump’s defeat at the ballot box.
Among the questions: Were white-supremacist groups among the attackers? Did security officials ignore warnings? Was there any evidence that some of the attackers were leftists posing as Trump supporters?
Wray said white supremacists were among the attackers and that his agency hadn’t found any evidence of left wingers posing as Trump supporters. Whether warnings were ignored continues to be investigated.
But deeper questions will remain after that one is answered. It’s going to take Congress — and the country — a long time to wrap its head around an event that threatened our democracy like no other aside from the U.S. Civil War.
An event in English history that bears similarities to the Jan. 6 insurrection might provide some clues. It left scars so deep that Parliament still commemorates it — 369 years later — by symbolically slamming a door in the face of the monarch.
Modern democracy was a long time being born in England and tensions between the monarch and other powers were nothing new in 1642.
Repeated rebellions against the crown gave birth to Parliament, the House of Commons and the election of its members. The uprisings often arose from conflict over four interrelated things: power, war, religion and money.
In 1215, King John was forced by a group of rebellious barons to sign the Magna Carta, which required the king to share power over things such as levying taxes and waging war. While it’s one of the best-known documents in English history, it was just one of many compromises kings had to make when they found themselves desperate for money and soldiers, Dan Jones wrote in “The Plantagenets.”
By 1642, King Charles I found himself in just such straits.
“Tensions between the King and Parliament centred around finances, made worse by the costs of war abroad, and by religious suspicions at home,” the royal family’s website says. “Charles’s marriage was seen as ominous, at a time when plots against Elizabeth I and the Gunpowder Plot in James I’s reign were still fresh in the collective memory, and when the Protestant cause was going badly in the war in Europe.”
An imperious man, Charles passionately believed in the divine right of kings and deeply resented Parliament, which by this time was divided into a House of Lords and a House of Commons comprising local, elected representatives.
Having fought disastrous wars with France and Spain in the late 1620s, he was in a fix. A big part of Charles’ dilemma was that the European world had been the scene of intense religious strife since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation a century earlier.
In England, King Henry VIII‘s decision to throw off papal authority sparked Catholic plots against the crown. France was the scene of religion-fueled massacre and civil war, and in Charles’ time Central Europe was devastated by a 30-year religious war.
All that conflict is a big part of the reason why the 18th century framers of the U.S. Constitution were so adamant about separating church and state.
But for Charles, it wasn’t so simple. He was married to Henrietta Maria of France, a Catholic, and he had secretly agreed to restore rights to English Catholics that had been lost over the previous century. Charles’ marriage didn’t sit well with John Pym and Puritan leaders in Parliament, who suspected the king was a Catholic sympathizer.
Rather than deal with a Parliament that so distrusted him, Charles dismissed it in 1629 and let it lie dormant for 11 years as he resorted to other, highly unpopular means of raising revenue. Opponents would call it the “11 years of tyranny.”
A protestant uprising in Scotland finally forced Charles to call Parliament back into session in 1640 in hopes of getting it to levy new taxes to put down the rebels. The next year, as unrest grew in Ireland, Pym and the others demanded control over the army and tried to impeach the Catholic queen.
Finally, on Jan. 4, 1642, Charles decided that he’d had enough. So he tried to impose himself in a way that echoes down to Jan. 6, 2021.
The king took a detachment of about 400 soldiers to the House of Commons and strode inside. He was hoping to arrest Pym and four of his allies, but they’d been tipped off and fled.
Parliament responded by passing an act that gave itself the power to raise an army. Then the English Civil Wars raged and Charles was arrested, tried and beheaded in 1649.
In the years since, English democracy continued to evolve. After an interregnum the monarchy was restored in 1660, but the balance of power continued to swing toward Parliament. Now Parliament governs, while the crown serves in a largely ceremonial capacity.
One of those ceremonies commemorates Charles’s attack on parliamentary authority.
The Usher of the Black Rod is the monarch’s appointee to serve as sergeant at arms in the House of Lords. In the years since Charles, every time the usher approaches the House of Commons to summon members to a speech by the sovereign, the door is ritually slammed in that person’s face. The usher then uses a black rod to knock three times — symbolically pleading for admission to a chamber that is within Parliament’s power to withhold.
When Donald Trump fired up supporters on Jan. 6 and sent them to the Capitol, it appears that he was trying to stop Congress from performing a duty that promised to cost him power. Still to be decided is how Congress will remember this over the next 369 years.
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