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Absolutism in United Kingdom

Absolutism of the Tudors, 1485-1603

Absolutism had reached its high-water mark in England long before the power and prestige of the French monarchy had culminated in the person of Louis XIV. In the sixteenth century—the very century in which the French sovereigns faced constant foreign war and chronic civil commotion—the Tudor rulers of England were gradually freeing themselves from reliance upon Parliament and were commanding the united support of the English nation. From the accession of Henry VII in 1485 to the death of his grand-daughter Elizabeth in 1603, the practice of absolutism, though not the theory of divine-right monarchy, seemed ever to be gaining ground.

How Tudor despotism was established and maintained is explained in part by reference to the personality of Henry VII and to the circumstances that brought him to the throne. It is also explicable by reference to historical developments in England throughout the sixteenth century. As Henry VII humbled the nobility, so Henry VIII and Elizabeth subordinated the Church to the crown. And all the Tudors asserted their supremacy in the sphere of industry and commerce. By a law of 1503, the craft gilds had been obliged to obtain the approval of royal officers for whatever new ordinances the gilds might wish to make. In the first year of the reign of Edward VI the gilds were crippled by the loss of part of their property, which was confiscated under the pretext of religious reform. Elizabeth’s reign was notable for laws regulating apprenticeship, prescribing the terms of employment of laborers, providing that wages should be fixed by justices of the peace, and ordering vagabonds to be set to work.

In the case of commerce, the royal power was exerted encouragingly, as when Henry VII negotiated the Intercursus Magnus with the duke of Burgundy to gain admittance for English goods into the Netherlands, or chartered the “Merchant Adventurers” to carry on trade in English woolen cloth, or sent John Cabot to seek an Atlantic route to Asia; or as when Elizabeth countenanced and abetted explorers and privateers and smugglers and slave-traders in extending her country’s maritime power at the expense of Spain. All this meant that the strong hand of the English monarch had been laid upon commerce and industry as well as upon justice, finance, and religion.

The power of the Tudors had rested largely upon their popularity with the growing influential middle class. They had subdued sedition, had repelled the Armada, had fostered prosperity, and had been willing at times to cater to the whims of their subjects. They had faithfully personified national patriotism; and the English nation, in turn, had extolled them.

Yet despite this absolutist tradition of more than a century’s duration, England was destined in the seventeenth century to witness a long bitter struggle between royal and parliamentary factions, the beheading of one king and the exiling of another, and in the end the irrevocable rejection of the theory and practice of absolutist divine- right monarchy, and this at the very time when Louis XIV was holding majestic court at Versailles and all the lesser princes on the Continent were zealously patterning their proud words and boastful deeds after the model of the Grand Monarch. In that day a mere parliament was to become dominant in England.

The Stuart Theory of Absolutist Divine-right Monarchy

James was not content, like his Tudor predecessors, merely to be an absolute ruler in practice; he insisted also upon the theory of divine- right monarchy. Such a theory was carefully worked out by the pedantic Stuart king eighty years before Bishop Bossuet wrote his classic treatise on divine-right monarchy for the guidance of the young son of Louis XIV. To James it seemed quite clear that God had divinely ordained kings to rule, for had not Saul been anointed by Jehovah’s prophet, had not Peter and Paul urged Christians to obey their masters, and had not Christ Himself said, “Render unto Cæsar that which is Cæsar’s”? As the father corrects his children, so should the king correct his subjects. As the head directs the hands and feet, so must the king control the members of the body politic. Royal power was thus the most natural and the most effective instrument for suppressing anarchy and rebellion. James I summarized his idea of government in the famous Latin epigram, “a deo rex, a rege lex, “—”the king is from God, and law from the king.”

Stuart Theory Opposed to Medieval English Tradition

In one important respect the past governmental evolution of England differed from that of France. While both countries in the sixteenth century followed absolutist tendencies, in France the medieval tradition of constitutional limitations upon the power of the king was far weaker than in England, with the result that in the seventeenth century the French accepted and consecrated absolutism while the English gave new force and life to their medieval tradition and practice of constitutional government.

Restrictions on Royal Power in England: Magna Carta

The tradition of English restrictions upon royal power centered in the old document of Magna Carta and in an ancient institution called Parliament.

Magna Carta dated back, almost four centuries before King James, to the year 1215 when King John had been compelled by his rebellious barons to sign a long list of promises; that list was the “long charter” or Magna Carta (the Magna Carta was many times reissued after 1215) and it was important in three respects:

(1) It served as a constant reminder that “the people” of England had once risen in arms to defend their “rights” against a despotic king, although as a matter of fact Magna Carta was more concerned with the rights of the feudal nobles (the barons) and of the clergy than with the rights of the common people. (2) Its most important provisions, by which the king could not levy extraordinary taxes on the nobles without the consent of the Great Council, furnished something of a basis for the idea of self-taxation. (3) Clauses such as “To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay, right or justice,” although never effectively enforced, established the idea that justice should not be sold, denied, or delayed.


