Tory-Marxist historiography

There are certain periods of history in which,[1] on a superficial view, the actions of men appear to have followed rules entirely different from those with which the modern world is familiar.Between the sceptical observer of the twentieth and the religious material of the seventeenth century the gulf seems at first sight so great that the common residuum of humanity appears by comparison almost negligible, and we hesitate to study characters with whom we cannot hope to sympathise. Reading of “Wars of Religion”, in which the combatants, heroically determined to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in Heaven, showed more solicitude for the posthumous condition of their neighbours’ souls than for the immediate comfort of their own or their neighbours’ bodies, we might pardonably conclude that all analogy between the past and the present is superfluous, since the rules of human behaviour have plainly been revised in the interim.

To some people, – to those sentimental persons who find in the past not a variation of the present but an escape from it, – this interpretation is perfectly satisfactory. But it cannot easily satisfy those who seek in history not romance but instruction, and who believe, as an historical axiom, that human nature does not change from generation to generation except in the forms of its expression and the instruments at its disposal. How can we hope to understand the actions of men whom we believe to have been actuated by passions from which we feel ourselves immune? To suppose that grave, learned, well-intentioned divines tortured and executed less conventional believers solely to please God, or that enthusiastic philosophers sprang to arms

To prove their doctrine orthodox
By apostolic blows and knocks,

is to people the past with fools and bigots; and although we know that fools and bigots, like saints and visionaries, did exist, yet we can be equally sure that it was not such as they who provided the material and the makers of history. Then, as now, they remained on the fringe of political movements, sometimes uplifted into brief eminence on the crest of a wave, sometimes waiting in obscurity for the leisure of later historians to discover them. It was not they, with their purely intellectual and spiritual ideas, who worked great changes: and the more we analyse the “Wars of Religion”, the less of religion, properly so called, do we find in them. Indeed, it would be as easy to believe that the nations of Europe fought for four years over the death of an inconvenient Archduke, as that they ever fought for a hundred over the attributes of an unproven God.

What then was all the fighting about? If religion be merely a doctrine about the origins of the world and the destiny of the soul, certainly it was not about religion, as neither one nor the other of these things could be altered by revolution. But if religion be the ideal expression of a particular social and political organisation as well (and observation shows us that men prefer to idealise their political ambitions for the purpose of defending them), then we can understand why men were once prepared to fight for “religion” in a way that they will not fight for it now, when most religions have shed their political implications. The Roman religion, it is true, has not thus divorced itself from politics; and it remains a dynamic force today.

Religion, in fact, was also an aspect of politics, – the outward symbol, the shibboleth, by which parties were known: and the fact that it was also believed to be absolutely true by those who regarded its political content as convenient will surprise no one who has observed human nature. “Predestination”, “No Bishops” or “A Godly Ministry” were good battle-cries, whatever they meant: and the actual requirements of those who used them so freely could not be directly expressed with such terseness. But it was not for these shibboleths that men fought and intrigued, but for the realities of which they were the superficial evidence. This point, however, should not need much labouring: for we have evidence of the same general condition on the Continent today, although the forms assumed are not now those of religious denominations. And if we wonder now how it was that men could fight so passionately over the question of bowing in church, or the position of the communion-table, our descendants will perhaps find it equally incomprehensible that among their ancestors – apparently rational creatures like themselves – the colour of a shirt, or the form of a salute, or the chalking of a symbol on a wall, should have aroused passions, led to violence, and even resulted in war. The great heresiarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had they legislated for the soul of man only, would have passed from the European stage as unnoticed as the great poets. But they did not legislate for the soul only, – although, like all political theorists, they began with the nature of man before proceeding to the organisation of men. “It is not wholly fanciful to say”, says Professor Tawney, “that, on a narrower stage, but with not less formidable weapons, Calvin did for the bourgeoisie of the sixteenth century what Marx did for the proletariat of the nineteenth.”

This is not, of course, to say that there was any hypocrisy in the behaviour of those who fought political campaigns under denominational colours, or that religion. is nothing more than a political programme idealised. Religion is a complex thing, in which many human instincts are sublimated and harmonised: and political ambition is only one among these, although in politics it is naturally by far the most potent. Nor would it be suggested that the men of the seventeenth century did not believe with all their heart and soul in the doctrines which they evolved with such ingenuity, held with such tenacity, and defended with such ferocity. Being themselves inside the movements, they had not the objective outlook towards them which critical analysis requires; and forms of expression, when the substance beneath them is alive, assume a vitality of their own. Only when the material basis is disturbed do they drop away, like flowers without roots, and the convictions of one generation become the joke of the next.

