Charles and the Church

Charles and the Church

When Charles was crowned in 1625, his relationship with the increasingly numerous Puritans in the House of Commons should have got off to a fresh start and in a different direction to the relationship Puritans had with his father, James I. For a start, it was assumed that Charles had none of the social baggage that came with his father. The lax lifestyle of James, which had offended many, could not be pinned on his son. While Charles was cold, severe and grave, his behaviour at court was decent. The alarm bells that had rung among some when he went courting the hand in marriage of the Spanish Princess had now quietened. Charles should have made a good start to his reign but he did not. What went wrong?


Charles had not been educated to be king. He had kept himself in the background embarrassed by his stammer that got worse the more pressured he felt. Therefore, as a prince, life at court was not for him. The death of his elder brother thrust him into the limelight. The one continuity in his life was one of the favourites of James – the Duke of Buckingham. Charles had known Buckingham well as a prince. Now as king he continued his association with Buckingham. The Duke had made many enemies at court and it did not bode well for Charles that he very much associated himself with Buckingham. For Charles he was a pillar to lean on. However, to some, Buckingham was too closely linked to Catholicism. Their fear was that this would rub off on the new king. Ironically, Charles did all that he could to associate himself with the Church. But the State Church was also tarnished – so either course of action had its problems. 


Charles became more and more influenced by William Laud, Bishop of St. David’s. Laud was an Arminian. Charles vigorously committed himself “to the glorification and enhancement of Episcopal authority.” (J P Kenyon). Charles believed that “the people are governed by the pulpit more than the sword in times of peace.”


In February 1626, Laud claimed in a sermon, that the Puritans were meditating a revolution in both the state and the church. The statement was not only false – it was also provocative. It infuriated Puritan members of the House of Commons.


Laud’s career was advanced as a result of his association with Buckingham. Even James had warned his favourite about Laud. In 1621 James had said to Buckingham, “Take him to you, but on my soul you will repent it.” Charles was too taken in by the Duke to even be aware of the issues surrounding Laud. As a result, Laud’s career, effectively blocked under James, flourished under Charles. In 1628, Laud was appointed Chancellor of Oxford University. Whether this was done to deliberately provoke Puritans will never be known but the university was a Puritan stronghold. By 1633, Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury.


Once Archbishop, Laud embarked on a campaign to suppress Puritan lecturers. Oxford and Cambridge Universities had produced a number of able graduates who were employed by local Puritan merchants to deliver lectures. It is known that within the square mile of the City of London, forty-six lecturers delivered sixty sermons a week. It should have come as no surprise to Charles that the City would become a centre of opposition to his rule.


Laud’s attempt to suppress the lecturers was a failure. It also gave the lecturers an opportunity to inform those who listened to their lectures about the attempted suppression – and to ask why Laud was doing this. The attempted suppression of the lecturers was classed as attempted censorship at a time when the printing press was making some inroads into society – though lack of literacy remained a problem. The lecturers claimed that they wanted to bring “light” into the country while Laud was bringing “darkness” into the land along with “tyrannical duncery”.


If the State Church had presented a united front to the Puritans, then it might have been better able to cope with them. However, this was not the case. Some clergy questioned the position of Laud, such as Bishop John Williams, while others like R Montague publicly stated that there were few differences between Protestantism and Catholicism and that bishops in Rome did not always err. Puritans in Parliament vented their fury on Montague but Laud leapt to his defence. Though a supportive gesture by Laud, it was also foolhardy as it further convinced the Puritans in the Commons that Charles was allowing Catholicism in through the back door.


Laud also supported Strafford’s ecclesiastical policy in Ireland. Here Strafford attempted to get back former Church land. When he met resistance to this, Strafford resorted to force to achieve his ends.


