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John Bramhall and The Theoretical Problems of Royalist Moderation

  • J. W. Daly


It is a truism that the most distinctive features of the peculiarly English genius in politics are moderation and compromise. The sources of this spirit must be sought throughout the whole fabric of English history, but it should be easier to examine some of the stages by which it emerged onto the conscious level of political thought. How long have Englishmen spoken of political moderation as a good in itself? Herbert Butterfield awards to the Whigs the honor of contributing to modern British history their instinct for compromise. Locke has often been thought of as doing the same. But Toryism has come in for its share of the credit, and a student of John Dryden's thought has suggested that the Tory Dryden well illustrates the tradition of avoiding political extremes and reconciling liberty and authority. This is a fruitful suggestion, and it may be carried further by seeking evidence of this tradition in the predecessors of the Tories, the royalists of the Civil War period. These latter, far from being diehards or extremists, were the advocates of a political mean, and tried to defend at once the king's authority and the subject's liberty. In some degree, this is now widely conceded, but the significance of this moderation is not as clear as it ought to be, because its nature is not understood. When it is understood, it will be possible to say that the most important characteristic of seventeenth-century English royalism was not its defense of the king, but its defense of political moderation and limited government.



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1. Butterfield, Herbert, The Englishman And His History (Cambridge, 1944), pp. 83102.

2. Bredvold, Louis I., The Intellectual Milieu of John Dryden (1934; Ann Arbor Paperback, 1956), pp. 149–50.

3. Born in 1594, educated at Cambridge, he early attracted his superiors' attention as an anti-papel debater. After serving on the High Commission, he went to Ireland as Wentworth's chaplain, assisting him in regaining property which had slipped out of the church's hands — much as Laud was doing in England. He became Bishop of Derry in 1634, where he made enemies by forcing conformity on the Scots in Ulster and puritans wherever he found them. Impeached by the Irish Parliament after Wentworth's departure, he fled to England after the Rebellion of 1641, joining the Earl of Newcastle's northern royalist army as a chaplain when the civil war broke out, and going into exile with Newcastle after Marston Moor. After the Restoration he became Archbishop of Armagh on Usher's death in 1661, and died two years later. The only biography of Bramhall, outside of Vesey's hagiographical one of 1677, is by W. J. Sparrow Simpson (London, 1927) and it is not very satisfactory.

4. BM, E. 153 (26). A facsimile reprint is found in Haller, William (ed.), Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution (New York, 1933), II, 165213.

5. The first really good answer was Ferne's, HenryThe Resolving of Conscience (Cambridge, 1642). The only good account of both the manifesto and the pamphlet war is found in Allen, J. W., English Political Thought, 1603–1644 (London, 1938), pp. 386581.

6. Parker, Henry, Observations upon some of his Majesties late Answers & Expresses (London 1642), pp. 12. He thus adopted the French monarchomach aphorism quiquid efficit tale, est magis tale. Since royalists did not concede the premise, they did not have to worry about the conclusion. Worse luck attended Parker on another such aphorism, that the king was singulis major, but universis minor. Bramhall and other royalists demolished it by showing that it could only be true in a democracy. On both points, the parliamentary pamphleteer Philip Hunton admitted that the royalists were right. Bramhall, John, “The Serpent-Salve; or, a Remedy For The Biting Of An Asp,” in Bramhall's, Works (Oxford, 18431845), III, 326. (Throughout this paper, the pagination of Bramhall writings cited will be that of the collected works.) Hunton, Philip, A Treatise of Monarchy, in Harleian Miscellany (London, 1746) VI, 331, 344.

7. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 326.

8. Ibid., pp. 318, 320.

9. The Resolving of Conscience, pp. 1617. Cf. Ferne, Henry, Conscience Satisfied, BM, E. 97 (7), pp. 78. Digges, Dudley, The Unlawfulnesse of Subjects taking up Armes against their Soveraigne, in what case soever, BM, E. 29 (1), pp. 15-28, 30. [Jones, John], An Examination of the Observations Upon His Majesties Answers, BM, E. 65 (7), p. 23.

10. Best because it was the oldest, the most natural and most honorable form. “One God in the world, one soul in the body, one master in the family, one sun in the heaven, and anciently one monarch in each society. All the first governors were kings.” Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 319–20. Like Dudley Digges, Bramhall also compared the king to a pater patriae, but of Sir Robert Filmer's patriarchalism there is little or no sign in civil war royalism. All governments had originally been patriarchies, and monarchy was a quasi-patriarchal form of government. Nevertheless, no specific political doctrine was derived from this, and Digges was careful to admit that the king did not have any authority from Adam as first parent, since he was no more closely related to Adam than anyone else was. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 493. Digges, , The Unlawfulnesse of Subjects, p. 15.

