Rescuing the bishops

Blair Worden

  • The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society 1559-1625 by Patrick Collinson
    Oxford, 297 pp, £17.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 19 822685 3
  • Reactions to the English Civil War 1642-1649 edited by John Morrill
    Macmillan, 257 pp, £14.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 333 27565 9
  • The World of the Muggletonians by Christopher Hill, Barry Reay and William Lamont
    Temple Smith, 195 pp, £12.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 85117 226 1
  • The Life of John Milton by A.N. Wilson
    Oxford, 278 pp, £9.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 19 211776 9
  • Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Vol. 8: 1666-1682 edited by Maurice Kelley
    Yale, 625 pp, £55.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 300 02561 0
  • The Poet’s Time: Politics and Religion in the Works of Andrew Marvell by Warren Chernaik
    Cambridge, 249 pp, £19.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 521 24773 X

The publication of Patrick Collinson’s The Religion of Protestants is a stirring event in the rediscovery of Early Modern England. Unmistakably the work of a historian who has reflected on his subject for the better part of a working lifetime, the book consists of six wide-ranging essays which were originally delivered as the Ford Lectures when Professor Collinson visited Oxford in 1979, and which have now been revised, expanded and tightened – although the speculative tone of the lecture-hall has been appropriately retained. Many other scholars have recently explored the development of the Church of England over the two long reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and one of Collinson’s achievements, executed with singular modesty and generosity, has been to draw their conclusions together and to set them in perspective. But the findings which count for most are the author’s own. To the non-specialist reader, two warnings should be offered. The opening chapter, about Church and State, may seem the hardest: begin with Chapter Two. Secondly, do not expect tidy answers. Collinson’s thesis, although lucidly and vigorously presented, is honourably complex and tentative. This is the modern manner, history with its head down: patient, unpretentious, suspicious of the swift and brash generalisations that stole the headlines a decade and more ago.

Collinson has written two earlier major works, one on Elizabethan Puritanism, the other a life of Edmund Grindal, Elizabeth’s defiant Archbishop of Canterbury. Here he moves forward into the reign of James I. This has been the dark period of the Church of England:

the middle ground lost between books on the English Revolution and the Elizabethan Church on the one side, and studies of religion in the English Revolution on the other. Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne are subjects: literature has seen to that. And so is Puritanism: America has seen to that. But not the ordinary mainstream history of the Jacobean Church.

We still tend to see that history through Victorian eyes, our understanding of early Stuart Arminianism and ceremonialism coloured by the 19th-century Anglican legacy. We may have read too much Trollope, from whose pages it would not be hard to construct the familiar caricature of a worldly, corpulent Jacobean clergy, basking under the lax supervision of courtly bishops.

Then there is the hindsight problem. Some distinguished accounts of early Stuart religion have been prompted by questions which, however legitimate, have produced inevitable distortions. In The Rise of Puritanism (1938) – that classic work to which Collinson supplies both a corrective interpretation and a sociological dimension – William Haller unblushingly declared himself concerned less ‘with the links that connect Puritanism with the past than with the ways which Puritanism marked out for the future’. By ‘the future’, Haller meant the Puritan Revolution. Collinson is interested in the origins of the Puritan Revolution too, and the shadow of that upheaval falls across his book. But his argument shifts the main burden of explanation, as William Lamont and Nicholas Tyacke have shifted it, onto the reign of Charles I and the regime of Archbishop Laud, ‘the greatest calamity ever visited upon the English Church’. Although that verdict is unlikely to go unchallenged, even those who question it should welcome Collinson’s determination to view the Jacobean Church as it would have seemed to contemporaries, who did not know that civil war lay round the corner. Collinson has done for early 17th-century religion what Conrad Russell has done for early 17th-century politics. He leaves the Church in the late 1620s where Russell has left Parliament – a very long way from revolution.

