Charles and the Church

Charles and the Church

When Charles was crowned in 1625, his relationship with Puritan MPs was not already doomed to fail. His father James had clashed with parliament, but Charles’ coronation might have heralded a fresh start for the relationship between King and Parliament. What went wrong?

Charles was not educated as a future king. He was very shy and was embarrassed by his stammer. As a prince he was not well-suited to court life. The death of his elder brother thrust him into the limelight.

One of the continuities between James I’s reign and Charles was the influence of the Duke of Buckingham. Charles had known Buckingham well as a prince; he continued his association with him as king. The Duke had many enemies at court but Charles relied on him as a pillar of support. To some, Buckingham was too closely linked to Catholicism. They feared that this would rub off on the new king.

Charles became closely linked to William Laud, Bishop of St. David’s. Laud was an Arminian. Charles vigorously committed himself “to the glorification and enhancement of Episcopal authority” (J P Kenyon). Charles believed that “the people are governed by the pulpit more than the sword in times of peace”.

After Sir Anthony Van Dyck, William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, National Portrait Gallery
After Sir Anthony Van Dyck, William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, National Portrait Gallery

In February 1626, Laud claimed in a sermon that the Puritans were meditating a revolution in both the state and the church. The statement was false and extremely provocative. It infuriated Puritan members of the House of Commons.

James I had warned Buckingham about Laud. In 1621 James had said to Buckingham: “Take him to you, but on my soul you will repent it.” Laud’s career was effectively blocked under James, but flourished under Charles. In 1628, Laud was appointed Chancellor of Oxford University. This is provocative: the university was a Puritan stronghold. By 1633, Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury.

Once Archbishop, Laud embarked on a campaign to suppress Puritan lecturers. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge produced a number of graduates who were employed by local Puritan merchants to deliver lectures. Within the square mile of the City of London, 46 lecturers delivered 60 sermons a week. It should have come as no surprise to Charles that the City would become a centre of opposition to his rule.

Laud’s attempt to suppress the lecturers was a failure. The lecturers also informed their listeners about the attempted suppression, which was seen as attempted censorship. The lecturers claimed that they wanted to bring “light” into the country while Laud was bringing “darkness” into the land along with “tyrannical duncery”.

The State Church would have been better placed to deal with the Puritans had they presented a united front, but they were unable to do this. Some members of the clergy, such as Bishop John Williams, questioned the position of Laud; others, such as R Montague, publicly stated that there were few differences between Protestantism and Catholicism and that bishops in Rome were not always in the wrong. When puritans in Parliament vented their fury on Montague, Laud leapt to his defence. This further convinced Puritans in the Commons that Laud and Charles were allowing Catholicism in through the back door.

Laud also supported Strafford’s ecclesiastical policy in Ireland. Strafford attempted to get back former Church land; when he was met with resistance, he resorted to force.

In Scotland, Laud tried to introduce Anglican forms of worship and church organisation. Laud also threatened to take back former monastic land. Such moves were bound to anger many in Scotland. In 1639, the Scots attacked England. The king was incapable of funding a war and had to recall Parliament to get the necessary funding. Parliament agreed, but only on certain conditions, including the impeachment of Archbishop Laud.

Laud was an educated man, but his Scottish policy was misguided. Laud should have known that Presbyterian Scotland would never tolerate anything associated with Arminianism. The historian N. Stone argued that Laud was ‘a century behind the times’.

Laud succeeded in bringing the state and the church closer together, but he widened the gulf between the State Church and the Puritans. Charles was strongly associated with Laud. Laud’s predilection for lavish Church services was seen as dangerously near to Catholicism by his Puritan detractors.

Laud linked his services to political issues: his instructions for a visit to Boston show, for example, stipulated: “The walls (of the church) are to be adorned with devout and holy sentences of Scripture… divers of which sentences shall tend to the exhortation of the people to the obedience to the King’s most excellent majesty.”

Laud used his power to get his men into important political positions. With religious control of the country, he now wanted to extend his authority into politics. Bishops reappeared in strength in the Privy Council and Laud’s supporters found their way on to many justices’ benches. Laud also ordered that tithes in urban areas – which for years had been collected in a haphazard manner should be rigorously collected at the full 10 per cent. This affected all social classes and it became in everyone’s interest in urban England to oppose Laud.

In 1640, after the dissolution of the Short Parliament, the Convocation of Canterbury continued to sit. It passed taxes for Charles and issued a set of canons defending Laud. It also stated that anyone who opposed Charles opposed God, as he was king as a result of divine right. The Convocation ordered that the canons should be read four times a year in all churches. On 11 December, 1640, the population of London presented the Root and Branch petition to Parliament. This called for the removal of episcopacy. On 16 December, the canons were made illegal. However, the damage had been done and a wedge had been driven between many in the urban population and the Church.

Laud also upset many people in rural areas when he announced that the Church would attempt to reclaim former Church land. Many had done very well out of acquiring former Church land and they had a vested interest in maintaining their ownership of such land. Church law was also rigorously enforced and there were numerous prosecutions for playing sport or working on a Saint’s day. Once the Church had regained former land, it was at liberty to collect tithes once again. In bygone years they had been claimed as a divine right; now they were claimed by law.

The High Commission of the Church also angered many in the reign of Charles. In the years of James, it had been run by Calvinists. Now under Laud it was run by Arminians. It was a strong supporter of all that Laud did. The High Commission operated under “letters patent”, which were very loosely defined and it could try almost any case and impose almost any sentence short of death.

Laymen wanted its scope strictly limited and they believed that the system of lay courts were more than adequate in dealing with legal issues. They wanted the High Commission to deal with religious issues only and its punishments limited to excommunication, penance and deprivation. The House of Commons condemned the Commission because it could force an accused to answer questions on a charge, which he/she had no prior warning of. However, all along, any attempted reforms to the High Commission were thwarted by the bishops in the House of Lords. In 1611, James issued a new set of ‘Letters Patent’ that clearly defined how the Commission would operate. However, by the reign of Charles such was the hatred of all it stood for that people actually forgot that very frequently it dealt with trivia. J P Kenyon estimates that 80 per cent of its cases would be seen as trivial, such as a man who christened his cat and a man caught urinating in St. Paul’s Cathedral. When Laud became head of the Commission, it seemed too many to summarise his unchained power. Ironically, the power of the High Commission in the reign of Charles had been diluted and its power was frequently overstated by lawyers of the time. However, such was the mind-set then, that few accepted this. To many, the High Commission epitomised all that was wrong with the Church.

The Laudian Revolution did a great deal to damage Charles. If the State Church had been seen then as a purely religious body, it may have been a positive association for Charles. However, its move into the spheres of politics and law made many very wary as to where it would end. The simple fact that Laud was very closely linked to Charles did the king great harm. Played out against the background of the Thirty Years War – where at times the Catholics seemed to be on the verge of restoring Catholicism throughout Europe – the condition of the leadership of the State Church in England angered many.

See also: Charles I and Custom Farms

MLA Citation/Reference

"Charles and the Church". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.