11. Judson, M. A., The Crisis of the Constitution (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1949), p. 395. The same point is made by Pocock, J. G. A., The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 1957), p. 17.

12. The great range of material which went into the tentative conclusions reached by a recent study illustrates the inherent difficulty in reconciling a doctrine or concept of absolute, unchanging truth with an admission that time and acceptance could make something right which had not always been right. Lucas, Paul, “On Edmund Burke's Doctrine of Prescription; or, an Appeal From the New to the Old Lawyers,” Historical Journal, XI (1968), 3563.

13. Clarendon gave the same explanation for the evolution of English liberties. Bowle, John, Hobbes And His Critics (London, 1951), pp. 160, 166, 168.

14. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 319, 321–22. In one place he combined conquest and time, basing the king's title on “conquest, or rather a multitude of conquests; the very last whereof is confirmed by a long succession.” Ibid., p. 319.

15. Ferne, , Conscience Satisfied, p. 11; Ferne, Henry, A Reply Unto Several Treatises (Oxford, 1643), pp. 1618.

16. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 467. Cf. p. 318: “A long-continued prescription or possession of sovereignty, without opposition or reluctation, implies a full consent, and derives a good title of inheritance, both before God and man.”

17. Parker, , Observations, pp. 7, 15, 28, 34.

18. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 448, 381. Cf. Hyde, Edward, Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, ed. Macray, W. Dunn (Oxford, 1888), II, 153; and Anon., The Remonstrance of the Commons of England to the Houses of Commons, Somers Tracts, IV, 520.

19. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 380–81. Sometimes he compared the essential and the representative bodies with the county and the grand jury. Ibid., pp. 326, 424.

20. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 441443. Cf. Allen, , English Political Thought, pp. 426–35 and Salmon, J.H.M., The French Religious Wars in English Political Thought (Oxford, 1959), p. 93.

21. Haller, William, Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution (New York, 1955), p. 25.

22. Digges, , The Unlawfulnesse of Subjects, p. 64. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 328, 379, 402 and passim. Cf. Anon., Animadversions upon those Notes which the late Observator hath published …, BM, E. 107 (22), p. 12; Ball, William, A Caveat for Subjects, BM, E. 118 (7), pp. 1314; Husband, Edward, A Collection of all the publicke Orders, Ordinances And Declarations of both Houses of Parliament (London, 1646), p. 452.

23. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 406, 412–13.

24. Parker, , Observations, pp. 7, 1617.

25. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 346.

26. Ibid., pp. 346-47, 363, 425, 354.

27. This was the royalist answer to the frequent assertion that a right of resistance was needed to make theoretical limitations binding. The “Tudor” doctrine of non-resistance had always held that if kings were evil enough, someone would rebel and punish them, even though such rebellion was sinful. Good men would not need to rebel — there were enough bad men around to keep the king in line. In the civil war itself, the royalists were constantly emphasizing the need for the co-operation of the ruling classes. They combined it with their version of events to show that Charles would have to behave himself if he won the war. See Daly, J. W., “Could Charles I Be Trusted? The Royalist Case, 1642–1646,” Journal of British Studies, VI (1966), 3741.

28. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 416, 309, 324, 332, 325.

29. As half of the political nation, the class actively engaged in “self-government at the king's command,” the royalists may have been led toward their reliance on moderation by their own experience. A seasoned administrator himself, Bramhall objected to Hobbes's lack of such experience: “It is … strange to hear a man dictate so magistrally in politics, who was never officer nor counsellor in his life, nor had any opportunity to know the intrigues of any one state.” “Experience … is the best and almost the only proof of the goodness or badness of any form of government.” See Bramhall, John, “The Catching of Leviathan,” in Works, IV, 548. Politics demanded practical knowledge of how people really behaved and, like Clarendon, Bramhall rejected Hobbes's pessimistic view of human nature as not borne out by the facts of active public life. See Ibid., pp. 550, 549, 551; Bowie, , Hobbes And His Critics, pp. 120-23, 131-32, 157-159, 169171. He divided state of Christendom, “put all into fire and flame,” See Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 554–55. He was able to boast that, as a Church of Ireland bishop, he had never persecuted a single Roman Catholic. (Bramhall, , Works, II, 124) And in a remarkable passage in The Serpent-Salve, he defended the Irish Rebellion of 1641, even though he had lost heavily by it. See Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 462–63. Perhaps this was the result of an unusual generosity of nature, but it would also owe something to his grasp of political realities. Not many royalists were prepared to be so broadminded about Irish Catholics, but Bramhall's respect for moderation as a sine qua non of government was typical of the royalist mind.

30. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 380.

31. Wormuth, F. D., The Royal Prerogative 1605–1649 (Ithaca, 1939), p. 115.

32. Hunton, , A Treatise of Monarchy, pp. 335–36. Herle, Charles, A Fuller Answer to a Treatise Written by Doctor Ferne, BM, E. 244 (27), pp. 35; An Answer to Dr. Ferne's Reply, BM, E. 102 (3) pp. 22-28.

33. Williams, Griffith, Jura Majestatis, BM, E. 14 (18), p. 133. Williams's asperity sprang partly from his own idiosyncratic opinions, but every royalist had reason to regard the doctrine of mixed monarchy, which had been put forward in the king's Answer to the Nineteen Propositions, with suspicion. In bending over backwards to show that a strong monarchy was no threat to a free parliament, the authors of the document fell into incautious phrasing which allowed parliamentary publicists to use it for their own purposes. Weston, C. C., English Constitutional Theory and the House of Lords (London, 1965), pp. 2942.

34. Ferne, , Conscience Satisfied, p. 20. Digges, , The Unlawfulnesse of Subjects, pp. 68, 88. J. W. Allen shows that Digges had read Hobbes's De Cive and attributed his horror of a divided sovereignty to that source. See Allen, , English Political Thought, p 494. But all royalists held this position, which owed nothing to Hobbes.

35. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 297, 328, 326-27, 361.

36. Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 564–65. Cf. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 369–75. Note that Bramhall is careful to say that the king restrains himself from taxing and legislating alone.

37. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 466.

38. Ibid., p. 599.

39. Ibid., p. 466.

40. “He did prudently, to deny that virtue did consist in a mean; for he himself doth never observe a mean. All his bolts fly over or under, but at the right mark it is in vain to expect them. Sometimes he fancieth an omnipotence in kings, sometimes he strippeth them of their just rights.” Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 553.

41. Ibid., p. 560.

42. Ibid., pp. 553-57 et seq; 580.

43. Ibid., p. 558.

44. Ibid., pp. 560-63, 570.

45. Ibid., p. 597.

46. Hooker, Richard, Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (London, 1907), I, 150–54. Of the many works dealing with this idea-system, the most valuable concise one is of course Tillyard, E. M. W., The Elizabethan World Picture (London, 1943).

47. Hiram Haydn has described the world-view of cosmic harmony as deriving this authority from “the established moral nature of the universe.” This was certainly Bramhall's view, and in it “the king, or government of whatever sort, is clearly not the supreme authority — but instead, law; rooted in nature, expressing reason, and pointing to justice.” Haydn, Hiram, The Counter-Renaissance (New York, 1950), p. 303. In Bramhall's words, the king was custodian of “an architectonical power, to see that all subjects within his dominions do their duties in their several callings, for the safety and tranquillity of their commonwealth.” Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 565. He went so far as to say that law could have a binding power in itself, quite apart from the authority of the law-giver. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 360; Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 543.

48. Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 520, 558.

49. Ibid., pp. 541-42, 566, 573.

50. This is the same point made by, among others, Willmoore Kendall, in an interesting analysis of the different kinds of contract theory, and of the philosophical implications of the Hobbesian kind. Kendall, Willmoore, The Conservative Affirmation (Chicago, 1963), pp. 8890.

51. But a most important aspect. Conversely, Hobbes's repudiation of all considerations except self-interest would rob the king of a powerful hold on his subjects, the kind of hold which can only come from die awe of a moral imperative. Such a hold makes raw compulsion far less necessary, and raw compulsion was held to be more appropriate to Turkey than to England. Royalists would have agreed with Bertrand de Jouvenel: When majesty goes out, the police come in.” de Jouvenel, B., Sovereignty (Cambridge, 1957), p. 73.

52. Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 494, 326.

53. Ibid., pp. 348-64. Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan”, Works, IV, 543-44, 571, 587.

54. Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 520.

