Speech on the Petition of Right

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Speech on the Petition of Right
by John Eliot (statesman)
This speech was delivered by Sir John Eliot to the House of Commons on June 3, 1628. It is included in Select British Eloquence by Chauncey A. Goodrich, D.D., published New York, 1865. Footnotes, editorial insertions, and the explanation of the aftermath are by Chauncey A. Goodrich, 1865.

Mr. Speaker,—We sit here as the great Council of the King, and in that capacity, it is our duty to take into consideration the state and affairs of the kingdom, and when there is occasion, to give a true representation of them by way of counsel and advice, with what we conceive necessary or expedient to be done.

In this consideration, I confess many a sad thought hath affrighted me, and that not only in respect of our dangers from abroad (which yet I know are great, as they have been often prest and dilated to us), but in respect of our disorders here at home, which do enforce those dangers, and by which they are occasioned. For I believe I shall make it clear to you, that both at first, the the cause of these dangers were our disorders, and our disorders now are yet our greatest dangers—that not so much the potency of our enemies as the weakness of ourselves, doth threaten us: so that the saying of one of the Fathers may be assumed by us, "non tam potentiâ suâ quam negligentiâ nostrâ," "not so much by their power as by our neglect." Our want of true devotion to heaven—our insincerity and doubling in religion—our want of councils—our precipitate actions—the insufficiency or unfaithfulness of our generals abroad—the ignorance or corruption of our ministers at home—the impoverishing of the sovereign—the oppression and depression of the subject—the exhausting of our treasures—the waste of our provisions—consumption of our ships—destruction of our men—these make the advantage to our enemies, not the reputation of their arms; and if in these there be not reformation, we need no foes abroad; Time itself will ruin us.

To show this more fully, I believe you will all hold it necessary that what I say, should not seem an aspersion on the state or imputation on the government, as I have known such motions misinterpreted. But far is this from me to propose, who have none but clear thoughts of the excellency of the King; nor can I have other ends but the advancement of his Majesty's glory. I shall desire a little of your patience extraordinary, as I lay open the particulars, which I shall do with what brevity I may, answerable to the importance of the cause and the necessity now upon us; yet with such respect and observation to the time, as I hope it shall not be thought troublesome.

I. For the first, then our insincerity and doubling in religion, is the greatest and most dangerous disorder of all others. This hath never been unpunished; and of this we have many strong examples of all states and in all times to awe us. What testimony doth it want? Will you have authority of books? Look on the collections of the Committee for Religion, there is too clear an evidence. See there the commission procured for composition with the papists of the North! Mark the proceedings thereupon, and you will find them too little less amounting than a toleration in effect: the slight payments, and the easiness of them, will likewise show the favor that is intended. Will you have proofs of men? Witness the hopes, witness the presumptions, witness the reports of all the papists generally. Observe the dispositions of commanders, the trust of officers, the confidence in secretaries to employments in this kingdom, in Ireland, and elsewhere. These will all show that it hath too great a certainty. And to this add but the incontrovertible evidence of that All-powerful Hand, which we have felt so sorely, that gave it full assurance; for as the heavens oppose themselves to our impiety, so it is we that first opposed the heavens. [1]

II. For the second, our want of councils, that great disorder in a state under which there can not be stability. If effects may show their causes (as they are often a perfect demonstration of them), our misfortunes, our disasters, serve to prove our deficiencies in council, and the consequences they draw with them. If reason be allowed in this dark age, the judgment of dependencies and foresight of contingencies in affairs do confirm my position. for, if we view ourselves at home, are we in strength, are we in reputation, equal to our ancestors? If we view ourselves abroad, are our friends as many? are our enemies no more? Do our friends retain their safety and possessions? Do not our enemies enlarge themselves, and gain from them and us? To what council owe we the loss of the Palatinate, where we sacrificed both our honor and our men sent thither, stopping those greater powers appointed for the service, by which it might have been defended?[2] What council gave direction to the late action, whose wounds are yet bleeding, I mean the expedition to Rhé, of which there is yet so sad a memory in all men? What design for us, or advantage to our state, could that impart?

