On the 4th January 1642, Charles I attempted and failed to arrest the Five Members of Parliament, prompting the English Civil War and his own eventual execution for treason.
Charles ascended to the throne in 1625, but as a believer in the divine right of kings ruled without Parliament for eleven years of personal rule. During this time his policies – particular those regarding taxation and religion – were met with hostility from his subjects.
His religious policies towards Scotland culminated in the outbreak of the Bishops’ Wars in 1639, which saw a Scottish army invade England in August 1640. Charles became convinced that the Scots had been encouraged in some way by the Five Members: John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Arthur Haselrig and William Strode. Charles was afraid of them turning the London mob against him, and had heard rumours of a plan to impeach the Queen, so he charged them with treason.
The Five Members failed to respond to a summons on the 3rd January. Therefore on the afternoon of the 4th the King himself entered the House of Commons chamber – an act that was a huge violation of Parliamentary privilege – and sat in the Speaker’s chair to demand the men be handed over to him.
The Five Members had already left the building for safety, and when asked for their whereabouts the Speaker announced that he wouldn’t tell the king their location as he was a servant of Parliament, not the crown. Exclaiming that “the birds have flown,” Charles soon fled the capital. The English Civil War began just a few months later.
On the 17th November 1558, Elizabeth I succeeded her half-sister Mary to become queen of England. The last of the Tudor dynasty, Elizabeth’s reign is seen by many as a ‘golden age’ in English history. A period of relative political and religious stability, her reign saw unprecedented foreign exploration and expansion, while at home the English Renaissance brought about enormous cultural developments and the rise of one of the greatest playwrights ever to have lived – William Shakespeare.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and, despite being declared illegitimate following the annulment of her parents’ marriage, came to the throne as the next in line behind her Catholic half-sister under the terms of the Third Succession Act. Having become queen when she was 25 years old, Elizabeth relied heavily on a group of advisers led by Robert Cecil and is generally seen as providing stability through her long reign, in comparison to her two siblings.
Soon after assuming power she introduced the Elizabethan Religious Settlement consisting of two Acts of Parliament which resolved much of the Protestant/Catholic divide that had characterised the years before and after her reign. However, this did little to appease the Catholic Philip II of Spain who famously launched the Spanish Armada against England in 1588 but was defeated.
Elizabeth never married nor had any heirs, leading to her becoming known as the Virgin Queen. When she died, the lack of an heir led to the end of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of the Stuarts after James VI of Scotland became James I of England.
On the 19th August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, was placed under house arrest in what is known as the August Coup. Opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms, the leaders of the coup believed that the new Union of Sovereign States, which had been approved in a union-wide referendum, threatened the complete disintegration of the USSR. A number of individual states had already declared their independence, but the New Union Treaty would devolve much of the Soviet Union’s remaining power to individual states.
It was while Gorbachev was on holiday in Foros, a resort in the Crimea, that the coup was launched. On the 17th August, the coup’s leaders met with Gorbachev and demanded that he either declare a state of emergency or resign. Although the specific details of the conversation are unclear, the outcome was that Gorbachev refused.
Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and the leaders of the coup – known as the Gang of Eight – created the State Committee of the State of Emergency to govern the USSR due to Gorbachev suffering from an “illness”. The changes in government were announced on state media on the morning of the 19th but, having chosen not to arrest Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the coup faced a blow when he began speaking against it. Two days later, the military supporting the coup failed to take control of the Russian parliament building in the face of civil resistance.
The coup collapsed on the 21st August, but the USSR was left seriously weakened. Just over four months later the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
The Battle of Naseby, a decisive engagement of the English Civil War, was fought between the Royalist army of King Charles I and the Parliamentarian New Model Army.
The New Model Army was formed as a result of concerns over the effectiveness of the existing Parliamentarian army that was based on local volunteers, many of whom were reluctant to fight away from home. The new army would be made up of full-time professional soldiers whose loyalty would be national rather than regional. The introduction of the Self-denying Ordinance further strengthened the new force, since it resulted in a more effective military leadership.
The New Model Army, under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, was besieging the King’s former capital in Oxford when news arrived that the Royalist army had captured the Parliamentarian town of Leicester. Fairfax abandoned the siege on Oxford and marched north to engage the Royalists, whom he found on the border between Northamptonshire and Leicestershire. Fairfax’s army was joined by Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry on 13 June. Faced with the choice of either fighting or retreating, the King accepted battle.
Fairfax had positioned the Parliamentarian army on a ridge, but was persuaded by Cromwell to move it to a weaker position to encourage the Royalists to attack. Prince Rupert of the Rhine soon broke through the Parliamentary left flank, but rode on to pursue fleeing Parliamentarians rather than turn and outflank the infantry. This weakened the Royalists, and Cromwell’s cavalry were able to break the remaining cavalry before turning against the infantry in the centre. Before long the Royalists began to surrender, while Charles fled. The Royalist army was virtually destroyed in the battle, with around 6,000 of its 8,000 men either killed or captured.
On the 7th June 1628, the Petition of Right was approved by King Charles I. The Petition is a major Constitutional document that recognises four key principles of government: no taxation without the consent of Parliament, no imprisonment without cause, no quartering of soldiers on subjects, and no martial law in peacetime. It is still in force today.
A major reason for the Petition of Right was that Charles firmly believed in Divine Right – the idea that God had chosen him to rule. This encouraged Charles to rule by Royal Prerogative, meaning he tried to govern without consulting parliament. However, Parliament felt that Charles was overreaching his authority, especially when he began gathering “forced loans” from his subjects and imprisoning anyone who refused to pay. They were angered by Charles taking money from his subjects without Parliamentary approval, and by imprisonment without trial that undermined Magna Carta and habeas corpus.
What was notable about the passage of the Petition of Right was that both the House of Commons and the House of Lords – which had traditionally supported the monarchy – had approved it. Despite this, Charles was initially unwilling to ratify it and even sent a message to the Commons “forbidding them to meddle with affairs of state”. When it became clear that Parliament would not back down, Charles finally relented and ratified the Petition on the 7th June. However he continued to govern the country in much the same way as before, setting in place a major factor for the outbreak of the English Civil War less than fifteen years later.
On the 10th April 1858 Big Ben – the bell inside the clocktower at the Palace of Westminster in Britain – was cast. Many people think the name Big Ben applies to the clock itself, but it’s actually only the name of the bell. The tower is officially known as the Elizabeth Tower, renamed from the rather boring ‘Clock Tower’ in 2002 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
Big Ben and the clock tower are two of the most evocative symbols of London. The bell has chimed the hours almost non-stop since it first rang in July 1859, over a year after the bell itself was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
Weighing 13 and a half tons, the bell is actually damaged. Within two months of being installed, it cracked under the weight of the hammer and repairs took nearly three years to complete. The bell still operates now with the repair in place, and so actually sounds slightly different to what was originally intended.
As for the bell’s nickname, sources disagree on the origin. However, the most commonly accepted explanation comes from a Parliamentary debate. It’s said that a large and imposing politician, Sir Benjamin Hall, made a long and passionate speech about the bell. He was known as ‘Big Ben’ and, on sitting back down, someone else in the chamber shouted out “Why not call it Big Ben and have done with it?”