ńňđ. 10
(âńĺăî 14)



it could be turned against any claimant to rule. In contrast, it was asserted
that, as the oath was sacred, there could be no release from it simply
because one party was thought to have behaved badly; consider marriage,
or the office of parent. Two wrongs do not make a right.49 It was argued
that contracts presupposed consent, and no governments were in fact
founded on free consent, a reasonable case if consent meant choice.50
Oaths, being specific, were acts of choice.
The lines of Hobbes’s counter-argument to the predominant
Buchananesque–Parsonian tradition are sufficiently well known not to
need rehearsing except to note the following points. First, he may have
been elaborating on James VI&I’s denial that the Scottish coronation oath
was contractual.51 In doing so, he was also shoring up royalist arguments
that if a power is given, it cannot be taken back.52 Secondly, as the
outcome of contract, a ruler was not a party to its terms, but was defin-
itionally bound to the ruling office, the arbiter of its meaning accountable
only to God. This was, indeed, James VI&I’s view of the Scottish mon-
archy. Concomitantly, Hobbes insisted that oaths were very different
from transformative contracts, being proclamations of prior agreement.
This was like Thomas Bell’s rebuff to Parsonian contractual readings
of coronation oaths.53 At once, then, Hobbes inverted the logic of any
posited social contract somehow manifested in a reading of coronial
oaths and drove a wedge between the conjoined rhetorics of contract
and oath-taking by discounting the importance of oaths as such. These

Rutherford, Lex, Rex, Q.14; ‘Philodemius’, The Original and End, pp. 31–2.
George Hickes, A Word to the Wavering (1689), p. 5; George Berkeley, Passive Obedience
(1712, 1713), in Works, vol. VI, pp. 28–9.
Filmer, Patriarcha, the effective thrust of an otherwise convoluted critique.
James VI&I, The Trew Law, of Free Monarchies in Workes, pp. 206–7; cf. Hobbes, De
cive, chs. 7.2–3; 12.1–2.
For example, Maxwell, Sacro-sancta; Dudley Digges, An Answer to a Printed Book
Bell, Regiment of the Church, p. 4; tangentially see also Lorenzo Valla, De professione, in
which the vow only proclaims a proper obedience, while specific vows as to poverty were
at best tokens of an inner humility, Opera omnia, pp. 113–15; 124–7.
Coronation oaths 267
were powerful moves in the process of advancing sovereignty theory
but Hobbes’s attitude to swearing had complicating consequences in the
context of the Engagement controversy (below, chapter 14, VII).
At the same time, it should be noted that both Hobbes’s understanding
of a social contract and the arguments of those positing a contract in the
oath were extrapolated from complementary aspects of oath-taking. The
coronation oath specified the protective ends of the ruling office and
its maintenance, so accepting the exercise of sovereign judgement.
Hobbes was happy to transpose this to formulate a contract between those
seeking protection.54 But the oath also offered justice, religion and the
prior customary properties of the ruled as givens, not as terms to be
interpreted howsoever the sovereign thought best, although the oaths
taken by Henry VIII and Charles I approach a Hobbesian ideal. Such
words as justice, religion and custom could be used to invoke standards
independent of royal will, limiting the sovereign and justifying bridling,
correction or deposition. The paradox of Hobbes’s position was that
unless the oath were diminished to a ceremonial husk and its affirmations
abstracted into a contract that hardly touched the sovereign, the ruling
office would be undone.
Just as the presuppositions and language of office are found through-
out the seventeenth century, so it is a shade artificial to isolate the
separate controversies over oath-taking around the Gunpowder Plot
(1605–6), the Engagement (1649–52) and the Allegiance controversy
(1689–90). So far, I have largely bypassed evidence from these crises to
minimise pleonasm. Nevertheless, they provide concentrated eruptions of
problems that rumbled throughout the century.
To give a general overview of each oath and the arguments about it
would lead to intolerable repetition. The resonance of 1606 was evident
in 1689 when that unlikely rabbit James VI&I emerged from the hat as
a hero of true rather than free monarchy, and the shadows of the
Engagement were still thick enough to cast Thomas Hobbes somewhere
rather dark. My purpose is to use each controversy to disengage com-
plementary aspects of the problems of oath-taking and office-holding.
The focus in the following chapter will be on the question of demarcation
of office, as this was both a local and a Christendom-wide dispute. The
controversy of that first oath of allegiance thus enfolds the whole
political culture of Christendom. King James himself will be the principal
guide, as he was both instigator and defender of the oath, a philosopher
and a king. The Engagement controversy will be used to plot a localised

Hobbes, Elements, 1.15.16.
268 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
but more extreme examination of the offices of priest and ruler, more
importantly to explore the reification of the office of rule and the way in
which defining aspects of office became competing doctrines. Anthony
Ascham’s Confusions and Revolutions of Governments will be the main text
discussed. The final chapter will be broader in that it will draw on the
themes of the previous two to help bring the study together. Although
there is an emphasis on continuity, certain points of change will also
be clear by examining the arguments eddying around the Glorious
Revolution: the extension of anti-papal rhetoric to all priests, the reliance
on tyranny for all abuse of office and the surfacing of established pre-
suppositions about consent as fundamental to rule. The main guide here
will be the anonymous A Friendly Debate of 1689. Throughout the full
repertoire of oath-construction and oath-taking strategies will be appar-
ent; and in this context, the promulgation of oaths of allegiance at the
end of the century can be seen as a response to the failures of those
formulated at the beginning. The consequence of a fresh focus will be to
question several established images of these crises; that the Engagement
controversy was over might versus right, or pragmatism versus principle
is simply not supported by the evidence. Indeed, despite the weight of
modern scholarship devoted to refining its precise shape, scope and ad-
herence, there was no de facto theory. As a corollary, the Revolution of
1689 was not a victory for the exponents of that theory or ideology,
any more than it marked a decisive stage in the march of democratic rights
to resist. It is to the first oath of allegiance controversy that I shall
now turn.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _The__________ _ _ _oath____________ _ _ _ of_____ _ _ _ allegiance____________________________ _ _ of_____ _ _ _ 1606_____________ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

O, come in, equivocator. Knock, knock, knock.
(Shakespeare, Macbeth 2.3)

