The Hampton Court Conference took place in January 1604. The conference was in response to the Millenary Petition so that the issues raised by it could be discussed in a formal setting. Many of the signatories of the Millenary Petition were very well aware that James I had a passion for philosophical and ideological debate and he rose to their challenge by calling the Hampton Court Conference. Bishops and Puritans representatives were both invited.
The bishops were in a difficult position. They were aware of the short-comings of the Church but they did not want to move in a direction whereby the Puritans dictated how the Church was organised and run. While they wanted the short-comings addressed, they did not want to see their position diluted.
The Puritans started to organise themselves almost immediately by publishing to their followers ‘Advice tending to Reformation’. This called on Puritans across the country to produce a petition that stated the failings of the Church in their county and what reforms were desired. The formal petition to James stated “that the present state of the Church may be further reformed in all things needful, according to the rule of God’s holy word.” The Puritans were so well organised that lawyers committed to the Puritans drew up bills to eradicate Church failings that would be presented to the first Parliament of James that would meet in 1604.
.However, the Puritan approach did not win the backing of James who felt that they were attacking the Church itself. In October 1603, James stated that their approach could lead to violence and sedition. In response to this James declared that the structure of the Church would not be changed and that the conference would only discuss “abuses”.
At Hampton Court, the bishops were represented by Archbishop Whitgift and eight bishops, including the Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft. They were assisted by eight deans and one archdeacon. All the Puritans who attended were known moderates and were led by John Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Though Reynolds wanted change in the Church, he was also a conformist keen to keep away from controversy. The more radical Puritans who were not at the conference, believed that their exclusion was a direct result of an intervention by James.
On the first day of the Hampton Court Conference, James met the bishops to discuss the issues that were raised in the Millenary Petition. Changes were agreed to – baptism could only be provided by ministers but it could be carried out in private homes, and not just in a church, if the circumstances warranted it; excommunication could only be used in the most important of cases; church discipline was to be tightened and bishops would have lay legal experts to assist them where a decision had to be made in a church court. This would address the issue of a legal decision being made by just one person whose knowledge of the law might not be particularly advanced. James was greatly satisfied with the first day of the conference as he had addressed many of the issues raised by the Millenary Petition and also maintained a good relationship with the bishops.
On the second day, James met with the Puritan representatives. They had four requests: that the doctrine of the Church was carried out with purity; that all churches should have good ministers; that Church government had to be sincerely ministered according to God’s word; that “the Book of Common Prayer might be better fitted to more increase of piety”. Reynolds also requested that there should be a new translation of the Bible as the old one was deficient.
On the first request, James had little problem. Early in his reign in May 1603, James had spoken out about the failing of the general public to observe the Sabbath and he ordered that it should be more strictly observed. The second issue also caused few problems as James had called on the bishops to produce a learned clergy and to end pluralism as much as was possible.
James and the Puritans did clash, however, on the third issue. There was no logical reason except that Reynolds used the word “presbytery” in one of his speeches to support his claim. The official record taker that day was Bishop Barlow and he noted that the mood of James changed when Reynolds used the word. It is probable that for James the word presbytery reminded him too much of the religious issues he faced in Scotland – hence his negative reaction to Reynolds. It was also noted in the official records that James presented his arguments with much intelligence and backed up what he said with a forceful knowledge of the Bible to support his beliefs – though the official records are hardly likely to be impartial.
However, James welcomed the opportunity to permit a new translation of the Bible and ordered both Oxford and Cambridge Universities to work together on this project.
The third and final day of the Hampton Court Conference involved a discussion as to how all the findings could be put in place for long term gains.
What was resolved at the conference? The terms ‘absolution’ and ‘confirmation’ were to get a revised definition to make them more acceptable to the Puritans; private baptism could only be carried out by the clergy; bishops would receive support of a legal nature in church courts; pluralism was to reduced as much as possible; the quality of the clergy was to improved in terms of education; excommunication would be replaced by a writ ‘out of Chancery’; a new translated Bible would be produced; a uniform catechism was to be issued; observance of the Sabbath was to be more strictly enforced and a close watch was to be kept on Roman Catholics to ensure that the import of ‘popish books’ was kept to the minimum.
The official record stated that Reynolds left the conference well satisfied with what was decided. However, the radical Puritans were not. The conference stressed that conformity to the Church was expected once the conference had dispersed – such as the wearing of the correct clothing in services and the adherence to the Common Prayer Book. Such conformity had not been enforced in the reign of Elizabeth and many Puritan leaders complained that they were having to carry out services in a way not enforced for over thirty years. James responded in July by giving all those involved in the Church until November 1604 to conform – or to get out of the Church.
On paper what came out of the Hampton Court Conference was sound. However, many of the issues discussed and agreed on needed financing. The Reformation had taken away the biggest cash cow of the then Church - land and the tithes collected from land. Many in both Houses of Parliament had taken advantage of the break-up of Church estates in Tudor England and bought land and the right to collect tithes from that land. If the Church in the time of James wanted to fund reform, it needed the return of its former estates and this was never going to happen. At hte least, Parliament would have to pass legislation allowing it - one of the institutions that had so benefited from the break-up of church estates.