Religion and the Monarchy

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...Prior To The Civil War

'If no obedience to God, then none to your Highness'
(Newcastle to the future Charles Stuart II)

Part 3 of a series of articles about religion in the Civil Wars by Simon Frame

Charles Stuart, then Prince of Wales, although originally feted for his support for a war with Spain following his disastrous marriage mission to Madrid in 1623, soon came unstuck in November 1624 when it was learnt that part of his agreement with the French to marry Henrietta Maria was to help the French against the Huguenots and to suspend the recusancy laws. This was rapidly followed in 1625 by the appointment of Richard Montague, a so-called 'Arminian' (of whom more later), as the now Charles I's chaplain, an individual against whom parliament was beginning proceedings. William Laud, Bishop of St. David's, Scotland, appeared at court soon after.

In 1626 Charles’ favourite, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, chaired a theological debate proposed by the Earl of Warwick, which attempted to remove Charles from 'Arminian' influence. This failed dismally and Laud had to be brought in to appease Charles. For various reasons1 Buckingham was coming under increasing attack in Parliament and was in danger of impeachment. Charles' response was to dissolve parliament. Charles then went on to promote more 'Arminians', such as Laud and even Montague, who incensed the radical Protestants by preaching the reunion of all believers - to them a return to Rome.2

THE CHURCH, THE STATE AND SOCIAL ORDER

or 'Religion it is that keepeth the people in awe' (Sir John Eliot)

Episcopacy suited the monarchy as this form of church government was easier for the monarchy to control. Francis Bacon even described episcopacy as 'the fittest for Monarchy' ('No bishops - no king'). The secular powers of Bishops, such as the payment of tithes and the imposition of church court punishments like branding were resented (popular with Archbishop Laud). Thus church courts ceased in 1640 and it was held that canon law was not applicable to lay people unless Parliament authorised it. Non-payment of tithes for example vexed the monarchy and the church because allowing repudiation may have set a precedent, leading to refusal to pay other forms of taxation. Nevertheless, even Archbishop Laud recognised the problems that tithes caused, many having fallen into the hands of laymen or having been commuted to fixed payments which were eroded by inflation.

Although some liberal theologians within the Church of England attempted to establish a 'broad church'3 with few fundamental doctrines of faith, religion still bound the state and the church together as an effective means of controlling the nation. The monarchs appointed archbishops who supported their views on religion and politics, and who would in turn choose bishops with similar views. The church certainly had power: there were 26 Bishops and 2 Archbishops in the House of Lords4, and the church licensed schoolmasters and censored books and pamphlets. The church had powers over information equivalent to a C20th government mass-media organisation. Parish churches and the appointments therein virtually belonged to the local gentry or lay rectors (Coward estimates about half of them) who had the right to present nominees (the 'advowson') to a parish. As a result, the prospective clergy had to be acceptable to the landowner. This acceptance was not only measured in terms of theological compatibility but in how the candidates' sermons reinforced the position of the gentry and the monarchy and the maintenance of the existing social hierarchy. If the people would not listen to the law, they would surely listen to the church, after all, fail to follow the directions laid down by the church or eternal damnation would result. The imposition of uniformity upon the Anglican Church by the monarchy was the cause of the formation of many of the Protestant sects.

The Latin Bible was also implicitly associated with the gentry; if you could read the Latin 'neck verse'5 you could claim the 'benefit of clergy' and avoid the worst penalties of a criminal conviction, like avoiding hanging, hence the term. The translation of the Bible from Latin into English and the Protestant theology of predestination subverted the convenient arrangement 'twixt pulpit and politician - its contents were no longer a mystery revealed only by the church hierarchy and expressed in allegorical terms that suited the state but were now freely open to literal interpretation by anyone who could read or have it read to them. This opened the way for unordained ('mechanic') preachers who knew no Latin to arrange religious meetings and readings away from the established church - known as conventicles. The church was opposed to this form of worship and rigorous laws were passed to suppress it - conventicles could lead to separation from the Anglican Church and even repudiation of the monarch’s role as head of the church.