In Scotland, Laud tried to impose on the Scots the English form of worship and church organisation. Laud also threatened to take back former monastic land. Such moves were bound to anger many in Scotland. It was Laud’s policy in Scotland that had a direct link with his own demise. In 1639, the Scots attacked England. The king was incapable of funding a war and had to re-call Parliament to get the necessary funding. This was given but with riders – such as the impeachment of Laud. While it is generally accepted that Laud was an educated man, his Scottish policy was startling. Laud should have known that Scotland, as Presbyterians, would not tolerate anything associated with Arminisnism. “He was a century behind the times.” (N Stone)


Laud did succeed in bringing the state and the church closer together but he simply widened the gulf between the State Church and the Puritans. Charles was strongly associated with the work of Laud and the collapse in the power and authority of one had to have an adverse impact on the other.


Laud’s love of lavish Church services was frowned on by the Puritans who saw his services as being too near to the Catholic model. Linked to the services of Laud were political issues as his instructions for a visit to Boston show: “The walls (of the church) are to be adorned with devout and holy sentences of Scripture……….divers of which sentences shall tend to the exhortation of the people to the obedience to the King’s most excellent majesty.”


Laud used his power to get his men into important political positions. With religious control of the country, he now wanted to extend his authority into politics. Bishops reappeared in strength in the Privy Council and Laud’s supporters found their way on to many justices’ benches. Laud also ordered that tithes in urban areas – which for years had been collected in a very haphazard manner even if they were collected at all – should be rigorously collected at the full 10%. This affected all social classes and it became in everyone’s interest in urban England to oppose Laud.


In 1640, after the Short Parliament had been dissolved, the Convocation of Canterbury continued to sit. It passed taxes for Charles and issued a set of canons defending Laud. It also stated that anyone who opposed Charles opposed God, as he was king as a result of divine right. The Convocation ordered that the canons should be read four times a year in all churches. On December 11th, 1640, the population of London presented the Root and Branch petition to Parliament. This called for the removal of episcopacy. On December 16th, the canons were made illegal. However, the damage had been done and a wedge had been driven between many in the urban population and the Church.


Laud equally upset many in rural areas when he announced that the Church would attempt to re-claim former Church land. Many had done very well out of acquiring former Church land and they had a vested interest in maintaining their ownership of such land. Church law was also rigorously enforced and there were numerous prosecutions for playing sport or working on a Saint’s day. Once the Church had regained former land, it was at liberty to collect tithes once again. In bygone years they had been claimed as a divine right; now they were claimed by law.


The High Commission of the Church also angered many in the reign of Charles. In the years of James, it had been run by Calvinists. Now under Laud it was run by Arminians. It was a strong supporter of all that Laud did. The High Commission operated under “letters patent”, which were very loosely defined and it could try almost any case and impose almost any sentence short of death. Laymen wanted its scope strictly limited and they believed that the system of lay courts were more than adequate in dealing with legal issues. They wanted the High Commission to deal with religious issues only and its punishments limited to excommunication, penance and deprivation. The House of Commons condemned the Commission because it could force an accused to answer questions on a charge, which he/she had no prior warning of. However, all along, any attempted reforms to the High Commission were thwarted by the bishops in the House of Lords. In 1611, James issued a new set of ‘Letters Patent’ that clearly defined how the Commission would operate. However, by the reign of Charles such was the hatred of all it stood for that people actually forgot that very frequently it dealt with trivia. J P Kenyon estimates that 80% of its cases would be seen as trivial, such as a man who christened his cat and a man caught urinating in St. Paul’s Cathedral. When Laud became head of the Commission, it seemed to many to summarise his unchained power. Ironically, the power of the High Commission in the reign of Charles had been diluted and its power was frequently overstated by lawyers of the time. However, such was the mindset then, that few accepted this. To many, the High Commission epitomised all that was wrong with the Church.


The Laudian Revolution did a great deal to damage Charles. If the State Church had been seen then as a purely religious body, it may have been a positive association for Charles. However, its move into the spheres of politics and law made many very wary as to where it would end. The simple fact that Laud was very closely linked to Charles did the king great harm. Played out against the background of the Thirty Years War – where at times the Catholics seemed to be on the verge of restoring Catholicism throughout Europe – the condition of the leadership of the State Church in England angered many.

MLA Citation/Reference

"Charles and the Church". 2014. Web.

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