Monday, February 19, 2018

Leanda de Lisle Provides Context for the Reign of Charles I

Leanda de Lisle writes brilliantly in an article for History Today about the reign of Charles I, particularly its religious context:

Charles’ reign began during the Thirty Years War. This was the world of Charles’ sister, the Winter Queen, of Protestant churches in flames and the advance of the Counter-Reformation, of a Spanish empire on which the sun never set and the new Puritan colonies of the Americas, a London of fast-moving media reporting on politics from Parliament as well as on the conflict in Europe. England – Britain – is part of this wider world.

Henry VIII’s nationalised form of Anglo-Catholicism did not survive him. From the reign of Edward VI, English Protestants saw the Church of England as part of international Reform Protestantism – a stripped-down Protestantism that would later be labelled Calvinism – just as Scottish Protestants did their Presbyterian kirk. The fate of British Protestantism was linked to what happened to their fellow Calvinists in Europe; there, Protestantism was in retreat. In the 1590s, Protestants held half the land area in Europe. A century later they would hold only a fifth.

Anxiety over Calvinist survival on the continent gave an edge to concerns at home about the half-reformed nature of the Church of England, with its episcopate (government by bishops) and other pre-Reformation hangovers. There was mistrust of Stuart enthusiasm for Elizabethan compromises, particularly among those labelled Puritans.

Protestantism had only survived where it had been imposed or permitted by rulers. To defend themselves, British Protestants had therefore developed ‘resistance’ theories, arguing that kings took their authority from the people, who had the right to overthrow any monarch of the ‘wrong’ religion, which included being the ‘wrong’ kind of Protestant. ‘Popery’ was the term applied to those who sought to spread Counter-Reformation; it was also applied to any reversal of Calvinism.

James had confronted resistance theory by arguing that kings, like bishops, drew their authority from God and that only God could punish them. Divine Right Kingship was not some mere expression of megalomania: it was a defence against religious extremists, both Protestant and Catholic. Charles grew up aware that resistance theory had cost his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, her throne (at Protestant hands); it had justified kidnap and murder attempts against his father (at Protestant and Catholic hands); and it lay behind the assassination of his wife’s father (at Catholic hands – a reminder that a monarch faced threats even from those of their own religion). He embraced his father’s writings and his accession revealed a dynamic monarch.

In the first weeks of his reign, in 1625, he ended his father’s ‘long corrupted peace’ and took his kingdoms into the Thirty Years War, fighting for the interests of the Stuarts and the Protestant cause. At home he created a theatre of ceremony, ritual and beauty, designed to shape a deferential and hierarchical society appropriate to divine right monarchy.

The informality and hard drinking habits of James’ court were brought to an end. Charles asked that nobles not ‘enter his apartments in confusion as heretofore’. Each rank was to have its appointed place. In religion, Charles sought a move away from Calvinist sermons and extempore prayers to rituals and ceremonies, with pre-Reformation origins, but which were nevertheless Protestant and set in buildings fit for purpose. His reforms would have a lasting influence on the Church of England, which still mark it – and English culture – today.
Please read the rest there. She wants us to have a more measured and balanced view of Charles I, to strip away the accumulated easy mythology of the man, his marriage, and his reign. I haven't read the book, but it seems to me that she makes a compelling case in the articles I've read about it.
I wonder if she will write a biography of James II!
Image credit: "Charles depicted as a victorious and chivalrous Saint George in an English landscape by Rubens, 1629–30."

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