Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 5. English Constitutionalism

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

§ 5. English Constitutionalism

The question between popular self-government and the interference of the crown was raised in another form and debated on other grounds in England, where the parliamentary system had long been in vogue. In Elizabeth’s time, the puritans had endeavoured to bring ecclesiastical grievances before the House of Commons; this, the queen resented, as it seemed that the commons were endeavouring to go outside their province and legislate on matters which could only be constitutionally dealt with by the clergy in convocation and by the crown. In this way, the religious question assumed a constitutional form. There were, indeed, many abuses in the church, both as regards ceremonial and the enforcement of discipline; and, among many Englishmen, there was little confidence in either the desire or the power of the bishops to carry out what they regarded as necessary reforms. There was, besides, widespread dissatisfaction, among the public and among lawyers, in regard to both the pretensions and the practice of the ecclesiastical courts. When the House of Commons insisted on dealing with these matters, the question came to be one of constitutional right. Hence, the party who desired an extension of popular self-government over ecclesiastical as well as civil affairs devoted their attention to the search for precedents rather than to the laying down of principles. The struggle for ecclesiastical democracy had led to the creation of a new system of popular assemblies in Scotland; in England, it took the shape of the demand for increased power on the part of one estate of the realm as against the other elements in the constitution.

At the accession of James I, the struggle was both confused and embittered by the misunderstandings which arose through identifying the corresponding movements in England and Scotland. The puritans in England doubtless expected that a Scottish king might be willing to have the church of England reformed on the lines of the Scottish church, which they regarded as scriptural. They could hardly have been aware of the horror with which he regarded this presbyterian organisation, as inconsistent with effective control of public affairs by the civil power, and incompatible with the good government of the realm. On the other hand, James was probably unaware of the importance of the House of Commons as an organ through which popular self-government might be exercised. He assumed that it might be induced to play the rôle with which the Scottish parliament had been content. He regarded the popular assembly as an excellent place in which to bring private grievances to the knowledge of the sovereign, but he held that it was for the sovereign, as trustee of the common weal and directly responsible to God, to shape the policy of the country for the public good.

Whether the new claims of the House of Commons called forth the assertion of higher privileges by the crown, or the manner in which the prerogative of the crown was put forward roused the antagonism of the commons, the old balance between the different elements in the life of the state was upset. The well-ordered community, as vaguely conceived in Elizabethan times, had been a body in which the nobles and gentry, and the burgesses and yeomen, co-operated for the common weal. But, in view of the need of finding a basis for insisting on the duty of civil obedience, this whole conception of the realm was modified. The supporters of the crown regarded England as a monarchy in which the king was personally responsible to God, and to God only, for all public affairs, while it was desirable that he should get such assistance from his subjects, by counsel and advice, as seemed to him to be required. This new view of the English realm failed to commend itself to moderate churchmen; while much of the secular learning and sentiment of England, which, under other circumstances, might have been conservative, was thrown into opposition to the crown. Those who were aggrieved by the advancement of Williams and Juxon, or irritated by the reforms of Laud, threw the weight of their influence into opposition to the crown. The controversialists were somewhat at cross-purposes; on the royalist side, there was an assertion of principles, while Prynne and his associates were engaged in accumulating precedents and attacking persons.

Both in England and in Scotland, the determination not to brook royal interference in matters of religion was momentous; but, while the presbyterians in England were willing to accede to the claims of the House of Commons the presbyterians in Scotland were more thorough-going in their insistence on spiritual independence, and had far greater difficulty in coming into line with any form of civil government. For our immediate purpose, it may suffice to note that each movement made its own contribution to the criticism of the Stewart régime and proved to be a step in the progress of democratic ideas.