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Exploring the political complexity of Laudianism

Peter Heylyn (1599-1662), chaplain to Archbishop Laud and Laudian apologist

The brand of churchmanship associated with Archbishop William Laud and his fellow bishops in the reign of Charles I has traditionally been viewed as the religious equivalent of Royalism in 17th-century politics, a sort of ‘Royalism at prayer’. In this post I want to suggest that Laudianism was more complex than this, and should not be seen as merely the ecclesiastical arm of the Royalist cause – with the consequence that Laudianism cannot be equated unproblematically with post-Restoration Tory high churchmanship.

The English Reformation began in 1533 with Henry VIII’s assertion of royal authority and supremacy over the church, and the idea of the monarch’s headship of the church remained central to the English Reformation in the absence of a clear guiding doctrinal consensus across the very different reforming reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth. Erastianism – the idea that the church was essentially subservient to the crown – was a keynote of the early English Reformation. However, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England was not truly the monarch, but rather the monarch in Parliament – raising the frightening prospect that a Parliament dominated by religious radicals might impose further reform on the church in the direction of puritanism and Presbyterianism. Opposition to puritanism in the late Elizabethan church elicited increasingly strident defences of episcopacy and orderly worship from anti-puritan bishops and clergy such as John Whitgift, Lancelot Andrewes and John Buckeridge, the latter of whom would tutor William Laud at Oxford.

John Buckeridge (1562-1631)

Combined with the anti-Calvinist theology of Arminianism, by the 1630s the super-charged anti-puritanism that Peter Lake described as ‘avant-garde conformity’ had begun to transform the Elizabethan religious settlement from a noncommittal compromise into an enthusiastic cult. Where earlier theologians had mounted an apologetic defence of the Church of England’s retention of a medieval form of church government, Laud and his friends and protégés insisted that the Church of England represented the most perfect form of Christianity. In addition to Arminianism and anti-puritanism, a third stream that fed into the complex phenomenon of Laudianism was a conservative element that had existed within the Church of England throughout Elizabeth’s reign and into the Stuart era which adopted a largely positive view of the medieval past. Conformist religious conservatives were sometimes crypto-Catholics, sometimes individuals who believed the English Reformation should have stopped with the break with Rome or with the 1549 Prayer Book, and sometimes people who cared little for religion at all, but distinctly feared the puritan threat.

Henry Spelman (c. 1562-1641)

It is no accident that many early antiquaries were religious conservatives of this kind. Henry Spelman, for example, bewailed the destruction of the Reformation and advocated the sanctity of church property, the independence of the church from royal interference (guaranteed by Magna Carta) and the importance of inherited ecclesiastical privileges such as tithes. For Spelman, the Royal Supremacy had been the means of achieving the independence of the English church from ‘the Romish yoke’, but the Supremacy was by no means an end in itself; it was, rather, the way in which the Church of England enacted Clause 1 of Magna Carta: Quod ecclesia Anglicana libera sit…

As a result of the complex mixture of factors that went to make up what we know as the Laudian tendency within 1630s conformity, there were tensions within Laudianism itself. Julian Davies has argued that ‘Carolinism’ was Charles I’s distinct ecclesiology, which sought to reinvent the monarch as a sacred figure who ruled the church by virtue of a sacramental authority conferred by Divine Right. This stood in contrast to the Henrician, Edwardian and Elizabethan idea of the monarch as the Supreme Governor of a church whose government was determined by the monarch in Parliament. The rise of ‘Carolinism’ divided Laudians between those of a more Erastian tendency and those who valued the authority of the church above all else. On the one hand, Charles I’s personal support for Laudianism made it imperative for Laudians to ally themselves with the Stuart monarchy, but on the other Laudian theology was moving away from the idea that the church should be subject in any way to a secular ruler.