Forest and moorland areas were therefore popular areas for dissenters (a late C17th term I admit) as ecclesiastical control was looser and it was more difficult for the gentry and constables to find and evict itinerants and squatters.6 These groups were prone to believe in 'universalism', which held that everyone would be saved as 'God finds no sin in his people' (Gerrard Winstanley). This was a useful tenet for the poor (and there were plenty of them with poor harvests due to unfavourable weather in the 1630's and 40's) whereby they could defy the directions of their secular and ecclesiastical masters without fearing for their souls. This was a basis for the weavers’ riots and religious heresy in Northwest Wiltshire in the early C17th. An attempt to counter this threat to social discipline was the Blasphemy Ordinance of 1648 which carried a sentence of life imprisonment.

Universalism had an unwitting ally in rejecting social control in an extreme form of predestination, (which held that there was a saved 'elect' and the rest were eternally damned.) The question raised in some minds was: if you were already saved, did it matter what you did in your lifetime? - why not become a libertine? This extreme way of viewing no act as sinful was known as Antinomianism (of which more later), and was one of the Ranters’ central themes; 'it was lawful for him [Webbe] to lie with any woman'. (Thomas Webbe, rector of Langley Burhill in Wiltshire.) Supporters of predestination refuted the Antinomian extremists by saying that only those who had rejected God would abuse their predestined salvation.

ARCHBISHOP LAUD AND 'ARMINIANISM'

or 'The middle way between the pomp of superstitious tyranny and the meanness of fantastick anarchy' (Charles Stuart)

William Laud was sometime Bishop of London (1628), Archbishop of Canterbury (1633) and Dean of the Chapel Royal.

Arminianism was named from the Dutch Protestant theologian and professor at Leiden University who opposed the strict predestination of Calvinism, one Jacob Harmensen (or Arminius) who died in 1609. He proposed a more liberal view that that human free will can exist without limiting God's power, as well as supporting the rights of public authorities to arbitrate in church affairs, in opposition to extreme Calvinism. Although those labelled as 'Arminian' didn't really hold a common set of beliefs, it could generally be said that free will was a common tenet, but in the popular view in England, Arminianism was associated with those who supported the use of rituals and ceremony in the Anglican church.7 Some Arminians even thought that the existence of bishops relied upon divine right rather than the monarchy. John Wesley studied Arminius and took his ideas forward in his Methodist movement in the C18th.

Arminianism put more emphasis on the participation of the congregation in the sacraments and ceremony because of 'Free Will' and reduced the importance of the scriptures and sermon. The belief in 'Free Will' put them at odds with 'Puritans' who felt that it was every believer’s duty to reform sinners themselves, and Laud's attempts to impose religious uniformity outraged those who were tolerant of religious diversity as well as the radicals themselves. These factors and his use of reason to counter the Catholic Church,8 rejecting it critically and not absolutely, and his civility towards Catholic emissaries, led to him being seen by his enemies as being 'half way to Popery'. The defection of some Dutch Arminians to the Catholic Church didn't help his defence. Many Continental Protestant churches had links with the Anglican church, and when Laud drew away from them, breaking up the 'Protestant International', many saw this as a first step to reunion with the Church of Rome. Laud had also hoped, like one of his predecessors as Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, to restore the temporal power of the episcopal church and to re-establish its wealth, further reinforcing the popular description of 'Arminian'.

Laud's opening ironically occurred when he tried to prevent the Duke of Buckingham from being converted to Catholicism (his mother had converted in 1622), and won him around to supporting Laud’s views on the church. Buckingham had the ear of the then Prince of Wales, the future Charles Stuart9, and thus began Laud's rise to power. This linked Laud and 'Arminianism' with the Monarchy, and Laud (and Strafford) supported everything that Charles Stuart did, irretrievably tying himself to the absolutist party at court. Laud believed that the church should claim apostolic succession from St. Augustine and not Cranmer, and in 'the beauty of holiness' and the dignity of services; bishops’ palaces and churches were refurnished and rebuilt, and new music, vestments, candles, icons and crucifixes procured. Formal worship (the Liturgies) were to be in Latin, the clergy were to be exalted and due reverence was to be made to the altar.

