The Five Members were those members of parliament whom King Charles I (1625–1649) attempted to arrest on 4 January 1642, when he entered the English House of Commons accompanied by armed soldiers during a sitting of the Long Parliament, one of the key events leading to the outbreak of civil war later that year. They were John Hampden (c. 1594–1643), Arthur Haselrig (1601–1661), Denzil Holles (1599–1680), John Pym (1584–1643) and William Strode (1598–1645).
The relationship between the House of Commons and the King had become increasingly fraught during 1641. The King believed that Puritans, encouraged by the five vociferous members of the House of Commons, together with the peer Edward Montagu, Viscount Mandeville (the future Earl of Manchester), had encouraged the Scots to invade England in the recent Bishops’ Wars, and that they were intent on turning the people against him. When rumours reached the court that they were also planning to impeach the Queen for alleged involvement in Catholic plots, Charles made accusations of treason against them in the House of Lords. The Commons sat to consider the allegations on 3 January 1642, and held them to be a breach of the Upper House’s privilege.
Without agreement from the Commons, Charles faced difficulties in having the Five Members taken into custody. He had been considering decisive action for some time but he now hesitated. Both the Queen and Lord Digby advised him to go to the Commons with an armed guard, and to make the arrests in person. It was alleged that the Queen exclaimed “Go you poltroon. Go and pull those rogues out by the ears, or never see my face again”; the King yielded. To ensure there would be no armed resistance he first sent a message to the Lord Mayor of London forbidding him from sending men to protect parliament. Then, on 4 January 1642 he set off for the House, accompanied by around four hundred armed men.
The Five Members, who had been expecting the King to strike, took their seats as usual that morning. At about three o’clock they received word via the French Ambassador that Charles was on his way, and they left the House and took a waiting barge to the City of London, where they went into hiding.
Charles entered the precincts of the House with about eighty men, armed with pistols and swords. They remained in the lobby while Charles entered the Commons chamber accompanied only by his nephew, the Elector Palatine. Roxburghe, one of Charles’s retainers, propped the doors open so that the members in the chamber could see the troops making play with their pistols. The King removed his hat and walked to the front, saluting some members as he passed. The members stood in silence Addressing the speaker, William Lenthall, he said “Mr Speaker, I must for a time make bold with your chair”. Lenthall vacated it. Calling first for one of the members, and then another, he was met with total silence. He asked the speaker where they were. Kneeling, Lenthall responded defiantly:
May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.
It was the first time that a speaker had declared his allegiance to the liberty of parliament rather than the will of the monarch. The King replied “ ’Tis no matter, I think my eyes are as good as another’s.” He studied the benches for “a pretty while” before lamenting “all my birds have flown”. Quitting the chair, he walked out of the chamber, followed by shouts of “Privilege! Privilege!” from the members.
The King issued a proclamation ordering the City to surrender the fugitives, and marched in person to the Guildhall to demand that City officers hand them over. But the officers declared their support for parliament, as did the regiments of the Inns of Court. Returning to Whitehall in his coach, the king drove through a London that was in uproar. Rumours spread that the King’s supporters were going to attack the City, and volunteers poured in to offer their services in its defence. Barricades were erected, cannon dragged out, and there were soon six thousand citizens ready to repulse any attack.
Charles’s attempt to coerce parliament by force had failed, and his act had in the eyes of many at the time revealed him to be a tyrant.
On 10 January, Charles suddenly left London for Hampton Court, fearing for his own life and that of his Queen; he did not return for seven years, and then only for his trial and execution. The Five Members emerged from hiding the following day, and travelled by barge back to parliament, accompanied by a regatta of decorated craft, and cheering citizens.
The House of Commons issued a lengthy public declaration on 17 January denouncing Charles’s intrusion as “a high breach of the rights and privileges of parliament, and inconsistent with the liberties and freedoms thereof”. It declared that the King’s order to the City to seize the Five Members had no basis in law, and announced that any person doing so would be guilty of breach of privilege of parliament and deemed a public enemy of the Commonwealth. Any person harbouring the five, on the other hand, should have parliamentary protection.
Parliament once again pressed the King to approve a Militia Bill, effectively transferring control of the army from monarch to parliament, and Charles once again refused, protesting “By God! Not for an hour! You have asked that of me which was never asked of any king”. But this time parliament took matters into its own hands and in March 1642 issued the bill on its own authority, as the Militia Ordinance. The time for compromise was over, and the country was headed for civil war.
Charles’s 1642 incursion into the Commons chamber is now commemorated annually at the State Opening of Parliament, an event which formally marks the beginning of each parliamentary session. The Queen takes the throne in the House of Lords and sends her messenger, Black Rod, to summon the members of the House of Commons to attend. At Black Rod’s approach, the doors to the chamber are slammed in the messenger’s face, symbolising the rights and independence of the Commons. Black Rod bangs forcefully three times with the end of the ceremonial staff on the closed doors, which are then opened. Black Rod’s presence is announced. Black Rod then enters and conveys the monarch’s command that “this honourable House … attend upon Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers.”