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Conscience and Allegiance in Seventeenth Century England: The Political Significance of Oaths and Engagements.

David Martin Jones, Conscience and Allegiance in Seventeenth Century England: The Political Significance of Oaths and Engagements

Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1999. viii + 340 pp. $70. ISBN: 1-58046-039-9.

Charles Stuart was tried, condemned, and executed in January 1649 because those who examined him accused him of betraying the trust of his people. In a pamphlet of that year, John Cook cited the "general law of all nations and the unanimous consent of all rational men in the world" in defense of those who opposed the king. Loyalty oaths, first established in feudal times and reinstated by Henry VIII as supreme head of the country and its church, could not save Charles I because the new High Court of Justice alleged such oaths only applied to foreign, popish attempts on his authority. Such a Hobbesian world, Robert Sanderson argued that year, removed oaths of loyalty from acts of conscience so that what remained were "desperate and dangerous" principles of defactoism that removed "christian fortitude and suffering in a righteous cause" from the world of politics. All that remained was an interest in self-preservation. The erosion of what had first been belief in common law since time immemorial and the rights of the ancient constitution, developed subsequently by the Tudors as a theory of divine right rule, prompting regicide, is at the heart of David Martin Jones's history of seventeenth-century political thought and practice. "The defactioist emphasis on the need for individual self-preservation," he writes, "threatened religion and made man 'his own idol.' It also encouraged 'daring and ambitious spirits to attempt continual innovations.'" Jones concludes at this juncture that "The point Sanderson and other non-engagers stressed was that to base allegiance solely on protection, like relating it to interest, really made conscience and the need for binding it by oath unnecessary .... There lurked at the heart of defactoism the belief that all government was only a convenient artifice for regulating the pursuit of secular ends" (153). Because it established government of self-interest that would turn to near-anarchy, the republic and Protectorate were bound to fail. In 1642-1643 William Prynne had tirelessly urged the state oaths and lawful covenants that protected the ancient constitution against arbitrary, popish, and tyrannical government; by 1650 he saw the regicides as covert political allies of the Jesuits. "Prynne saw the engagement and the republican form it promoted as the culmination and fulfillment of Jesuit design upon England's constitution and liberties" (161) that had first been visible under the Stuarts with the Gunpowder Plot. Not until the Restoration were the traditional oaths of allegiance and supremacy reintroduced.

Jones builds on J. G. A. Pocock's theory of the ancient constitution as a basis for understanding political theory during the long seventeenth century, for there tradition and custom fostered by common law provide both order and stability to the realm. There is no need, as there would be by mid-seventeenth century, for a military force to guarantee security. But it is not a matter of common law alone; it is also for Jones a matter of casuistry. The source and foundation for this was ecclesiastical polity. "In the absence of a permanent military presence, policing a society that was both 'Church and Commonwealth' required the modification and extension of medieval understandings of law and allegiance to the new ecclesiastico-political reality. In this context, oaths, both as a device of common law and as a religious bond, confirmed loyalty in the two areas of jurisdictional concern" (63). The crucial decision was Calvin's Case, the case of postnati in 1603 for which both Bacon and Ellesmere recorded their fin dings; here the judges acknowledged two main categories of allegiance: natural allegiance determined by birthright (hence the importance of the timing of birth after James' English succession) and legal allegiance confirmed by the oath prescribed by common law. To this, Jones argues, was attached a sense of conscience, combining the mind, the understanding, the will, and the rational judgement -- for such oaths were the result of reason -- to which Jesuits, Anglicans, and Puritans alike subscribed. In this they followed Thomas: "They also accepted the Thomistic premise that conscience in its most comprehensive sense consisted of two processes: the intuitive and acquired knowledge of fundamental moral principles, and the application of this knowledge to some purpose" (77). Once conscience was separated from loyalty, and a sense of allegiance from the active oath, during the reign of Charles I, royal authority and the stability of the state disintegrated.

This systematic attack on revisionist and Whiggish history seems simple in so sparing a summary as I have given here, but in fact this meticulously detailed study, with its combination of primary and secondary resources, provides a sense of history during turbulent times that, refusing to erase complexity and inconsistency, unfolds a compelling case for the necessity of conscience-driven oaths to reinforce royal authority and to secure the kind of loyalty that mere insistence of divine right, under the Tudors, failed to guarantee. Beginning with a brief look at feudal law and a chapter on Tudor political thought, Jones traces his two linked concerns through the seventeenth century and beyond. "What the Civil War taught the political nation was that state oaths binding subjects both legally and morally to the traditional form of government offered a better hope of peace and security than the anarchy unleashed by government based on abstract sovereignty, interest, and the salus populi" (169). Such oaths lost f orce only in the eighteenth century when commerce and what he calls "the evolving coercive machinery of the state" supplanted them (232). Such diminishment is what allowed Dr. Johnson in 1765 to sense government merely as public administration and politics the realm of moral indifference.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Previous Article:A Culture of Fact: England, 1550-1720.
Next Article:Renaissance Society of America.

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