The Jacobean Church was a broad church. Collinson shows it to have had an unexpected spiritual vitality, and to have accommodated a wide range of that voluntary evangelical activity which we habitually associate with Puritan opposition. It was a surprisingly self-confident church, too. In its infancy, under Elizabeth, its very survival had been doubtful. The improvised combination of Calvinist theology and episcopal government had seemed frail and eccentric. But as the decades passed, the morale and the standing of churchmen rose. Presbyterianism was parried, popery contained; the Anglican via media gave England the long peace denied to envious European states; the recruitment of graduates improved the quality of the parochial ministry; and the lay rulers of the shires found reasons both of conviction and of self-interest for supporting the Protestant establishment. Hooker gave the Church an intellectual justification, and the learned Jacobean divines gave it an international intellectual reputation. By the 1620s, as Laud signally failed to grasp, the Church had acquired the authority, the resilience and the flexibility of an effective national institution: the sort of institution that, in the traditional Tory scheme of history to which Collinson gives unwitting succour, will guarantee stability so long as those who control it understand and protect the bases of its support.

Collinson’s rehabilitation of official Jacobean Protestantism challenges the terms in which earlier discussion has been conducted. He particularly laments the ‘primitive’ use by historians of the word ‘Erastian’ to portray a clerical estate beaten into submission by the secular powers. The early Elizabethan bishops, far from meekly accepting an unlimited royal supremacy, saw themselves as the heirs of St Ambrose, who by rebuking and humbling emperors had made them willing instrumemts of God’s will. Returning from the exile they had endured under Mary, newly-created bishops like John Jewel and John Aylmer saw before them a brave new world. They and their fellow prelates would at last be ‘relieved from that royal pomp and courtly bustle’ which had filled the days of the ‘oily, shaven, portly hypocrites’ whom they had succeeded. The new episcopate would be free to concentrate on its pastoral mission and to follow the Biblical ideal of the godly bishop.

Reminded of this mood later in life, Aylmer replied with St Paul: ‘When I was a child I spoke as a child ...’ Reality had intervened. A balance needed to be struck between Church and State; the clergy had to learn the same political rules as everyone else; and bishops could only hope to resist the Erastian ambitions of Crown and Parliament by mobilising the support of lay politicians. Yet a precarious boundary remained visible, behind which bishops clung to their right to define and interpret doctrine. If the Crown threatened that power, implied the future bishop George Carleton in 1610, then bishops ‘have warrant not to obey princes, because with these things Christ hath put them in trust’. By now the divine right of bishops was becoming a familiar doctrine. It may have owed its origin to the nervousness with which later Elizabethan churchmen had viewed the Presbyterian threat and the prospect of a Scottish king as head of the Church of England, but there was less need for nerves after 1604, when the esteem of bishops seems to have risen among the laity. The troubled Parliaments of the 1620s produced no challenge to the episcopal office.

If the term ‘Erastian’ has been used to explain too much too easily, so has ‘anticlericalism’. The literature of Puritan complaint has been credulously swallowed. Pro-clericalism will leave few monuments, but we can at least say that the clergy do not seem to have felt beleaguered as they learned to work, more often than not harmoniously, with the Protestant magistracy. The ecclesiastical administration, as far as can be told from its daunting records, worked well enough. So did the church courts, which enforced the morality the laity wanted. No doubt there were worldly churchmen – when have there not been? – but the balance of the surviving evidence has probably led us to exaggerate their number and their depravity. After all, clergy who sought promotion had to speak the language of the laity who helped to provide it. In consequence, ‘their schemes and ploys have left behind plentiful traces in the muniment rooms of their great patrons, so that a disproportionate quantity of surviving episcopal correspondence has to do with place-hunting.’ We can enjoy, but we would go wrong if we judged Bishop Aylmer by, the letter he wrote to the future Earl of Leicester in 1559: ‘Good my Lord, if the deanery of Winchester be not already swallowed up, let me among the rest of the small fishes have a snatch at the bait. If it be gone, I beseech your good lordship cast a hook for the deanery of Durham.’ What mattered was not how bishops obtained their sees, but what they did with them. Perhaps the episcopal reputation most strikingly rescued by Collinson is that of Tobie Matthew, James I’s Archbishop of York, whom we normally meet as a great church jobber and witty court preacher. Collinson reports the chance survival of Matthew’s diary, which shows him, ill and very old, travelling great distances in bitter weather round the dales of Yorkshire, preaching and taking his place at spiritual exercises and fasts. For how many bishops was such activity so routine as to have left no record?

