The period between the Reformation and the Restoration of Charles II was the heroic age of English history. The lightest actions were heavy with decision, the simplest utterances were couched in prophetic language. Ivan Roots’s characterization of the Great Rebellion can be applied to the whole period:
It was an iron age, an age of destruction, of the squabbles of kites and crows, of petty schisms, meanness and ignorance. It was also a golden age, an age of construction, of the large wars of truth, of unity, generosity and knowledge.
Queen Elizabeth told one of her parliaments:
I have ever used to set the last judgment day before mine eyes, and so to rule as I shall be judged to answer before a Higher Judge.
while a humble Fifth Monarchy man ended a letter addressed to Oliver Crom-well:
Sir, I am
a man of sorrows
mourning for Sion waiting
for King Jesus
rising up early
ready to quench the thirsty Little Horn [Daniel 7:8] with the blood of my heart, if that would do it.
Not until the very end of the period did the sense of the Almighty at one’s shoulder become less real, and even then few were ready to admit that the most mundane political transaction was not part of God’s Higher Purpose for Man. When the leaders of the New Model Army announced in 1647:
We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defense of our own and the people’s just rights and liberties,
they were introducing a new dimension of merely political or social obligation, and preparing the way for the total exclusion of God from politics under King Charles II.
The English Reformation was so half-heartedly conducted in the beginning, and subject to so many accidents and temporary reversals in its development, that it positively invited contestation, speculation, and amendment. When Henry VIII took the English Church into schism, he did not contemplate joining the Continental Reformation, and England’s chronic failure to produce a theologian of original genius or a clerical leader of any consequence on the reforming side made it possible for him to maintain the status quo, however precariously. At his death the Church was still Catholic—indeed Roman Catholic—in liturgy, observance, and belief. But the defective succession, which had set off the whole process, betrayed him. Edward VI was too young to rule, and the ambition and cupidity of his regents transformed the palsied urging of ecclesiastics like Cranmer into violent action. In six years the Mass was translated into English, then retranslated and revised in a form which made certain Protestant assumptions inevitable, and (more startling still to the ordinary worshipper) the parish churches were ruthlessly stripped of images, paintings, and statuary, converting most of them from colorful and comforting theaters to austere, unyielding sheds. Nothing is more surprising than the dumb passivity with which this hectic revolution was accepted by the majority of the lower clergy as well as its parishioners.
ALL THE SAME, it seemed on the sudden death of King Edward in 1553 that Protestantism had gone too far too fast, but the reaction that followed under Mary wrecked the prospects of Catholicism as a political alternative. When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 she had a comparatively free choice; it was up to her and her advisers, in the fashion of continental rulers, to assemble her own church, taking what she thought good and discarding the rest. No one questioned her right to do so.
The results were curious. To our mind the patent inability of the English Church to agree on such vital questions as the Real Presence in the Communion is astonishing (the Book of Common Prayer still leaves its users free to regard Communion as a miracle of transubstantiation or a service of remembrance), but contemporaries were more alarmed at the shameless retention by a Protestant Reformed Church of bishops equipped with the autocratic powers, the administrative machinery, and the financial advantages enjoyed by their benighted medieval predecessors. The surprising thing about reform Protestantism, or Puritanism, is its preoccupation not with doctrine or theology, on which there was substantial agreement on both sides anyway, but on church government, with its attendant problem of discipline, and the ministry of the church. The emphasis of Protestant worship was on the expounding of scripture in the sermon, and the physical aspect of most parish churches had been revised to this end. But the majority of the clergy were unwilling to forsake the theatrical or sacrificial emphasis of the unreformed church, and, moreover, the income from most English parishes was inadequate to support an educated man—a man, moreover, who was now married and had children.
Some scholars, such as Christopher Hill, have thoroughly explored the economic and social implications of Puritanism. Others have examined its theoretical or theological aspects, notably William Haller, who stressed the individuality of the Puritan ethic in contrast to the accepted doctrine of a monolithic Church standing between man and God. It is no criticism of historians like Haller to say that they are concerned with the ideas of Puritanism, assessed by reference to literary evidence, not with what it achieved; they speak of the world as it ought to have been according to Puritanism, or as it might be.
Patrick Collinson examines the Puritan reform movement as a political phenomenon, and he deals with what was, not what might have been; he subjects us to a refreshing douche of factual information, which will cleanse and purify many out-of-the-way channels. As always with this kind of modern scholarship, his findings blur convenient distinctions and classifications; Puritan v. Anglican, or Puritanism v. the State. He shows that many of the Queen’s ministers, even the Queen herself, were “soft” toward Puritanism, and the victory of the hierarchy, inevitable in most history books with the advent of Whitgift to the see of Canterbury in 1584, in fact hung by a thread. Necessarily Collinson is preoccupied with the clergy. The Puritan laity still eludes definition or statistical assessment, as it always will, and the ultimate ends of the Puritan movement, whether it was in any sense revolutionary or whether it was merely evolutionary, remain in doubt. But Collinson has succeeded in pushing forward a good distance the frontiers of exact knowledge of a topic which has been the subject of too much guesswork in the guise of assertion and plausible speculation presented as factual knowledge.