With its blood-red suns suspended low in the sky, chill November was
Blotmonath in Anglo-Saxon, the month of blood; and so it was in 1605,
with plans to blow the royal blood sky-high; but in searching the cellars
under the House of Lords, Sir Thomas Knevet found powder kegs and a
tall lurking fellow, with ‘three matches, and all other instruments fit for
blowing vp the powder’.1 The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was the
new king’s Armada. Its providential failure would enter the ritual calen-
dar of English Protestantism, its celebration marking the light, the way
and the ignis fatui of confusion and sedition. One match to the powder
was the legacy of Elizabeth’s harsh religious policies. A second was the
reciprocated hostility of Rome and Spain to the heretic queen. Both
were severe tests for indigenous Catholic loyalism.2 A third was the
discrepancy between the hotter sorts of Protestants prominent in the
Church of England and the diversity of lay belief, approaching inde-
pendency at one extreme, remaining close to a native Catholicism at
another. The via media of the Church of England was a hope for a road
of uncertain width and smoothness and was little more settled than its
new monarchical head. James’s accession, however, was initially a cause
of some Catholic optimism, ‘we have a Kinge [who] will restore us to
our rightes’, wrote Katharine Gawen, and Henry Garnet anticipated ‘a
golden time of unexpected freedom’.3 The glister did not last and by
1605 persecution had been renewed. Thoughts of relaxation and reform
can be dangerous for an oppressive rule and so it proved for James. As

James VI&I, A Discourse, p. 230.
Patrick McGrath, Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I (London, 1967), pp. 253–98, for
a survey of divisions among Catholics under Elizabeth.
Ibid., pp. 339, 364; see also John Lacey/Lay, A Petition Apologeticall (1604).

270 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
there was talk of toleration and peace with Spain, the plot was hatched.4 A
time of crisis was one of opportunity, but the oath that bound the con-
spirators to decisive action was followed by the oath that made the plight
of English Catholics desperate.

The oath of allegiance of 1606 was one of circumstance, the centrepiece
of two acts punishing the bulk of obedient Catholics for the blown
conspiracy of the few. Its messages were mixed. It evidenced a collapse
of trust and offered hope of its restitution should the oath be sworn. It
also exhibited remarkable faith in the power of an oath, partially justi-
fied by the agonies of conscience excited in the English Catholic com-
munity.5 Jesuit theory, however, as understood beyond the order, gave
reason to believe oaths might be meaningless, so the symbolic act of
swearing gave questionable assurance to Protestants in and beyond
England, all of whom were an audience for the royal response to the
plot. The form of the oath was largely assertory but promissory in force.
‘A. B.’ (any suspected recusant) had to acknowledge James’s rightful
sovereignty; that the pope could not depose or release subjects from
their obligations, and could give no licence for subjects to bear arms
against the king or his government. In more explicitly promissory mode
‘A. B.’ had to swear to be true to the king and his heirs and successors,
defending them ‘to the uttermost of my power against all conspiracies
and attempts whatsoever’; to endeavour to disclose ‘all treason and trai-
torous conspiracies [of ] which I shall know or hear’. Doctrines of king
killing were to be abhorred, the pope’s capacity to release the swearer
from the oath was rejected. All was to be sworn to sincerely without
equivocation, evasions and with the words being taken in their normal
senses, after all of which he or she subscribed by name, or mark.6
In his remarkable study of James, W. Brown Patterson has argued
that the oath was careful in demanding only a temporal allegiance, being
based on those required of Catholic clergy to give civil allegiance in
return for a degree of toleration.7 Thus it seemed to conform to the

Theophilus Higgons, A Sermon Preached at St Paul’s Cross (3 March 1610) (1611), on
the temperature of many English Catholics, p. 53; James VI&I, Discourse, p. 231.
Arnold Pritchard, Catholic Loyalism in Elizabethan England (London, 1979), at length.
Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, p. 272, gives the text in full from An Act for Discovering
and Representing Popish Recusants (January 1606).
W. Brown Patterson, James VI&I and the Reunion of Christendom (Cambridge, 2000
edn), p. 79.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 271
conventional ethics of oath administration. If the insistence upon an
oath was a right of rule, an impossible one was abuse of power and likely
to be counter-productive. To force Catholics to abandon spiritual alle-
giance to Rome would have been an incitement to swearing in bad faith,
a fear that pervades the oath itself. Indeed, James repeatedly insisted
that the oath was an act of favour and clemency towards those who
‘though blinded with the superstition of Poperie, yet carried a dutifull
heart towards our Obedience’.8 A touch of salt is needed for the cle-
mency and favour, but James did tacitly accept a spiritual authority
for the pope.9 Does the oath, he asked rhetorically, say anything about
It must have been known, however, that James and his Council were
testing the very rim of rule. We are returned to that most difficult of
themes in early modern England aliud est distinctio, aliud separatio. To
distinguish spiritual from temporal was an act of understanding, to separ-
ate them was a matter of policy, and churches were enmeshed in temporal
as well as spiritual activity.11 The oath might only demand the civil
allegiance of the ‘popishly affected’, but swearing was an act of the soul
before God.12 If only temporal obedience were being sought, the problem
was to contain the consequences of allowing even a residual spiritual
obligation to Rome.
Troubled Catholics responded differently. Archpriest George
Blackwell, to be found somewhere between a rock and a hard place, chose
to swear on James’s terms. He was joined by the Appelants and those
hostile to the Jesuits in England.13 Antonio De Dominis would temporar-
ily defect to the Protestant cause. Given the timing of a papal interdict on
Venice in 1606 for its civil subjection of priests, there might almost be
said to have been a London–Venice axis of anti-papal argument.14 At
one point, James even suggested that the papacy address the criticisms of

Ibid., p. 78; also James VI&I, An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance, in Workes, p. 248;
His Maiesties Speach in This Last Session of Parliament (1605), in Workes, pp. 503–4.
James VI&I, Apologie, pp. 248, 256.
Ibid., p. 269; A Catalogue of the Lyes of Tortus, Together with a Briefe Confutation of
them, in Workes, p. 341; A Praemonition to the Monarchs, in Workes, pp. 292, 297; for
defensive explication, see, for example, Donne, Pseudo-Martyr, pp. 347ff.
Bell, Regiment, ch. 6.
James VI&I, Apologie, p. 248.
George Blackwell, A Large Examination Taken at Lambeth . . . together with the
Cardinal’s Letter and M. Blakwell’s said Answer to it. Also M. Blakwell’s Letter to the
Romish Catholickes in England (1607); Richard Sheldon, Certain General Reasons Proving
the Lawfulnesse of the Oath of Allegiance (1611), pp. 2–10; William Barclay, Of the
Authoritie of the Pope (1611), esp. chs. 2, 33.
Patterson, James VI&I, pp. 220–59; Salmon, ‘Catholic Resistance Theory’, pp. 250–1.
272 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
the Venetians before bothering him further.15 This strong coincidence of
interests was given additional support by the Gallicans of the Sorbonne.
Much of the Catholic hostility to the Pope stemmed from a belief that the
church was too apt to interfere with temporal power in the name of
spiritual authority. The over-extension of priestly office, argued the Cath-
olic Richard Sheldon prophetically, would lead to its discreditation.16 The
oath, however, did come perilously close to requiring a rejection of
Rome’s spiritual authority, and for some Catholics it was theologically
offensive because it made a heretic the arbiter of heresy.17 James’s denial
that it said nothing about religion seemed disingenuous and Pope Paul V
lost no time in twice forbidding Catholics to take it.18 Cardinal Bellarmine
insisted that the force of the oath was to abrogate the papal office.19 These
arguments were to be extended, largely through repetition and personal
imputation, by Robert Parsons in dispute with Thomas Morton; by
Bellarmine again, in his Apologia, and by Martin Becan and Francisco
de Suarez.20
If the oath had to stop short of erasing all papal authority for Catholics
in England, it also had the task of reassuring suspicious Protestants that
even minimal tolerance was safe policy.21 A demarcation dispute exacer-
bated by an oath was a problem that persisted and made imperative a
reaffirmation and clarification of monarchical office, a context that invites
reconsideration of James’s claims to being an absolute ruler and a god on
earth (see below, section IV). First, however, it is necessary to go back in
order to outline the terms in which the domains of temporal and spiritual
office were debated, because these remained of direct relevance to the
escalating oath controversy, defining for the rest of the century what
was to be a fundamental problem for the office of the priest as much as
for secular rule.