The lower clergy, too, seem to have had an unfairly bad press. The numbers of the ‘dumb dogs’ and ‘alehouse-haunters’ familiar from Puritan propaganda diminished in the face of the Church’s energetic educational programme. ‘Prophesyings’, the discussion groups which Elizabeth had suppressed, reappeared in new guises. Lectureships, clerical gatherings and theological expositions enabled brighter clerics to instruct duller ones. Admittedly we cannot be sure quite how many bishops put their hands to the educational wheel, or how many of their subordinates were committed to disciplined evangelicalism. Admittedly, too, the growth of clerical co-operation which Collinson impressively documents did have its more convivial aspect, as churchmen fostered their growing sense of professional identity and solidarity through intrigue and gossip and good dinners. Yet strenuous purposes were also at work, and the development of ecclesiastical institutions to absorb them helped the Church to contain Puritan aspirations. Otherwise more reformers might have risked their souls and their social standing by taking the separatist path.

A price was paid for this holding operation. Puritan machinery created a church within a church, and in the 1640s the smaller church, with the help of its lay friends, destroyed the greater one. For however much blame we attach to Archbishop Laud, the fundamentally subversive character of Puritanism remains. The threat was not, as is often maintained, to class. On the contrary, Puritan ministers allied effectively with Puritan magistrates to impose a draconian moral and sexual code on inferiors who were constantly reminded from the pulpit that the social and political order was divinely ordained. Protestantism had become respectable. In a brilliantly suggestive and tantalisingly brief passage Collinson sees the abandonment by evangelical reformers of their attempts to work through popular culture, through song and the stage, as part of ‘a profound cultural change in which Protestantism was losing the popularity which it had enjoyed in the beginning as a movement of protest, a radical, irreverent cocking of a snook at the symbols of religious tradition and authority. Now the Bible and the Psalms were no longer exciting novelties but symbols of order, discretion, age, and dominance in the local community.’

The challenge which Puritanism posed was not to hierarchy but to community. Dividing the world between saints and sinners, mixing only with the former and barring the latter from the Sacraments, the Puritans undermined the clergy’s position as a parish conciliation service. It is true they wanted parochial unity – but unity on their terms. Theirs was a different conception of the minister’s role from that envisaged for George Herbert’s Country Parson, ‘reconciling neighbours that are at variance’, and charitably indulging, in the hope of correcting, the spiritual failings of weaker brethren. Yet Herbert was more stern, perhaps more Puritanical even, than the possibly more typical clergyman who thought it part of his job ‘to spend his groat at the alehouse’. The silent evidence leaves us to wonder, not merely what proportion of the parish clergy were sociable, but how many of them saw the liturgy, the Prayer Book and the Sacraments as means of holding a parish together in God’s service.

Collinson questions whether parishes can have been cohesive social units even before the Puritans got to work. He casts a refreshingly sceptical eye on a number of assumptions which have served either to romanticise or to patronise the 17th-century proletariat. But how are we to identify and measure popular beliefs? We know that many people did not go to church. If they had done, the buildings would not have held them. Did they manage without religion? Did they, as Keith Thomas has taught us, adhere to pagan superstitions and practices? Collinson, acknowledging these possibilities, thinks that historians may still have underestimated the hold of an ‘inarticulate and undemonstrative’ Anglicanism. It is ‘very possible’ that ‘the parish church and its rhythmical provision of predictable, increasingly familiar rites and prayers progressively strengthened its hold on the habits and loyalties of the Elizabethan and Jacobean generations.’

