As a soon as I arrive in London, check in to my hotel, I’ll head to the Old Royal Naval College to see the Painted Hall. The ceiling was painted by artist James Thornhill in 1716 and is sometimes called the English Sistine Chapel. It’s significance is artistic, but it’s most important as a political document, enshrining the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to describe England from the earliest days of the Reformation through the 17th century as a lot like modern day Iraq. Like Iraq, England was wracked with religious feuds and violent power struggles. In England, the Reformation unleashed dissenters from Catholicism and empowered the Monarchy as head of state and church.
The Reformation in England meant that the state would be undermining ancient authorities like the Pope, while at the same time using nationalism and popular sentiment to bolster its claim to power. Long simmering tensions between church and state, merchants and the aristocracy, and republicanism and absolutism would all be resolved in the space of a year, from 1688 to 1689.
Our notions of separation of powers and church and state have their origin in the Glorious Revolution. And it’s a story worth thinking about as the United States spirals toward more civil division and unrest.
There is a long standing myth that George III was an absolute monarch, ruling over a global empire by fiat. This is just false. By 1776 when American colonists declared their independence from Great Britain, what we’d today call the English Constitution was already in place, disestablishing the church and making the monarch very much like our own president facing limits set by legal precedents and legislative authority.
Origins of the Revolution
From the very beginning, England was always a country with an ongoing feud and tension between church and state, and nobility and the monarch. In the 12th century Henry II expanded the English holdings of land and power onto the European continent by force and through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. His conflict with the church is most famously remembered by his disagreement with Thomas Becket who did not want to allow priests to by tried by civil courts. Becket ended up assassinated.
Later, his son, John would end up in a civil war with barons, a dispute settled with the signing of the Magna Carta. His son, Henry III would face a sustained rebellion led by Simon de Montfort who is considered the founder of Parliament, an legislative body with power that would wax and wane over the next three centuries.
Another Henry and Another Thomas
The dynastic War of the Roses ended on the battlefield of Bosworth in 1487 where Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, killing him and beginning the Tudor period, ending the Middle Ages in England. Modern England would be characterized by increased royal power. However, because Henry’s claim to the throne was so weak, taken by force, he turned to actions by Parliament for legitimacy. This subtle shift would begin the differentiation of the power of Montesquieu would later describe as the legislative and Executive branches.
Henry VII son wound up unable to produce a male heir. This would lead to a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church which refused his demand for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It also set him at odds with the popular and well respected Sir Thomas More who had served at the highest levels of his government. Like Henry II and Thomas Becket, the King won the dispute and Henry was executed.
The Growing Power of Parliament.
Where did Henry VIII turn for legitimacy and declaring himself head of the Church of England? Acts of Parliament established his break with Rome and his status as head of the church. The acquisition of spiritual authority along with his fathers grasp of the crown were purchased by establishing Parliament as the font of legitimacy. Later, the decisions and legal thinking of Edward Coke would do the same thing for the judiciary.
By the end of the Tudor period, Elizabeth I power was complete, but the forces of religious descent were rampant. The idea that the King could displace the Pope along the foment created by Martin Luther’s challenges to Papal and church power in Germany led to many people seeking to do the same in England. So while the Tudors gained power they also unleashed forces of rebellion.
When Elizabeth died with no heir, the most legitimate replacement came from Scotland. King James I of England and VI of Scotland arrived in 1603 to find a London full of dissent and a Parliament unable to quell it. It was also burgeoning with merchant class, not interested or impressed with foreign wars or assertions of power by the nobility. They also did not like taxes.
The power to tax resided with Parliament and the ability to call a parliament into session resided with the King. This would set the stage for another conflagration.
“The Century of Revolution”
James would dismiss Parliament and rule on his own for long periods, resisting calling Parliament into session. His son, Charles, would experience the same resistance from Parliament on taxes but worse for him, more efforts to impose religious settlements. When he came to power in 1625, the Parliament had come to embody a commoner merchant class emboldened wealth from trade — and many of them were Protestants of various stripes.
The Puritans had a spare theology and liturgy and deep suspicion of ostentatious shows of religious expression — silver candle sticks, statues, and even the Eucharist were seen as idolatry, even blasphemous. Other groups like the Levelers combined similar theology with a brand of republicanism and even anarchism.
When promulgating a new prayer book in 1637 led to violence and upheaval in Scotland, Charles has no choice but to call Parliament back into session. This time, Parliament would expand and deepen its attacks on his authority, culminating, ultimately, with a victory by Parliamentary forces and his execution in 1649.
