The Political System

Contemporaries viewed the state organically, often making anatomical allusions to the relationship of the component parts to one another. The king was the undisputed head of the political system, determining policy and controlling patronage. The royal prerogative (the Crown's powers or rights that stood outside the scope of the Common Law) allowed the king to make foreign policy, control war and peace, and to regulate foreign trade. Since Henry VIII's reign the monarch was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, removed from the authority of the Holy See of Rome, and in this position the King therefore had the prerogative right to alter religious practice. The king was duty bound to protect and ensure the well-being of the state. Theoretically, the powers of the English monarchs did not create any problems; in 1603, no one would conceive of challenging the Crown's prerogative rights, let alone inciting civil war or committing regicide. However there were a number of grey areas when theoretical powers of the monarchy came to be applied, particularly involving Parliament.

By James I's reign the theory of the divine right of kingship [1] was well established in England and upheld by its subjects. Essentially this meant that as God's chosen representative on the throne, the monarch was accountable only to Him, and therefore representative institutions like Parliament were existed at the king's will.

[1. The "divine right of kingship" was the belief that the King was placed on the throne by divine dispensation and therefore only answerable to God. The necessitated that the monarch could not be resisted by force of arms. The theory was particularly influential on the early Stuart monarchs. James I was a firm adherent of the divine right, seen particularly in his speeches to Parliament. However much of this was rhetorical and theoretical, as James seems to have appreciated. Charles I took his divine authority very seriously. He took any opposition to his policies as a direct challenge to his authority, and was obstinate about his determined course of policy to the extent that after he alienated sections of the population, he was unbending and refused to conciliate. With the Revolution of 1688 the theory of divine right was rejected in England as Parliament's settlement imposed the principle of constitutional monarchy, in which the Crown's powers were checked by Parliament.]

The only safeguard against tyranny in this system was the belief that a tyrant would be punished when answering to God. Increasingly members of Parliament were asserting the 'Ancient Constitution' [2].

[2. The Ancient Consitution was a view of the English constitution in which its principal components (i.e. king, parliament, laws and the rights of both king and subject) were believed to originate beyond the written memory. Following this ideology the constitution was the first guide for solving contemporary problems as it encompassed the wisdom of successive generations of Englishmen. Though conservative, it was not static - change was perceived as good, providing it was for the benefit of the nation and did not contradict the essentials of the constitution.]

The English political elite were markedly becoming more educated during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - at the universities, at the Inns of Court, reading classical literature. The study of Roman history and the Common Law, together with the reading of medieval English history precipitated the Theory of the Ancient Constitution. This was a basic assumption to late sixteenth and seventeenth century Englishmen. However the concept emerged in a definable form only gradually principally because it was such a common assumption. The theory was given its final impetus by the account of medieval history given by the jurist Sir Edward Coke. This was not published until 1642 however. According to this, representative institutions (provincial and national) were aspects of the Teutonic inheritance in England that had been bequeathed by the Saxon, uncorrupted by the tyrannical ambitions of the Catholic Mediterranean. The theory was often known as the 'Gothic Constitution'.

Beyond written memory, the rights of the freeborn Englishman had been known, respected and protected. Kings were elected (even for example William the Conqueror) and the grievances and demands of the people had a forum in popular assemblies - the Anglo-Saxon Witans, the Norman gatherings (e.g. Henry I at Salisbury, 1116) and in Parliament. The rights of freeborn Englishmen and the king were affirmed in Magna Carta (1215 and 1216) in their efforts to limit royal power, or at least to clarify them especially

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