He shows that the Church Settlement in its early years commanded a remarkable degree of acceptance from the more advanced thinkers among the clergy, and that even the pundits of Basel and Zurich (constantly appealed to) were willing to stomach episcopacy. This is not surprising, since Elizabeth raised so many reformers to the episcopal bench. But as the reformers who became bishops predictably hardened into good establishment men, as the danger of Counter-Reformation Catholicism increased, and as the inertia of the unlettered mass of the parish clergy—not so much resistant as indifferent to change—became more and more of a hindrance, so militancy became more fashionable, and while some pressed through Parliament for reform of the Church from the top downward, others sought to introduce change at the parish level, from the bottom upward. Given the hostility of the Queen to her bishops, and her reluctance to support them, and the favor which the Puritans enjoyed at Court from ministers and favorites, like Burleigh, Walsingam, and Leicester, the failure of the Puritan movement seems all the more surprising, and it is tempting to attribute it to the public antics of theologians like Cartwright and over-clever pamphleteers like Martin Marprelate, or a parliamentary program which was so radical that it frightened off the uncommitted majority.
But only a minority of the parish clergy were Puritan, as few as 300 in 1603, out of about 6000, and though the proportion may have been higher twenty years before, it is unlikely that it was significantly higher. There were just not enough Puritans. The means of enforcement at the government’s disposal were so feeble that a strike, even by a sizable minority of the clergy, against the Book of Common Prayer and the bishops would have been decisive; as it was, the verdict went the other way. The ignorance, inertia, and passivity of most of the clergy made wholesale reform impossible.
The failure of the Puritan movement left the English Church in a state of uneasy equilibrium, encouraged by the quiescence of European Catholicism and the absence of danger from abroad between 1598 and 1618. The out-break of the Thirty Years’ War and the initial success of the Catholics, who seemed likely to destroy German Protestantism, raised again in a more acute form the question of whether the English Church in its comparatively unreformed state was fit to resist the blandishments or the threats of Rome. Finally, the very success of the bishops in meeting the main criticism of the Elizabethan Church, its lack of “learned and painful” preachers, had produced a surplus of able but unbeneficed clergymen who constituted a new Puritan intelligentsia.
But there was more than one seventeenth-century reform movement, and the revolutionary ideas of William Laud were better adapted to the needs of divine-right monarchy in general and Charles I in particular. Rejecting all continental models, papist or Protestant, Laud stressed the unique inheritance of Augustine of Canterbury: The English Church as it stood preserved the form of the early Christian Church, unsullied by the abominations of the medieval papacy, which had been powerless to cross the English Channel. Because Laud and the bishops who supported him were personally and politically unpopular, and were swept away in the first few months of the Long Parliament, in 1640 and 1641, this should not lead us to underestimate the popularity and success of his teaching, especially with the rising generation. He was positive, constructive, and aggressive, where too many of his predecessors had been defensive and apologetic, and he appealed to the strong nationalist feeling of the age even more successfully than the Puritans had done. The Puritans’ attempt to portray the Reformation as an English event exclusively had been foiled by the absence of any outstanding religious leader since Wycliff, and it was obvious that if their demands were met the most England could hope to achieve was the leadership of an international confederation of churches, a concept markedly unattractive to any century but our own.
THE OLDER GENERATION of parliamentarians, including Pym, Hampden, and Holles, hated Laud and the bishops, but they had nothing to put in their place. The bankruptcy of their thought was exposed in the Great Rebellion, and it is significant that the Rebellion itself, after generations of bickering over religion and religious observances, should have hinged on a political or military issue: whether King Charles should command the army raised to suppress the Irish Rebellion. This chapter of English history is so often referred to, still, as “The Puritan Revolution” that it is worth stressing again that Puritanism had little or nothing to do with it. As Edmund Ludlow said in 1659, reviewing the events of these years, “The great quarrel between the King and us was the militia; he or we were guilty.” And in 1646, writing to his son, the King himself said:
Next to religion, the power of the sword is the truest judge and greatest support of sovereignty, which is unknown to none (as it may be religion is to some). Whosoever will persuade you to part with it does but in a civil way desire you to be no king; reward and punishment, which are the inseparable effects of regal power, necessarily depending upon it.