James VI&I, A Catalogue, p. 346.
Sheldon, Certain General Reasons, pp. 14–20, 29, 74.
Pritchard, Catholic Loyalism, p. 193, n. 213.
Patterson, James VI&I, p. 83; James VI&I, Apologie, pp. 250, 258.
Robert Bellarmine, Admonitum . . . Georgio Blacuello (1607), in Blackwell, A large
Examination, fols. B–b3, English C–c3; see also in James VI&I, Workes, pp. 260–2; A
Catalogue, pp. 339–40.
Parsons, A Treatise Tending to Mitigation (1607); Robert Parsons, The Judgement of a
Catholicke English-man (1608); Thomas Morton, A Full Satisfaction (1606), A Preamble
unto an Incounter (1608); Robert Bellarmine, Matthaei Torti . . . responsio (St Omer,
1608); Robert Bellarmine, Apologia (Rome, 1609); Martin Becanus, Controversia
anglicana de potestate regis et pontificis (Mainz, 1612); Martin Becanus, Dissidium
anglicanum de primatu Regis (Mainz, 1612); Suarez, Defensio fidei Catholicae.
Gabriel Powell (?), The Catholicke’s Supplication (1604, 1606).
The oath of allegiance of 1606 273

As offices were defined in mutual relation, and as the pope’s spiritual
authority for his followers was crucial, the oath effectively re-affirmed
the traditional terms of debate for the Christendom-wide controversy
it provoked. These had been set down by the Galatian ‘two swords’
doctrine of the fifth century. In this image, taken from Luke 22: 38,
Pope Gelatius (492–6) had formally acknowledged the claims of the
Emperor without compromising his own authority. Christ had given
two swords, one of temporal and one of spiritual authority. Each sword
was an office and together they came to circumscribe the dimensions of
Christendom. The most uncompromising reading of the doctrine was in
Boniface VIII’s Unam sanctam (1302), for it placed both swords in the
hands of St Peter, so denying divine origin for temporal authority. Even
where the independence of the temporal sword was accepted, the terms
of the metaphor made rejection of papal authority difficult. Dante sys-
tematically disputed the metaphors commonly used to bolster papal su-
periority; yet he accepted that the imagery of the swords expressed the
pope’s spiritual office for the soul and this required that the Emperor
must show the reverence (pietas) due from a son to his father.22 Under-
standably the two swords argument remained a crucial and flexible
weapon in the armoury of papal polemic: what it did not claim directly
through a swinging ambidexterity, it could assert indirectly with one
hand behind its back. By accepting the authenticity of temporal office,
the sword could always be presented as needing to be drawn only in cases
of extremity when the temporal authority’s soul might itself be endan-
gered. Sheathed with the sword, then, was a well-honed modal casuistry.
When admonition failed there was recourse to the spiritual thrust of
excommunication, meaningless without temporal consequences such as
In the pre-Reformation world, it had principally been Marsilius who
had refused to accept the implications of the topos: give the pope a
spiritual sword, as Dante had, and the grounds were already in place for
the abuse of office that had been the story of Christendom’s degeneration.
Marsilius dismissively listed the swords as among a number of images
used to accumulate priestly power, and argued instead that Christ had
excluded himself, his apostles, and hence all priests from every officium

Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia, ed. E. Rostagno (Florence, 1921), 3.1, 4–6; 3.16; Wilks,
The Problem of Sovereignty, pp. 144–6, who points out that in the Convivio Dante
sometimes uses reverence and obedience synonymously, p. 145.
274 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
concerning jurisdiction in this world.23 The result was a severely restricted,
egalitarian conception of pastoral office, and an independence of all
temporal authority derived directly from God.24
At the Reformation Luther was accused of being a Marsilian, and for
the Protestant laity the Marsilian solution would have considerable
appeal. William Marshall’s translation of Defensor pacis had been pro-
vided for Henry VIII’s bishops immediately after the break with Rome.
The text was used in Venice under the most severe threat from Pope
Paul V.25 But it had corrosive consequences for the office of any priest,
and so, across the Reformation divide, there remained a clerical invest-
ment in some distinction between the swords and a sphere of authority for
the priest touching temporal affairs. The priest, insisted Hugh Latimer in
1550, had a sword of spiritual reproof for the correction of rulers. Make
not a ‘mingle mangle’ over what is due to God and to Caesar.26 For
Protestants, the problem would remain with which sword the line was
drawn in the sand. It would make a formal distinction, though metaphor-
ically plausible, arbitrary and difficult to apply. Spiritual exercise could
always be construed as priestly interference, and thus popery.27
For Catholics the Reformation made some reliance on the swords
almost inescapable. Francisco Vitoria, in defending the Castilian mon-
archy, at one point reduced the two swords argument to an impotent
literality, yet insisted on the papacy’s duty to exercise authority in matters
of spiritual emergency. The pope was a casuistic necessity.28 Cardinal
Reginald Pole argued in similar terms. The temporal office of the king
was for the body, the church was for the higher service of souls; the
natural law mediated by the priesthood overrode the positive law and
if the monarch endangered souls, the church should act. There was, he
made clear, precedent enough for this in England.29 Cardinal Bellarmine
fighting on both the Venetian and the English fronts had, then, a hal-
lowed tradition on which to draw and reiterate. He repaired to the
Bonifacian position; both swords were rightfully in the hands of the

