The Open Door Web Site
17th Century England Index
Introduction : Constitutional Government
Portrait of James I of England by John De Critz the Elder
BRITAIN : ISLAND STATE TO EMPIRE
17th Century England
James I and the Divine Right of Kings
"Good Queen Bess" died in 1603 leaving no heirs. The crown of England went to James VI of Scotland, a distant cousin, who became James I of England.
Elizabeth had been a woman of brilliant ability. One of her greatest abilities had been to inspire both love and fear at the same time among her people. It had been the fashion for courtiers and poets to pay her extravagant compliments, to write flattering verses, to sing of the grace and wisdom and beauty and power of "Gloriana, the Virgin Queen".
Her successor, James I (1603-1625), the first of the Stuart family to reign in England, seemed a poor thing compared to Elizabeth. He was neither heroic or attractive. Small and plump, with thin legs, rolling his eyes and an over-large tongue, he seemed older than his thirty six years. Probably this was due to illness, for he suffered from piles and diarrhoea. His personal habits were revolting. He dribbled, picked his nose and often made himself sick through over-eating. He wore extra padding in his clothes in case anyone attacked him. It was hard to believe that his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been so beautiful.
However, in other ways James was a suitable successor to Elizabeth. Like the Tudor Queen he was well educated. He was a biblical expert and the author of books on monarchy, witchcraft, sport and smoking. Only his fear of black magic was unworthy of a learned man.
The greatest problem of James' reign (and that of his son, Charles) was that he believed in the Divine Right of Kings. This had been a commonly held view since the Middle Ages. Kings were appointed by God from above and had supernatural powers. If anyone dared to question a king then he was questioning God: This amounted, in fact, to blasphemy. Even if a king behaved badly no one could criticize him; only God, in his own time, could punish him.
James had written his ideas down in "The True Law of Free Monarchies" in 1598 and he liked to quote the book in Parliament to remind the MPs to keep in their place.
Charles I rules without Parliament
Portrait of Charles I of England
Charles I, who became king in 1625, also believed in the Divine Right of Kings. To make matters worse, more and more Puritans were becoming MPs and demanding changes in the Church of England. They suspected the new king to be secretly sympathetic to Catholics, particularly when he married Henrietta Maria, a French Catholic princess. Neither did the MPs like the Duke of Buckingham, James I's favourite courtier and Charles I's chief adviser.
When in 1629, Parliament obstructed the king's right to tax his people, Charles dissolved Parliament. For eleven years (the "Eleven Years Tyranny") he managed to rule alone, reviving old medieval taxes that most people had forgotten about, such as Ship Money, to raise his revenues.
In the 1630's Charles and Archbishop Laud began to make changes to the Church of England, but not in the ways Puritans wanted. On the contrary, the king and Archbishop wanted churches and church services to be more decorated and ornate. To the Puritans this was simply a way of making the Church of England more like the hated Catholic Church.
In Parliament more and more MPs were Puritans; some of them were extremely wealthy and powerful.
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