The same possibility has occurred to John Morrill, who explores it in his sparkling contribution to the collection of essays which he has edited. Reactions to the English Civil War. The attempts of Parliamentary Puritanism to extinguish and replace the Anglican Church in the 1640s, he claims, encountered deep and effective resistance. As in earlier decades, the evidence has to be extracted from unpromising material: rarely can such spirited use have been made of churchwardens’ accounts. The liturgy, the clergy, the buildings and the festivals of the Church are shown to have inspired deep loyalties, even when Charles and his bishops did so little to defend them. Puritanism, arid and cerebral, was never a plausible alternative. How did the Long Parliament come to be so out of touch – more so, if anything, than Laud had been a decade earlier? From 1660 MPs learned their lesson and voted for an intolerant Anglicanism. Even then, Morrill suggests, the success of the restored Church owed less to the gentry than to spontaneous feeling in the parishes and to ‘the very middling sort who we are often told were the bulwark of Puritanism’. This is Christopher Hill’s world turned upside down with a vengeance.

How much does the popularity of Anglicanism in and after the Civil War tell us about its standing in the earlier period which is Collinson’s territory? Morrill thinks that ‘religious commitment is best measured in conditions of persecution,’ and that the commitment shown in the 1640s indicates how deep were the roots put down by ‘three generations of Anglican practice’. An alternative hypothesis, although Morrill believes that further research would disprove it, is that the Parliamentary tyranny created an affection for the defeated Church which had been rather less obvious in the days of its power. Either way, Morrill’s thesis places the responsibility for the Church’s collapse where Collinson places it – on Laud’s shoulders. It was religion ‘in the purest times of Queen Elizabeth and King James of blessed memory’, not religion in the times of Charles I, for which the enemies of Puritanism called. But how clearly did they recall that golden age? Those who did remember it may have had pause for thought. Collinson believes that when MPs called for ‘primitive episcopacy’ they meant nothing more radical than a return to the Jacobean Church which Laud had destroyed. Yet the MP Sir Simonds Dewes, a weighty although not an unprejudiced witness, thought that Parliament would never settle for a pre-Laudian solution, and the research of William Abbott suggests that he may have been right. Did not ‘primitive episcopacy’ mean the Biblical ideal which had fired Jewel and Aylmer on Elizabeth’s accession?

Laud is not necessarily an inadequate explanation. But he may be in danger of becoming too convenient a one. Perhaps we need to define more clearly the respects in which he broke with earlier policies. Collinson, believing the difference to have been one largely of tone, complains of the ‘gratuitously offensive clericalism’ of the Durham House divines. He also thinks the Laudian retreat from Calvinist doctrine important. So it was – did not William Prynne maintain that predestinarian theology contained ‘the truths that saved us from the Spanish Armada’? – but by the 1630s the Church’s teaching caused less offence than its practice. Other historians would cast the net wider, to include the economic discontent and the political fears and resentments aroused by policies which seemed to threaten all post-Reformation assumptions about the balance of Church and State. But the more revolutionary a movement Laudianism looks, the more firmly we are driven back to earlier decades in search of an explanation of it. Collinson, recognising this, points his finger briefly at Calvinist intolerance in the period when the Arminian reaction formed. His readers may wonder whether there is not a question-mark still to be placed against the unhurried and perhaps not altogether un-Trollopean regime of Laud’s predecessor, Archbishop Abbot.

Reactions to the English Civil War, one of the liveliest and most distinguished volumes in Macmillan’s ‘Problems in Focus’ series, is a fitting companion to the two collections of essays which surround it, one edited by Conrad Russell on the origins of the war, the other edited by Gerald Aylmer on its aftermath. Most of the prose has a lucidity not always evident in studies of the 1640s, even if there is the occasional sentence which could only have been written by an academic (‘Even the situation in High Wycombe should suggest caution about the alleged drift to the left’). And unlike most books of this kind, the volume has a clear theme: the complexity and the misery of the Civil War. Historians have long insisted on the regional variations in the patterns of the conflict, but by the time Anthony Fletcher has guided us round the counties of England, and Roger Howell round the towns, we must wonder whether any generalisations about local allegiances can ever be made again. Donald Pennington describes the burdens and the dislocation brought by the fighting, Robert Ashton the scant respect shown by Parliament for the liberties it claimed to defend. A similarly dispiriting picture emerges from Ronald Hutton’s excellent essay ‘The Royalist War Effort’, which bears some striking resemblances to his excellent book The Royalist War Effort: somehow the trailer has appeared after the film.