55. Ibid., pp. 566-67, 593-94.

56. Ibid., p. 567.

57. It might well be objected here that Bramhall overlooked Hobbes's own reminder that the state of nature need never really have existed, that it was an analysis of the cause, rather than the origin, of government. Bramhall did fail to see this, but by conceding that it might exist, he was able to face the Hobbesian argument squarely, though on a different plane. Hobbes was saying, “Let us imagine people without government; this is what they would do.” Bramhall replied, “Even if they did, you have not demonstrated that their behavior would really be natural. It could just as easily be seen as a regrettable and infrequent lapse from the natural.” In any case, Bramhall challenged enough of the evidence which Hobbes abstracted from civil society to allow his criticism to fit Hobbes's own understanding of the state of nature.

58. As it was, Filmer's patriarchalism was the only theory which seemed to offer such an analysis, and it was hardly royalist at all. On most issues raised in this study, Filmer disagreed with the rest of the royalists. He thought that God designated the form of government, as well as government in the abstract. He regarded monarchy as the only legitimate form of government. He denied that prescription could limit the king. He made no distinction between limited and mixed monarchy. He only disagreed with Hobbes On the method by which the sovereign acquired his power, not on its extent (except that his sovereign would actually be stronger than Hobbes's). And he made almost no distinction between a usurper's and a legitimate monarch's title. Filmer disagreed so often and so fundamentally with English royalists that one must question the usefulness of considering him as primarily a royalist thinker.

59. Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 595–96.

60. Quoted in Bramhall's, Works, I, xiv.

61. Wentworth to Coventry, Sept. 11, 1637, in Rev.Barwick, Edward (ed.), The Rawdon Papers consisting of Letters … to and from Dr. John Bramhall (London, 1819), p. 41.

62. Communities which return to earlier forms of government are “forced to shake hands again with their old friends.” He will grant the truth of a parliamentary charge “if a goose and a feather be all one.” Of an argument frequently encountered, he would snort that “we have had this dish oft enough upon the table.” Henry Parker underestimates one factor after exaggerating another, “to let us see that he can shoot short as well as over.” And he cannot pursue all Hobbes's errors, so he will only “gather a p6sy of flowers (or rather a bundle of weeds) out of his writings, and present them to the reader; who will easily distinguish them from healthful plants by the rankness of their smell.” Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 298, 399, 408, 410; Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 544. This kind of style was passing out of date, and admirers of Bramhall have noted how much he suffers when contrasted with the newer, sparser style which Hobbes possessed. Bowle, , Hobbes And His Critics, pp. 114-15, 144. Mintz, Samuel I., The Hunting of Leviathan (Cambridge, 1962), p. 12.

63. For example, he denied that people who poisoned men's souls with false doctrine should be punished more harshly than those who poisoned the body: “Men are willingly perverted, but not willingly poisoned. The poisoner knows the power of his poisons; the false teacher doth not always know his own errors. Repentence may be a remedy for the one, but there is no cure for the other.” Bramhall, , “The Serpent-Salve,” Works, III, 306–07. Similarly, he tried to deal with Parker's use of the concept of trust, by which he had claimed a right in the people to act if the trust held by the king were abused. Parker, Bramhall said, was “confounding God's trust with man's trust; and in man's trust, a trust of donation with a trust of dependence, a trust revocable with a trust irrevocable, a trust absolute with a trust conditional, a trust antecedent with a trust consequent.” And he finished with a characteristic rhetorical question: “I hope the author trusts in God; will he therefore make God his donee, yea, his conditionate donee?” Ibid., p. 346. Other examples in the same pamphlet are on pp. 377, 442-43, and 322-23.

64. Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 591–92. Bowle, , Hobbes And His Critics, pp. 2930 and passim. Hobbes, who had answered Bramhall on free will, only undertook to answer The Catching of Leviathan after Bramhall was dead. Even then, he only replied (and quite effectively) to the part on religion. He did not try to counter the political arguments.

65. The Serpent-Salve is a perfect example of the dangers of writing one book to answer another. It is tedious and disjointed, and perhaps five times as long as Parker's Observations. In one place, he quotes a sentence of Parker's, and spends four pages answering it (pp. 313-17). The Catching of Leviathan is shorter and better organized, but is still an answer, not an independent statement.

66. Judson, , The Crisis of the Constitution, p. 396. Zagorin, Perez, A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London, 1959), p. 195.

67. Bramhall, , “The Catching of Leviathan,” Works, IV, 596.

68. Butterfield, Herbert, The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1931), pp. 4045.

69. I should like to express my gratitude to my colleague at McMaster, Professor E. M. Beame, for his very helpful advice on the general shape and form of this article.

John Bramhall and The Theoretical Problems of Royalist Moderation

  • J. W. Daly


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