Sir John Elliot, Parliamentary Immunity, and King Charles I

John Elliot

My Country – Sir John Elliot and Sedition

Like Peter Wentworth, Sir John Elliot ended up in the Tower of London because of speaking out on the floor of Parliament. In 1629, after King Charles I ordered the House of Commons to adjourn, several MPs held the Speaker in his chair. They insisted to give the speeches they prepared that focused on civil liberties.

1628 Parliament

King Charles I needed to raise funds through new taxes to pay for his war with Spain. A group of opponents, led by Sir John Elliot, drew up the Petition of Right.

The Petition was not new law, but instead a declaration of established rights. It contained four demands:

  • No taxation without the consent of Parliament
  • No imprisonment without cause shown
  • There should be no billeting of soldiers or sailors upon householders against their will
  • No martial law to punish ordinary offences by sailors or soldiers

Although the King did not like the petition, he needed the funds. But it showed the power of Sir John Elliot.

1629 Parliament

Many in the House of Commons began to become worried about a new faction in the Church of England: Arminian.  The faction was interested in the beliefs of Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch Reformed theologian. Either way, the Purtians and Sir John Elliot did not like the faction and considered it pseudo-Catholic. Eliot led a protest called the Three Resolutions, which denounced Arminianism and also encouraged merchants to refuse to pay tonnage and poundage. Tonnage and poundage was a tax on imports and exports.

This was when the King ordered the House of Commons to adjourn. However, Sir John Elliot and his cohorts held the Speaker down in his chair physically. The doors of the Commons were locked and the group read out the Protestation while the King’s officials hammered at the door. The group was eventually charged with raising sedition between the King and his people.

The group argued that the courts had no jurisdiction to try them. Only Parliament could punish them. But in the end the judges rules against them and they had to answer a charge of conspiracy to resist the King’s order, and for refusing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court. Sir John Elliot and the others were fined and imprisoned.

Parliamentary Immunity

King Charles I resolved to govern without Parliament, and embarked upon the eleven-year period of his Personal Rule. Sir John Elliot died in prison.

But in 1641, after Parliament came back, the House of Commons voted awards to these men as damages suffered by reason of their service to their country. The House of Lords later voted that the judgment against Sir John Elliot was illegal and against the freedoms of Parliament.

In 1689, members of Parliament could not longer be arrested or subject to a suit for damages based on what they said or did in Parliament. The English Bill of Rights provided immunity.

That the Freedom of Speech, and Debates or Proceedings in Parliament, ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parliament.

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