These essays are mostly about the victims rather than the makers of the war. Historians of the regions have transformed our understanding of the Puritan Revolution. Yet the question whether they are right (as broadly speaking they surely are) may be separable from the question why their work has proved so popular. Is there not something disconcertingly provincial about a society so interested in the history of its provinces? It is a question to be asked of the likely readers of Reactions to the English Civil War, not of its authors, who understand that provincial sentiment cannot explain everything. One of them, Richard Tuck, explores a subject which it could not explain, the hitherto perplexing decision of the great lawyer John Selden to support Parliament in the Civil War. A historian of political science, Tuck does not consider, as his fellow contributors might, whether temperament or convenience could help to account for Selden’s choice. Selden, we are reminded, believed that Charles I had acted illegally, while Parliament had a decent, although hardly clear-cut, case in statute. The Parliamentary militia legislation of 1642 which occasioned the war, often thought of as an opportunist and constitutionally indefensible bid for sovereignty, is shown to have had a respectable legal basis which makes Selden’s approval intelligible. By bringing home the urgency to MPs of those debates about Medieval law and precedent which we are prone to dismiss as either comically or dishonestly antiquarian, Tuck reminds us what we lose when we allow constitutional history to become the unfashionable subject which the advance of social and provincial history has made it.

Morrill and Collinson, in their studies of Anglicanism, both imply that historians have unduly neglected the norms of 17th-century religion in favour of a handful of separatists and sectaries. No more than 5 per cent of the population, suggests Morrill, attended religious assemblies outside the established churches during the Puritan Revolution, at least before the rise of the Quakers in the 1650s. Against this can be set Christopher Hill’s remark, in his contribution to The World of the Muggletonians, that most books on 17th-century history are written about 3 per cent of the population who earned more than £100 a year. The fact is that since we no longer possess agreed yardsticks of historical significance, there is now no subject for which a defence cannot be constructed against the charge of triviality. The Muggletonians emerged in 1652, when the London tailor John Reeve had visions which taught him that he and his cousin, Lodowick Muggleton, were the Two Last Witnesses foretold in Revelation 11, a role which bestowed upon them the agreeable privilege of cursing unto eternal damnation all who would not accept their leadership. Unlike the Ranters and other similar groups, the Muggletonians survived the Puritan Revolution which spawned them. Indeed a Muggletonian was spotted as late as the 1970s, when a cache of Muggletonian archives turned up in, of all places, Tunbridge Wells.

Interest in the Muggletonians is not new. Their early leaders appear in the DNB, which one still needs to consult. An instructive pamphlet on the sect, not mentioned in The World of the Muggletonians, was published in 1919 by the Roman Catholic art expert George Charles Williamson, who had infiltrated the surviving membership of the sect and been allowed to consult its papers. Nowadays, however, there exist the social and perhaps the political conditions for a broader interest in the Muggletonians. Has Mr Benn yet cited them among the spiritual ancestors of the Labour movement? It can only be a matter of time, for by page six of the book the Muggletonians have somehow been recruited to the causes of nuclear disarmament, ‘blacks, women and the common people’. Barry Reay, one of the contributors, has convinced himself that Laurence Clarkson, the Ranter turned Muggletonian, was ‘an ordinary person’ who represented ‘popular thought’, although apparently ‘ordinary’ does not mean the same as ‘typical’. Christopher Hill, too, sees in the Muggletonians, as in the other Civil War sects, a key to popular culture, but the Muggletonians appear to have been, or at least to have become, a highly respectable, property-loving, middle-class group. Hill’s hero is Reeve, whose ideas he believes to have been betrayed after his death by the more conservative and less intelligent Muggleton. This is a characteristically but still an astonishingly learned essay. There is an accomplished piece, too, by William Lamont, who finds the explanation of the Muggletonians’ survival in their retreat from extreme millenarian and providentialist claims. But while the book tells us a lot about who the Muggletonians were and what they believed, it gives us little sense of what it was like to be one.

