London and the outbreak of the Civil War

London’s role in the political crisis of the early 1640s and the civil war that followed was bound to be of crucial importance. The metropolis that consisted of London, Westminster and Southwark was by far the largest and richest city in England and its sheer size and wealth gave it a predominant position in the country’s economic, social, legal and cultural life. Its population of roughly 375,000 was perhaps 7 per cent of the national total, it was the country’s largest port for both overseas and coastal trade, an important industrial centre and the country’s chief money market. As the capital city it contained the principal royal palace, the court and the meeting place of Parliament, with the administrative machinery of government, the courts of law and residences of foreign diplomats.

The policies of Charles I’s government during the 1630s, when he did not call a Parliament, had alienated sections of London’s governing élite and its citizens, creating a mood of mistrust in which his political manoeuvres swiftly provoked hostile reactions. Thousands of Londoners signed the various petitions presented to Parliament during the early 1640s and some took more direct action, attacking the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace at Lambeth in May 1640, demonstrating in large numbers during the trial of the king’s chief minister, the Earl of Strafford, in the following spring, and taking to the streets in their thousands during the winter months of 1641-2.

The king’s supporters were alarmed by the demonstrations, although they could derive some reassurance from the fact that political control of the City was held by men who remained loyal. The king had addressed some of the grievances held by the wealthy merchants and there was a growing understanding between leading figures in the City and the court. The radicals’ attempts to unseat those holding power through elections to the Common Council had been unsuccessful, but this was dramatically changed in the elections held on 21 December 1641, which gave the radicals a majority on the council. They then set about shifting the effective power within the Corporation, away from the Lord Mayor and Aldermen to the Common Council, thereby politically emasculating those among the governing élite sympathetic to the king’s cause.

The king responded by appointing his supporter Colonel Thomas Lunsford as Lieutenant of the Tower on 23 December and entering the House of Commons with a party of armed men, on 4 January, in a bungled attempt to arrest five leading MPs. Londoners reacted angrily in large numbers, with protestors thronging Whitehall, alarming Charles so much that he and the queen left precipitately for Hampton Court. These events confirmed that effectively, if not unanimously, Londoners supported the parliamentarian leadership and the metropolis remained loyal to Parliament throughout the Civil War. Its wealth and resources were denied to the king and when Charles returned to his capital seven years later it was to stand trial for his life.