Marsilius of Padua, Defensor pacis, D.2.3.6; D.2.4.4.
Ibid., D.2.29.5; D.2.4.12; cf. also Lorenzo Valla, De professione; between them Marsilius
and Valla put in place most materials needed for the Lutheran Reformation.
See Gregorio Piaia, Marsilio da Padova nella Riforma e nella Controriforma (Padua,
1977), for a survey of usage.
Latimer, Fruitful Sermons, fols. 6v, 25v, 94v.
Bilson, Christian Subjection, pp. 126–8, 146; 164–5; 251–2; 247.
Francisco de Vitoria, On Civil Power (1528) and On the Power of the Church (1532), in
Political Writings, ed. Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrence (Cambridge, 1991), 5.9,
p. 99; 5.6–7, pp. 90–1.
Reginald Pole, Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione (Rome 1536, 1539); see Mayer,
Thomas Starkey, ch. 7.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 275
church, excommunication allowed the deposition of heretic rulers and
Christendom’s unity depended upon re-asserting papal sovereignty. In
contrast Giovanni Marsilio defending the Venetian Republic read the
gladiatorial imagery like Dante, as an acceptance of the distinct spheres
of temporal and spiritual, a complementary relationship of office, not a
hierarchical one, awkwardly supporting his reading with additional
images of arms and metals.30 Back in England, Richard Sheldon remarked
more bluntly that priests who took up the temporal sword were likely to
perish by it.31
Thus the oath of allegiance, in not explicitly denying the pope all
spiritual authority, offered an uncertain hostage to fortune and helped
ensure the spread of the accusation of popery to almost any cleric laying
a hand on the hilt of spiritual reproof. The heavily patinated imagery of
the swords continued to offer hope of some modus vivendi between
complementary offices, but in practice collapsed either into theocracy or
erastianism. Immediately, this was not a conspicuous aid for James’s
loyal Catholics. They had no doctrine as Catholics that could really
reassure the suspicious Protestant; time, obedience, an understanding
pontiff and suffering, as George Blackwell enjoined his flock, were all
they could rely upon. This, however, was not much in a society capable of
systemic hostility to Rome. It was certainly symbolically appropriate to
their situation that it was from the office of London’s Clink Prison that
Blackwell defended the oath as expressive of the independence of the
temporal sword.32 He was sacked by Pope Paul. Later in the century,
as a testimony to the continuing difficulties they faced, a few Catholics,
such as Sir Kenelm Digby and Thomas White, were to toy with the idea
of English Catholicism without a pope; as Sheldon had remarked, in
supporting James, it is lawful to resist even the pope when he invades
our souls.33
In defending kingly office after 1606, James and his supporters needed
to sharpen parallel claims about state and church. First there was the
need to reassert sovereignty against what Donne would call the ‘new
Alchimy’ of priestly immunity, interference and usurpation of Christ’s

See William Bowsma, Venice and the Defence of Republican Liberty (Los Angeles, 1984
edn), pp. 428–9, 434, 430.
Sheldon, Certain General Reasons, pp. 14, 49.
Blackwell, M. Blakwell’s Letter to the Romish Catholickes, pp. 169–70; Peter Lake, ‘Anti-
Popery: The Structure of a Prejudice’, in R. Cust and A. Hughes, eds., Conflict in Early
Stuart England (London, 1981), pp. 72–106; and at length Anthony Milton, Catholic and
Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640
(Cambridge, 1995). Sheldon also wrote from prison, Certain General Reasons, p. Av.
Sheldon, Certain General Reasons, p. 55.
276 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
office.34 Second, the specifically episcopal Church of England needed to
replace the exorcised ghost of Rome: one sword in the hands of the king,
the other transferred to his bishops, a strategy that would merely localise
the clash of steel. On the first score, it was reasserted that the monarchy,
being directly instituted by God, was not answerable to any other office.
As an attribute of his supreme authority, the king’s absolute right to
impose oaths was a crucial test: absolute allegiance was required by all
There was an urgency and shrillness to this independent of the oath of
allegiance, but James, no less than Bellarmine, came to the crisis theor-
etically armed. He had been educated by George Buchanan, who had
argued that tyrannicide was justified for abuse of office, that allegiance
was conditional and that sovereignty lay with the whole community of
the people.36 Buchanan, instrumental in having James’s Catholic mother
removed from the Scottish throne, had dedicated his theory to the young
king. Catholic Scholastic writers had taken a similar line about the duty to
remove erring monarchs, and Cardinal Allen, from a safe distance, had
urged the purgative of tyrannicide for Elizabeth.37 Although the papacy
stopped short of the decisive rebuke of assassination, James was under-
standably insistent that Catholic interference in temporal affairs left him
in much the same position as Elizabeth. Excommunication had given her
over ‘as a prey’, ‘setting her subjects at liberty to rebell’.38 The spiritual
weapon of excommunication was really temporal, and to use it was,
indeed, to make a ‘mingle-mangle’ of what was due to God and Caesar.
As James reminded the Catholic princes of the empire, ‘yee are in the
Popes folde’ and whenever he pleases may be led by ‘that great Pastor as
sheepe to the slaughter’.39 The king needed as thick a hedge of divinity as
he could manage.

The result was an absolutist theory of kingship, elaborated before James
became king of England. The Trew Law of Free Monarchies drew on

Donne, Pseudo-Martyr, pp. 93–4, 98.
Ibid., p. A2v chs. 3, 4, 12, pp. 248ff; James VI&I, Apologie; God and King (1615), pp. 28–
36; Bell, Regiment, pp. 4–5; Owen, Herod and Pilate, at length.
Buchanan, De jure regni apud Scotos (1579). For a recent assessment, see Roger Mason,
‘George Buchanan on Resistance and the Common Man’, in Robert von Friedeburg, ed.,
Widerstandsrecht in der fruhen Neuzeit (Berlin, 2001), pp. 163–81.
Allen, An Admonition; also William Allen, A True Sincere and Modest Defence of English
Catholics (1584).
James VI&I, Apologie, p. 252; God and King, p. 7; Patterson, James VI&I, p. 80.
James VI&I, A Praemonition, p. 296.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 277
medieval dicta about the divine origination of rule, and on hierocratic
and post-Bodinian sovereignty theory.40 It was directed at the rumbus-
tiousness of James’s subjects, especially his aristocracy, against spiritual
interference from Rome, the Kirk and against his old tutor’s theories of
limited monarchy and tyrannicide. It was not an absolutist theory of
sovereignty per se, but it was uncompromising. In any free monarchy,
there must be an unchallenged source of effective law; an analogous
claim was also being developed in republican Venice.41 The free monarch
is accountable exclusively to God, and only his will ties him to the law.42
However labelled, this text manifestly provided an implacable defence of
the oath of allegiance against any attacks from Rome and propositions
from it, or akin to it, did much to sow absolutist dicta across the English
political landscape.
Absolutism as a general classifier, however, is unstable, being used to
cover a doctrine of principle, a moveable rhetoric of office defence, an
accusation of abuse and the institutionalised practice that the early Stuart
monarchy never managed. Only occasionally in a work like Trew Law
does it approach the reductive clarity it enjoyed in France and the theor-
etical coherence appropriate to twentieth-century categories of ideological
analysis.43 Yet the exception has been taken as the rule, and the study of
Stuart thought has been organised through related polarities: democratic
or popular (sometimes revealingly elided with constitutional) versus divine
right absolutism, or, more generally, through Walter Ullmann’s now
exploded model of necessarily competing ascending or descending ideol-
ogies of legitimation.44 This has been convenient but distorting. All power
might formally descend from God, but the efficient cause of its manifest-
ation could be the people (as in Venice) from whom it also ascended.45

