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The Reign of James I page 6

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When he had tired himself out with talking, Dr. Reynolds again ventured to open his mouth, and inquired how ordinances of the church agreed with Christian liberty. This was touching James closely: it brought back to his memory the harangues on the same liberty which he had heard from his clergy in Scotland. He declared that he would not argue that point, but answer as kings were wont to do in parliament, Le roy s'avisera. Without pretending to treat I the matter as one of conviction, he treated it as one of authority. He exclaimed, "I will have none of that: I will have one doctrine and one discipline, one religion in: substance and in ceremony." He was resolved to be as absolute over every man's conscience and understanding as Henry VIII. had been. "If that is what you be at, then I tell you that a Scottish presbytery agreeth with monarchy as well as God with the devil. Then shall Jack and Tom I and Dick meet, and at their pleasure censure me and my council and all our proceedings. Then Will shall stand up and say, 'It must be thus;' then Dick shall reply and say, 'Nay, marry, but we will have it thus;' and therefore, here I must once more reiterate my former speech, and say, Le roy s'avisera."1

It was in vain that Dr. Reynolds, who was reputed one of the most able divines and logicians of the age, attempted to state his views and opinions. The king constantly interrupted him and scoffed at him, treating him in the most insolently overbearing manner, and when he paused, asked him, "Well, doctor, have you anything more to say?" Reynolds, perceiving it useless, replied, "No, please your majesty;" on which James told these brow-beaten divines, that had they disputed no better in college, and he had been moderator, he would have had them all fetched up and flogged for dunces; that if that was all they had to say for themselves, he would make them conform, or hurry them out of the kingdom, or worse. With this scandalous treatment they were dismissed till the 18th, when the conference met again. The greater part of the day was consumed by the king, the council, and prelates in inquiring into the abuses of the high commission court, and devising means for checking them. At a late hour the dissenting delegates were again admitted, not to continue the discussion, but to hear the fixed decision of the king. On hearing it they prayed that a certain time might be allowed before the new regulations were enforced. This was granted, but not strictly kept, for the new book of common prayer was immediately prepared and published by authority.

Thus ended this digraceful conference, which excited almost equal discontent amongst the high-church partisans and the dissenters. The bishops had consented to changes, out of fear of offending the king, which they by no means approved, and were in no haste to carry out; and the dissenters were greatly chagrined that their delegates had not more boldly and resolutely enforced their views. But with such a monarch as James nothing like fair argument was possible; he avowed the most despotic principles, and contradicted those who opposed him with the undignified rudeness of a pothouse politician. The reformers complained bitterly of this, but James himself was incapable of feeling the force of public opinion. He was inflated with the idea of his own unrivalled eloquence and ability. He boasted that he had "peppered the dissenters soundly; they fled me," he said, "from argument to argument like schoolboys."

The bishops and ministers of his council added to his absurd egotism, by actually pouring deluges of the most fulsome adulation upon him. Bancroft, bishop of London, flung himself on his knees before him, and exclaimed "that his heart melted with joy, and made haste to acknowledge unto Almighty God his singular mercy in giving them such a king, as since Christ's time the like had not been;" and Whitgift, the primate, protested "that his majesty spake by the special assistance of God's spirit." The lord chancellor Ellesmere, emulating the sycophants of the church, said that "the king and the priest had never been so wonderfully united in the same person;" and the peers echoed the plaudits, declaring that his majesty's speeches proceeded from the spirit of God operating on an understanding heart. "I wist not what they mean," wrote Harrington, in Nugae Antiquae; "but the spirit was rather foul- mouthed.''

All parties connected with the church having thus admitted that the king was acting under the most luminous effusion of the divine spirit, ought not, therefore, to have murmured when soon afterwards, without waiting for ecclesiastical sanction, he made his own alterations in the book of common prayer, and then issued a proclamation, warning all men neither to attempt nor expect any further alterations in the church, and commanding all ecclesiastical and civil authorities to enforce the strictest conformity. Whitgift soon after died, and many attributed the acceleration of his death to his mortification at the king's ordering the affairs of the church by his own will and wisdom, which Whitgift had been one of the first to extol as infallible. Bancroft succeeded, and showed himself a ready instrument of James's bigotry, and ready to enforce whatever cruelty he would attempt.

James spent full half of his year in hunting, arid if any person or party had an urgent matter to prefer, the only opportunity for it appeared by waylaying him in his rides to the forest. The dissenters, as the time approached for the enforcement of the new canons of the church, presented a petition to him near Newmarket, praying a prolongation of the time allowed them for conforming. James received them with savage fierceness; told them that it was from such petitions that the rebellion in the Netherlands originated; that his mother and he had been haunted by puritan devils from their cradles; that he would sooner lose his crown than encourage such malicious spirits; and if he thought his son would tolerate them in his time, he would wish to see him that moment lying in his grave. The nonconformists complained that he persecuted the disciples whilst he favoured the enemies of the gospel. This was referring to his reception of catholics at court, arid his promises not to molest them if they abstained from the open prosecution of their worship. But James left them I under no mistake on that head: he expressed an equally I vehement hatred of papists; and on the 22nd of February he issued a proclamation enjoining the banishment of all catholic missionaries. He went to the star chamber, framed regulations for the discovery and prosecution of all recusants, and issued orders to all magistrates to see the penal laws put in force against all persons, of whatever faith, who did not fully conform to the rites and ordinances of the church. Thus the miseries and oppressions of religious persecution were renewed with all their virulence; and the only consolation for those who refused to conform, was that they might persecute one another.

