Christianity and the Origins of Democracy – The Sixteenth Century: Part 1

In the last blog posts on the contribution to the rise of democracy by Christianity and the Bible, I’ve discussed the origins of the democratic values of equality and the denunciation of tyrants in ancient Israel, Judaism and Christianity, and their development in the early Church along with constitutional theories of the origin of government and authority in society. These constitutional theories were further developed by medieval theologians, philosophers and canon lawyers to create political theories and governmental institutions in which the power of the king was checked by governmental assemblies, which in theory represented the wider state or community, and justified the deposition of monarchs for injustice and tyranny. In this article I will discuss the Christianity’s contribution to the development of democracy in the 16th century.

The first part of this essay will examine the views in England, of theologians and political philosophers such as Richard Hooker, and Claude De Seyssel in France that there were constitutional limits to the power of the monarch, and that power was shared or limited by institutions such as representative assemblies and the parlements of lawyers in France, which examined royal legislation. Part two will discuss the view of other French political theorists that royal power was limited by the constitution, as well as the view of supporters of absolute monarchy that both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism should be tolerated, and the king should be above individual religious faiths. It will also discuss the development of Huguenot theories on the constitutional limits to royal power and the rights of subjects to resist unjust rulers. Part three will continue the discussion of Huguenot political theories as well as the views of French Roman Catholics, the Spanish Jesuits Molina and Mariana, and the Scots political theorists and historians John Major and George Buchanan that royal power was limited, and kings should govern in accordance with the will of the people through their representative institutions. Part 4 will discuss the views of Calvin, Knox and other Protestants that subjects have the right to resist and overthrow tyrants, and the arguments and demands for religious toleration and freedom of conscience by the Politiques in France, and Castellion and Acontius in Geneva, and consider the effect of these doctrines in Europe and their influence in the 17th century.

Development of Constitutional Limits to Powers of the Monarchy and Political Theories Amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants in the 16th Century

By the 16th century most European states possessed political institutions that limited the power of the Crown. Parliamentary assemblies formed part of the governmental systems in Castile, Aragon and Valencia in Spain, France, including the powerful and independent Duchy of Burgundy, Germany, England, Scotland, and Bohemia, Hungary, Transylvania, Lithuania and Poland in eastern Europe. The contests between princes and their frequently rebellious subjects, and the intense theological and political conflicts produced by the Reformation, further stimulated the development of theories of government and practical attempts at governmental reform. The rise and growth of Protestantism and the attempts by the authorities at various times and places to support or counter it led philosophers and theologians to examine the nature of political sovereignty, whether, and how far, subjects had a right to resist unjust or heretical monarchs, the role of parliaments in guiding and checking royal power, and indeed the very relationship between Church and State. Faced with the turmoil and bloodshed of civil war, both Roman Catholics and Protestants argued for toleration and freedom of conscience, with some arguing for a complete separation of the two. The hierarchical structure of society was attacked and criticised, as peasants and theologians demanded the abolition of serfdom, and urged the creation of a truly just society without oppression and exploitation. In the cultural sphere, Christian Humanists such as Erasmus stressed the importance of education and learning, leading princes and municipal authorities to found libraries, schools and universities across Europe. Thus the sixteenth saw the development of many of the characteristic institutions and cultural features of modern democratic states, as political theorists, theologians and the members of popular movements attempted to create a just, educated and tolerant society, whose rulers governed with parliamentary assemblies and were guided by Christian morals and principles.

View of Bishop Hooker in England that Political Authority Established by Primeval Human Community for their Protection

The political philosophers and theologians of the sixteenth century continued and developed the medieval view that political authority derived from human society. It had first been established when people began to live in communities and instituted rulers in order to protect themselves and their property from conflict. Before they established these early forms of government, people realised that they had a right to defend themselves against attack or injury, no-one had a right to pursue their own interests to the extent that they harmed someone else, that they had a right to join together to protect themselves against attack or injury, and that justice prohibited people from acting as judges when their own interests were involved. Thus, for Hooker, ‘to take away all such material grievances, injuries and wrongs, there was no way but only by growing upon composition and agreement amongst themselves, by ordaining some kind of government politic and by yielding themselves subject thereto.’ 1 The founders of this early political community realised that ‘strifes and troubles would be endless, except they gave their common consent all to be ordered by some whom they could agree upon; without which consent there were no reason that one man should take upon him to be lord or judge over another.’2 Thus princes and judges owed their power to the community that had first established them to protect them and their interests. Government by a single person, however, frequently led to tyranny, as rulers abused their power to benefit themselves solely, without taking account of the requirements of their subjects, and indeed often acting against them. Thus these early states established laws independent of the monarch, which were binding on both them and their subjects, in order to safeguard them from such arbitrary government. ‘They saw that to live by one man’s will became the cause of all men’s misery. This constrained them to come unto laws, wherein all men might see their duties beforehand and know the penalties of transgressing them.’ 3