Vitoria, Civil Power, 1.3, p. 10; Jean Bodin, Six livres de la Republique (1576), translated
into Latin, then English. Richard Knolles’ English translation, The Six Books of a
Commonweale, ed. K. D. McRae (Cambridge, Mass., 1962); see also Bilson, Christian
Subjection, pt. 2.
Bowsma, Venice, e.g. pp. 430–3.
James VI&I, Trew Law, pp. 200, 206, 203; God and King, pp. 18–21; 30–6.
See Johann Sommerville, ‘Absolutism and Revolution in the Seventeenth Century’, in
The Cambridge History of Political Thought, pp. 249–50, for measured qualification. For
Scotland’s ally France, see Mark Greengrass, ‘Regicide, Martyrs and Monarchical
Authority in France in the Wars of Religion’, in von Friedeburg, Murder and Monarchy,
pp. 176–92.
See, for example, Walter Ullmann, Law and Politics in the Middle Ages (Cambridge,
1975); for a devastating critique, Francis Oakley, ‘Celestial Hierarchies Revisited: Walter
Ullmann’s Vision of Medieval Politics’, Past and Present, 60 (1973), pp. 1–48; see also
Hindle, The State and Social Change, pp. 25–6; this model was applied by Johann
Sommerville in his standard Politics and Ideology in England, 1603–1640 (London, 1986).
Cf. Marsilius, Defensor pacis, D.1.12; D.2.4.12; Vitoria, Civil Power, Prologue, 1.1;
cf. Bowsma, Venice, p. 430; and later Rutherford, Lex, Rex, Q.4; Hunton, Treatise,
278 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
Such compound causative propositions and theological axioms might tell
us little about principles of rule and accountability.46
The potential tensions, however, between absolute and bounded rule
brought into relief the distinction between the normal and the reserve, or
prerogative power. With this we are returned to the casuistic nexus, the
junction of ordinary and abnormal cases. Much debate about absolute
rule concerned an idiom of casuistic adjustment, analogous, as it were, to
God’s occasionally working miracles, to the pope’s occasionally acting
in the temporal realm, or to the more mundane court of equity. Anyone
who made a casuistic appeal to a principle of prerogative for exceptional
cases might be accused of absolutism and it is probably more helpful to
say that absolutists were those who could see no way in which any such
line could, or should, be drawn.47 As Carl Schmitt would much later
summarise, the sovereign is whoever decides in emergency. Meanwhile,
there were few writers in Jacobean England systematically willing to
embrace such a doctrine, though there would be many who would spy
absolutists everywhere because of the difficulty of limiting the recourse to
prerogative powers. It was a troublesome case of the control over casuistry
With the emergency of the Gunpowder Plot close behind them there
were certainly many who had absolutist moments, employing maxims
casuistically that have since been widely regarded as expressing commit-
ment to an absolutist ideology.48 Glenn Burgess has doubted this, arguing
convincingly that absolutism as found in the secondary literature is largely
an anachronistic invention, and that many contemporary statements now
deemed absolutist accepted some limitation and could be accommodated
to law.49 His case raises the further issue of whether identifying an ideol-
ogy is anything more than a matter of abstracting from certain sorts of
language use, and at what point in surveying the evidence it is plausible to
conclude that we are confronted with an ideology. This, if it has been
considered, affords no simple answer. For although many absolutist
propositions immediately after 1605 may themselves fall short of ideo-
logical affirmation, they can be read in the context of Bodin’s work,
available in three languages and, most immediately, James’s own theory.

pp. 3–4. Absolutism could also be fashioned to what would later be seen as liberal and
tolerant ends.
Burgess, Politics of the Ancient Constitution, ch. 5.
Glenn Burgess, Absolute Monarchy and the Stuart Constitution (New Haven, 1996), pt. 1,
for the best discussion of these issues.
Sommerville, ‘Absolutism and Revolution’, pp. 348–9; cf. Burgess, Absolute Monarchy,
ch. 2, and the literature there cited and ch. 4.
Burgess, Politics of the Ancient Constitution, ch. 4; Burgess, Absolute Monarchy, chs. 1–2.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 279
If we are to rely on the concept of absolutist ideology, this surely fits the
bill. As some would universalise the matter, any state was an order of
command and obedience, and wherever the sovereign is located its office is
to make and execute the laws.50
At this point it may be helpful to turn to a commentator unaware of the
conceptual modelling on which modern scholars have relied. At the out-
break of the Civil Wars Philip Hunton would abstract from Jacobean
materials three degrees of absoluteness in rule. One tied the ruler to the law
only by will, the degree expressed by Scottish James in Trew Law; a second
was that found in a prerogative power above the law for abnormal cases,
the degree to which English James seemed to adhere; a third was that in
which the ruler formally promised to be limited by the law, the degree
to which he also later attached himself.51 Crucially in Hunton’s analysis,
these degrees of absoluteness all concerned the nature and scope of an
office, a moral power, not elaboration of an unlimited capacity to act
which absolutism as a practice might approach, and which the ‘blandish-
ments’ of later parliamentarian propaganda feared.52 Thus, for Hunton,
transgression was not a form of government but a move beyond it.53 The
ruler in office no matter how absolute was like a shepherd. The absolutism
lay in an awareness of office whose limits are internally and divinely
guaranteed. Little wonder that the king’s conscience, as James said, lay
in executing his office.54 The important corollary of this, as I have argued,
is that identity was a function of office. As a persona the king could do no
wrong, but in doing wrong he might cease in that persona. This crucial
qualification could accommodate apparently absolutist maxims to critical
purposes: subjects must obey kings but tyrants are not kings.55
Again, however, Trew Law is distinctive in prohibiting such linguistic
moves. Only God can give judgement. Yet, in arguing this, James reasserts
the importance of seeing the relationship between rulers and ruled in terms
of office. The sub-title highlights the main theme: the reciprock and mutual
dutie betwixt a Free King and his natural subjects. His freedom is a freedom
of office, to see justice done, to be a good pastor. The reality of tyranny as
abuse of office is never denied, but subjects have no avenue of office
through which to act but for recourse to prayers, tears and flight. By