As James I and VI famously said, ‘No bishop, no king’, meaning that the episcopal rule of the Church of England established by the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 was also the mainstay of the English monarchy. Back in Scotland, James had tussled with Presbyterian theologians such as Andrew Melville who insisted James was a mere member of the Church of Scotland, and subject to it. The royal supremacy was an intrinsic part of Charles I’s agenda for the Church of England, spearheaded by Laud, yet Laudians were also engaged in a project of arguing that the structure of the Church of England was not only the best means for the king to govern church as well as state: the Church of England, for Laudians, was also the most perfect form of Christianity. Advanced Laudians set no limit to the authority of the church, emphasising the church’s right to assert its privileges against laymen. Implicitly, that included the king himself. Like the alliance between Bourbon legitimism and Ultramontane Catholicism in 19th-century France, the alliance between anti-Erastian episcopalianism and the Stuart cause in the 17th century was a contingent marriage of bedfellows who, in other circumstances, might have been diametrically opposed, because the current of Laudian clericalism naturally ran counter to unrestricted royal authority.

The political tensions within Laudian Anglicanism began to show after the execution of Archbishop Laud himself in 1645 and the abolition of episcopacy the following year. Anglicanism (that is to say, Church of England episcopalianism) became a proscribed confession, forced into exile or underground – a situation that prompted much soul-searching among Anglicans, especially after the execution of the king himself in 1649. While the inevitability of a Stuart restoration is all too easy to discern in hindsight, for Anglicans of the 1650s it was by no means obvious that Charles II would ever return to rule. In the same way that Thomas White sought a way to reconcile English Catholics with the Cromwellian regime, so some Anglicans began to consider their options. Even Peter Heylyn, Laud’s chaplain, biographer and chief apologist, began to contemplate the possibility of supporting a Cromwellian monarchy that might be persuaded to re-establish an episcopalian Church of England.

Oliver Cromwell – restorer of episcopacy?

For Royalists who had lost hope of a Stuart restoration, the coronation of King Oliver and the re-establishment of a stable monarchy was a lesser evil compared to the victory of the more radical elements in Parliament and the army. Heylyn was in contact with a member of the Lord Protector’s Council of State and, at the time of Cromwell’s death, he seems to have been keen to present Cromwell with a copy of his book Ecclesia Vindicata; or, the Church of England Justified (1657). Ecclesia Vindicata was an extensive justification of the Church of England’s episcopal form of government, not so much in the polemical form of an attack on the Presbyterian and Independent alternatives, but in the form of an exposition of the benefits of episcopacy.

Anthony Milton has speculated that Ecclesia Vindicata was Heylyn’s attempt to convince Cromwell to re-establish the ‘right’ kind of episcopacy, since there were rumours in circulation that Cromwell might re-establish a limited form of episcopal government over the church. In the event, Cromwell neither declared himself king nor moved towards appointing bishops, and the Lord Protector’s death precipitated a chain of events that would end in the restoration of Charles II. Peter Heylyn’s dallying with the Cromwellian regime does not seem to have been forgotten, since although Heylyn was restored to his benefices and, as Sub-Dean of Windsor, he presented the sceptre to Charles II at his coronation, Heylyn received no further preferment after the Restoration.

Heylyn is, in fact, the perfect example of a Laudian so advanced in his views on the supremacy of the church that he was noncommittal in his attitude towards monarchy. In his Short View of the Life and Reign of King Charles, Heylyn showed little inclination to portray Charles as a saintly figure or add to a hagiographical myth surrounding the monarch. Instead, Heylyn criticised Charles for setting aside ‘that Regall Majesty which might and would have kept him safe from affront and scorn, to relie wholly on the innocence of a virtuous life, which did expose him finally to calamitous ruine’. In another work, Parliaments Power in Lawes for Religion (1645), Heylyn explicitly attacked the idea of the monarch in Parliament as the church’s supreme authority. Later, in Ecclesia Vindicata, he argued the right of Convocation to govern the church and claimed that the Royal Supremacy was a gift of the clergy to the monarch.