Hooker’s View that Form of Government Established by the Whole Community According to own Desires

While Hooker was a monarchist, he nevertheless recognised that it was not the only possible or just form of government, as ‘the inconveniences of one kind have caused sundry others to be devised.’ 4 Indeed, God had granted human societies the right to establish whatever form of government they considered just. ‘Unto me it seemeth almost out of doubt and controversy, that every independent multitude, before any certain form of regiment established, hath, under God’s supreme authority, full dominion over itself … God, creating mankind, did endue it naturally with full power to guide itself in what kind of societies soever it should choose to live.’ 5 Sovereignty and the power to make laws belonged to the whole community, which conferred this power on a particular person or assembly. For these rulers to govern justly, they had to recognise that their authority was derived either from God or from the community. When governments and rulers, which failed to do this, and ruled solely in their own interest, were tyrannies. ‘By the natural law … the lawful power of making laws to command whole politic societies of men, belongeth so properly to the same entire societies, that for any prince or potentate, of what kind soever upon earth, to exercise the same ofhimself and not either by express commission immediately and personally received from God or else from authority derived at the first from their consent upon whose persons they impose laws, it is no better than mere tyranny.’ 6

View of Some English Monarchists that Royal Power Limited

Even some monarchist writers, who were concerned to demonstrate that the best form of government was that of a single ruler, considered that the monarch was nevertheless bound by their nation’s laws. Charles Merbury in his 1581 A Brief Discourse of Royall Monarchie as of the best Common Weale stated that the king of England ‘is subject unto laws both civil and common, to customs, privileges, covenants and all kinds of promises, so far forth as they are agreeable unto the law of God.’ 7 While Merbury believed that monarchs were responsible only to God and their own conscience, and that parliaments could only advise the monarch, but not make laws or obstruct or alter the king’s own legislation, nevertheless he seems to have considered that the monarch nevertheless did not have the sole authority to make laws. Similarly Sir John Hayward considered that although the prince possessed absolute power, nevertheless they had established parliaments everywhere, and that in practice legislation was conducted according to the laws and customs of those particular nations. 8 Sir Thomas Craig held similar views, considering that it was only with parliament or the great court of the kingdom that the king of England possessed sovereign power. He stated that ‘the monarchy is tempered with something of aristocracy and democracy’, and that king could only raise taxes through public agreement. 9

View of Thomas Smith that King bound by Parliament, which Represented the Whole Nation from Poorest to Most Powerful

Robert Parsons, under the pseudonym ‘Doleman’, considered that government naturally arose with the establishment of the first communities. As a natural phenomenon, it was established by God. God had not, however, established any particular form of government as the best, and so permitted the various nations to establish whichever form of government suited them. ‘These particular forms of are left unto every nation and country to choose that form of government which they shall like best and think most meet for the natures and conditions of their people.’ 10 Monarchs ruled solely for their subjects’ welfare. As the people have delegated their authority to the king, they also had the right to remove this authority and depose him if he ruled badly and did not respect either the laws of his kingdom or the conditions by which he held his authority. If a prince did not govern religiously, equitably and lawfully, Doleman considered that he should be deposed to rescue the kingdom from his tyranny. 11

The most important supporter of the view that the English governmental system was a mixed monarchy consisting of the king in parliament was Sir Thomas Smith. During his career he was a university professor, teaching natural philosophy, Greek and civil law; a dean, Provost of Eton under Protector Somerset. He entered the clergy in 1546, but seems to have abandoned this as a career after 1559. He was Elizabeth’s ambassador to Paris from 1562 to 1566. He became a member of the Privy Council in 1571 and was appointed Secretary of State in 1572. He died five years later in 1577. Smith considered that there were three types of government – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. In practice, however, he considered that all governments were mixtures of these forms of government. Smith considered the state to be ‘a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenants among themselves, for the conservation of themselves as well in peace as in war’. 12 Legislation was passed by both the king and parliament, which represented everyone in the nation. Smith stated that Parliament ‘abrogateth old laws, maketh new, giveth orders for things past and for things hereafter to be followed … All that ever the people of Rome might do … the same may be done by the parliament of England, which representeth and hath the power of the whole realm both the head and the body. For every Englishman is entended to be there present … from the Prince to the lowest person. And the consent of the Parliament is taken to be every man’s consent.’ 13 Smith probably considered that sovereignty resided with the king, rather than parliament. He did not discuss whether the king had the right to raise taxes and pass laws without the consent of parliament, and certainly stated that the king alone handled foreign relations and made official appointments. Nevertheless, he felt that absolute monarchy was both dangerous to the monarch and their subjects. Indeed, most absolute monarchies were simply tyrannies. When the nation was governed by a tyrant, Smith considered that in certain circumstances rebellion was justified.

