Early Stuart England

367 - 6

"I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the north; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife Fie upon this quiet life! I want work. "

(Henry IV.i., 2.4)


The reign of James I (1603-25)


When James I acceded to the throne of England in 1603 most Englishmen regarded the Scots as foreigners. England and Scotland had been at war with each other on a number of occasions in the sixteenth century - England inflicted major defeats on Scotland at the Battles of Flodden (September 1513), Solway Moss (November 1542) and Pinkie Cleugh (September 1547).


The Calvinist rebellion and Mary's flight (1567) initiated a long period of peace, yet even so one serious border incident - the Raid of Reidswire - took place in 1575.


One of those who showed no sign of anti-Scottish feeling was the Scot James VI and I, who patronized Shakespeare's company of actors. Macbeth was written in a way highly complimentary to James' ancestor, Banquo. In fact the chronicles - not the play - suggest that "noble Banquo", "true, worthy Banquo", "the right-valiant Banquo" (as Shakespeare called him) murdered Duncan.


James was generally welcomed to the throne - both puritans and Catholics hoped that he might ease their plight. Even the Gunpowder Plot (1605) produced a temporary unity among Protestants against a common foe.


Yet James I's reign was never without conflict - disputes soon arose over Parliamentary privilege and finance.


George Villiers
1st Duke of Buckingham

James had a series of favorites - handsome, affable young courtiers who knew how to flatter James. A politically influential example was Robert Carr who, along with his relatives by marriage, the Howards, was for a while extremely influential, but it was Buckingham who came to assume overwhelming power and influence under both James and Charles I.

The monopoly of royal favor that Buckingham enjoyed for many years and his rampant enrichment of himself and his family aroused violent enmity, yet it is also clear that he had considerable charm. Both his rise and fall produced very mixed emotional reactions.



Court rivalries sometimes overflowed into the political realm - the Addled Parliament of 1614 collapsed in part because of the opposition to the Howards.


The reign of Charles I


The continued dominance of Buckingham, Charles I's proposed marriage to the Spanish Infanta and actual marriage to Henrietta Maria, as well as continued financial problems ensured that Charles I's relations with the parliaments of 1626, and 1628-1629 were even worse than his father's had been,


Cultural conflicts reinforced political ones. Charles I admired Shakespeare and personally annotated his own copy of the second folio. His wife, Henrietta Maria, was also fond of drama - especially court masques. Royal love for the theater, however, only increased the animosity that puritans felt for the court.


The puritan lawyer William Prynne, liked to vent his views on the morals of his day. One vehement tract, The Unloveliness of Lovelocks (1628), castigated men for wearing their hair too long. Another raved against drinking; this was Healthes' sicknesse. Or A compendious and briefe discourse; proving, the drinking and pledging of healthes, to be sinfull, and utterly unlawfull unto Christians (1628). Just as in the case of the stage, alehouses and drinking produced very different reactions from different sectors of society.

William Prynne (1600-1669)

Prynne next published a vigorous expression of his views on the theater. His furious tirade against the theater, Histrio-Mastix, included an attack on women appearing on stage - the index described them all as "notorious whores". Just at this time, Henrietta Maria was rehearsing with some other ladies of the court for her own appearance in a masque. Charles I was not amused.
Prynne was sentenced by Star Chamber to life imprisonment,  and had his ears cropped; later (in 1637) after publishing violent attacks on Laud, the bishops, and the Arminian faction within the church, he lost the rest of his ears - and had to wear his hair long to cover up the stubs. He was also branded with the letters SL (for seditious libeller; or, as he said, the Stigma of Laud - the Archbishop of Canterbury) in 1637).


William Prynne was not alone in his views - the great puritan divine, Wiiliam Ames, for example, stated:
"Such stage plays as are now in use, are utterly to be condemned. …Either women are brought upon the stage to represent wantonness with impudency - who ought even in the church to keep silence, (I Corinthians 14:34) or to be veiled, (I Corinthians 11:10); - or men for to please, put on women’s apparel, face and gesture; which is repugnant to the word of God, (Deuteronomy 22:5) and is a great kindling of wantonness, as also it giveth occasion and leadeth the right way to those beastlinesses which are against nature, (Romans 1:27). Both actors and spectators seek delight in those things, of which they ought to be ashamed."

(Ames, Of Conscience)



Not all puritans were as implacably opposed to the stage - John Milton admired Shakespeare:

"What needs my Shakespeare, for his honoured bones,
The labour of an age in pilèd stones?
Or that his hollowed relics should be hid
Under a star-y-pointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of Fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou, in our wonder and astonishment,
Hast built thyself a livelong monument.
For whilst, to the shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath, from the leaves of thy unvalued book,
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took;
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble, with too much conceiving;
And, so sepulchred, in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die."



Charles I's policies on religion, finance, and parliamentary privilege all provoked opposition, but it was his attack on Scottish Calvinism that finally provoked open conflict.


Charles had his loyal allies and defenders - particularly clerics such as William Laud, Roger Maynwaring and Robert Sibthorpe, but their absolutist views and the harsh treatment meted out to puritan opponents such as Burton, Bastwick and Prynne only made Charles more isolated.


Charles I and his absolutist supporters tended to see all opposition as tantamount to sedition and rebellion. Charles I, for example, complained that his opponents "suggest new and causeless fears, which in their own hearts they know to be false; and devise new engines of mischief, so to cast a blindness upon the good affections of our people".


