George Buchanan (1506-82)

John Knox (1505-72)

367 - 5

Protestant resistance theory



The Marian exiles.


In July 1553, Mary Tudor acceded to the throne on the death of her half-brother Edward VI. She soon married the Hapsburg Philip (who became Philip III of Spain) and commenced a policy of re-Catholicizing England and persecuting Protestants.


The majority of Protestants thought their only option was to submit to persecution or to flee abroad. About 800 Protestants escaped to the Continent - the majority to Protestant areas of Germany and Switzerland.


Those who fled to Geneva asked Jean Calvin for advice on whether resistance to persecuting monarchs might be possible, but his guidance was unclear.


The Scottish exile, John Knox had fled the rule of Mary of Guise (widow of James V and regent of Scotland for their infant daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots). He was in England under Edward VI, and under Mary fled to the Continent, eventually settling in Geneva. He wrote a pamphlet entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of women (1558) that argued that rule by women was unnatural.

"To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice."

(Knox, First Blast)


bulletKnox's views were echoed by the Englishman Christopher Goodman in his pamphlet How Superior Powers Ought To Be Obeyed By Their Subjects (1558),

"For God is not contrary to himself, which at the beginning appointed the woman to be in subjection to her husband [Genesis 3:16], and the man to be head of the woman (as the Apostle says) who will not permit so much to the woman, as to speak in the Assembly of men [1 Corinthians 34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-12], much less to be ruler of a realm or nation."

(Goodman, Superior powers).


The pamphlets of Knox and Goodman were issued in 1558 - the same year that Mary died and Elizabeth I acceded. Hardly surprisingly, these theorists were not flavor of the month with Elizabeth, despite the fact that she was no Catholic and immediately began to establish a Protestant Church of England.

"Of all others, Knox's name, if it be not Goodman's, is most odious here"

(Comment on Elizabeth's court)


bulletAnother Marian exile was John Ponet. His Short Treatise of Politic Power allowed that there were circumstances when any individual could kill a ruler who persecuted the true religion.

" …for as much as all things in every Christian commonwealth ought to be done decently and according to order and charity: I think it cannot be maintained by God's word, that any private man may kill, except (where execution of just punishment upon tyrants, idolaters, and traitorous governors is either by the whole state utterly neglected, or the prince with the nobility and counsel conspire the subversion or alteration of their country and people) any private man have some special inward commandment or surely proved motion of God…"

(Ponet, Short Treatise)


bulletKnox, Goodman and Ponet's works had little influence. (Ponet's tract was re-published in England on the eve of the Civil War.)



Huguenot Resistance Theory

Catherine de Medici (1519-1589)

Henry III of France (1551-1589)


bulletProtestantism spread early to France, but was immediately attacked by Henri II (1519-1559). At Henri's death he left three sons and a formidable widow, Catherine de Medici.
bulletCatherine de Medici wanted to protect the power of the crown from the overweening ambition of France's nobility. These nobles included Huguenot leaders - such as Gaspar de Coligny and Henry de Bourbon (heir to the throne if Catherine's children died without issue). The most important Catholic nobles were members of the Guise family  - François, Duke of Guise and his brother, Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine.
bulletThe Guises bitterly opposed Catherine's initially tolerant policies towards Protestants and provoked open warfare. The Huguenots responded by assassinating Duke François in February 1563. Catholics later answered on a grand scale with an attempt to assassinate Coligny which led to the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day (1572).
There were other assassinations: Duke François' son, Henry and Henry's brother, Louis, Cardinal of Guise, were assassinated by King Henry III in 1588, who was himself killed soon after by a Dominican monk, Jacques Clément.

"FRIAR. My Lord, I come to bring you news, that your brother the Cardinal of Lorraine by the Kings consent is lately strangled unto death.

DUMAINE. My brother Cardinal slain and I alive?
O words of power to kill a thousand men.
Come let us away and levy men,
'Tis war that must assuage the tyrant's pride.

FRIAR. My Lord, hear me but speak. I am a Friar of the order of the Jacobins, that for my conscience sake will kill the King."