In the midst of this state of things, James was compelled to call a parliament. This assembled on the 19th of March, 1604. It was one of the most remarkable parliaments in our history, for it came together, on the part of both king and commons, prepared to contest the great principles of absolutism and constitutional liberty; a contest which never again ceased till the people had triumphed over the I crown, and prescribed for it those limits within which it continues still to exist. The Tudors had made themselves absolute, but rather by acting than talking. They had willed, but had only occasionally boasted of the supremacy of their will. Whenever they had done so, especially in the person of Elizabeth, they received a protest so spirited from parliament, that they wisely again veiled their pretensions. But James, possessing all their personal vanity and love of unlimited power, had not the policy to keep his pretensions in the background. He protruded them on the public notice; he vaunted his towering belief of his earthly divinity, declaring that as God killed or made alive, so had he ordained kings to do the same at pleasure. Years before he came to England, he published these imperious and imprudent doctrines in a discourse "On the True Law of Free Monarchies; or, the Reciprogue and Mutual Duty betwixt a Free King and his Natural Subjects." This true law, according to him, consisted in a king doing as he pleased, independent of councils, peers, or parliaments. The king was to be all command, the subject all submission. In these lawless ideas of the British Solomon regarding government, are comprehended all the conflicts which succeeded between the princes of his family and the people, and which, eventually drove them from the throne.

In the proclamation calling this parliament, James took care to set forth the supremacy of his prerogative, and commanded the sheriffs and other officers to make no returns of members but such as were wholly agreeable to his views; there were to be no "persons noted for their superstitious blindness in religion one way, or for their turbulent humour the other." That is, neither puritans nor catholics were to be elected. Instructions were sent down to the various counties and boroughs, naming such persons for candidates as were agreeable to the court. But the puritans were in no humour to comply with such unconstitutional orders. They were justly filled with resentment at the treatment of their representatives at Hampton Court, and put forward their own men, and returned them in great numbers in defiance of the government. One case led to a direct and vehement collision betwixt the crown and the House of Commons. As a member for the county of Buckingham, Sir John Fortescue, a member of the privy council, had been named by the court. The people of Buckinghamshire, afterwards so conspicuous in the struggles betwixt the Stuarts and parliament, put forward and returned Sir Francis Goodwin. The clerk of the crown refused to receive the return, and sent it back to the sheriff as contrary to the proclamation ; for Goodwin had formerly been outlawed, and James had forbidden the return of outlaws. A second writ was issued, and under it Sir John Fortescue was elected. But the commons refused to admit him, declaring that as Goodwin's outlawry had been reversed, the proclamation did not apply to him, and that his return was good and should stand.

The government, in the name of the lords, proposed to the commons that there should be a conference betwixt the two houses on the subject before any other business was proceeded with; but the commons, with a clear insight into their privileges, where the constitution and functions of their own body were concerned, replied that it did not consist with the honour of their house to give an account of their proceedings and doings. On this they received a second message, in which they were informed through Coke, that his majesty being apprised of their objection, conceived that his honour was touched, and desired that there should be some conference between the houses. On this the commons sent a deputation of their members, headed by the speaker, to represent to the king why they could not confer with the lords on any subject. The king was exceedingly high, and let them know that they held all their privileges by the royal favour; but the members stoutly denied that doctrine, as the house at large had already this session denied it, saying "that new laws could not be instituted, nor imperfect laws reformed, nor inconvenient laws abrogated, by any other power than that of the high court of parliament, that is, by the agreement of the commons, the accord of the lords, and the assent of the sovereign ; that to him belonged the right either negatively to frustrate, or affirmatively to ratify, but that he could not institute; every bill must pass through the two houses before it could be submitted to his pleasure."

This was a doctrine that clashed most disagreeably with James's absolute notions, and he rudely upbraided them with their presumption. But they stood firm to their position, and what was extremely humiliating to the new monarch, excused his unconstitutional ideas through ignorance or misinformation of the custom and laws of England; that the privileges of their house were the birthright of Englishmen, and could not be surrendered. James claimed that all disputed matters should be referred to his court of chancery; but they claimed to settle all such themselves, as the essential to the government of their estate.

When James found that nothing would induce the commons to confer with the lords, he ordered them to confer with the judges, and this command the deputation carried; back to the house. But the house, after a warm debate, unanimously refused to refer the question to the judges; they drew up an answer to all the king's arguments, and sent it to the lords, requesting them to present it to his majesty, and be mediators betwixt them. James, now finding that he could make no impression by express command, sent for the speaker, and endeavoured to coax him over to his views; but that being unsuccessful, he ordered him to deliver to the house his command, "as an absolute king," to confer with the judges. This was a direct challenge to the popular element, to try its strength with the royal one; language which was sure to put a high-spirited people on its mettle: the first utterance of that language, which no warning, no experience could teach a Stuart to abandon, till the utterance was quenched in blood.

When the speaker delivered this command, there fell a profound silence on the house; an augury and foreboding, as it were, of the gigantic struggle which was commencing. At length the ominous silence was broken by a member starting up and exclaiming that "the prince's command was like a thunderbolt; his command over our allegiance," he said, "is like the roaring of a lion! To his command there is no contradiction; but how, or in what manner we should proceed to perform obedience, that will be the question." It was finally agreed to send a deputation to confer with the judges in the presence of the king and council. At the conference there appeared no better prospect of success, when the king happily proposed that both Goodwin and Fortescue should be set aside, and a new writ issued. The commons gladly acceded to this proposal. The house was rejoiced at this solution of the difficulty, but out of doors those they represented were far from satisfied, and reproached the house with having yielded the right which they had boldly claimed. But in reality, the commons had done no such thing, for they proceeded, by their speaker's warrant, to issue the new writ themselves, and they have ever since exercised the right which they then assumed, of deciding all cases of contested elections.

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