The most obvious physical symbol of the new regime was when communion tables were removed from the nave of the church and placed in the east end where they were surrounded by rails; 'a plain device to usher in the Mass' said one petition, despite Laud’s protestations. The older gentry (Kenyon cites evidence that Arminianism appealed to the younger element on both sides) were also put out, not only because in some cases the re-sited communion table meant that some family pews had to be removed, but because the ecclesiastical courts (particularly the prerogative High Commission) began to make growing use of their authority to arbitrate in issues as widespread as the probate of wills and 'adultery, whoredom and incest', issues which were equally applicable to all classes.10 When in 1638, the prerogative court of Star Chamber stripped Sir Robert Wiseman of his knighthood and baronetcy and had his ears cropped for libelling the Lord Treasurer, Bishop Juxon of London, the gentry were alarmed and thought that England was being governed by another Cardinal Richelieu. This incited the anti-clerical party to greater efforts, and anti-clericalism meant anti-Catholicism, which meant anti-Laud to many.

To 'Puritans', the changes in worship were Catholic-style 'fripperies' and 'idolatry'; the graven images which the scriptures forbade, (although when William Cavendish, later the Duke of Newcastle, broke his horse's neck in a fall on a Good Friday, Laud wrote in his diary 'should not this day have other employment?' - a distinctly 'puritan' point of view.)

The centres of resistance to the changes were those who had acquired church tithes and land, which Laud attempted to recover (legally, and in line with 'Puritan' opinion) and the universities (Oxford and Cambridge) which were the centres of theological learning, and they often had powerful patrons who could be won over by religious argument. Laud and his supporters systematically undermined the positions of his opponents or even urged Charles Stuart to use his prerogative to appoint favourable heads of the colleges.

Unfortunately for Laud, his activities were seen in the light of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, underway on the continent, (particularly in the form of the horrors of the 'Thirty Years War'), and the problems parliament was having with Charles Stuart. In fact, Laud was unrepresented at court and could do little to prevent 'the queens party' under Henrietta Maria from showing open favour to Catholics at court, and the court receiving papal agents. All the foreign connections of Charles' court combined with the prevailing paranoia about 'Popery' causing opposition to gradually grow more intense, articulated (often via outrageous inaccuracies) by people like William Prynne. The hysteria continued, until, six weeks after the Long Parliament sat in November 1640, Laud was impeached for high treason. Incidentally, a sign of the changing times was that when Prynne had had his ears removed by a Canon court in 1632, it generated little comment, but when he was branded 'SL' for 'seditious libeller' ('stigmata Laudis' according to Prynne) in 1637, it provoked a popular outcry.

Although Laud was on trial in the public mind for preaching transubstantiation (he had said that the altar equated to the body of God), 'Popery' and idolatry, he wasn't actually charged with doctrinal offences, but with subverting the law and introducing arbitrary government, and again ironically, with usurping the royal supremacy, as he had allowed the Church Convocation11 to meet after parliament had been dissolved. With his conviction (and eventual execution in 1645) , the 'Arminian' church party collapsed and the 'Puritan' counter-revolution gathered momentum. Laud was really a victim of the prevailing political turmoil, the over-zealous activities of his followers and their opponents’ propaganda.

The impeachment of the Archbishop of Canterbury was an amazing event, and people began to question the role of the organised church. The viewpoints of religious minorities which were already around were able to enter the political mainstream during the 1640's when the censorship laws broke down, and they had little fear of suppression, now that the Canon Laws' power over the laity had been broken.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Bungling the war with Spain, selling titles and being involved with the English assistance of the Catholic French at La Rochelle.
  2. Failure to agree Charles' revenues and opposition to the innovations of 'Arminianism' in 1628/29 were at the centre of the confrontation which led to Denzil Holles and Benjamin Valentine holding Speaker Finch in his seat on 2nd March 1629, in order to prevent the royal order adjourning parliament being read, whilst three resolutions were passed.
  3. Known as 'Latitudinarians' in later times.
  4. Known as the 'Lords Spiritual' as opposed to the secular lords, who were the 'Lords Temporal'.
  5. Usually the start of Psalm 51.
  6. The merchant Magistrates in urban areas tried to avoid enforcing the suppression of conventicles because they thought that their trade would suffer.
  7. In later periods, being in favour of ceremony would lead to the label of being a 'High Anglican' or 'high churchman'.
  8. For example, Laud wasn't convinced that the Pope was the Antichrist.
  9. Incidentally the first monarch raised from birth in the Anglican church.
  10. Even Buckingham's sister-in-law, Lady Purbeck, had to give up 15 years of adultery and go into exile.
  11. The Anglican Churches governing body.