Oliver Cromwell - Estelle Ross

The Problem of the Age

Each age has its own problem to face, its own inheritance of the mistakes of the previous one. The seventeenth century was to see the birth of new ideals which threatened the very existence of monarchy. The country had acquiesced in the rule of the Tudors partly because they were dominant personalities, partly because it required time to recover after the weary conflict of the Wars of the Roses. Then, too, nothing succeeds like success. In Elizabethan days England rose in glory and stood high in the estimation of Europe. National pride was quickened by the defeat of the Spanish Armada and by the voyages of the great seamen, Grenville, Raleigh, and Drake.

The Tudors had the power to force their will on the people. At best such a rule was bad alike for governor and governed; at its worst it was tyranny.

It was the misfortune of the Stuarts that they could not realize that the death of Elizabeth meant the end of absolute sovereignty, and for this lack of understanding the house was doomed.

James I had no sooner ascended the throne of England (thus uniting the Crowns of England and Scotland) than he was made to feel that his new kingdom was in a state of transition and that the era of subservience was at an end. The points of view of King and Parliament were radically different. James, in The True Law of Free Monarchy, asserted his belief in the 'divine right of kings'—the sovereign was above all human law and when he obeyed it he did so merely to set an example to his subjects. "As it is atheism and blasphemy to dispute what God can do, so it is presumption and high contempt in a subject to dispute what a king can do, or to say that a king cannot do this or that."

The newly elected members of Parliament were no less emphatic as to their position, and in the 'Apology' which they presented to him the year after his accession they made it perfectly clear. "Our privileges and liberties are our right and due inheritance, no lest than our very lands and goods.... They cannot be withheld from us, denied or impaired, but with apparent wrong to the whole state of the realm."

In brief the contest was to be this: Had the King sovereign power independently of Parliament or only through Parliament? Was the monarch, in common with his people, subject to the law, or was the law subject to the King?

James was not the man to hold the reins of government at such a time. Though not without intelligence—he has been called "the wisest fool in Christendom"—he was a dull pedant, and had none of that tact which would have helped him to steer a safe course.

But England had not to face the political problem only; there was the religious difficulty as well.

The Reformation had not produced a nation of one mind as to religious observance, though people of that age, lacking the wider vision of our own, still believed that uniformity was possible. There were four main divisions: the Arminians or Anglicans, the Puritans, the Presbyterians, and the Roman Catholics. The first two in some way corresponded to the High and Low Church of to-day, for both were within the pale of the Church of England. Like the Roman Catholics, the Arminians believed in the authority and traditions of the Church. For them the Reformation did not introduce any new form of worship, but simply swept away abuses that had gathered round the old. They retained most of the beautiful liturgy and the symbols of the faith, though they staunchly denied the supremacy of the Pope.

The Puritans, on the other hand, though for the most part they still remained within the Church of England, thought that the Reformation had not gone far enough. The old traditions were hateful to them. They desired a purer form of worship founded solely on the Bible. The Book should be diligently studied, not only in order to "justify the ways of God to man," but in order that the creature might understand the will of the Creator. The cross in baptism, the ring in marriage, the cap and surplice and official robes, the very Prayer Book itself, were but superstitions. They wanted the pure Word of God. Unfortunately for such guidance through the mazes of this troublesome world, the Bible is capable of many interpretations in accordance with the point of view of the reader, and the Puritans themselves were to split into many different sects. But, for good and ill, they were fated to play an enormous part in shaping the destinies not only of England but of that "new world called America." Fanatics there were among them, without doubt, but the majority were. people of sincere conviction, to whom life was a serious business, not alone here and now, but as the preparation for a world to come.

The Presbyterians desired an entirely remodeled Church with another form of government. Bishops and priests were abhorrent to them, and presbyters and elders were to take their place. The discipline was strict, and offending members could be called before a Presbytery for any offence in life or doctrine, to listen meekly to grave rebuke or the sentence of expulsion from the Church. The Presbytery, too, claimed the power of declaring the mind of God "in all questions of religion."

The Roman Catholics were the adherents of the faith that had grown up from earliest times through the Middle Ages, which they held unchanged and unchangeable. Their supreme earthly head was the Pope, who was infallible in his judgments. They revered and worshipped the Virgin as they did her Son, and they held that the bread and wine used in the service of the Mass were in some mystical way changed into the body and blood of Christ.

All parties looked to James I to do something for them. The hopes of the Presbyterians ran high, for he had been bred among them. This, however, was little recommendation to him, for he had grown heartily tired of their long dissertations and admonitions. The Roman Catholics looked to the son of Mary Stuart to allow them a larger measure of toleration; ultimately they hoped that Roman Catholicism would once more become the State religion—but the time was not yet ripe for it. James had promised them a certain amount of freedom, but no sooner had he ascended the throne than the laws against them were so rigorously enforced that the extremists formed the Gunpowder Plot. Its discovery led to far harsher laws against the Roman Catholics, and thenceforth they were obliged to receive the Mass in secret as though they were committing a crime.

The Puritans also hoped for many things from the new reign, as did the Arminian. The latter came off the better. 'No Bishop, no King,' came to be the motto of the House of Stuart. It was a case of mutual service: if the bishops preached the 'divine right,' the kings could not but support them.

The political and religious troubles were to lead to civil war, to the death of Charles I, to the Commonwealth, and to the Restoration.