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The Death of English Absolutism

James I and Charles I really wanted to be absolutists, and with Cromwell the title certainly seemed to fit. However, absolutism, to whatever extent it did actually exist in England, faced extinction. Not all Englishmen were ready to see absolutism go, though. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) witnessed the horrors of the English Civil War, albeit from France, and became convinced that an absolute government was necessary.

Hobbes didn’t care if absolute power rested with king or Parliament, but he argued that absolutism was necessary to control man, who is driven by self-preservation. Man, he argued, would resort to greed, corruption, and worse in a competitive environment not dominated by authority. An absolute government offered man a sense of security so that he would not be forced to resort to such violent and barbaric behavior. Unfortunately for Hobbes, his ideas displeased everyone and absolutism never appeared in England again.

The Glorious Revolution

Charles did get along with Parliament but he believed his income wasn’t enough to run the country. In a dangerous move, Charles made a secret deal with Louis XIV of France. In exchange for slowly converting himself and England back to Catholicism, Charles would receive a huge annual stipend from France. News of the treaty leaked and panic struck England. Charles’s lack of any legitimate heirs complicated matters because the English feared his Catholic brother would take the throne and restore Catholicism to England. Parliament began work on legislation that would not allow the throne to pass to a Catholic but Charles dissolved Parliament before the law passed.

Would You Believe?

Royalists disliked Hobbes because he denounced divine right and Parliamentarians disliked him because they didn't believe anyone, not even Parliament, should have limitless power.

England’s worst fears were realized when James II (1633-1701) became king in 1685 and appointed Catholic officials to all sorts of positions in direct defiance of the Test Act. James’s actions were heard in court—but by judges he had appointed. James’s actions were upheld. James then granted religious freedom to anyone and everyone.

It seemed as though absolutism might be making a comeback in England.

When the wife of James II had a son, the possibility of a new Catholic dynasty in England seemed unavoidable. A number of prominent Englishmen extended an invitation to James’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, Prince William of Orange, both of whom were Protestant. Reportedly, a group of seven English nobles, known as the Immortal Seven, sent William an invitation to depose James, an invitation that may have even been in code. James II realized that he was about to be replaced at least and possibly even executed. Fearing for their lives, James II and his family fled to France. The following year, in 1689, William and Mary were crowned King and Queen of England.

The events leading up to the coronation are remembered as the Glorious Revolution. The events were glorious in two ways. First, the flight of James II marked the death of both absolutism and the idea of divine right of kings in England. Second, the “revolution” replaced one king with another with no bloodshed.

The English philosopher John Locke (16320-1704) argued for such a turn of events. He believed that all men had natural rights— the right to life, liberty, and property. He believed that it was the duty of the government to protect those rights. When a government failed to do so, according to Locke, the people had a right to rebel against the tyranny.

Would You Believe?

Locke's ideas were fundamental in the creation of the fledgling government of the United States.

Limits on the Crown

The way William and Mary became regents held great importance for England and for the development of the English system of government thereafter. Parliament offered them the crown, and William and Mary accepted the terms and conditions established by Parliament. There was no fine print. William and Mary knew that the rules applied not to them but the crown. They understood that they were acknowledging the supremacy of Parliament, and essentially the English people, over the crown. In other words, the monarchs from this point forward ruled only with the consent of the governed.

Parliament put in place a number of safeguards against future tyranny, largely in reaction to the Stuart kings (James I, Charles I, Charles II, and James II) and Cromwell. Laws were to be made in Parliament and were not to be undone by the monarch. Parliament would convene every three years and the crown could not meddle in Parliamentary affairs. Monarchs could not threaten judges in order to get favorable rulings. All monarchs were to be Protestant, and nonmainstream Protestants were granted some religious freedoms.

England had, in one century, gone from a monarchy in which the king and Parliament were always at odds to a government that started to look more and more like a constitutional monarchy. In other words, by the end of the seventeenth century, the law reigned supreme over the monarchy rather than the monarch ruling above the law.

The Least You Need to Know

• Absolutism is a form of government in which the ruler, usually a monarch, exercises control over most areas of the government and eliminates or controls any institutions that might compete with him for power.

The best example of absolutism was France’s Louis XIV. Cardinal Richelieu and Jules Mazarin laid the foundations of French absolutism.

Louis XIV dominated France like no other monarch ever had. He defined French politics, religion, and culture for the second half of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Absolutism in England never developed as fully as it did in the French model. The Stuart kings fought against Parliament for control and against Puritans who sought to purify the Anglican Church of any remaining Catholic elements.

During the Interregnum, the victor of the English Civil War, military dictator Oliver Cromwell, kept England in a state of martial law. He showed no mercy to Catholics, especially those in Ireland.

The Glorious Revolution in England put the nail in the coffin of absolutism in England and paved the way for constitutional monarchy.

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