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Great Tew: An Exchange

In response to:

Charmed Circles from the April 14, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful for the long review of my book Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans by Mr. Robert Adams [NYR, April 14]; but since Mr. Adams devotes most of it to criticism of a particular thesis, perhaps I may reply to that criticism.

The thesis concerned is that of the central essays in the book, on “Laudianism and political power” and “the Great Tew circle,” viz: that Laudianism was intellectually a liberal and rational movement which had been diverted into and identified with, and was damaged by, a particular political system; and that the distinguishing character of the members of Lord Falkland’s circle at Great Tew was that they sought to undo this synthesis in order to continue, and build upon, the original intellectual movement while remaining free to criticize the political system; and I argue that thereby they preserved that tradition and enabled it to survive the political disasters of the Puritan Revolution.

Mr. Adams dissents. He believes that the philosophy of Great Tew was identical with Laudianism, in all significant respects—just as intolerant, illiberal and persecuting, although more sympathetically presented—and that this fact was recognized by Laud who, because he saw its “practical value” as propaganda, positively promoted the work of its chief exponent, Chillingworth’s Religion of Protestants. For good measure, Mr. Adams adds that Chillingworth’s book is “flashy” and superficial and its author little more than a Laudian hack, “an agent of Archbishop Laud,…an accomplice of the persecutor…continuously, consistently active as spy, propagandist, informer, and intriguer,” a “backstairs” royalist manipulated by the Catholic queen. So the dog has a bad name and is hanged.

Consistently with this thesis, Mr. Adams offers to resolve a paradox which, he suggests, “should have alerted” me: the fact that Chillingworth’s book was published with an imprimatur from (among others) the “high Calvinist” Rector of Exeter College and Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, John Prideaux. His explanation of this paradox, this “oddity,” is that Laud “wanted Dr. Prideaux’s name on the imprimatur” in order thus to divide the anti-Laudian front, and, being both reduced to “desperation” and “a master of pressure tactics,” coerced Prideaux, who, though reluctant, was “very vulnerable,” into supplying it.

Now what evidence does Mr. Adams offer for this interpretation? The answer is, none at all. That Laud had personal relations with Chillingworth is well known: Chillingworth was his godson, and Laud had reclaimed him from the Catholicism to which he had been converted at Oxford. Chillingworth then corresponded with Laud and acted as one of his informants in Oxford. This is stated by me. Chillingworth also, like all the Great Tew circle (and many others) became a royalist in the Civil War: the malevolent commentary on this fact comes from a fanatical enemy. But these biographical facts do not devalue his philosophical ideas or mean that he was Laud’s hack. There is no evidence that Laud used him as such, and there is clear evidence that he and his friends at Great Tew—Falkland, Hyde, Sheldon, Morley, Hammond et al.—while supporting and extending the intellectual movement inherited by Laud, distanced themselves from his political application of it.

How did Chillingworth’s book come to be published? It was printed at Oxford, of which Laud was Chancellor, but, as the historian of the Oxford University Press writes, “even when Laud’s power was at its height, his influence on the choice of books to be printed at Oxford does not seem to have been strong.”1 From the available evidence it seems that the initiative, in this case, came from Chillingworth’s friend Christopher Potter, Provost of Queens’ College (in whose support the book was written), and that Laud, who knew the independence and skeptical spirit of his godson, was nervous about it: as he wrote, “the young man hath given cause why a more watchful eye should be held over him and his writings.” So Laud submitted the book to three referees for “revision.” The three referees were the three senior members of the university best qualified by their offices: the vice-chancellor and the two professors of divinity, of whom Prideaux happened to be one. In acting thus, Laud seems to have behaved prudently and correctly. There is no reason to suppose that Prideaux needed to be, or was, coerced. Why should he be? The book was a refutation of a Jesuit’s claims for the infallibility of the Pope. On that subject Laud and Prideaux agreed. On being invited, Prideaux replied that “no man shall be more ready to execute the archbishop’s commands” than he. Nor was he in any way “vulnerable.” He was an established dignitary of the university, an ex-vice-chancellor, and both as head of his college and as regius professor he was irremovable. In theology he differed from Laud, but Laud respected his learning and their relations were amicable.