You know the wisdom of your ancestors, and the practice of their times, how they preserved their safeties. We all know, and have as much cause to doubt [i.e., distrust or guard against] as they had, the greatness and ambition of that kingdom, which the Old World could not satisfy.[3] Against this greatness and ambition, we likewise know the proceedings of that princess, that never-to-be-forgotten, excellent Queen Elizabeth, whose name, without admiration, falls not into mention even with her enemies. You know how she advanced herself, and how she advanced the nation in glory and in state; how she depressed her enemies, and how she upheld her friends; how she enjoyed a full security, and made those our scorn who now are made our terror.

Some of the principles she built on were these; and if I mistake, let reason and our statesmen contradict me.

First, to maintain, in what she might, a unity in France, that the kingdom, being at peace within itself, might be a bulwark to keep back the power of Spain by land.

Next, to preserve an amity and league between that state and us, that so we might come in aid of the Low Countries [Holland], and by that means receive their ships, and help them by sea.

This triple cord, so working between France, the States [Holland], and England, might enable us, as occasion should require, to give assistance unto others. And by this means, as the experience of that time doth tell us, we were not only free from those fears that now possess and trouble us, but then our names were fearful to our enemies. See now what correspondency our action had with this. Try our conduct by these rules. It did induce, as a necessary consequence, a division in France between the Protestants and their king, of which there is too woful and lamentable experience.[4] It hath made an absolute breach between that state and us, and so entertains us against France, and France in preparation against us, that we have nothing to promise to our neighbors, nay, hardly to ourselves. Next, observe the time in which it was attempted, and you shall find it not only varying from those principles, but directly contrary and opposite to those ends; and such, as from the issue and success, rather might be thought a conception of Spain than begotten here with us.

[Here there was an interruption made by Sir Humphrey May, Chancellor of the Duchy and of the Privy Council, expressing a dislike; but the House ordered Sir John Eliot to go on, whereupon he proceeded thus:]

Mr. Speaker, I am sorry for this interruption, but much more sorry if there hath been occasion on my part. And, as I shall submit myself wholly to your judgment, to receive what censure you may give me, if I have offended, so, in the integrity of my intentions and the clearness of my thoughts, I must still retain this confidence, that no greatness shall deter me from the duties I owe to the service of my king and country; but that, with a true English heart, I shall discharge myself as faithfully and as really, to the extent of my poor power, as any man whose honors or whose offices most strictly oblige him.

You know the dangers of Denmark[5], and how much they concern us; what in respect of our alliance and the country; what in the importance of the Sound; what an advantage to our enemies the gain thereof would be! What loss, what prejudice to us by this disunion; we breaking in upon France, France enraged by us, and the Netherlands at amazement between both[6]! Neither could we intend to aid that luckless king [Christian IV., of Denmark], whose loss is our disaster. Can those [the King's ministers] that express their trouble at the hearing of these things, and have so often told us in this place of their knowledge in the conjunctures and disjunctures of affairs—can they say they advised in this? Was this an act of council, Mr. Speaker? I have more charity than to think it; and unless they make confession of it themselves, I can not believe it.

III. For the next, the insufficiency and unfaithfulness of our generals (that great disorder abroad), what shall I say? I wish there were not cause to mention it; and, but for the apprehension of the danger that is to come, if the like choice hereafter be not prevented, I could willingly be silent. But my duty to my sovereign, my service to this House, and the safety and honor of my country, are above all respects; and what so nearly trenches to the prejudice of these, must not, shall not be forborne.

At Cadiz,[7] then, in that first expedition we made, when we arrived and found a conquest ready—the Spanish ships, I mean, fit for the satisfaction of a voyage, and of which some of the chiefest then there, themselves have since assured me, that the satisfaction would have been sufficient, either in point of honor or in point of profit—why was it neglected? Why was it not achieved, it being granted on all hands how feasible it was?

