10th Grade: Authority and the Stuart Kings

Greetings to all,

This week we continued our story in England.  With the death of Elizabeth, the male Tudor line ended, but the line could continue through Henry’s niece Mary, known as Mary Queen of Scots.  She had been executed for treason by Elizabeth, but now ironically, it was her son James that was called upon to take the reigns of power in England.

James I defense of absolute monarchy raises a dilemma occasioned by  the Reformation.  Protestants often accused Catholics of being ‘authoritarian.’  “Look,” they might say, “you have to obey bishops, popes, councils, and the like. Man has no chance to have an individual, personal relationship to God.”  Thus, according to this argument, Catholicism and democratic government could never go hand in hand.  Catholicism is inherently authoritarian.

Catholics would likely respond that Protestantism has the “authoritarian” problem.  By reducing everything to “Scripture alone” and forgoing reason, tradition, etc. we put ourselves at the mercy of whoever has the authority to give the “right” interpretation of Scripture.  With no buffer between man and the state in an independent church, the state would naturally grab up all the power.

As for Catholicism and democracy, what about the local village elections in the Middle Ages, or the Italian city-state republics of the 15th century?  Democracy has its roots in Catholicism, not Protestantism.

Both sides of this debate are a bit of a caricature, but absolute monarchy arose first within Protestantism, beginning with Henry VIII and extending down to James I.  In class we discussed when absolutism can gain acceptance by the people.  It takes certain historical circumstances, generally, for that sort of thing to fly.  One needs a time of great transition or crisis for people to accept this kind of authority.  In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII had the license to reign autocratically.  In the aftermath of “Bloody” Mary and the Spanish Armada, perhaps his daughter Elizabeth did as well.  By the time of James I, however, this license may have expired.  But James exercised his absolute rule generally to bring moderation.  His portraits reveal an ease with himself and his surroundings,  He is comfortable in power, and makes others comfortable thereby.

James_I_of_England_404446 James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens

His son Charles, however, inherited his father’s ideas about absolute rule, but without the political sense  and personality of his father.  One look at his most famous portrait shows a man of unease and intensity, someone who might “upset the apple cart.”

His actions and those of others would bring about a clash that would shape the question of power and rights in England and perhaps western Europe, for decades to come.

From our vantage point monarchy seems quaint and outdated.  But we must realize that democratic movements are the relative newcomer on the historical stage.  It behooves us then, to consider the arguments for monarchical government.

Most such arguments that I encountered focus on some the technical aspects of kingly rule.  Monarchy is faster, more efficient,  and more unifying than democracies, and so on.   I think these arguments, whatever their merits, miss the major point of monarchies from a Christian perspective.  We should consider whether or not certain forms of government, and not just how they function, can aid or detract from our spiritual lives.

We begin by recognizing that the physical world is inextricably bound up with our spiritual lives.  Of course creation itself reflects God, but it goes beyond that.  Certain physical states may be more “spiritual” than others at certain times.  Thus, kneeling to pray put our bodies in a submissive posture, which can aid our prayers.  Or we stand to praise God, rather than recline on a couch during worship.   God gave humanity the special privilege of being created in His image, and we in turn should “image” God to the rest of creation as well as to each other.

In this line of thought, our form of government should image God’s governance of His creation.  Having a king, then, (regardless of whether the king acts well or poorly) gives us a physical reminder that we serve a heavenly king.  Serving a king (whether or not we agree with him) trains and prepares us to serve the King of Kings.

Thus, king’s should at times be dressed regally to reflect the splendor and majesty of kingly rule.  Also, a king should lead in service, modeling himself after how Jesus exercised His kingship (St. Louis IX of France and Emperor Michael II of Byzantium are notable examples of this).  Either way, it is the office of kingship that teaches us about God’s Kingship over creation. It has nothing to do with the person itself, who got the job merely by accident of birth.  And that’s the point (in part): some have the job of lawyer, or shoemaker, and some have the job of pantomiming the kingship of God.  Democracy, in contrast, gives us not just a poor but even detrimental spiritual example (the argument goes), because it essentially states, “What you want, you get.”  Democracy then, can encourage the worst of our spiritual impulses.

When we get to the democratic movements that sweep America and France we will make the case for a different form of government.  For now, I want students to understand the logic and motivation behind the actions and attitudes like James and Charles.

As some of you may know, the title of this site is drawn from the historian Kenneth Clarke, one of my favorites.  Last week we looked at parts of the ‘Protest and Communication” episode of his epic “Civilisation” series.  I include the entire episode below if you are interested, but even if you had time to see just the first few minutes, that alone reveals how much insight art can give into an era.

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