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Most accounts of the Reformation in the British Isles at some point have to focus on the royal supremacy over the church, something which implied a serious augmentation of royal authority, perhaps tending even to a glimpse of absolutism. To my mind, however, it has sometimes seemed odd that so many of these narratives seem to assume that the monarch was supposed to know, almost as if by magic, exactly who to agree with when he or she was being told what to do with this aspect of his or her ecclesiastical authority.

The introduction and first chapter of this monograph address precisely this issue and do it very well. Here we have an exploration of why the supremacy created as many difficulties as its architects hoped to solve. It was not clear how far the wearer of the crown was free to do what he or she considered to be godly, wise and just. To this quandary there was no obvious or objective answer at all. Still, this perception allows for a serious discussion of difficult questions such as why Charles II and James II were, apparently, so ready to offend those who were, in some sense, their natural supporters but also were not necessarily royalists and certainly not when the crown's prerogative was used in order to issue declarations of indulgence to nonconformists. Ironically, of course, it was precisely those who thought that statute conformity ought to be overridden (in their own interests) who became vociferous supporters of the royal supremacy despite the fact that substantial portions of the establishment thought that it (the supremacy) was instituted to keep these people either silent or out.

From the perspective of this reviewer what is so extraordinary is how much the Restoration period, in the context of the earlier part of the seventeenth century, looks like business as usual. For example, what Charles II did between 1660 and 1662 was remarkably similar to what James I did between, say, 1603 and 1606, although conventionally historians have tended to argue that James I was more aware of the limitations of his authority than some of his successors were of theirs, and so engendered a kind of creative muddle in order to gloss over the disjunctures between what he wanted and what his subjects wanted. Anyway, chapter 1 deals very effectively with the problem of what a godly prince is and when and why he should be obeyed. The chapter is about the contemporary fantasy (and perhaps also a modern historiographical one) that there was an obvious solution, out there in the ether, to every intractable problem thrown up by the government of the national church, an issue that was so all-encompassing that it was too important to be left either to churchmen alone or to kings; a fantasy, in other words, that all the monarch had to do was to identify those who were ideologically and theologically truly enlightened and then all would be well.

It was clear, though, that many people assumed that the royal supremacy did not belong to the crown at all or, rather, was supposed to offer protection for the whole realm against a range of clerical pretensions. Many Protestants thought of this primarily in terms of the dangers represented by popery and the Church of Rome. But, famously, Mary Tudor used the supremacy against the Edwardian bishops. One can see how the issue of the supremacy inevitably became a kind of debating chamber for a number of interested parties who wanted to say how they thought the church should be run. In this context, one might well conclude that it was only Charles II's ‘politicking’ (p. 89) which prevented disaster for so long.

Chapter 2 discusses the location of contemporaries' discussion of the supremacy: parliament, the law, printed debate and, in particular, the royal attempts in 1662 and 1672 to extract a measure of independence from the so-called consensus that ‘ideally monarchs, parliaments, convocations, and courts would work in harmony to support true religion and uphold the Church of England’ (p. 128). Particularly difficult here were the insistent claims for iure divino episcopacy, something about which Charles II had his doubts. The 1660s were, therefore, rather like the 1630s, but Charles II in many respects was not prepared to follow the example of Charles I, while James II was like Charles II, only more so. Hence the enthusiasm expressed, by a range of dissenters, for the royal supremacy. One future popish plot victim wrote a tract in favour of the 1672 declaration of indulgence. In fact, I would not have minded seeing more concentration on Catholic responses to the supremacy issue before 1685 and the accession of James, duke of York, covered in chapter 6, which is itself a tour de force. Before that, chapter 5 deals with Hobbes's legacy and stresses that some people were not just anti-prelatical but anti-clerical.

This book is very learned and, in some parts, really quite dense. You certainly cannot just skim it, though perhaps this is what a monograph should be like and, all in all, it certainly problematizes an issue which is still too often taken for granted.