Saturday, February 17, 2018

Why Was England So Slow to Embrace Religious Toleration?

When Hilaire Belloc described the goals of Cardinal Richelieu to make his king and his nation strong, secure, and united, he cited Richelieu's view that a country could be divided in religion and still maintain unity. Both Catholics and Protestants in France could be loyal subjects and participate in the governance and the community of the kingdom. Richelieu wanted to reduce the power of some Huguenot leaders, because his young king--remember that Henry IV was assassinated while Louis XIII was a child--was in danger of a permanent loss of power:

He had noticed how during his own youth the great nobles and especially the great Protestant nobles were black- mailing and weakening the Crown, after the assassination of Henry IV. The worst culprit was old Sully, who went off with enormous loot as the fruit of threats to aid civil war against the Queen Regent. The King, the heir of Henry IV, was only a boy, under the title of Louis XIII; until he should be of age his mother, Marie de Medici, a violent but unpractical woman, was left in control. The result was that the rich could do pretty well what they liked. The Protestant nobles and the large Protestant middle class of the towns took full advantage of this position. It will be remembered that Henry IV, by the Edict of Nantes, had allowed them to hold a number of strong walled cities and to govern them as a sort of State within the State, and had also permitted them to call national assemblies of their faction, which were a perpetual menace to the central power of the King. Richelieu saw that the first thing to be done if the Crown was to be saved, its power increased and thereby the whole nation consolidated, was to take away these dangerous special favours, and treat the Huguenots like everybody else. He was determined when he came to power that there should no longer be a realm within the realm, and a rival power strong enough to threaten the monarchy. 

But by so much as he was determined upon this was he also determined upon the fullest toleration for Calvinism. Richelieu was the first of that long line of public men from his day to ours to treat religious difference as a private matter, and to believe that one can have a united country without unity of religion. James I of England, as we have seen, had some such idea at the back of his head; but he never really put it into practice, for the hatred and fear of the Catholic Church of the great land-owners his subjects, whose fortunes had come from the loot of the Church, was too strong for him. And what is more, the great landowners proved in the long run too strong for the English Crown, and destroyed it, substituting their own two assemblies, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, known as "Parliament," for the old popular kingship of England. Richelieu saw the menace, though it had not fully developed in his own time, and he was determined that France should follow the opposite course. It is therefore due to him not only that France became politically united as a strong monarchy, but also that the peasantry won the long battle with the noble classes and became the main owners of the soil of France; whereas in England the noble classes, that is the squires, ate up the peasantry and became the main owners of the soil themselves.

Even after he had destroyed the Huguenot power center and completed the siege of La Rochelle, for example, Richelieu maintained the Edict of Nantes:

All the more was Calvinism tolerated as a religion. In that very lifetime which saw priests butchered in England after the cruel fashion for which the Puritans were openly responsible during their period of power, Calvinism in Catholic France was perfectly free. It had no martyrs and suffered no persecution. 

And Huguenots could be doctors, lawyers, own property, travel freely, visit Paris, etc--while Catholics in England had many restrictions against them and had to pay crippling fines.

Of course, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, but nevertheless, the French monarchy had adopted religious tolerance as an acceptable administrative policy within his kingdom and both Catholics and Protestants were trusted--as much as a monarch ever trusts his subjects' loyalty--to be loyal subjects. But in England at the same time, Catholics were not trusted as loyal subjects because of their faith. The English monarchy presumed that any Catholic, unless he denied his religious allegiance to the Pope (abjured his faith and was no longer a Catholic) was a traitor or an imminently potential traitor, plotting or liable to plotting against the king.

Why did France progress for a generation at least into a more modern, tolerant view of religion in their country than England did?

Belloc would say it was because the land-owning nobility and upper class  in England, exemplified by the Cecils (father and son), would not permit the monarch to adopt even so much toleration as to allow Catholics to attend the Mass freely. James I promised a measure of toleration to Catholics at Court when he wanted to marry his son Charles to Catholic princesses of Spain and France, but the promises were never completely kept. He still enforced his Oath of Allegiance, had the recusancy fines levied, and restricted Catholics from taking full part in English society.

I'd suggest that the English monarchy was stuck on the issue of the papacy and never could separate the religious and regal aspects of the papal office at the time. The pope was a monarch as well as the Vicar of Christ. James I could not accept Catholic loyalty to the pope and even would have limited the spiritual authority of the papacy if Catholics had accepted the Oath of Allegiance. English leadership could not imagine a nation in which subjects or citizens would not be Protestant. What a lack of progress, a complete denial of the Whig view of British history--and they wouldn't catch up until 1829!

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