The Commons endeavoured to strengthen their case by bringing forward the notes of a meeting of a Committee of the Commons in which Strafford had urged the use of his Irish troops "to reduce this kingdom; " but the Lords would only admit the evidence on condition of wholly reopening the case. Pym and Hampden remained convinced of the sufficiency of the impeachment; but the Commons broke loose from their control, and, guided by St. John and Henry Marten, resolved to abandon these judicial proceedings, and fall back on the resource of a Bill of Attainder. Their course has been bitterly censured by some whose opinion in such a matter is entitled to respect. But the crime of Strafford was none the less a crime that it did not fall within the scope of the Statute of Treasons. It is impossible indeed to provide for some of the greatest dangers which can happen to national freedom by any formal statute. Even now a minister might avail himself of the temper of a Parliament elected in some moment of popular panic, and, though the nation returned to its senses, might simply by refusing to appeal to the country govern in defiance of its will. Such a course would be technically legal, but such a minister would be none the less a criminal.
Strafford's course, whether it fell within the Statute of Treasons or no, was from beginning to end an attack on the freedom of the whole nation. In the last resort a nation retains the right of self-defence, and the Bill of Attainder is the assertion of such a right for the punishment of a public enemy who falls within the scope of no written law. To save Strafford and Episcopacy Charles seemed to assent to a proposal for entrusting the offices of State to the leaders of the Parliament, with the Earl of Bedford as Lord Treasurer; the only conditions he made were that Episcopacy should not be abolished nor Strafford executed. But the negotiations were interrupted by Bedford's death, and by the discovery that Charles had been listening all the while to counsellors who proposed to bring about his end by stirring the army to march on London, seize the Tower, free Strafford, and deliver the King from his thraldom to Parliament. The discovery of the Army Plot sealed Strafford's fate. The Londoners were roused to frenzy, and as the Peers gathered at Westminster crowds surrounded the House with cries of "Justice." On May 8 the Lords passed the Bill of Attainder. The Earl's one hope was in the King, but two days later the royal assent was given, and he passed to his doom.
Strafford died as he had lived. His friends warned him of the vast multitude gathered before the Tower to witness his fall. "I know how to look death in the face, and the people too," he answered proudly. "I thank God I am no more afraid of death, but as cheerfully put off my doublet at this time as ever I did when I went to bed." As the axe fell, the silence of the great multitude was broken by a universal shout of joy. The streets blazed with bonfires. The bells clashed out from every steeple. "Many," says an observer, "that came to town to see the execution rode in triumph back, waving their hats, and with all expressions of joy through every town they went, crying, 'His head is off! His head is off!' "
The failure of the attempt to establish a Parliamentary ministry, the discovery of the Army Plot, the execution of Strafford, were the turning points in the history of the Long Parliament. Till May there was still hope for an accommodation between the Commons and the Crown by which the freedom that had been won might have been taken as the base of a new system of government. But from that hour little hope of such an agreement remained. On the one hand, the air, since the army conspiracy, was full of rumours and panic; the creak of a few boards revived the memory of the Gunpowder Plot, and the members rushed out of the House of Commons in the full belief that it was undermined. On the other hand, Charles regarded his consent to the new measures as having been extorted by force, and to be retracted at the first opportunity. Both Houses, in their terror, swore to defend the Protestant religion and the public liberties, an oath which was subsequently exacted from every one engaged in civil employment, and voluntarily taken by the great mass of the people. The same terror of a counter-revolution induced Hyde and the "moderate men" in the Commons to agree to a bill providing that the present Parliament should not be dissolved but by its own consent.
Of all the demands of the Parliament this was the first that could be called distinctly revolutionary. To consent to it was to establish a power permanently co-ordinate with the Crown. Charles signed the bill without protest, but he was already planning the means of breaking the Parliament. Hitherto, the Scotch army had held him down, but its payment and withdrawal could no longer be delayed, and a pacification was arranged between the two countries. The Houses hastened to complete their task of reform. The irregular jurisdictions of the Council of the North and the Court of the Marches of Wales had been swept away; and the civil and criminal jurisdiction of the Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission, the last of the extraordinary courts which had been the support of the Tudor monarchy, were now summarily abolished. The work was pushed hastily on, for haste was needed. The two armies had been disbanded; and the Scots were no sooner on their way homeward than the King resolved to bring them back.
In spite of prayers from the Parliament he left London for Edinburgh, yielded to every demand of the Assembly and the Scotch Estates, attended the Presbyterian worship, lavished titles and favours on the Earl of Argyle and the patriot leaders, and gained for a few-months a popularity which spread dismay in the English Parliament. Their dread of his designs was increased when he was found to have been intriguing all the while with the Earl of Montrose - who had seceded from the patriot party before his coming, and been rewarded for his secession with imprisonment in the castle of Edinburgh - and when Hamilton and Argyle withdrew suddenly from the capital, and charged the King with a treacherous plot to seize and carry them out of the realm. The fright was fanned to frenzy by news which came suddenly from Ireland, where the fall of Strafford had put an end to all semblance of rule. The disbanded soldiers of the army he had raised spread over the country, and stirred the smouldering disaffection into a flame. A conspiracy, organised with wonderful power and secresy, burst forth in Ulster, where the confiscation of the Settlement had never been forgiven, and spread like wildfire over the centre and west of the island.