Once this postulate is admitted, other difficulties which might have hindered the understanding of those times rapidly become explicable. Take the principle of religious toleration. To us who have rendered religion impotent by dissociating it, at any rate temporarily, from politics, religious intolerance is merely inexplicable; and sympathetic biographers of the churchmen of old, when they come across the burning of a heretic in 1612 by the gentle Bishop Andrewes and the charitable Bishop Neile, or find that Neile, twenty-seven years later, recommended that a similar course be taken with a Dover stonemason who disapproved of episcopacy, pass it off as a sad reminder of the errors of that age, from which even its most enlightened spiritual teachers were, unhappily, not exempt. But this is surely an unwarrantable assumption of superiority in our own age, which has merely transferred its credulity to other things, attributing to pills and mixtures the miraculous properties which it denies to relics, and accepting from the advertisement hoardings dogmatic assurances which would come unheeded from the pulpit. Except by a few gentle spirits like Erasmus and Montaigne, religious toleration was considered a shocking error in the sixteenth century. The Pope officially condemned it, and did not even claim it, as a principle, for Catholic minorities. It was better, he told them, to be persecuted than tolerated: and asked whether they expected to live among thorns without being pricked. Later, even Cromwell, who avowed the principle, took care to limit its practical application to those who were either sufficiently weak or sufficiently orthodox not to threaten his government. Those who were neither were outside the pale. And even those arm-chair idealists whose principles were unmodified by the necessity of applying them, while advocating toleration, were careful to distinguish between tolerable and intolerable opinions. To us, on the other hand, religious toleration is an accepted axiom. We may even go further, and say, with Tom Paine, that toleration is not enough, for toleration implies a right not to tolerate; and that if intolerance is the Pope armed with fire and faggot, toleration is the Pope selling or granting indulgences. Must we then assume that the age of Grotius and Descartes, Hobbes and Pascal, Rubens and Harvey, was so dull and crass as not to see the obvious futility of religious persecution and the obvious necessity of toleration ? This is surely not so. Surely it was because religion was not merely a set of personal beliefs about the economy of Heaven, but the outward sign of a social and political theory, that it was enforced and persecuted by Church and State. To deny the government any control over the religious beliefs of its subjects was then equivalent to denying it any right to interfere in social and political matters. We can see well enough in our own day that governments, uncertain of their security, attempting to impose or consolidate a new social order, cannot afford to tolerate social and political heresies in their midst.

It must be added that these facts were not unrealised at the time, though subsequent writers have tended to forget them. No one then pretended that religion was the private concern of God and the individual soul, outside the jurisdiction of the government. Religion, it was generally admitted, was the propaganda of political parties, and no one supposed that it ought to withdraw to the cloister and busy itself exclusively about theological niceties. “Religion it is that keeps the subject in obedience”, declared Sir John Eliot in 1625, and the parliament of 1628-9 voted that “whosoever shall bring in innovation in religion, or . . . seek to extend or introduce Popery or Arminianism, or any other opinion disagreeing from the true and orthodox Church, shall be reputed a capital enemy to this kingdom and commonwealth”. So it was not the religious heresy of Prynne, Burton, and Bastwick that was their chief fault or the sole reason for their persecution. “These men”, Wentworth wrote to Laud, “do but begin with the Church that they might have free access to the State”, and Laud replied that it was only too true, and that he wished that more people realised it. When Lord Saye and Sele accused Laud of too seldom preaching, Laud made it clear that his Church was a political instrument. “You must not measure preaching”, he replied, “by a formal going up into the pulpit. For a bishop may preach the Gospel more publicly, and to far greater edification, in a court of judicature, or at a council table, where great men are met together to draw things to an issue, than many preachers in their several charges can.” To accuse Laud and his bishops of interfering in social and political affairs is ridiculous: for social and political affairs were their business. It was only later, after the struggles of the century were over, that the Church of England, looking back upon them, and seeing what disasters had attended her when she backed the wrong horse in politics, decided in future to prefer safety to influence, and never to back any horse in politics again. So she withdrew, like the monarchy, from the rough-and-tumble of political life, and remained an unmolested cypher, neither loved nor hated, and approached with the decent, if meaningless, reverence allowed to the dead. Churchmen sometimes looked wistfully back to her great days and, drawing a mistaken inference, said that the world had been religious then, when really it was that religion had been secular; and laymen, judging the religion of the past from that of the present, thought it incomprehensible that men could once have been driven to revolution in defence of a set of unplausible conjectures.

So much has been said by way of preface to a life of Archbishop Laud, because Laud has so often been judged from such a point of view. Extracted from the social conditions in which he lived and with which his policy was identified, he has been regarded as a theologian whose views, independent of his age, may be judged by the eternal standard of Divine Truth, and his failure ascribed either to the wrongness of his opinions or the wickedness of the world, according to the religious denomination of the judge. To Macaulay he was “a ridiculous old bigot”: to Newman, less succinctly, “a character cast in a mould of proportions that are much above our own, and of a stature akin to the elder days of the Church”; and as his biographers and commentators have generally been either high Anglican clergymen concerned to puff, or doughty dissenters determined to slang him, these two opposite judgments have been regularly, if less eloquently confirmed. Professor David Masson undoubtedly enjoyed the picture which he gave of a red-faced little bishop trotting obediently at his master’s tail: a Mr. Henry Bell, a retired Indian Civil Servant and lawyer, who is not above emending his text to serve his brief, launched a furious broadside in order to counter high Anglican propaganda: Z and Laud’s clerical biographers, since they approach him on their knees, are naturally unable to see very far. Only Gardiner, who treated him not as a churchman, but as a protagonist in English history, was able to look upon Laud in that secular spirit from which alone an impartial view can come.

We must therefore regard Laud here not as a theologian who must stand or fall by the accuracy of his theological opinions, but as a politician whose material was English society in the early seventeenth century. As for his divinity,

II n’appartient a moy, pecheur:
Aux theologiens le remetz,
Car c’est l’office de prescheur.

For our purposes, the state of English society in his time is more important than the intricacies of the Will of God.


[1] Reproduced from the Introduction to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Archbishop Laud.

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