Henning Arnisaeus, De iure maiestatis libri tres (Frankfurt, 1610); De auctoritate
principum in populum semper inviolabili (Frankfurt, 1612).
51 52
Hunton, Treatise, p. 7. Burgess, Absolute Monarchy, p. 123.
53 54
Hunton, Treatise, p. 1. Sharpe, Re-mapping, p. 159.
Willett, Harmonie on the First Booke of Samuel, pp. 52, 294.
280 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
precisely this token, James’s supporters after the Gunpowder Plot could
train the argument where it was most needed, against the claimed immun-
ities and bogus authority of priests whose office lies only in admonition
and reproof.56 If it reproved with the word tyranny, James’s reply was to
ask, Who is to judge? In such cases, for king or people to judge each other
would be to usurp the office of God. Similarly, if the people, including the
priests, cannot judge the king, the king cannot treat a rebel as an ‘vtter
enemy’.57 Reciprocal office entails limitation. However unsatisfactory we
might find such limitation, it is a defining feature of the argument;58 his
absolutism is an idealised ethics of office, the manifestation, in Hunton’s
terms, of a moral power.
To indicate the doctrinal fragility of early Stuart absolutism, it is worth
returning to James’s unqualified assertion that the king is above human
law and obeys the laws only out of his will. This, it seems to me, is clear
enough and is directly analogous to, or derived from, the theological
proposition that a voluntarist, omnipotent God chooses to work through
the laws of nature; but it takes only a slight change of inflection for it to
crumble into something little more than a tautology. And so it would
prove. In a speech before parliament in 1609, James argued that although
all kings were originally absolute, this is qualified in practice; a king binds
himself by a double oath to the fundamental laws of his kingdom. He
‘leaves off to be a king and degenerates into a tyrant’ as soon as he ceases
to rule through the law.59 It would be fitting, then, that Hunton would
refer not to types of absolutism but only to degrees of absoluteness of
which this is the third, though James stopped short of denying the pre-
rogative power it might seem to imply. It was a degree that still allowed
accusations of tyranny to be made by lawyers, or priests who saw the old
religion as part of the legal fabric of the nation. Despite royal reassur-
ance, the pervasive casuistic worry remained: the prerogative to move
beyond all law might only be for exceptional cases, but who is to judge?
What is to stop the exceptional becoming the norm? So argument from
consequence compressed absolutism into tyranny. But this was a polem-
ical projection, not a commitment to be found around James – except as
an accusation levelled against the pope. There is a certain irony in Locke

James VI&I, Trew Law, pp. 208, 194; God and King, p. 51.
James VI&I, Trew Law, p. 208. The practical implications of ‘vtter’ may be obscure given
the treatment of convicted rebels.
Burgess, Absolute Monarchy, pp. 18–20, on the confusions between limitation and
mechanisms of control.
James VI&I, The Kings Majesties Speach to the Lords and Commons, 21 March, 1609,
n.p.; but see The Political Works of James I, ed. C. H. McIlwain (Cambridge, Mass.,
1918), pp. 301–10; cf. the very different Ponet, Shorte Treatise, pp. 108, 98–9.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 281
extolling James as a king while he was collapsing prerogative power into
The frequently nominal understanding of the rights of personae coex-
tensive with action in office underscores the importance of trying to keep
object language conceptually distinct from the meta-language of theoret-
ical modelling, hence the flagged scepticism in the preceding comments
about the category of ideology through which the nature of Jacobean
absolutist writing has been filtered.60 It may be safer to think in terms of
moveable vocabularies of office defence and critique, tantalisingly sug-
gestive of what we call ideology. There may be so few systematic absolut-
ists despite the wide scattering of absolutist propositions because the
functions of proclaiming absoluteness in rule were largely restricted to
the crises of office surrounding the Scottish monarchy and oath of alle-
giance. The more extreme the theory, the more discrepant it could be with
the situation to which it responded. Bellarmine’s and later Suarez’s image
of absolute papal right provided a strong contrast to the world in which
they lived, and James fell well short of being the free monarch of all he
surveyed in Scotland.

Here endeth the excursus on absolutism; ideology or not, its sententiae
were of inestimable value in defending the king’s oath, and we can now
briefly pick up the second imperative arising from the controversy: to fill
the spiritual void of Rome. Catholic and anti-Catholic polemic in England
provides hermeneutic problems not dissimilar to those clouding absolut-
ism. The on-going debates exhibited shifting views and intensity of expres-
sion on all sides, perhaps as much concerned with positioning within
denominations as with facing down an extrinsic foe.61 The Gunpowder
Plot and the subsequent oath provided a sharpened focus for a diversity of
factions, and by 1616 the Venetian Ambassador Foscarini reported on
twelve broad groupings: three Catholic, two puritan, three others and four
in different ways supporting James.62 It is with caution, then, that I rather
drastically streamline the problem of spiritual office in England.

See also Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, pp. 230–1.
Jeanne Shami, ‘Anti Catholicism in the Sermons of John Donne’, in Ferrell and
McCullough, eds., The English Sermon Revised, pp. 136–66, drawing much on Milton,
Catholic and Reformed.
Milton, Catholic and Reformed, pp. 7–9; Shami, ‘Anti Catholicism in the Sermons of
John Donne’, p. 137.
282 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
Cardinal Bellarmine’s attack on the English church was at one with a
number of English Jesuit tracts, holding that although arbitrarily deviant
and born of expediency, it remained sufficiently close to Rome to be
rejoined and, for the sake of Christendom, must return to the fold; there
was hope in that it was not unredeemably heretical Geneva. The Jesuits
had enemies within their church who were likely to disagree with the
substance and tone of what they argued. Conversely, the more reformed
Protestants in England agreed effectively with the Jesuitical analysis.
Some left the English church because they saw it as crypto-Catholic, and
some urged more reform to stop the slide back to Rome. Hooker, though
formally rejecting Rome, had directed his attentions to those who wanted
such further reform, and not surprisingly he was commended by the
Jesuits for being close to Rome and condemned by more thorough
reformers for the same reason.63
Arguments in Hooker’s idiom put forward after 1605 had perforce to
be re-directed towards Rome in order to maintain the tenuous claims to
a via media, and there were three complementary dimensions to this, each
alienating Catholicism from England. The first was to rehearse the abuses
of office by the Roman Church in England. A robust native martyrology,
established earlier by Foxe, was appended to the lurid accounts of early
Christian suffering under pagan Rome. To this was added the biblically
based argument that bishops were sanctioned by the Bible and that
episcopacy could stop short of papacy and its temporal aggrandisement.
In developing these arguments in direct reply to Bellarmine, Lancelot
Andrewes elaborated on James’s own defence of the oath against the
cardinal.64 With the defence of the Church of England went, in fact, the
increasing insistence on episcopacy as iure divino.65 In any event, the force
of such arguments is clear: if episcopacy is iure divino, then in having
bishops the English church has no need of a pope, a claim directly
analogous in structure and function to James’s iure divino claims for
monarchy. It was not without insight that James insisted that no bishop
meant no king. The third dimension which had been magisterially adum-
brated by Hooker was the argument that any church must evolve in
keeping with the community it served; its office was specific to the char-
acter of the flock. His defence of the English church provided a varia-
tion upon arguments that had long been used to distinguish the nature