While James I may have believed that the institution of episcopacy bolstered the institution of monarchy, it is clear that Peter Heylyn had some misgivings about whether the institution of monarchy bolstered the church. If disagreement over the issue of episcopacy was a major cause of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Laudians like Heylyn concluded that the preservation of episcopacy mattered above all else; certainly above the authority of Parliament and perhaps even above the authority of the king himself. The thought that the Royal Supremacy was potentially a dispensable element of England’s ecclesiastical polity was not one that even Heylyn explicitly articulated, but it was implied by some of Heylyn’s conclusions.

The Seven Bishops

At the Restoration of the monarchy, high churchmen understandably rallied round the Stuart monarchy, eager to ensure that their vision of the Church of England was the one adopted in the new Act of Uniformity. The burgeoning cult of Charles I as a martyr – as well as the inclusion of a commemoration of the king’s martyrdom in the new Book of Common Prayer – tied the Restoration church very closely indeed to the House of Stuart. However, the events of 1688 pulled advanced high churchmen in two separate directions that exposed the tensions inherent in the high church position. Historians have traditionally focussed on Tory and high church opposition to James II’s policy of religious toleration because James was explicitly moving away from the fiction of a single, national, comprehensive English church that underpinned the Restoration settlement. However, James’s Declaration of Indulgence was also an Erastian assertion of royal power over the church; James was extending the royal prerogative into his role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, just as he had extended it in the secular sphere. On one level, therefore, the principled opposition of the Seven Bishops to James’s Declaration was not a matter of Protestant bishops versus a Catholic king (as the population at large saw the event); it was, rather, a disagreement on the nature and extent of the prerogatives of the Supreme Governor. Had he still been living, Heylyn might have deemed James ungrateful to the clergy for the gift of the Supremacy.

When James was declared by Parliament to have forfeited the crown in 1689, high churchmen were placed in a difficult position. On the one hand, the clergy had sworn oaths to James II as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and the high church position was closely associated with unquestioning support for the House of Stuart. High church theology supported the doctrines of passive obedience and Divine Right. On the other hand, if the preservation of the Church of England’s settlement was the priority, then compromise with William and Mary was the overriding imperative, given that James II could not be trusted to honour the Church of England’s status as the national church.

In 1688 sincere high churchmen, some of whom remembered the bleak days of the 1650s, therefore found themselves in good faith on opposite sides in the Non-Juring controversy – which has sometimes been portrayed too simplistically as a matter of latitudinarian Williamites versus high church Non-Jurors. The more advanced high churchmen who supported the Revolution did so not because they contemned their former oaths but because they considered it indifferent who the Supreme Governor was as long as the settlement of the church was protected. As Heylyn had argued, the office of Supreme Governor was a gift bestowed by the church on the king rather than an absolute right inherent in the crown.

Bishop Samuel Seabury (1729-96)

To conclude, therefore, I should like to argue that Laudianism was not the ultimate conformist theopolitical stance; rather, it contained within it a germ of ecclesio-political radicalism that saw the church as independent of the state – or at least potentially independent of the state, if such independence became necessary. Laudians were not Erastians. In 1689 episcopalians in Scotland found themselves in much the same situation as Anglicans in the 1650s, asserting their identity as a national church while marginalised from national life. When a Scottish Episcopalian bishop consecrated Samuel Seabury as the first Episcopal bishop for the United States of America, the co-existence of episcopacy with a republican form of government finally exploded the fiction that Episcopalianism was necessarily linked to monarchism.

The history of interpretation of the Laudian phenomenon is a history of misappropriation. The Laudianism of 1633–60 cannot be equated unproblematically with Restoration high churchmanship, nor with the Non-Jurors, nor with post-Revolution high churchmanship in the juring church. And Laudianism certainly cannot be equated with the Oxford Movement or Anglo-Catholicism (the greatest misappropriation of all, which would require a separate exploration). After the Restoration, and even more so after 1688, Laudian high churchmanship fragmented into different traditions with varying degrees of importance assigned to the tenets of monarchical sacrality and ecclesiastical independence. But the logical consequence of favouring the latter over the former was, potentially, a very radical agenda indeed for ecclesiastical government.

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This entry was posted on April 22, 2020 by .