Afterward, when, with the destruction of some of our men and the exposure of others, who (though their fortune since has not been such), by chance, came off safe—when, I say, with the loss of our serviceable men, that unserviceable fort was gained, and the whole army landed, why was there nothing done? Why was there nothing attempted? If nothing was intended, wherefore did they land? If there was a service, wherefore were they shipped again? Mr. Speaker, it satisfies me too much [i.e., I am over-satisfied] in this case—when I think of their dry and hungry march into that drunken quarter (for so the soldiers termed it), which was the period [termination] of their journey—that divers of our men being left as a sacrifice to the enemy, that labor was at an end.

For the next undertaking, at Rhé[8]," I will not trouble you much; only this, in short. Was not that whole action carried out against the judgment and opinion of those officers that were of the council? Was not the first, was not the last, was not all in the landing—in the intrenching—in the continuance there—in the assault—in the retreat—without their assent? Did any advice take place of such as were of the council? If there should be made a particular inquisition thereof, these things will be manifest and more. I will not instance the manifesto that was made, giving the reason of these arms; nor by whom, nor in what manner, nor on what grounds it was published, nor what effects it hath wrought, drawing, as it were, almost the whole world into league against us. Nor will I mention the leaving of the wines, the leaving of the salt, which were in our possession, and of a value, it is said, to answer much of the expense. Nor will I dwell on that great wonder (which no Alexander or Cæsar[9] ever did), the enriching of the enemy by courtesies when our soldiers wanted help; nor the private intercourse and parlays with the fort, which were continually held. What they intended may be read in the success; and upon due examination thereof, they would not want their proofs.

For the last voyage to Rochelle, there need no observations, it is so fresh in memory; nor will I make an inference or corollary on all. Your own knowledge shall judge what truth or what sufficiency they express.

IV. For the next, the ignorance and corruption of our ministers, where can you miss of instances? If you survey the court, if you survey the country; if the church, if the city be examined; if you observe the bar, if the bench, if the ports, if the shipping, if the land, if the seas—all these will render you variety of proofs; and that in such measure and proportion as shows the greatness of our disease to be such that, if there be not some speedy application for remedy, our case is almost desperate.

V. Mr. Speaker, I fear I have been too long in these particulars that are past, and am unwilling to offend you: therefore in the rest I shall be shorter; and as to that which concerns the impoverishing of the King, no other arguments will I use than such as all men grant.

The exchequer, you know, is empty, and the reputation thereof gone; the ancient lands are sold; the jewels pawned; the plate engaged;[10] the debts still great; almost all charges, both ordinary and extraordinary, borne up by projects! What poverty can be greater? What necessity so great? What perfect English heart is not almost dissolved into sorrow for this truth?

VI. For the oppression of the subject, which, as I remember, is the next particular I proposed, it needs no demonstration. The whole kingdom is a proof; and for the exhausting of our treasures, that very oppression speaks it. What waste of our provisions, what consumption of our ships, what destruction of our men there hath been; witness that expedition to Algiers[11]—witness that with Mansfeldt—witness that to Cadiz—witness the next—witness that to Rhé—witness the last (I pray God we may never have more such witnesses)—witness, likewise, the Palatinate—witness Denmark—witness the Turks—witness the Dunkirkers—witness all! What losses we have sustained! How we are impaired in munitions, in ships, in men!

It is beyond contradiction that we were never so much weakened, nor ever had less hope how to be restored.

These, Mr. Speaker, are our dangers, these are they who do threaten us; and these are, like the Trojan horse, brought in cunningly to surprise us. In these do lurk the strongest of our enemies, ready to issue on us; and if we do not speedily expel them, these are the signs, these the invitations to others! These will so prepare their entrance, that we shall have no means left of refuge or defense; for if we have these enemies at home, how can we strive with those that are abroad? If we be free from those, no other can impeach us. Our ancient English virtue (like the old Spartan valor), cleared from these disorders—our being in sincerity of religion and once made friends with heaven; having maturity of councils, sufficiency of generals, incorruption of officers, opulency in the King, liberty in the people, repletion in treasure, plenty of provisions, reparation of ships, preservation of men—our ancient English virtue, I say, thus rectified, will secure us; and unless there be a speedy reformation in these, I know not what hopes or expectations we can have.