Diarmaid McCulloch, ‘Richard Hooker’s Reputation’, English Historical Review, 117
(2002), pp. 773–88.
Lancelot Andrewes, Tortura Torti (1609); Donne, Pseudo-Martyr, ch. 3.
George Downhame, Two Sermons (1607, 1609), although in George Downhame, A
Defence of the Sermon (1611), the position is qualified, p. 2.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 283
of an office from contingent physicality.66 To this was added a third
localising force making it possible to accept Rome as a church for off-
shore people, while denying it any authority over a national church
founded in the consent of the English. This was Richard Field’s contribu-
tion. The visible church of Christendom was comprised of self-governing
separate churches. Synods provided the means of dealing with any eccle-
siological disputes, so conciliarism became again an alternative to the
bogus supremacy of Rome. Such arguments helped fuse the rhetorics of
reformation and patriotism for a further generation.67
Antonio De Dominis’ De respublica ecclesiastica presented a broader
position, for he had perforce to counter the supreme Jesuit Francisco de
Suarez, who taking up the cudgels from Bellarmine insisted that the oath
was an heretical abuse of office, a tyrannous over-extension of James’s
title. By virtue of his care for souls and true religion, the pope, as pastor,
had a right of excommunication and deposition, and was absolute.
Entailed in this aggressive reiteration of the duty to force-feed his sheep
was the papal right to release men from improper oaths.68 De Dominis,
rehearsing the abuse of papal power in a way that was encouraging both in
England and Venice, reasserted a conciliarist ideal and elaborated on
Paolo Sarpi’s fundamentally Marsilian analysis of the causes of Christen-
dom’s troubles. The abuses of the church were systemic and based on
wilful misreading of the Bible. By interfering with temporal matters, its
own office was corrupted and Christendom destabilised. The absolute
papal monarch had become a tyrant. James’s position on the oath of
allegiance was re-affirmed and re-stated in the face of excommunication
with temporal teeth. De Dominis’s Jacobean counterblast assumed a sense
of almost cosmic threat.69
Either, then, Rome was alien to England, its imperialism transform-
ing it into a Gygean shepherd; or, to those more unbending than Field,
Hooker, and even De Dominis, Rome was Antichrist, the inverted pro-
jection of religious office. This proposition had been put forward by
John Ponet in the most incendiary fashion, and it remained current in
the rabid, or strategic anti-Catholicism of late Elizabethan and early
Jacobean England. By turns both these positions were adopted after

See Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, pp. 294ff.
Richard Field, Of the Church (1606).
Suarez, Defensio fidei Catholicae, 3.23.17, 10–11; this is a brutal and, in other contexts of
argument, probably a useless summary of a sophisticated reformulation of medieval
hierocratic theory.
For accounts of De Dominis, see Patterson, James VI&I, ch. 7; and Noel Malcolm, De
Dominis (1560–1624): Venetian, Anglican, Ecumenicist, and Relapsed Heretic (London,
284 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
1605, not least by James himself, whose audience was sufficiently diverse
to need a range of arguments. In the Apologie he had only raised the
spectre of Rome as Antichrist. In the Praemonition, however, he took the
matter further in a way that sits ill with Patterson’s image of James as
the moderate remediator. In a substantial digression, James heightened
accusations he had only insinuated before his succession to the English
throne, and concluded directly that the pope indeed rode the pale horse
and his time was due.70 This might have encouraged other Protestant
princes and reassured some of his co-religionists in Scotland.71 He might
even have expected a distant cheer from beleaguered Venice, but, in fact, a
frustrated Paolo Sarpi rounded on James’s efforts: the king’s office was
in government and action (arms and money for the Republic, please), not
in theological discourse.72 Under circumstances that engendered a reflex-
ive sensitivity to the assumed office of participants in debate, James may
have anticipated such a reaction.73 Scholastic disputation, he had
accepted, was not proper for a king whose calling was ‘to set forth decrees
in the Imperative mood’.74 Yet unashamed of the deed of writing to warn
his fellow princes of Antichrist, he reminded them that the office of a
king lies both in leaving the liberties of others and in maintaining his
own. James’s arguments must have intimated rather worrying imperatives
for his loyal Catholics, followers of Antichrist for whom the oath was
apparently such an ‘Acte of great favour and clemancie’.75
Despite, then, the adjustable nature of James’s arguments, the variety
and intensity of dispute, the Gunpowder Plot controversy was bound by
an unbroken thread – how and at what points could the spiritual and
temporal offices be distinguished and related? These were old issues, and
so the whole culture of Christendom was evoked, or its unwanted impli-
cations lurked like a fellow with matches in the interstices of argument.
Curiously, the problems of distinction and separation were only aggra-
vated when explored with reference to that instantiation of offices in
collision, an oath – a spiritual act concerning temporal conduct. To be
sure, the controversies did much to refine and make notions of sovereignty
immediate. Yet because James and most of his supporters seemed to
begin any defence of the oath from a presumption that there was some

James VI&I, Apologie, p. 272; Praemonition, pp. 308–28; cf. A Fruitful Meditation
(Edinburgh, 1588), in Workes.
James VI&I, Praemonition, p. 72; Patterson, James VI&I, pp. 95–6.
Paolo Sarpi, letter to S. Contarini, 13 December 1615, in Bowsma, Venice, p. 526.
For example, Donne, Pseudo-Martyr, Preface, p. B3r.
James VI&I, Praemonition, p. 290.
Ibid., pp. 291, 338; cf. Patterson, James VI&I, p. 78.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 285
demarcation between spiritual and sovereign power, Jacobean absolute-
ness in rule was asserted always on the cusp of compromise.