(Christopher Marlowe, The Massacre at Paris).


Philippe Duplessis-Mornay

Martin Luther and Jean Calvin had made some ambiguous remarks in their works that might be taken to allow resistance to tyrants under some circumstances. However, until the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, Huguenot theorists were still hopeful of achieving some degree of toleration, and tended to stress their willingness to abide by the law.  Thereafter a series of Huguenot tracts justified resistance to heretical or tyrannical rulers.
The most important of these were:
Theodore Beza, De jure magistratuum (1574)
François Hotman, Francogallia (1573)
Phillipe du Plessis-Mornay (sometimes but almost certainly wrongly attributed to Hubert Languet), Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579)

François Hotman

Theodore Beza


bulletFrançois Hotman (1524-90) was a French civil lawyer. He became a Protestant in 1547 and from then onwards lived largely in Switzerland. He argued on historical grounds that France was a constitutional monarchy - tracing its origins to Germanic tribes whose rulers were elected and accountable to the people. Hotman wanted the estates to depose the king and appoint a godly ruler, but unfortunately the majority of the French were still Catholic. Moreover, the historical evidence for Hotman's thesis was unconvincing.
bullet Theodore Beza and the Vindiciae argued that reason showed that by Natural Law kings are accountable to the people in all states, and that tyrants could always be resisted. They stressed the right of self-defence. Their works laid more stress on Natural Law than had the earlier reformers. Luther, Calvin and Melanchthon had all relied primarily on the Bible, (although even they had employed scholastic arguments from Jean Gerson, Jacques Almain and John Major on occasion).

"The Orders or Estates, established to curb the supreme magistrates, can and should in every way offer resistance to them when they degenerate into tyrants"

(Beza, Jure magistratuum)

"To be short, as it is lawful for a whole people to resist and oppose tyranny, so likewise the principal persons of the kingdom may…"

(Vindiciae contra tyrannos).


bulletAlthough the Huguenot resistance theorists accepted that political power was ultimately from God, they also argued that God used the people as intermediary - power was from God through the people. Both Beza and the Vindiciae stressed that kings were simply established by the people for their good; Kings were there to protect property and maintain peace. If the king undermined the public good, the people could rein him in or throw him out. The Vindiciae side-stepped the problem that Protestants were in a distinct minority, by giving individual towns or provinces the right to rebel.

"Briefly, for so much as none were ever born with crowns on their heads, and sceptres in their hands, and that no man can be a king by himself, nor reign without a people, whereas on the contrary, the people may subsist of themselves, and were, long before they had any kings, it must of necessity follow, that kings were at the first constituted by the people;…"

(Vindiciae contra tyrannos).


bulletBoth Beza and the Vindiciae tried to tone down the anarchic and populist implications of their views by giving the right of resistance to "inferior magistrates" (i.e. Protestant noblemen and dignitaries). Private citizens could not act unless someone in a position of authority endorsed action. The Vindiciae also allowed intervention by the princes of neighboring states.
bulletThe death of Henry III (1st August 1589) left the Huguenot Henry of Navarre as heir to the throne, so French Protestants abruptly stopped advocating resistance and began preaching obedience. The Catholic Leaguers became the rebels until Henry IV's conversion to Catholicism (1593), and his later grant of religious toleration to Protestants in the Edict of Nantes (1598), produced an uneasy peace.



Scottish resistance theory.


bulletMary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) was the daughter of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise (sister of François and Charles). She became Queen at the age of one week, when her father died (14 December) soon after being comprehensively defeated by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss.
bulletProtestantism was spreading rapidly in Scotland, despite the efforts of Mary of Guise. In 1559, the Scottish Protestants, led by John Knox, openly rebelled. Mary, Queen of Scots found herself the Catholic Queen of a Protestant country.
bulletIn 1565, Mary married Henry Darnley (great-grandson of Henry VII). The marriage strengthened Mary's claim to the throne of England but was a very unhappy one. She sought consolation in the friendship of David Rizzio, her Italian secretary. Furiously jealous, Darnley colluded with some Protestant nobles in arranging Rizzio's murder (March 1566).


