The war with Spain, it must be remembered, meant to the mass of Englishmen a war with Catholicism; and the fervour against Catholicism without roused a corresponding fervour against Catholicism within the realm. Every English Catholic seemed to Protestant eyes an enemy at home. A Protestant who leant towards Catholic usage or dogma was a secret traitor in the ranks. But it was suspected, and suspicion was soon to be changed into certainty, that in spite of his pledge to make no religious concessions to France, Charles had on his marriage promised to relax the penal laws against Catholics, and that a foreign power had again been given the right of intermeddling in the civil affairs of the realm. And it was to men with Catholic leanings that Charles seemed disposed to show favour. Bishop Laud was recognized as the centre of that varied opposition to Puritanism, whose members were loosely grouped under the name of Arminians; and Laud now became the King's adviser in ecclesiastical matters. With Laud at its head the new party grew in boldness as well as numbers.
It naturally sought for shelter for its religious opinions by exalting the power of the Crown. A court favourite, Montague, ventured to slight the Reformed Churches of the Continent in favour of the Church of Rome, and to advocate as the faith of the Church the very doctrines rejected by the Calvinists. The temper of the Commons on religious matters was clear to every observer. "Whatever mention does break forth of the fears or dangers in religion, and the increase of Popery," wrote a member who was noting the proceedings of the House, "their affections are much stirred." Their first act was to summon Montague to the bar and to commit him to prison. But there were other grounds for their distrust besides the King's ecclesiastical tendency. The conditions on which the last subsidy had been granted for war with Spain had been contemptuously set aside; in his request for a fresh grant Charles neither named a sum nor gave any indication of what war it was to support. His reserve was met by a corresponding caution.
While voting a small and inadequate subsidy, the Commons restricted their grant of certain customs duties called tonnage and poundage, which had commonly been granted to the new sovereign for life, to a single year, so as to give time for consideration of the additional impositions laid by James on these duties. The restriction was taken as an insult; Charles refused to accept the grant on such a condition, and adjourned the Houses. When they met again at Oxford it was in a sterner temper, for Charles had shown his defiance of Parliament by drawing Montague from prison, by promoting him to a royal chaplaincy, and by levying the disputed customs without authority of law. " England," cried Sir Robert Phelips, "is the last monarchy that yet retains her liberties. Let them not perish now!" But the Commons had no sooner announced their resolve to consider public grievances before entering on other business than they were met by a dissolution. Buckingham, to whom the firmness of the Commons seemed simply the natural discontent which follows on ill success, resolved to lure them from their constitutional struggle by a great military triumph.
His hands were no sooner free than he sailed for the Hague to conclude a general alliance against the House of Austria, while a fleet of ninety vessels and ten thousand soldiers left Plymouth in October for the coast of Spain. But these vast projects broke down before Buckingham's administrative incapacity. The plan of alliance proved fruitless. After an idle descent on Cadiz the Spanish expedition returned broken with mutiny and disease; and the enormous debt which had been incurred in its equipment forced the favourite to advise a new summons of the Houses. But he was keenly alive to the peril in which his failure had plunged him, and to a coalition which had been formed between his rivals at Court and the leaders of the last Parliament. His reckless daring led him to anticipate the danger, and by a series of blows to strike terror into his opponents. The Councillors were humbled by the committal of Lord Arundel to the Tower. Sir Robert Phelips. Coke, and four other leading patriots were made sheriffs of their counties, and thus prevented from sitting in the coming Parliament. But their exclusion only left the field free for a more terrible foe.
If Hampden and Pym are the great figures which embody the later national resistance, the earlier struggle for Parliamentary liberty centres in the figure of Sir John Eliot. Of an old family which had settled under Elizabeth near the fishing hamlet of St. Germans, and raised their stately mansion of Port Eliot, he had risen to the post of Vice-Admiral of Devonshire under the patronage of Buckingham, and had seen his activity in the suppression of piracy in the Channel rewarded by an unjust imprisonment. He was now in the first vigour of manhood, with a mind exquisitely cultivated and familiar with the poetry and learning of his day, a nature singularly lofty and devout, a fearless and vehement temper. There was a hot impulsive element in his nature which showed itself in youth in his drawing sword on a neighbour who denounced him to his father, and which in later years gave its characteristic fire to his eloquence. But his intellect was as clear and cool as his temper was ardent. In the general enthusiasm which followed on the failure of the Spanish marriage, he had stood almost alone in pressing for a recognition of the rights of Parliament, as a preliminary to any real reconciliation with the Crown. He fixed, from the very outset of his career, on the responsibility of the royal ministers to Parliament, as the one critical point for English liberty.
It was to enforce the demand of this that he availed himself of Buckingham's sacrifice of the Treasurer, Middlesex, to the resentment of the Commons. "The greater the delinquent," he urged, "the greater the delict. They are a happy thing, great men and officers, if they be good, and one of the greatest blessings of the land: but power converted into evil is the greatest curse that can befall it." But the new Parliament had hardly met, when he came to the front to threaten a greater criminal than Middlesex. So menacing were his words, as he called for an inquiry into the failure before Cadiz, that Charles himself stooped to answer threat with threat. "I see," he wrote to the House, "you especially aim at the Duke of Buckingham. I must let you know that I will not allow any of my servants to be questioned among you, much less such as are of eminent place and near to me." A more direct attack on a right already acknowledged in the impeachment of Bacon and Middlesex could hardly be imagined, but Eliot refused to move from his constitutional ground. The King was by law irresponsible, he" could do no wrong." If the country therefore was to be saved from a pure despotism, it must be by enforcing the responsibility of the ministers who counselled and executed his acts.