If there is no evidence for Mr. Adams’ thesis, there is significant evidence against it. If Falkland, Chillingworth, and their friends were really out-and-out Laudians under the skin, and recognized as such by Laud, and valued and used by him, how does Mr. Adams explain the facts that all of them were openly critical of Laudianism, that none of their clerical members received promotion from Laud, that the most powerful parliamentary attack on the Laudian bishops was made by Falkland himself, and that the survivors of their group, who preserved the episcopal Church through the interregnum, never, even in their private correspondence, so much as mentioned the name of Laud who, on Mr. Adams’ assumption, was their martyr? These facts are mentioned in my essay. They are ignored by Mr. Adams. But surely they are relevant.

Hugh Trevor-Roper

Didcote, England

Robert Adams replies:

It is most unfortunate that Professor Trevor-Roper does not seem to have read a crucial document of my critique, Dr. John Prideaux’s Latin lecture at Oxford on July 10, 1637. That date falls, be it noted, midway between Laud’s request that Prideaux review Chillingworth’s book (May 3, 1636–7) and submission of the actual imprimatur (October 14, 1637). The lecture, which defines the authority of the Church in matters of faith and religion, flatly, repeatedly, and centrally contradicts the contents of Chillingworth’s book—and therefore, perforce, the imprimatur that Prideaux prefixed to it. I think this calls for explanation.

The vulnerability of Prideaux to disciplinary pressure amounts to this: that at a time when Laud was actively engaged in a wide-ranging campaign against pluralism in the Church, the doctor held, in addition to his professorship of sacred theology, four vicarages, a college rectorship, and three minor commendams. Early in the year 1636–7 he had been complained against by one Richard Goodwin, who accused him of acquiring two of these cozy sinecures by fraud and deception. Laud declined to take action against the doctor, although on a major issue of the Laudian program Prideaux was flagrantly guilty. That is what I mean by “vulnerable.”

I am sorry to have offended Mr. Trevor-Roper in my account of Chillingworth’s career as propagandist, informer, spy, and intriguer, but I can assure him that the documentation goes far beyond the word of Francis Cheynell. That he was an informer at Oxford and a spy on his fellow students (e.g., Alexander Gill, junior) Trevor-Roper himself repeats; that he was a propagandist, making systematic use of “falsification and tergiversation,” the House of Commons determined on December 1, 1641, when they sentenced him to two weeks in jail. In the spring of 1643 Chillingworth brought unsustainable accusations of treason against Lieutenant Colonel Edward Feilding; the Earl of Sunderland wrote bitterly against him; and his work as secret agent for the queen’s advisers in the defense of Arundel castle was described to Cheynell by Major Molins and another officer of the garrison. This is a goodly variety of sources testifying to a variety of activities all following a consistent line. Talk at this late date about giving a dog a bad name, etc., is nothing but an empty rhetorical flourish.

It is true that the biographical facts, however shabby, do not devalue Chillingworth’s philosophical ideas—or should they rather be called ideas about Church discipline? I called his book “flashy” by specific contrast with the work of Laud because the Church of England in 1637 really claimed and really exercised an authority in matters of faith and religion that Chillingworth said—in the teeth of obvious facts—it did not. It is infinitely easier to deny the authority of Rome when you do not claim, and do not have to defend, a similar authority for yourself. Laud dealt straight with that dilemma; Chillingworth did not.

Some basic verbal accuracy might help to keep this discussion on course. I did not say Chillingworth’s book was superficial, I did not say its author was little more than a Laudian hack, I did not say or imply that the philosophy of Great Tew was identical with Laudianism. What I did say about the holders of that philosophy I said in the lead sentence of a paragraph that begins, “Some of the Great Tew group,” and goes on to distinguish them from “others,” and “still others.” In Jeremy Taylor I gave an open and shameless (and for that reason, as I said, unusual) example of the third group, the temporary-convenience people; it is an instance quietly ignored by Mr. Trevor-Roper. If I did not fill the review with other examples, it was not for lack of them; Mr. Ollard, in one of the other books under review, provides me with a good conspicuous one, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon.

