Five Members

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Lenthall kneels to Charles during the attempted arrest of the Five Members, painting by Charles West Cope in the Houses of Parliament

The Five Members were those five Members of Parliament whom King Charles I (1625–1649) attempted to arrest when he, accompanied by armed soldiers, entered the English House of Commons on 4 January 1642, during the sitting of the Long Parliament:


The King believed that Puritans encouraged by five vociferous Members of the House of Commons, known thereafter as the Five Members – John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Arthur Haselrig and William Strode – 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 London mob against him. When rumours reached the court that they were also planning to impeach the Queen for alleged involvement in Catholic plots, Charles decided to arrest them for treason. The counterclaim was that the King had an Irish army set to reduce the kingdom.

The Speaker of the House during the Long Parliament was William Lenthall. On Tuesday, 4 January 1642, the King entered the House of Commons to seize the Five Members, and sat in the speaker's chair. Not seeing the Five Members and commenting "I see the birds have flown", the King then turned to Lenthall, who stood below, and demanded of him whether any of those persons were in the House, whether he saw any of them and where they were. Lenthall fell on his knees and replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here". However, he later consented to appear as a witness against Thomas Scot in the wave of prosecutions of the regicides in 1660 which followed the Restoration of the Monarchy.


The action of the king was the catalyst for the Civil War, the beheading of the king, and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. After his failure to capture the Five Members and fearing for his family's lives, King Charles left London for Oxford. Most of the royalist members of Parliament joined him there, where they formed the Oxford Parliament. The Long Parliament continued to sit during and beyond the Civil War without its royalist members, because of the Dissolution Act.

Juridical impact[edit]

The relationship between Monarch and nobility established at Runnymede in 1215, documented in Magna Carta, was greatly subverted in the Barons' Revolt, resulting in the establishment of a first Parliament, principally of the nobility, in 1265. The power of the feudal system was further undermined in the second half of the fourteenth century in the Black Death and the wave of plagues which followed, preying on the weakened population. The European economy recovered by a vertical specialisation, which together with the incursion of a large number of minor sons of the nobility created an autonomous middle class organised in craft speciality Guilds. Widespread conflict between Guilds and nobility followed, principally in Europe, typified in England by the Peasants Revolt: the advent of the Tudors and the early adoption of printing in England meant that the ensuing wave of free-thinking settled far earlier than on the Continent, which posed a problem to the last Tudor monarch Elizabeth I, unable to marry either into European nobility as the result of the poisoned diplomatic relationships created by her elder sister Mary's marriage to Phillip II, or into English nobility by the feudal shortsightedness and rapacious ambition of her suitors. Her 1588 Tilbury speech shows the relationship between monarch and people of the day, a ruler somewhat constrained by the will of the people.

Upon Elizabeth's death without an heir, the throne passed to a cadet line, the Scottish Stuart dynasty, whose main lineage bypassed the Angevin foundations of Parliament, and whose more feudal concepts of absolute monarchy consequently antagonised the English. What was then seen by Parliament as increasing monarchic profligacy resulted in two important Acts in pursuit of the rights of Parliament and People, the Triennial Act of 1641 which gave Parliament autonomy of the Monarchy, and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1640, which extended one of the key terms of Magna Carta to the general population.

Thus it was that Speaker Lenthall's reply to the King implemented the effect of the Triennial Act, declaring Parliament no longer accountable to the Monarch. Just as Henry III's attempt to displace the nobility resulted in the Barons Revolt, Charles' attempt to impose his will equally resulted in his overthrow in the Civil War: lacking a warrior son of the quality of Edward I, his death ensued. Although the ultimate return of the Monarchy was more pacific than that of 1265, it was even more short-lived, with James II forced to abdicate in favour of the first Constitutional Monarchy, that of William of Orange, bound by the 1689 Bill of Rights.

Annual commemoration[edit]

At the State Opening of Parliament by the British monarch each year, the sovereign sits on the throne in the House of Lords and sends their messenger Black Rod to summon the Members of the House of Commons to attend them. At his approach the doors to the Commons Chamber are slammed in his face, symbolising the rights of parliament and its independence from the monarch.[1] He bangs forcefully with the end of his ceremonial staff three times on the closed doors which are then opened to them. This is a show of the refusal by the Commons ever again to be entered by force by the monarch or one of their servants when the House is sitting.[1][2]


  1. ^ a b "Democracy Live: Black Rod". BBC. Retrieved 6 August 2008
  2. ^ Wikisource Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Black Rod". Encyclopædia Britannica. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.