In contrast, the lawyers and gentlemen of parliament - their ideas shaped by common law and constitutionalism - tended to see all royal policies as part of a larger scheme to introduce tyranny  - "endeavours to subvert the fundamental laws of England and Ireland, and to introduce the exercise of an arbitrary and tyrannical government by most pernicious and wicked counsels, practices, plots and conspiracies".


"All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen,
They call false caterpillars, and intend their death."

(Henry VI.ii 4.4)


Religion and political conflict:


By 1600, Roman Catholics formed only a small proportion of the English population, but they were a comparatively wealthy and influential group. The Jesuits played an increasingly important role in the Mission to England and their uncompromising standards of commitment and knowledge stiffened Catholic resolve.


Robert Southwell

Robert Southwell (c. 1561-1595) was one of the most famous English Jesuit priests. He was arrested in 1592, imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed on Tyburn Hill. While in prison he wrote a number of poems - particularly Saint Peters Complaint, which may have been written in conscious response to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Shakespeare returned the favor by reading Southwell's poetry and Ben Jonson also admired it - especially The Burning Babe.



At his trial, it became known that Southwell had used equivocation and mental reservation (i.e. speaking misleadingly without actually lying).


"Faith, here's an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale;
who committed treason enough for God's sake,
yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come
in, equivocator."

(Macbeth 2:3)

"If thou speak'st false,
Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
Till famine cling thee: if thy speech be sooth,
I care not if thou dost for me as much.
I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth:"

(Macbeth 5.5)



Doctrines of legitimate resistance to tyrants (such as those advocated by Robert Parsons) and of the seal of the confessional (used by Henry Garnet to excuse his failure to warn of the Gunpowder Plot) made Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular objects of deep suspicion in early-modern England.


Roman Catholics believed that the church and the state were independent entities, and that just as the body was less important than the soul, so the state was subordinate to the church when vital spiritual questions were at issue. These beliefs formed the basis for the papal deposing power.


Roman Catholics believed that people's own hope of salvation lay within the Holy Catholic Church - tolerating other religions therefore meant allowing people to go to hell. The English Catholics who supported Spanish invasion and (when the peace of 1604 made that impossible)  the Gunpowder Plot believed they were saving their compatriots from hell's fires.


The failure of the Gunpowder Plot encouraged a contrasting, Gallican tendency amongst English Catholics. In the last years of Elizabeth's reign, a number of English secular priests opposed Jesuit influence. They came to be known as "Appellants", and  wrote in favor of obedience to the English government, hoping to win toleration from it.


In 1623 the Pope appointed a bishop to control the English mission and thereafter English Catholics became increasingly quietist - hoping to obtain toleration through loyalty. They made some headway with Charles I particularly after his marriage to the Catholic, Henrietta Maria, and Charles admitted a papal envoy to England. However, Catholic influence at court only increased the suspicions of English puritans.



A medallion from the period of the Popish Plot - held upright it shows a picture of the Pope in the papal tiara - reversed the devil's face appears. The legend reads "Ecclesia perversa tenet faciem diaboli" - the church perverted (or turned around) has the devil's look.


Puritans regarded the pope as Antichrist and thought all dealings with popery were dangerous. They wanted those ceremonies and vestments that they though "remnants of Popery" removed from the Church of England.


A number of puritans also wanted the church's government changed from an episcopal to a presbyterian form. The most extreme puritans separated from the Church and established independent congregations.

"Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week …"

(Hamlet 1.1)



One cultural manifestation of puritan discontent with official religious policies was Sabbatarianism. They believed that only religious activities were permissible on Sundays and objected violently to the encouragement of sport and recreation given by the government in the Book of Sports.


"…but withal we do here account still as prohibited all unlawful games to be used upon Sundays only, as bear and bull baitings, interludes, and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling."

(Book of Sports, 1633)



During the reign of Elizabeth and for much of James I's reign, differences between puritans and the episcopal establishment did not really concern doctrines. However, the rise of Arminianism changed matters.

Jacobus Arminius
(Jakob Hermandszoon)

Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch Reformed theologian who tried to soften the uncompromising doctrine of predestination put forward by Calvin and Beza. Like Molina, he was accused of Pelagianism. But whereas the papal authorities temporized in their response to Molinism, the Synod of Dort (1618-19; a council of the official Calvinist church of the Dutch republic, attended by representatives from many other Calvinist church, including the English church) unhesitatingly condemned Arminius' doctrines.



Arminian doctrines attracted a number of important English supporters. After the accession of Charles I, these Arminians were promoted to positions of power: - William Laud to the Bishopric of London and then the Archbishopric of Canterbury, Richard Montagu to the Bishopric of Chichester, Richard Neile to the Archbishopric of York, while John Cosin was made a prebendary of Durham Cathedral. These men not only promoted Arminian views but also introduced even more ceremonial into English worship, in particular a sustained campaign to have communion tables placed at the east of end of the church and railed in as altars.

"these monstrous hell hounds of Durham and York, these popish, heretical, Arminian, schismatical innovators, and most pernicious corrupters of religion amongst us:"

(Peter Smart, A catalogve of superstitious innovations)

These innovations outraged many puritans and Members of Parliament.



Charles I as Supreme Governor of the Church in England believed that he had the right and duty to direct the Church; Parliament - which had passed the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy establishing the Church of England - felt an equal obligation to preserve God's true religion in England.


England's gentry also objected to the promotion by Charles I of his clerical allies to key positions in central and local government (e.g. as J.P.s; as Lord Treasurer) and - once the Long Parliament met - they took action to exclude the clergy from all civil power.

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