On January 4th 1642 an event happened which, more than any other, propelled England to Civil War. On that day King Charles I entered the Chamber of the House of Commons with an armed guard to arrest five Members of Parliament accused of high treason. They wre forewarned and escaped. Although tensions between Parliament and monarch over finance and religion had been building since the days of Charles father, James I, this event was significant. From this point forward both sides start preparing for conflict. The event is commemorated today during the ceremony of the Opening of Parliament each year. As the monarch is not allowed in the Commons, the queen summons MPs to the Lords chamber. As he approaches the Commons chamber, the queen’s messenger, Black Rod has the door slammed firmly in his face. Sadly history provides numerous occasions since 1642 when the monarch has continued to interfere with parliament.
Now fast forward to January 4th 1649. Charles Stuart is finally defeated and Parliament has lost patience trying to reach a negotiated settlement to restore the monarchy due to Charles dishonesty. On this date Parliament votes to try Charles for treason, the penalty for which is execution. One factor which stands out during the English Revolution is the concern amongst the leaders with legitimacy (by the authority of Parliament, of the House of Commons, of the People, etc) and not descending into an armed rabble. In this case there was no precedent in English law for trying a monarch but it was still possible to refer to ancient Roman law. The order setting up the High Court of Justice to try Charles was written by a Dutch lawyer, Issac Dorislaus basing his work on a Roman law which stated that a military body (Parliament counted via its control of the New Model Army) could legally overthrow a tyrant. This decision to try Charles and not summarily execute him was a singular moment in history. Future revolutions (including the Americans and the French) felt compelled to act with authority and try the accused where possible. While this has not always happened a broader concern with the legitimacy of military force lives with us today in such bodies as the International Criminal Court which deals with war crimes.