Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

The Misrule of the Stuarts—James I (1603—1625)

The word "king" has many different meanings. It may mean a "constitutional king," who reigns in state as king, but does not govern except through ministers and a parliament. It may mean an absolute despot, whose subjects' lives and property are at the disposal of his will and caprice. Or it may mean anything between these two extremes.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the power of kings, instead of growing less, appeared to be growing greater. This is shown by the despotic rule of Henry VIII in England, which has been described in a previous chapter; and, in the middle of the seventeenth century, by the rise of a great French king, Louis XIV, who became the most powerful and absolute monarch France had seen for nearly a thousand years.

So far from kingship being dead, gunpowder and standing armies had put new weapons in its hands. Parliaments still existed, but most men believed that a strong king was needed to keep the nation in order and defend it against enemies abroad. So long as men believed this, the supreme power would lie with kings and not with parliaments.

James I and Anne


Such was the state of things when James I became king at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Most of the troubles of James's reign would have been soon forgotten, if they had not had such important effects in his son's reign. By themselves, they seem like trivial quarrels that might have been settled by a little common sense and forbearance. What are the affairs that all the history books about James's reign are full of? A petition of Puritan clergymen to abolish some of the ceremonies and practices of the Church; disputes about the privileges of Parliament; bargains about feudal dues; protests by the Commons against "monopolies," against "benevolences "; protests in defence of their right to advise the king; petitions against marrying the Prince of Wales to a Catholic; and such like matters.

But these apparently petty conflicts between an angry and talkative king and his solemn Puritan Parliaments, jealous about the smallest of their, rights, were signs of the times such as a wise man would have taken to heart. They were the beginnings of that great struggle, the Civil War, which altered the whole destiny of the English race. James's reign is therefore like the first act in the play; we see its meaning only in the light of what happens farther on.

The first thing to understand is this trouble between the Puritans and the bishops. We need not believe that either side was entirely in the right; but when people believe in a thing so thoroughly that they are willing to lay down their lives in defence of it, even if they happen to be in the wrong, it is well to take notice of them. When there are two such sets of people, and their beliefs are opposed to one another, only two courses are open. The first course is to allow both parties to keep their own opinions, and to try to live side by side without quarrelling. That is toleration. The other course is for the two parties to fight it out, either by persecution or by open war.

It seems strange enough now that two branches of the Christian Church should have fought one another like heathens. But in those times nearly every nation clung to the view that there ought to be one religion only within the same state. Therefore, just as Christians had fought against heathens, just as Catholics had fought against Protestants, so, when two parties arose within the English Church, they too began to fight.

Ever since the Reformation, there had been two sorts of Protestants in England, although the division was not clearly marked at first. Some, whom we shall call the Anglicans, desired to be free from the Pope and Rome, but though they did not accept the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, they wished to keep as much as possible of the old ceremonies, prayers, sacraments, and Church government. They regarded the Church of England as still part of the true Catholic Church, and attached great importance to the proper succession of bishops.

Others, whom we shall call Puritans, wished to be completely separated from Rome. They looked upon the Roman Church as wicked and idolatrous. They wished to simplify the services of the Church, and wanted to do away with what they regarded as image-worship. Instead of altars they wanted communion tables; instead of rich vestments and surplices, they preferred a plain black gown for their clergymen. As for bishops, whilst some were willing to keep them, others wished to have ministers chosen by the congregation, and to have an assembly of ministers and laymen to make rules for the Church, without any interference either from bishop or king.

Probably the mass of the people had no very strong opinions, and were willing to accept whatever was arranged for them by their lawful rulers. But most of those who thought seriously about their religion came to belong either to the first party or the second. This broad division is important, because in after-times there arose out of it our existing Church of England on the one hand and the various Nonconformist Churches on the other.

Queen Elizabeth had attempted to make the Church "comprehensive," that is, she tried to adopt such doctrines and services as would enable everybody to belong to the national Church. And for a long time many people believed that the Church could be made to suit all kinds of people. When James became king, there were many proposals for adapting the Church services to meet the wishes of all sections. But when they began to discuss the proposals, it soon became clear that the differences of opinion were too great to be settled in such a way.