As Ivan Roots remarks, “After three centuries these king-killing, constitution-crumpling decades are as strange, elusive but compelling as ever.” But most modern interpretations of the Great Rebellion and the Civil Wars are still based on the standard history written by Samuel Rawson Gardiner at the end of the last century and completed by his pupil Sir Charles Firth in the early years of this. Gardiner and Firth will continue to be consulted and used as long as there is still anyone interested in these events, but they laid too much stress on religion (Gardiner was responsible for the term “Puritan Revolution”), and they were eager to see signs of liberal constitutionalism where it did not exist. For some years there has been a need for a new analysis of this period of intense political and social turmoil, which led to the execution of an anointed king and the imposition of the only republican government in English history. Ivan Roots’s Commonwealth and Protectorate answers this need. The lucidity of his narrative is unwavering, and his judgments are astringent and uncommitted. On Oliver Cromwell, a cloudy-minded man whose own incoherence has communicated itself to his biographers, he is particularly sensible:
Cromwell claimed that “the end is to deliver this nation from oppression and slavery, to accomplish that work that God hath carried us on in, to establish our hopes of an end of justice and righteousness in it.” Everyone would agree with that, but some could not forget that the man who uttered such fine sentiments also believed that men who had no interest but that of breathing had no direct part to play in deciding how to realize those ends.
Of his final confrontation with the Levellers he has this to say:
He cut them to pieces and in the process cut himself. [He took] the Army from the Levellers and, making it his instrument, made himself its prisoner. That curious relationship was peculiar to his own lifetime, inalienable. With him it died, and the flowers of the “Good Old Cause,” their stalks scarred by the sword, finally withered. Crom-well was no closer to the mainstream of English life than the Levellers. After all his efforts it is difficult to say what was his permanent contribution to the modern world.
Some of Cromwell’s fiercest opponents, though not his strongest, were the sectarians. The failure of the Long Parliament to replace episcopacy by another system caused a fatal breakdown in discipline, and brought forward hundreds of individual sects whose theology was based on the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament and the more enigmatic and paranoiac of the Pauline Epistles. They were politically castrated by their mutual exclusiveness, each tiny group believing that its members and they alone were the Elect of God and his Saints everlasting. Thus the Levellers, who were not a religious organization at all, came nearest to political success, and after them the Fifth Monarchy Men.
The Fifth Monarchy Men pushed to extremes the millenarianism that was rife in this disturbed age, when every state in Europe was tottering, and they posited the actual physical rule of Christ on earth in the near future. They had some of the ablest preachers of their generation, including Sterry and Vavasour Powell, and powerful friends at Court, such as Thomas Harrison. In 1642 Henry Archer published a treatise “wherein is fully and largely laid open and proved, that Jesus Christ together with the Saints shall visibly possess a monarchical state and kingdom in this world.” He traced four great monarchies in world history, the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman, and this last, continued in the Holy Roman Empire, was now ending in the convulsions of the Thirty Years’ War. The Fifth Monarchy was Christ’s kingdom on earth, it would be heralded in 1650 or 1656 (calculations differed) by the Conversion of the Jews, and finally inaugurated forty-five years later after an intervening time of troubles. The cataclysmic events in England and the rest of Europe in the 1640s lent some plausibility to this theory, and Cromwell, who believed in keeping an open mind on all such questions, treated the Fifth Monarchists with great lenience. Nor will it surprise students of chiliastic religions (compare the early history of the Seventh Day Adventists) to learn that when 1650 and 1656 passed with the Jews obstinately unconverted, the movement lost little of its momentum. Cromwell’s experiment with the Barebones Parliament in 1653 was an expression of his belief at that time that an exclusively Christian government could be instituted on earth, and in later years, in spite of the tide of abuse that rolled over him from the Fifth Monarchy preachers, he had a series of long personal interviews with their spokesman, John Rogers. Like so much else in the Interregnum, Fifth Monarchy belief had no visible influence on subsequent political or religious thinking, but P. G. Rogers’s careful new study, which almost falls over backward in its determination not to treat the movement with levity, shows the incredible luxuriance of religious speculation in these years.
The Restoration of Charles II was the dramatic intervention, the wave of the wand which caused the previous twenty years to flicker and vanish. The Fifth Monarchy rebellion in January 1661, with the terrible cry, “King Jesus, and their heads upon the gates!” merely strengthened the new regime, a regime of intolerance and cynicism. But the Great Rebellion, and the hundred years of political, moral, and religious questioning that had preceded it, could never be entirely spirited away. As Roots says, “Intellectually, morally, culturally and in countless other ways the Great Rebellion had woven itself inextricably into the fabric of English history.” It is part of the English and American heritage, and
To the effects, good or ill, of that “search and expectation of greatest and exactest things” which the enterprise of the Rebellion set off we can never be indifferent.
January 4, 1968