Classic History Books

The History of England by A. E. Pollard

inheriting English land. His only claim was by heredity, which had never been legally recognized to the
exclusion of other principles of succession. James was not content to ascribe his accession to such

mundane circumstances as the personal unfitness of his rivals and the obvious advantages of a union of

the English and Scottish crowns; and he was led to attribute a supernatural virtue to the hereditary

principle which had overcome obstacles so tremendous. Hence his theory of divine hereditary right. It

must be distinguished from the divine right which the Tudors claimed; that was a right which was not

necessarily hereditary, but might be varied by the God of battles, as at Bosworth. It must also be

distinguished from the Catholic theory, which gave the church a voice in the election and deposition of

kings. According to James's view, Providence had not merely ordained the king de facto, but had

pre-ordained the kings that were to be, by selecting heredity as the principle by which the succession was

to be determined for ever and ever. This ordinance, being divine, was beyond the power of man to alter.

The fitness of the king to rule, the justice or efficiency of his government, were irrelevant details.

Parliament could no more alter the succession, depose a sovereign, or limit his authority than it could

amend the constitution of the universe. From this premiss James deduced a number of conclusions. Royal

power was absolute; the king could do no wrong for which his subjects could call him to account; he was

responsible to God but not to man - a doctrine which the Reformation had encouraged by proclaiming the

Royal Supremacy over the church. He might, if he chose, make concessions to his people, and a wise

sovereign like himself would respect the concessions of his predecessors. But parliamentary and popular

privileges existed by royal grace; they could not be claimed as rights.

This dogmatic assurance, to which the Tudors had never resorted, embittered parliamentary opposition
and obscured the historical justification for many of James's claims. Historically, there was much more to

be said for the contention that parliament existed by grace of the monarchy than for the counterclaim that

the monarchy existed by grace of parliament; and for the plea that parliament only possessed such

powers as the crown had granted, than for the counter-assertion that the crown only enjoyed such rights

as parliament had conceded. Few of James's arbitrary acts could not be justified by precedent, and not a

little of his unpopularity was due to his efforts to exact from local gentry the performance of duties which

had been imposed upon them by earlier parliaments. The main cause of dissatisfaction was the growing

popular conviction that constitutional weapons, used by the Tudors for national purposes, were now

being used by the Stuarts in the interests of the monarchy against those of the nation; and as the breach

widened, the more the Stuarts were led to rely on these weapons and on their theory of the divine right of

kings, and the more parliament was driven to insist upon its privileges and upon an alternative theory to

that of James I.

This alternative theory was difficult to elaborate. There was no idea of democracy. Complete popular
self-government is, indeed, impossible; for the mass of men cannot rule, and the actual administration

must always be in the hands of a comparatively few experts. The problem was and is how to control them

and where to limit their authority; and this is a question of degree. In 1603 no one claimed that ministers

were responsible to any one but the king; administration was his exclusive function. It was, however,

claimed that parliamentary sanction must be obtained for the general principles upon which the people

were to be governed - that is to say, for legislation. The crown might appoint what bishops it pleased, but

it could not repeal the Act of Uniformity; it might make war or peace, but could not impose direct and

general taxation; it selected judges, but they could only condemn men to death or imprisonment for

offences recognized by the law. The subject was not at the mercy of the king except when he placed

himself outside the law.

The disadvantage, however, of an unwritten constitution is that there are always a number of cases for


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