The Background To The English Civil

Historians disagree as to whether the English Civil War should be seen as the last European war of religion or the first European revolutionary movement, presaging the French Revolution of 1789. A case can be made for each interpretation, in that at least some of their elements were unquestionably present. For our purposes, the importance of the English Civil War is that it set one form of Protestantism against another within a single nation, bringing about a major crisis of identity within the movement.8

The English Civil War was one of the most significant intellectual and political landmarks in the history of English-speaking Protestantism. Until the end of the Second World War, this pivotal event in English history tended to be evaluated from the perspective of the ultimate winners—the royalists and Anglicans—and thus a critical, often abusive, account of the agendas and concerns of both Parliamentarianism and Puritanism.9 In the 1960s, the history of the English Civil War was rewritten. Puritanism, it was now believed, was a less radical force than had hitherto been believed. In line with the broader revisionist perspective that was then sweeping the field of seventeenth-century English history, Puritans were seen as deeply conservative figures who were closely allied with the political and religious establishments in England until the hostility of Charles I's regime forced them into violent opposition. Unsurprisingly, the winds of historiographical change have changed direction yet again: more recent scholarship has recovered much of the view that Puritanism was indeed a radical, even revolutionary, movement that fostered "godly discontent" to such an extent that a social and political revolution was an entirely conceivable out-come.10

While there were tensions between Anglicans and Puritans toward the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, these had always been held in check. The early years of the rule of James I not only exacerbated existing tensions but created new ones. After the heights of England's sense of achievement and purpose during Elizabeth's last years, a sense of disillusionment appears to have taken hold of the nation, as some of its leading figures felt increasingly undervalued and alienated.

The problems began under James I, whose somewhat extravagant notion of the "divine right of kings" caused considerable political difficulties. The idea had been around since the Middle Ages; James, however, developed it in what many regarded as an unacceptable, even downright eccentric, way.11 The basic idea is summarized neatly in the opening sonnet of James's Basilikon Doron (1598), written while he was still king of Scotland:

God gives not Kings the style of Gods in vain,

For on his throne his Sceptre do they sway.

In some 1609 speeches to Parliament, James made it clear that he regarded himself as above the law, which was his instrument for ruling on God's behalf.

The king's subsequent dissolution of Parliament in 1611 was entirely consistent with his theology; it did nothing, however, to endear him to the increasingly powerful and vocal gentry. Sir Edward Coke (1552— 1634) led the intellectual opposition to James's interpretation of the "divine right of kings," arguing that the king was under the law, not above it. Law was not something the king could use as he pleased to enforce his will; rather, it set limits to his actions.

The Anglican establishment felt that it had no choice but to support James in this matter. It required little critical acumen to notice that James's theology of kingship lent support to the idea of religious establishment, thus safeguarding their positions, status, and incomes at a time of uncertainty. James had made it clear that he was resolutely opposed to "Papists and Puritans" and that he intended to steer a middle way between these two camps. The theory of the divine right of kings neatly locked church and king together in a robust circle of mutual support and reinforcement, in effect making the established church impervious to significant parliamentary criticism.

Yet the most significant criticism of James's doctrine was theological. The theological foundation for the doctrine of "monarchomachy"— the idea that severe restrictions were to be placed upon the rights of kings, so that the people had both a right and a duty to resist tyrannical monarchs—was laid in France in response to the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572. Some years earlier, John Calvin—perhaps beginning to recognize the practical and political importance of the question—had conceded that rulers might exceed the bounds of their authority by setting themselves against God; when they did so, he suggested, they abrogated their own power. These ideas were developed and extended by his French followers in the aftermath of the events of 1572. François Hotman, Theodore Beza, and Philippe Duplessis-Mornay all emphasized precisely the same point: tyrants are to be resisted.12 The primary Christian duty to obey God is to be placed above any secondary obligation to obey a human ruler.

Puritan writers thus deconstructed the notion of the divine right of kings with theological ease and personal glee, pointing out its lack of biblical warrant. For them, the king's excesses highlighted the virtues of the republicanism of Calvin's Geneva. These virtues were emphasized by one of the most important English translations of the Bible—the so-called Geneva Bible, produced by English exiles at Geneva during the reign of Mary Tudor and published in 1560. It was probably the finest translation of its age. Yet its growing popularity in the reign of James I rested largely on an additional feature of this translation—its marginal notes.13

As we have emphasized time and time again, the vexed issue of biblical interpretation lies at the heart of the Protestant theological enterprise. Where earlier English Protestants, such as William Tyndale, had assumed—not a little optimistically, as it turned out—that the Bible, once translated, could easily be understood by any plowboy, the Geneva Bible explicitly recognized that there were "hard places"—that is, passages of the Bible that needed more than a little explanation. The marginal notes of the Geneva Bible provided its readers with clear explanations of the meanings of important yet potentially obscure biblical texts. Unsurprisingly, the interpretations offered were those associated with Calvin's Geneva—theologically Reformed and politically republican. And equally unsurprisingly, the notes were highly critical of any idea of the "divine right of kings."

The Geneva Bible provided powerful ammunition to those who challenged the theological basis of James's ideology of kingship.14 Commenting on Daniel being thrown into the lions' den, the Geneva Bible notes that Daniel "disobeyed the king's wicked commandment in order to obey God." The implication is clear: God approves of those who resist the unjust demands of kings. Much the same point is made in relation to the account of the Exodus. God ended Pharaoh's oppression of his people through Moses. And God will deal in the same way with any other kings who oppress his people. It was not difficult to make the connection with James's abortive attempts to rule England.

One of the biblical texts seized upon by the supporters of the "divine right of kings" was Psalm 105:15: "Do not touch mine anointed." The meaning of the text was clear, they argued: the people are forbidden to take any form of violent action against God's anointed one—in other words, the king. The Geneva Bible interpreted this verse in a rather different way: kings are forbidden to oppress or take any violent action against God's anointed people. The implicit theological justification of republicanism could hardly be overlooked—as James himself knew.

James had encountered the Geneva Bible while in Scotland and cordially detested its marginal notes. One of his most significant religious actions as the new king of England was his 1604 command that a new English translation of the Bible was to be made—a translation that eventually appeared in 1611 and is widely known as the King James Bible. This new translation, he insisted, would have no marginal notes. Yet the new translation proved to be a commercial flop. The Geneva Bible reigned supreme until the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II—even though James banned its production in England in 1616.

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