James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (1536-78)
Mary found another friend to comfort her - James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Bothwell obligingly arranged the murder of Darnley, and Mary protected him from justice. Bothwell abruptly divorced his wife, and he and Mary were married at Holyrood Palace (May 1567).


bulletMary's scandalous behavior aroused widespread condemnation - none more vehement than that of George Buchanan.


"May we commit our safety to her? whom never shame restrained from unchastity, womankind from cruelty, nor religion from impiety? …When rage for interrupting her pleasure, and outrage of nature strengthened with ardor of licentious power shall ragingly triumph upon the goods and blood of pure subjects?"

(George Buchanan, Ane detectioun of the doingis of Marie Quene of Scottis tuiching the murther of hir husband, and hir conspiracie, adulterie, and pretensit mariage with the Erle Bothwell, 1572).



bulletGeorge Buchanan was educated in Scotland and France, and became one of the foremost classical scholars of his day. He was tutor at various times to James V's illegitimate son, to Michel de Montaigne, to Mary Queen of Scots and to James VI & I.
bulletHis Protestant beliefs forced him to leave Scotland for a number of years, but was able permanently to return to Scotland in 1560 after the success of the Covenanters' Rebellion.
Egged on by Protestant preachers, the Scots rebelled against Mary and defeated her and Bothwell at Carberry Hill (June 1567).
Mary was deposed and imprisoned. Bothwell fled and died insane in a Danish prison cell after eleven years of imprisonment.


bulletIn 1579, George Buchanan published Dialogus de jure regni apud Scotos (A dialogue on the law of the kingdom amongst the Scots) and in 1582 Rerum Scoticarum Historia (History of Scotland).
bulletFor Buchanan, Scottish History was teeming with occasions when the Scottish people had resisted and deposed their kings, and his Dialogue gave the theoretical grounds to justify such rebellion. It took the form of a discussion between Buchanan and Maitland - a Scottish nobleman opposed to the deposition of Mary.
bulletBuchanan insisted that kings were originally created by the people to protect them. Kings are accountable to the people, and they become mere tyrants if they infringe the conditions which the people imposed on them. If the king breaks the law, he can be punished like any other offender. Paul (in Romans 13) had only recommended obedience to Christians because they were not powerful enough to overthrow the tyrannical emperors.

BUCH. Now, if a king do those things which are directly for the dissolution of society, for the continuance whereof he was created, how do we call him?
MAIT. A tyrant, I suppose.
BUCH. Now, a tyrant hath not only no just authority over a people, but is also their enemy.
MAIT. He is indeed an enemy.
BUCH. Is there not a just and lawful war with an enemy for grievous and intolerable injuries?
MAIT. It is forsooth a just war.
BUCH. What war is that which is carried on with him who is the enemy of all mankind, that is, a tyrant?
MAIT. A most just war.
BUCH. Now, a lawful war being once undertaken with an enemy, and for a just cause, it is lawful not only for the whole people to kill that enemy, but for every one of them.

(Buchanan, Dialogus de jure regni apud Scotos)


bulletA king who infringed the contract which gave him power lost that power and became a private outlaw whom anyone could attack.
bulletBuchanan was unusually radical in arguing that not only the people as a whole or their representatives ("inferior magistrates") but even an individual could attack the king's person. (There was a certain ambiguity in the passage, for this authorization of individuals -  "every one of them / singulis etiam"  - is given only after the people has already begun to wage a just war against the tyrant).
bulletThe tone of Buchanan's writings was more secular than that of Knox or the Huguenot resistance theorists, and he laid less stress on the religious grounds for rebellion. This was perhaps because he hoped to convince French Catholic audiences of the legitimacy of Mary's deposition.
bulletGeorge Buchanan wrote elegant Latin and his book sold well and was often republished (his History of Scotland - a source of Shakespeare's Macbeth - became the standard book on its subject throughout Europe and was frequently reprinted along with the De jure regni); Buchanan's ideas were particularly influential on the next generation of Scottish Calvinist rebels who took up arms against Charles I.

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