Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 4. Ecclesiastical Character of the demand for Individual Independence in Scotland, and for Democratic Institutions

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XV. Early Writings on Politics and Economics

§ 4. Ecclesiastical Character of the demand for Individual Independence in Scotland, and for Democratic Institutions

Whether they proceeded from a religious or an economic motive, the attempts to evade interference on the part of the crown with the consciences or enterprise of individuals demanded some justification. The writers of the day did not attack the fundamental question in regard to the meaning and ground of sovereignty as a mere philosophical problem: the issue was raised by practical experience and took different forms in England and in Scotland; and the efforts to organise popular self-government were very distinct in the two countries.

In England, throughout the reign of Elizabeth, popular opinion, on the whole, sympathised with the royal claims to very extensive authority in matters ecclesiastical and in foreign and commercial policy. The bull of Pius V, which was issued in 1570, had excommunicated Elizabeth and released her Roman Catholic subjects from the obligations of allegiance; it roused fierce indignation among her subjects, who felt that the maintenance of all they held dear in church and state depended on the preservation of the queen’s person; and it opened the way for a rigorous persecution, as the Roman priests, and those who harboured them, were under suspicion of being traitors. Just, however, because feeling ran high, there does not seem to have been much printed discussion of the validity of the pope’s claim to release subjects from their allegiance to the crown. Parsons, the Jesuit, was content to argue against the claims of the English crown to inherent authority; and Sir John Hayward, in his answer, insisted on the right of hereditary succession to the regal power of England. The underlying difficulty was scarcely dealt with by English writers of the period; if the authority of the crown was not derived from the papal authority, it would seem that it must either be directly conferred by God, inherent in the princely stock or derived from the subjects. Hooker and other writers who defended the existing order failed to make their position clear as regards these various alternatives; expressions might easily be quoted which would go to show that they did not always maintain the same standpoint.

In Scotland, during the last half of the sixteenth century, issues of fundamental principle were raised more definitely. The reformation, in that country, had been thoroughly Calvinistic; and the doctrine of Calvin was inconsistent with any claims to inherent authority on the part of a hereditary monarchy. Calvin and his followers were keenly alive to the supremacy of the Divine Will, and they believed that this Will was fully set forth in the pages of the Bible. The ministers and stewards of God’s Holy Word professed to be in a position to interpret that Will from day to day and hour to hour. The conception of a mundane authority which claims to exercise any control in matters of religion seemed to be blasphemous; and the part which was left for civil officials to play in the management of public affairs was very restricted. In the free cities, like Geneva, in which Calvinism had established its hold at first, magistrates were not in a position, even if they had desired it, to contest these claims; but, when Calvinism crossed the channel from Switzerland and France to Great Britain, its pretensions came into conflict with those of the monarchy. The first notes of defiance had been sounded by Goodman, and by John Knox in his Monstruous Regiment of Women; and the line of argument by which he attacked the claims of queen Mary to the throne of England showed that he was out of sympathy with those who exalted the power of the prince. But the full consequences of the Calvinistic doctrines only came into light north of the Tweed. George Buchanan put forward a Calvinistic theory of national government in 1579; his De Jure Regni insists that the monarch is elected by the people, that he is responsible to the people and that he may be judged by the people. Though Buchanan’s doctrine was not accepted by constitutional authority, it found congenial soil in Scotland. In that kingdom, the monarchy had hardly ever enjoyed a position of independence from the attacks of a turbulent nobility, and there was little difficulty in supporting the principle of the responsibility of the crown by illustrations drawn from Scottish history. The reception of civil law in the northern kingdom rendered it less possible to regard the crown as the supreme source of right. While the prerogatives of the crown were thus minimised, the claim to self-government was being effectively pushed forward. The Scottish parliament had not, indeed, been an important popular power, and, therefore, there was a field left in which the self-government of the Scottish people could be organised afresh on new lines. Despite the opposition of the regent and the antagonism of the nobility, Andrew Melville succeeded in completely recasting the ecclesiastical system in 1580, and in creating a series of representative assemblies, local, provincial and national, throughout the country. Popular opinion was able to take complete possession of the national ecclesiastical system; the new scheme of government professed to be strictly scriptural, and it treated the king as an official who was bound to be subservient to this ecclesiastical democracy.

The form which national self-government attempted to assume north of the Tweed was a direct challenge to the constitutional authorities: it raised the whole question as to the duty of civil obedience. Buchanan’s argument called out an immediate reply in The True Law of Free Monarchies, a book which was attributed to king James. It had become obvious that the defenders of monarchy must take very high ground to meet such assailants; and it was under these circumstances that the Stewart doctrine of the divine right of kings was formulated. It had, indeed, found full expression in the Homily published in 1562, as well as in the lengthy one which was issued after the rebellion of the northern earls; but the English puritans did not, by their refusal to submit to the ecclesiastical authorities, directly raise the issue as to the duty of obedience to the king. The struggle was with ecclesiastical administrators and the question as to the nature of civil authority was hardly raised. The high doctrine of monarchy does not seem to have received much attention or roused much antagonism until it re-entered England from the north along with the Stewarts. The doctrine of divine right, as fully formulated, had two aspects; on the one hand it maintained that the monarchy was not elective, but that the occupant of the throne had an inherent hereditary right; on the other hand, it asserted that the king was a trustee who was not responsible in any way to his subjects, but to God Himself. Hence, it appeared that, if there had been any contract between the king and his people, the people could never be justified in claiming to judge of a breach of contract or to take the law into their own hands. It was their duty to obey God’s minister, the king; or, if he commanded them to do anything directly contrary to God’s word, they might, indeed, refuse to carry out his wishes actively, but were yet bound to show their respect by submission to the punishment he might impose for their refusal. Archbishop Ussher and others, who viewed civil authority in this religious aspect, would not admit for a moment that they were giving any apology for arbitrary or tyrannical government, while they insisted on a duty of passive obedience. At all events, the doctrine is self-consistent; and those who reject it, and try to formulate principles which shall justify resistance in emergencies, have always found difficulty in explaining any rational grounds for obedience at all, except in so far as the dictates of self-interest render it expedient at the moment.