Parliament was a more or less representative assembly of clergy, nobility, and commoners, claiming to have powers of taxation and legislation. The beginnings of Parliament are traced back centuries before James I. There had been an advisory body of prelates and lords even before the Norman conquest (1066). After the conquest a somewhat similar assembly of the king’s chief feudal vassals—lay and ecclesiastical—had been called the Great Council, and its right to resist unjust taxation had been recognized by Magna Carta. Henceforth it had steadily acquired power. The “Provisions of Oxford” (1258) had provided, in addition, for “twelve honest men” to represent the “commonalty” and to “treat of the wants of the king; and the commonalty shall hold as established that which these men shall do.”

House of Lords and House of Commons

For the beginnings of the House of Commons we may go back to the thirteenth century. In 1254 the king summoned to Parliament not only the bishops, abbots, earls, and barons, but also two knights from every shire. Then, in an irregular Parliament, convened in 1265 by Simon de Montfort, a great baronial leader against the king, two burgesses from each of twenty-one towns for the first time sat with the others and helped to decide how their liberties were to be protected. These knights and burgesses were the elements from which the House of Commons was subsequently to be formed.

Similar bodies met repeatedly in the next thirty years, and in 1295 Edward I called a “model Parliament” of archbishops, bishops, abbots, representative clergy, earls, and barons, two knights from every shire, and two citizens from each privileged city or borough,—more than four hundred in all. For some time after 1295 the clergy, nobility, and commoners [i.e., the knights of the shires and the burgesses from the towns] may have deliberated separately much as did the three “estates” in France. At any rate, early in the fourteenth century the lesser clergy dropped out, the greater prelates and nobles were fused into one body—the House of “Lords spiritual and temporal,”—and the knights joined the burgesses to form the House of Commons. Parliament was henceforth a bicameral body, consisting of a House of Commons and a House of Lords.

Powers of Parliament: Taxation

The primary function of Parliament was to give information to the king and to hear and grant his requests for new “subsidies” or direct taxes. The right to refuse grants was gradually assumed and legally recognized. As taxes on the middle class soon exceeded those on the clergy and nobility, it became customary in the fifteenth century for money bills to be introduced in the Commons, approved by the Lords, and signed by the king.


The right to make laws had always been a royal prerogative, in theory at least. Parliament, however, soon utilized its financial control in order to obtain initiative in legislation. A threat of withholding subsidies had been an effective way of forcing Henry III to confirm Magna Carta in 1225; it proved no less effective in securing royal enactment of later “petitions” for laws. In the fifteenth century legislation by “petition” was supplanted by legislation by “bill,” that is, introducing in either House of Parliament measures which, in form and language, were complete statutes and which became such by the united assent of Commons, Lords, and king. To this day English laws have continued to be made formally “by the King’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same.”

Influence on Administration

The right to demand an account of expenditures, to cause the removal of royal officers, to request the king to abandon unpopular policies, or otherwise to control administrative affairs, had occasionally been asserted by Parliament, but not consistently maintained.

Parliament under the Tudors

From what has been said, it will now be clear that the fulcrum of parliamentary power was control of finance. What had enabled the Tudors to incline toward absolutism was the fact that for more than a hundred years they had made themselves fairly independent of Parliament in matters of finance; and this they had done by means of economy, by careful collection of taxes, by irregular expedients, by confiscation of religious property, and by tampering with the currency. Parliament still met, however, but irregularly, and during Elizabeth’s reign it was in session on the average only three or four weeks of the year. Parliament still transacted business, but rarely differed with the monarch on matters of importance.

James I and Parliament

At the end of the Tudor period, then, we have an ancient tradition of constitutional, parliamentary government on the one hand, and a strong, practical, royal power on the other. The conflict between Parliament and king, which had been avoided by the tactful Tudors, soon began in earnest when James I ascended the throne in 1603, with his exaggerated notion of his own authority. James I was an extravagant monarch, and needed parliamentary subsidies, yet his own pedantic principles prevented him from humoring Parliament in any dream of power. The inevitable result was a conflict for political supremacy between Parliament and king. When Parliament refused him money, James resorted to the imposition of customs duties, grants of monopolies, sale of peerages, and the solicitation of “benevolences” (forced loans).

Parliament promptly protested against such practices, as well as against his foreign and religious policies and against his absolute control of the appointment and operation of the judiciary. Parliament’s protests only increased the wrath of the king. The noisiest parliamentarians were imprisoned or sent home with royal scoldings. In 1621 the Commoners entered in their journal a “Great Protestation” against the king’s interference with their free right to discuss the affairs of the realm. This so angered the king that he tore the Protestation out of the journal and presently dissolved the intractable Parliament; but the quarrel continued, and James’s last Parliament had the audacity to impeach his lord treasurer.

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  • Article Name: Absolutism
  • Author: International
  • Description: Absolutism of the Tudors, 1485-1603 Absolutism had reached its high-water mark in England long before the power and [...]

This entry was last updated: October 30, 2016



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