Wednesday, December 26, 2012

James I and English Absolutism

The recent calls for increased gun control after the Sandy Hook Massacre led one of my uncles to ask about the relationship between the English Civil War and the attitudes of the American colonists who broke away from England a century later.  That led me to take a renewed look at my notes on the Stuarts from the Fall of 2007.  I knew less than nothing about the period when I started the proseminar, so there may be some errors in my interpretation of the works I was dealing with....


Absolutists based their argument on the theory of Divine Right of Kings.  Kings received their authority directly from God whether they became monarch through election or conquest.  The divine origin of the King’s authority meant that his power was boundless.  No laws could restrain him, and only God could judge the King’s actions or policies.  Further, the King’s mandate from God meant that it was sedition or even blasphemy to challenge the King’s decrees.  Absolutists argued the King granted his subjects as privileges their traditional rights of taxation only with consent of Parliament and imprisonment only through due process.  Anti-absolutists agreed that the monarch received his authority from God, but denied that this set him above the law, or that Parliament could not discuss or challenge his actions or policies.  The monarch did not grant immunity from imprisonment without cause or taxation without consent of Parliament as a privilege - those rights were established under England’s ancient Anglo-Saxon constitution.

Politics, particularly the issues of taxation and imprisonment, were the primary arena of conflict between the two ideologies.  Taxation became an issue for anti-absolutists when James I created new import duties without consulting Parliament.  Anti-absolutists argued that the import duties were a new tax, and that only Parliament, consisting of the House of Commons, House of Lords, and the King, could impose new taxes.  The absolutists, led by the King argued that the monarch had the right to act in the interests of state when Parliament was not in session.  Anti-absolutists responded that this tradition was intended only to be used in case of emergency to defend England from invasion, and that the King should call Parliament to request new taxes for all other purposes.  King James’ response to the challenge from anti-absolutists was to declare that the King could pass taxes on his own, as they were his right as monarch.

Parliament’s proper role in taxation took new meaning after Charles I collected a forced loan from wealthy landowners in 1626, and the King ordered five members of the gentry who refused to pay the loan as an illegal tax imprisoned.  When the knights’ lawyers requested writs of habeas corpus from the King’s Bench, the King refused to show cause for their imprisonment because he did not want the legality of the Forced Loan debated in court.  When the judges of the King’s Bench ruled only to withhold bail for the knights, the King sent a courtier to attempt the court documents so they showed that the judges ruled that the King could imprison individuals without cause.

The anti-absolutists in the House of Commons viewed these events as an attack on yet another of their ancient rights.  Charles I and his supporters fed the Commons’ fear by arguing that the King could imprison people without cause, impose taxes, and pass legislation without Parliament due to the divine origins of his power.  Further, taxes were his rightful due as monarch, and it was sedition to challenge his dictates or discuss his rightful prerogatives.  The proper role of Parliament was to discuss and vote on only those things that the King told it to discuss.

Conflict between absolutists and anti-absolutists was not restricted to the political arena, but also included the role of the church hierarchy.  Absolutists argued that as God’s representative on earth, the King occupied the top of the religious hierarchy, subordinate only to God.  This position allowed the monarch to dictate what ministers preached.  Absolutists believed that members of the hierarchy could wield temporal power to imprison or fine ministers or other individuals in ecclesiastical courts, and that it was legitimate for the hierarchy to remove benefices given to ministers that did not preach according to the canons.

Anti-absolutists took the opposite tack, arguing that the Church was independent of the King, and that it could excommunicate him if he merited it through impiety or action.  Further, the Church only possessed spiritual authority, not temporal authority.  Since they were not based in statute, the fines and imprisonments of the ecclesiastical courts were not legal, and the hierarchy did not have the authority to strip ministers of benefices bestowed upon them.  In effect, anti-absolutists believed that inheritances, tithes, and benefices were property, and subject to the common law.

There are two historiographical issues to contend with in when considering the conflict between absolutists and anti-absolutists in seventeenth century England: whether the conflict was primarily religious, and whether political conflict in England suddenly manifested shortly before 1642.  Sommerville argues that Congregationalists were such a small minority during the first half of the seventeenth century that the disagreement over the role of the Episcopal hierarchy was not the primary cause of the English Civil War.  The role of the King in the religious hierarchy remained a significant issue, as did the issue of the Pope’s power to depose monarchs, but neither was the driving issue toward open conflict.

Conrad Russell offers an alternate interpretation of the political struggles from 1600–1642 is that England’s laity was politically united, with absolutists restricted to the clergy.  Parliament widely accepted the theory that the people could depose a tyrant, which revisionists define as an absolute monarch who ruled poorly.  Sommerville dismisses the revisionist argument by attacking the restrictive definition of “absolutist” required to argue for political unity.  The revisionists define absolutists only as those who believe that the King can rule by fiat, and pass laws without resorting to Parliament.  In the revisionist interpretation, accepting the Divine Right of Kings to rule is not enough to define an argument as absolutist.  This narrow definition of “absolutist” excludes both Bodin and Bossuet, an apologist for Louis XIV of France, rendering it ineffective for describing the political challenges of the era.

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