The Anglicans thought it would be sinful to give up the ancient ceremonies and sacraments, whilst the Puritans thought it was idolatry to pay attention to them. Hence it became a struggle between these two religious parties for the control of the national Church. Whichever got the upper hand would be likely to persecute the other, as we shall see, for this struggle in different ways goes on throughout the century. One of the very first incidents in this struggle was the famous "Hampton Court Conference," held by James I as a result of the Millenary Petition, signed by a thousand Puritan ministers who desired certain changes in the Church.

The English system gave great power to the king. There was no pope to interfere on the one hand, and no general assembly on the other. He alone appointed the bishops; the bishops controlled the rest of the clergy, whilst the congregations had no voice in the matter. James saw from the first the great advantage of this system to himself, and determined not to give in at all to those reformers whom he regarded as Presbyterians in disguise. "No bishop: no king," he said pithily. He declared that he would make the Puritans conform to the Church or he would "harry them out of the land." His temper towards the Puritans was shown by the fact that ten of those who had presented the Millenary Petition were committed to prison.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


From the conference the Puritans had gained nothing, except the king's consent to a new translation of the Bible, a few trifling alterations in the Prayer Book, and the promise of an enquiry into the best means of obtaining a preaching clergy. The new translation of the Bible was a great event, for it gave us the "authorised version," which has been read by all the English-speaking world for three centuries.

On the other hand, the Puritans lost a great deal; for as the king had supported the Anglicans, so they now supported the king where he claimed the most extraordinary powers. This alliance between king and bishops was to have a great effect on the nation's affairs for the next two generations. The laws which compelled men to use the services of the Established Church were made more binding upon the clergy, and three hundred of them gave up their livings rather than make the promises required from them. Some went to Holland to join those "Separatist" Churches founded by the "Dissenters" of Elizabeth's time. Most of the Puritans remained in the Church, but the discontent went on growing.

From this time we see the Puritan party becoming not only a Church  or religious party, but also a State  or political party, which was largely in opposition to the king. The alliance between the king and the bishops thus led to that other alliance between Puritans and Parliament. Many things led to this. The High Church party, or Anglicans, were to some extent in sympathy with the Catholics. Their own most loved ceremonies were very much like those. of the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans, on the other hand, hated the Catholics intensely. They were constantly urging the Government to put the penal laws in force against the Catholics. They wished to sweep them out of the country. They believed that many of the Anglicans were really Catholics trying to betray the Church of England to Rome. They saw Catholics favoured at Court. They knew that there were many secret Catholics; the queen herself was one. They were therefore full of suspicion, and their suspicions of a great Catholic conspiracy haunted the minds of the Puritans for many years.

The temper of the Puritans was sharpened by persecution. Their own habits of life marked them out from their neighbours and tended to draw them together. They turned themselves to Bible-reading, preaching, and private prayer. They abstained from many simple amusements, denounced dancing and stage plays as wicked, as, in fact, many of the plays of the time were. They turned the old-fashioned English Sunday into a day on which nothing was to be done but what belonged to religious worship.

These men thus lived a life of severe restraint. They believed that they had the direct guidance of God in the meaning they placed upon their reading of the Bible, and they used certain texts as plain commandments, regarding themselves as the "Elect of God" and their opponents as idolaters. Such men were enemies worth the respect of the most absolute king. When they turned their attention to politics they showed the same seriousness, the same intense faith, and the same hatred of compromise that they felt in religion.

The House of Commons was their stronghold, for, from the latter days of Elizabeth, a majority of its 450 members were either Puritans or in sympathy with Puritans. When men are out of sympathy with one another it does not need great occasions to make them quarrel. The House of Commons was extremely jealous of its customs and privileges. Even the Tudor sovereigns had respected these—they might have used the House of Commons as a tool, but they generally took care neither to disturb its customs nor violate its privileges. James had none of the Tudors' tact. He was in reality far less of a tyrant, but he wanted to have his powers acknowledged, and he liked to lecture Parliament on his own supremacy.