These are the things, sir, I shall desire to have taken into consideration; that as we are the great council of the kingdom, and have the apprehension of these dangers, we may truly represent them unto the King; which I conceive we are bound to do by a driple obligation—of duty to God, of duty to his Majesty, and of duty to our country.

And therefore I wish it may so stand with the wisdom and judgment of the House, that these things may be drawn into the body of a Remonstrance, and in all humility expressed, with a prayer to his Majesty that, for the safety of himself, for the safety of the kingdom, and for the safety of religion, he will be pleased to give us time to make perfect inquisition thereof, or to take them into his own wisdom, and there give them such timely reformation as the necessity and justice of the case doth import.

And thus, sir, with a large affection and loyalty to his Majesty, and with a firm duty and service to my country, I have suddenly (and it may be with some disorder) expressed the weak apprehensions I have; wherein if I have erred, I humbly crave your pardon, and so submit myself to the censure of the House.


The King, finding, after the delivery of this speech, that he could no longer resist the demands of the Commons, gave his public assent to the Petition of Right, on the 7th of June, 1628. But he never forgave Sir John Eliot for his freedom of speech. At the expiration of nine months he dissolved Parliament, determining to rule from that time without their aid or interference; and, two days after, committed Sir John Eliot and other members to the Tower for words spoken during the sitting of Parliament. In this flagrant breach of privilege, and violation of the Petition of Right, he was sustained by servile courts; and Eliot, as "the greatest offender and ringleader," was sentenced to pay a fine of £2000, and be imprisoned in the Tower of London.

After two years his health gave way under the rigor of his confinement. He then petitioned the King for a temporary release, that he might recover strength; but this was denied him, unless he made the most humbling concessions. He refused, and sunk, at last, under the weight of his sufferings, at the end of three years, in November, 1632, "the most illustrious confessor in the cause of liberty," says Hallam, "whom the times produced." One of his sons petitioned for liberty to remove his body to Cornwall for burial in his native soil, and received for answer these insulting words, written at the bottom of his petition: "Let him be buried in the parish where he died;" that is, in the Tower, the place of his imprisonment. No wonder that such a spirit brought Charles to the block!