Oliver Cromwell had the vision and determination to use brute force to bring order to the factionalized nation. To go back to the analogy I started with, think of how Saddam Hussein was able to keep Sunni and Shia conflict lidded with a strong national government. England had never had a standing army; now it did.
But although the Commonwealth was not a representative democracy, it was unusual. More than 100 years before France would execute its King, England had overthrown the old order replacing it with a non hereditary absolute ruler, something hardly even achieved by monarchs.
But this aberration is notable because in a way, it held the evolution of English government still for more than a decade, stilling religious and civil dissent and, ironically, ending the ascent of parliamentary power. When Cromwell died, the Commonwealth essentially died with him except for the sense, perhaps, than anything was possible in government.
Return of the King
Charles II, the son of Charles I returned to London and was restored. The old balance of King and Parliament was reestablished. Charles II was called Merry Monarch; he had more fun than trouble, steering clear of overt assertions of kingly authority and religious pronouncements.
After his death, his brother, James II wouldn’t be so prudent. A Catholic himself, he also wanted more power. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was ill advised and out of touch. The entire country was not ready embrace Catholicism or a war to fight over it.
So when, in 1688, James produced a male heir with his Catholic wife, a sort of panic ensued. The unpopular James would now have a Catholic heir. It was as if the clock would be dialed back, but worse than that, England would now be firmly in a European orbit. Think of the latest battles over Brexit, and the notion of why England was not in the mood for a Catholic King in cahoots with Rome makes more sense.
To make matters worse, James decided to order the reading of a Declaration of Indulgence granting official toleration of Catholicism and groups dissenting from the Church of England. The thought was that by allowing sects like the puritans and others toleration they would go along with the indulgence of Catholicism. But this was not to be.
The Case of The Seven Bishops
Seven Bishops refused to read the declaration and they were jailed and tried for sedition. When they were found “not guilty,” it was the end for James. His authority undermined by the court and facing action by the Parliament, James fled for France.
The Seven Bishops case stands as a milestone in Constitutional law both in England and here. It was an assertion that the King was not above the laws made by parliament. The decision established the equality of the legislature and the judiciary with the monarchy, a balance of powers bedrock to western notions of democracy.
The Bill of Rights
There was no precedent for an abandoned throne. That is, as long as a king or queen was alive, they were considered legitimate. But the Parliament considered the throne vacant with James’ departure. So who was King?
The Parliament turned to the Netherlands where Mary, James’ daughter had married the Dutch King, William her first cousin. The parliament passed the Bill of Rights.
Because James II had “endeavored [to]subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom” Parliament found, it would offer the throne to William and Mary provided that theywould “make effectual provision for the settlement of the religion, laws and liberties of this kingdom, so that the same for the future might not be in danger again of being subverted.”
The liberties being preserved were the ones we generally hold sacrosanct today, like not being held by the state without charge (habeas corpus) and speech, but that were part of the essential guarantees in Magna Carta.
What happened in 1688 and 1689 was not just a near miss with another civil war, or the end of a dispute with James, but a fundamental settlement of government and religion without a protracted war or use of force. Furthermore, the monarchy was reset as something of a contract; a monarch isn’t just under the law, his or her legitimacy is based on upholding the laws set by parliament.
Why It’s So Important to Me and You
This relationship, a social contract between a monarch and the people, resembles our own system. And here’s why it matters. Our founders were not rebellion against an absolute monarch. The language in the Declaration of Independence should make much more sense with this context in mind.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Far from being an innovation or even an abrogation of English law, the Declaration is very much an affirmation of the English settlement of 1688-1689. In fact, the founders must have seen the legitimacy of what they were doing, breaking away and forming a new government, as legitimate precisely because of the Glorious Revolution that disestablished the power of the Church (while maintaining state control of it) and set executive power under a check by the legislative and judicial functions.
The painting celebrates this in patriotic fashion. Here’s Thornhill’s description of the painting called, “The Glorification of William and Mary.”
And here is a detail of the painting.
The “unwritten” nature does not mean the English Constitution has no documents; rather the documents that express the Constitution are diverse. While it has no legal effect — and neither does the Declaration of Independence — the ceiling is no less binding than our Capitol Building or the Lincoln Memorial. Similarly, the personification of the Constitution is the Monarch, a living document affirming the Bill of Rights and the Glorious Revolution. One can see how this functions best during the State Opening of Parliament.
One of my best moments of life was being inches away from the notch on the door where Black Rod knocks on the door, an action that replays the Parliament’s rebuke of Charles I efforts to arrest members of Parliament.
So that’s why I’m going to the Old Naval College when I get to London.