Hill sees the Muggletonians as the sect with whose tenets Milton’s beliefs have most in common. Milton the radical beer-swiller is not a figure to appeal to the poet’s most recent biographer, the novelist A.N. Wilson, whose Milton is the solitary, although not the sour, figure of tradition. Impatient of other people’s unfounded speculations, Wilson has awarded himself a generous novelist’s licence; and he writes with an hauteur which at least is appropriate to his subject, but which gives an uncomfortable prominence to his errors. His is a hit-and-miss approach, but the palpable hits include some highly-coloured passages about Milton’s relationship to his physical surroundings, and a healthy insistence on the folly which characterises any attempt to interpret Milton’s poetry without a knowledge of the Classical sources he loved. John Milton is an alert, affectionate, stylishly idiosyncratic book, although not one for readers in search literary criticism.

What do we make of a culture which produces, on the same day, two Milton books as preposterously unlike each other as Wilson’s biography and the fat and sober work which appears as the eighth and last volume of Yale’s Complete Prose Works of John Milton? The longest pieces to be reproduced in it are Milton’s intimidating works on grammar and logic. The best-known is Of True Religion, which Wilson calls ‘a dull little work’, but which becomes less dull when, as here, its editor sets it against the background of the toleration controversy of the spring of 1673. The Yale Milton has had its ups and downs, and some people are deterred by the weight of its editorial apparatus. Yet the achievement is a heroic and an invaluable one. For the first time, readers who are not full-time Miltonists can acquire a feel for the political and the intellectual contexts of Milton’s pamphlets. It is an opportunity which Wilson might have put to better use.

Perhaps it is historians, whether of literature or of politics, who are most likely to welcome the Yale series. They will be drawn, too, by the beginning of the blurb of Warren Chernaik’s book on Milton’s friend Andrew Marvell, The Poet’s Time, where we are promised a study which ‘unites the disciplines of literature and history’. Would that it did. It is logically possible, and it may be desirable, to write about a work of literature without reference to its historical context. But when, as in Chernaik’s book, the context becomes part of the argument, the author needs to have acquired some feeling for it. In this respect Chernaik, who devotes the greater part of his book to Marvell’s post-Restoration writings, has got much less far with them than did Caroline Robbins in a doctoral thesis at Chernaik’s own University of London nearly sixty years ago. Still, Marvell is the hardest of all poets to write about. There are so few footholds. Arguments about his literary development are continually undercut by uncertainties about the canon, the subject of an interesting appendix which is likely to prove the only contentious feature of Chernaik’s polite and easygoing book.

One theme is well brought out: the doggedness with which Marvell clung to what he conceived to be his own integrity, even to the cost of his poetry. Reaching maturity during the Puritan Revolution, Marvell belonged to a cheated generation. He was not one to complain, yet there lies buried in his poetry a dreadful testament to the destruction wreaked by the Civil War at every level of society. Sometimes we forget to think of him as a war poet. Morrill’s Reactions to the English Civil War might fairly have taken as a motto some lines of ‘Upon Appleton House’ in which Chernaik fairly discerns a political thought:

Unhappy birds! What does it boot
To build below the grass’s root;
When lowness is unsafe as height,
And chance o’ertakes what scapeth spite?

Morrill and others have taught us to recognise the physical sufferings of war. A book about Marvell which truly ‘united the disciplines of literature and history’ might tell the parallel story of the damage to language, to literature and to imagination.