The major point of the review, that religious toleration in England grew, not out of abstract tolerant ideas leaching down through the establishment, but out of Erastian and anti-clerical feelings permeating the laity, out of the poverty and weakness of the restoration Church, and out of the steady pressure of the dissenters—that point, as Professor Trevor-Roper does not address it, I leave standing without remark.

To the Editors:

Mr. Adams in his review [NYR, April 14] of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans and my book on Clarendon and His Friends seems somewhat confused, or at any rate confusing, about Chillingworth and the Great Tew circle.

The tone of revelatory solemnity in which he recites the facts of the imprimatur of The Religion of Protestants is perplexing: all this is lucidly set out in the D.N.B. article on Chillingworth which has been before the public for just over a century. Chillingworth’s discreditable behavior in reporting college gossip to Archbishop Laud is also to be found there. Mr. Adams’ original if somewhat dubious contribution is his assertion that Chillingworth directed the defense of Arundel Castle in 1643. Sir Edward Ford has hitherto been thought to have held this unenviable responsibility. It is difficult to believe that so sound and professional a field commander as Hopton would have countenanced so bizarre a devolution of military authority as Mr. Adams claims. To argue from all this that Chillingworth was really a double agent working for the archbishop and that therefore the Great Tew circle was a crypto-Laudian cell, not a stronghold of liberal, Erasmian Christian humanism, seems extravagant.

Great Tew was essentially and radically hostile to Laud even though several of its members, Selden, Hales and Clarendon himself for example, were personally on good terms with him. Its spirit is characteristically expressed in Morley’s excellent crack that so infuriated the archbishop: “What do the Arminians hold? All the best bishopries and deaneries in England.” It is difficult to see why its reputation should be smeared by the later delinquencies of Jeremy Taylor who, as Mr. Adams airily concedes, had nothing whatever to do with the place.

Richard Ollard

Dorset, England

Robert M Adams replies:

The second line of defense against a new idea (after “it’s all a lot of nonsense”) is “we knew it all the time.” If Mr. Ollard knew all about the long record of William Chillingworth’s duplicities, how did he come to write, on page 35 of his book, the extraordinarily fatuous sentence cited in my review: “Everyone, friend or enemy, is agreed that Chillingworth was incapable of hypocrisy, pious or otherwise”?

Ollard’s objection that Chillingworth could not have exercised influence on the military defenders of Arundel castle was made and answered 345 years ago:

I wondered much that they should make so weak an apology, for I could not believe that Master Chillingworth’s single vote could turn their council of war round, and make them giddy: the ingenuous gentleman made use of the liberty of his judgment, and replied, “Sir, Master Chillingworth hath so much credit at the court, and the court-council hath so much influence into our military council, that we were even over-awed, and durst not contradict Master Chillingworth.”2

As for citing Jeremy Taylor in connection with Great Tew, my concern was with the political uses of the libertarian argument, which in The Liberty of Prophesying and The Religion of Protestants is substantially identical.

But these details are all beside the central point, which hinges on the fundamental contradiction between Dr. John Prideaux’s imprimatur prefixed to The Religion of Protestants in October of 1637 and his Latin lecture on the authority of the Church on July 10 of the same year. Neither Mr. Ollard nor Professor Trevor-Roper shows any signs of having read that lecture; hence they are in no position to estimate the forces that might have led a grave and professional theologian of many years’ standing to contradict himself so flagrantly on a matter of fundamental importance within a matter of a few months. But on this question depends the relation between Chillingworth’s libertarian argument and authoritarian Anglicanism, as exemplified in 1637 by William Laud and after the Restoration by other men acting under different circumstances. That relation was not direct hostility, as Ollard says—there’s not a scintilla of evidence for it. Neither was it agreement or conformity. Rather, the evidence points toward a mode of collusion and mental reservation on both sides among those who were aware of the political game. This may not be the ultimate answer; but until one has read the basic documents, it’s hard to see how one can make an informed judgment of the matter.

  1. 1

    H. Carter, History of the Oxford University Press, I (1975), p. 35.

  2. 2

    Cheynell, Chillingworthi novissima (1644), p. 7.

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