Smith’s views were unusual in that he did not argue that authority was conferred by God, and did not support them through Scripture or arguments on natural law. Nevertheless, his view that the power to make laws resided in parliament, and that the monarch was bound by law was very similar to Richard Hooker’s later views in defence of the Anglican Church.

View of Wentworth that Parliament, like King, established by God; Function of Parliament to Redress Grievances in Country

The MP Peter Wentworth also considered that parliament possessed the power to pass laws. Both parliament and the king received their authority from God. Parliament’s power, for Wentworth, ‘is appointed by God, as the power next to Himself to reform and redress wrongs and outrages which cannot be holpen by other means and by good and wholesome laws to procure the peace and wealth of the Republic.’ 14 Although kings also received their power from God rather than from humans, they were bound by the laws of the nation over which they governed. Princes had been established by God ‘for the maintenance of His truth and to minister justice according to the good and wholesome laws of that land of which He doth place him.’ 15 Wentworth’s view that parliament was there to redress wrongs and grievances led him to believe strongly in free speech. He considered that parliament should have the freedom to discuss and offer advice to the king on all subjects, and held that the king had no right to limit or prohibit free debate as this was directly opposed to parliament’s position as the only the source of legislation. 16

View of De Seyssel in France that French Monarchy Limited

These ideas were not confined to England. French political theorists also held similar ideas, despite the increasing developments towards absolutism there during the sixteenth century. Claude De Seyssel, who in his long career had been a bishop, a minister under Louis XII, and the Chancellor of France, as well as ambassador to England, similarly considered that the power of the French crown was limited in his Le Grant Monarchie de France of 1518, apparently written in response to a request for advice from the new king after Louis XII’s death. Seyssel considered that monarchy was the best form of government, as it was the most effective and least vulnerable to degeneration. Nevertheless, he was realistic about the personal capacities and virtues of princes. He recognised the possibility of an incompetent monarch, and considered that there was a greater probability of the king being incompetent than an efficient ruler, as good princes were rare. Despite these problems, Seyssel viewed monarchy as the best form of government, and the French monarchy in particular as the best government in the world. This was because the power of the crown was checked and limited by a system of customary rights and privileges held by different groups, classes, cities and provinces, that the king was bound to respect.

These constitutional limits to the king’s power did not necessarily include parliaments or the estates-general. He did not consider them part of the French constitution, though he did consider that the king should hold councils to decide issues, and that when it was expedient he should summon people from the cities and chief towns as well as his other ministers. He also considered that there were no legal limits to the power of the Crown. Nevertheless, despite the theoretical unlimited power of the monarchy, the king’s authority was limited in practices in three ways. Firstly, France was a religious, Christian country. If the king acted without regards to Christian, religious morality, he would be hated. The king was thus required to adhere to Christian morality and rule justly and not be a tyrant. If he ruled unjustly, and oppressed his people, then any ordinary parish priest had the right to rebuke him personally. Secondly, the parlements, the assemblies of lawyers who inspected legislation to see if it was constitutional, also limited the power of the Crown, though Seyssel did not state that they had the power to reject royal legislation. Lastly, the king was required to observe and maintain the ancient customs and laws of the kingdom, and only legislate to reform abuses. Thus, while in the theory the king possessed absolute power, in practice it was constrained by traditional French customary law, and the rights and privileges of provinces, cities and institutions. The importance of such customs in limiting the practical power of the monarchy was considerable. Even after theories of the constitution that restricted the power of the crown had been rejected in the 17th century, the practical power of the monarchy was still limited by the traditional laws and rights governing France, laws and rights that preserved the freedom of French citizens despite the theoretically unlimited power of the king.

Notes

  1. Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, cited in J.W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London, Methuen 1957), p. 190.
  2. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 190.
  3. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 191.
  4. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 191.
  5. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 192.
  6. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 192.
  7. Charles Merbury, A Brief Discourse of Royall Monarchie as of the best Common Weale, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 251.
  8. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 259.
  9. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 259.
  10. Richard Parsons/ Doleman, A Conference about the next Succession to the Crowne of England, 1594, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 261.
  11. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 261.
  12. Sir Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorum, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 264.
  13. Smith, De Republica Anglorum, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 264.
  14. Peter Wentworth, A Discourse Containing the Author’s Opinion of the True and Lawful Successor to Her Majestie, 1594, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 267.
  15. Wentworth, A Discourse, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 267.
  16. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 267.
  17. Andrea Alciati, De Verborum Significationibus, 1529, cited in Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 281.
  18. H.G. Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Harlow, Longman 1971), p. 277.

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