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 entered the English House of Commons, accompanied by armed soldiers, on 4 January 1642, during a 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 occupy and subdue 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, after the Restoration of the Monarchy he consented to appear as a witness against Thomas Scot in 1660 during the wave of prosecutions of the regicides.


The action of the king was the trigger 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, and 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 14th century due to the Black Death and the wave of plagues which followed, preying on the weakened population. The European economy recovered by a vertical specialisation[clarification needed], which together with the incursion[clarification needed] 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 occurred far earlier than on the Continent. This posed a problem for 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 Philip II, or into English nobility due to the feudal shortsightedness and rapacious ambition of her suitors. Her 1588 Tilbury speech shows the relationship between the monarch and the people of the day; she was 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 support for 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 Habeas Corpus Act of 1640, which extended one of the key terms of Magna Carta to the general population, and the Triennial Act of 1641 which prevented the monarch from ruling without Parliament.

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's 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. The return of the Monarchy in 1660 was more peaceful than in 1265, but in 1688 James II was forced to abdicate in favour of William of Orange, who was 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 the messenger's approach the doors to the Commons Chamber are slammed in Black Rod's face, symbolising the rights of parliament and its independence from the monarch.[1] Black Rod bangs forcefully three times with the end of the ceremonial staff on the closed doors which are then opened. 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]

Cultural depictions[edit]

The attempted arrest of the Five Members is depicted in the 1970 film Cromwell; however, in that film, the five are Hampden, Pym, Haselrig, Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton.[3]


  1. ^ a b "Democracy Live: Black Rod". BBC. Retrieved 6 August 2008
  2. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Black Rod" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^