  1. ^  The gun-powder plot for blowing up both houses of Parliament, and extirpating the Protestant religion at a single stroke, was still fresh in the minds of all. It is not, therefore, surprising, at a period when correct views of religious liberty were as yet unknown in England, that any remissness in executing the laws against Catholics, was regarded with great jealousy by Eliot and his friends, especially as the mother of Buckingham was of that communion.
  2. ^  Frederick V., the Elector Palatine, who married "the beautiful Elizabeth," sister of Charles I., had been attacked on religious grounds by a union of Catholic states in Germany, with Austria at their head, stripped of the Palatinate, and driven as an exile into Holland, with his wife and child. All Protestant Christendom was indignant at these wrongs; and the King of England was expected to sustain the injured Elector on the double ground of family alliance and a community of religion. These expectations had all been disappointed by the weak, indecisive, and fluctuating counsels of Buckingham. Twelve thousand English troops were indeed sent to assist Frederick, under Count Mansfeldt, but nearly all of them perished on the way, from mere want of foresight and preparation on the part of the English government. This wanton sacrifice of life is alluded to at the close of the speech in a single word—"Mansfeldt!"—a name which at that time smote on the heart of the whole English nation. The expedition to the Isle of Rhé, mentioned in the next sentence, will be explained hereafter.
  3. ^  To understand the force and beauty of this allusion to Spain, we must go back to the time when all Europe was filled with dismay at the power at the power of the Spanish arms on both continents. Few things in English eloquence, as Forster remarks, are finer in expression or purpose, than this allusion and the subsequent train of thought, as addressed to Englishmen of that day.
  4. ^  This refers to the expedition against the Isle of Rhé, respecting which see note 8.
  5. ^  Christian IV., King of Denmark, as a leading Protestant prince, and uncle to Elizabeth, wife of Frederick, the Elector Palatine, had entered warmly into their cause, and marched with a large army to reinstate them in the Palatinate. After some partial successes, however, he was repulsed by the Austrians, driven back into his own dominions, and reduced to imminent danger of being stripped of all his possessions. The English trade through the Sound into the Baltic, which was of great value, was thus on the point of being entirely cut off by the establishment of a hostile power on the ruins of Denmark. Yet England had done nothing to sustain her ally, or to protect her rights and interests in that quarter; and the English people were justly incensed against Buckingham for this neglect.
  6. ^  Here, as above, allusion is made to the disgraceful expedition against the Isle of Rhé, by which France was enraged, and no diversion in favor of Denmark either made or intended.
  7. ^  Buckingham, at the close of 1625, had fitted out a fleet of eighty sail, to intercept the Spanish treasure-ships from America, to scour the coasts of Spain, and destroy the shipping in her ports. Owing to the utter incompetency of the commander, there was no concert or subordination in the fleet. The treasure-ships were not intercepted; but seven other large and rich Spanish ships, which would have repaid all the expenses of the expedition, were suffered to escape, when they might easily have been taken. At length a landing was effected in the neighborhood of Cadiz, and the paltry fort of Puntal was taken. The English soldiers broke open the wine-cellars of the country around, and became drunk and unmanageable; so that the Spanish troops, if they had known their condition, might easily have cut the whole army to pieces. Their commander, as the only course left him, retreated to the ships, leaving some hundreds of his men to perish under the knives of the enraged peasantry.
  8. ^  Buckingham, from motives of personal resentment against the French king, undertook, in June, 1627, to aid the Huguenots at Rochelle, who were in a state of open rebellion. He therefore sailed with a fleet of one hundred ships and seven thousand land forces, taking the command of the expedition himself, and expecting to be received with open arms. But the Rochellers, having no previous arrangement with him on the subject, and probably distrusting his intentions, refused to admit him into the town, and advised him to take possession of the Isle of Rhé, in the neighborhood. This he did, and immediately issued a manifesto, inciting the Protestants throughout France to rebel against their government. Great indignation was awakened in Europe by this attempt to rekindle the flames of civil war in that country. His appeal was, unfortunately, successful. The Protestants in the south of France rose almost to a man. A bloody conflict ensued, in which they were completely crushed, and their condition rendered far more wretched than before. Buckingham, in the mean time, conducted every thing wildly and at random. In October, a reenforcement of fifteen hundred men was sent out, mentioned in the speech as "the last voyage to Rochell;" but the Duke was still repulsed, with loss at every point, till he was compelled to return in disgrace, with the loss of one third of his troops, in the month of November, 1627. This speech was delivered in June of the next year, while the nation was still smarting under the sense of the disasters and disgraces of this mad expedition.
  9. ^  This sneer at the generalship of Buckingham was keenly felt, and derived its peculiar force from the lofty pretensions and high-sounding titles he assumed. He had also made himself ridiculous, and even suspected of treachery, by his affectation of courtesy in the interchange of civilities with the French commanders. To this Eliot alludes with stinging effect in the remaining part of the sentence.
  10. ^  Buckingham had taken the crown jewels and plate to Holland, and pawned them for £300,000.
  11. ^  Buckingham, some years before, had sent out an expedition for the capture of Algiers. It resulted in a total failure, and so incensed the Algerines, that the commerce of England suffered ten-fold loss in consequence; thirty-five ships, engaged in the Mediterranean trade, having been captured within a few months, and their crews sold for slaves.