The oath of allegiance insisted with laborious repetition that it must be
sworn sincerely, without equivocation or mental reservation, as the words
were normally understood. These formulas echoed down the rest of the
century but were never empty. They attested to the fear not just of
insincerity, but the English Jesuit doctrine of equivocation. At risk were
the integrity of all oath-taking, human trust and the destruction of so-
cial office, because ultimately the very function of language was perverted
by it.
The doctrines were developed by Henry Garnet and especially by
Robert Parsons, during the oath of allegiance controversy. The funda-
mental argument had been an immediate response to the pressures of
Elizabethan policy, and the trial of the poet Robert Southwell in 1595.
Like James’s articulation of the absoluteness of the Scottish monarchy,
its importance was increased in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.
The claim was that under exceptional circumstances of persecution, the
true believer was justified in avoiding questions and concealing the
truth, for this was not to lie. If, to cite the salient case, a priest was hiding
in your house, it was right to conceal him. When asked by his hunters if
you knew where he was, it was right to say ‘no’, reserving to God the full
statement, ‘at least not for you to find’. In this way, the priest might be
saved and God honoured with the truth.76 Equivocation, then, was a
circumnavigation of dishonesty through a mental reservation serving the
overall scope of the statement, the act it was trying to bring about, or
The spurious ingenuity of the doctrine had a partially linguistic source.
The trick lay in converting a necessary feature of language into a rede-
scriptive strategy. From medieval times it had been recognised that many
if not all statements were incomplete because dependent upon networks
of implicit understanding and presupposition. This came to be seen as a
vital feature of promissory oaths. Insofar as meaning depended not just
on internal structure but also upon the tacit and contextual, a statement
was held to be of a mixed mode. John Austin would develop a philosophy

See, especially, Henry Garnet, A Treatise of Equivocation (1595); Parsons, A Treatise
Tending Towards Mitigation; for a lucid discussion, Toulmin and Jonsen, The Abuse of
Casuistry, pp. 195–215; at greater length see the excellent survey by Johann Sommerville,
‘The New Art of Lying’, in Lietes, ed., Conscience and Casuistry, at length.
286 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
of language analysis on a similar basis; and in a related fashion it lies
behind the Derridean theory of differance. Martin Azpilcueta (Navarrus,
b. 1492) developed the theory of mixed modes in the Jesuitical direction
through a concept of amphibologia. The word was chosen carefully, for
behind it lay in the traditional Greek rhetorical notion of amphiboly, the
process of casting general terms wide, like a fisherman’s net, to catch a
diversity of auditor.77 Amphiboly exploited ambiguities and differences of
meaning in language and was a form of skiagraphia, the verbal painting
with a broad brush necessary when dealing with a large, unknown audi-
ence.78 Amphibologia, however, involved a process of distancing oneself
from the words spoken, and this resulted in a mixed mental operation,
extending away from irony and litotes, the tropes that were most akin to it.
According to Perez Zagorin, Enchiridion was much used in Jesuit educa-
tion, and as Garnet pressed the matter, amphibologia went well beyond
irony or litotes, for the recognition that either trope was governing a
statement would undo any mental reservation. Equivocation became as
dramatic a form of redescription as definitionally equivocal metaphor;
both could be lumped together as lies.79
There was also a clear moral imperative behind equivocation; it was
because lying was such a sin that the persecuted felt a need to generate an
alternative to it. But, more immediately, the logic of the ethics of office
came into play. Rights adhered to personae in office, not to office-abuse.
Further, insofar as the soul and its duty of subordination to God took
precedence over any other relationship, then honesty before God was
what really mattered. Likewise, the Jesuits effected a more general
evaporation of sin. A distinction would be drawn between philosophical
and theological sin, only the latter, comprising acts consciously and
purposely directed by the soul against God, were unforgivable. All
others might be mitigated, or dissolved by the priest in the confessional,
when considering the scope, or point of the action concerned and the
knowledge of the sinner. This was an extension of priestly authority that
would prove no more palatable to Jansenists in France than equivoca-
tion had to so many in England.80 Casuistry that directed attention to the
end or scope of any practice might encourage people to break oaths in
the name of the scope of an oath, and so, irrespective of bad faith, oaths

Navarrus, Enchiridion (1549), see Zagorin, Ways of Lying, pp. 165–70.
Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts (New York, 1954), 1414a, 5–10, p. 186.
See, most succinctly, Reeves, Truth and Falsity.
See the excellent discussion in Kilcullen, Sincerity and Truth, pp. 16–53. See also Anon.,
The Jesuit’s Gospel (1679), pp. 23–33.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 287
might be sworn too lightly.81 And the more general the language in which
the scope of the oath was formulated, the less restrictive its actual terms
For many, equivocation was tantamount to lying, for like hidden irony,
it involved intention to deceive. The Jesuits were aware of this and its
destructive consequences if used beyond clerical office. This, however,
was to rest on an authority not granted in Protestant England, and
equivocation was unacceptable to many Catholics who also condemned
it and helped isolate the Jesuits from Christian respectability.82 It was
widely agreed that this was a new and unheard-of doctrine, which was not
quite true, as Parsons emphatically argued.83 But in such debates newness
was as much an accusation as an empirical assertion, the force of which
was to undermine any grounding that the Jesuits might offer from classical
rhetoric and the New Testament.
There were two main lines of argument taken up more or less in
tandem. First, at a meta-level, as a theory, the doctrine was misdescrip-
tion at its most dangerous. The very term equivocation was a rede-
scription of a lie.84 Second, as a practice, it destroyed reliability and
trust in language itself. Because, as everyone accepted, language was
imperfect, communication depended upon competence, good will and
trust. With these, definition, example, clarification could minimise the
ambiguities of equivocal terms. The oath, in fact, was a prime case of the
attempt to shore up trust in society and overcome the limitations of
ordinary language use. Equivocation as a tactic of language, however,
was another matter. It rendered every word uncertain, because a reserved
completion might contradict whatever was said.85 Every word, as it were,
suffers a differance in Derridean terms and we cannot know where we

Shakespeare, King Lear 3.4: ‘[I] swore as many oaths as I spake words, and broke them in
the sweet face of Heaven’, Edgar, feigning madness to Lear; also see Charles I, Eikon
Basilike, p. 114; Kennett, Dialogue, pp. 30–2.
Mason, The New Art, pp. B2, 25, 29, 37; Anthony Coply, An Answer to a Letter of a
Jesuitical Gentleman (1601), pp. 198–200; see Zagorin, Ways of Lying, pp. 196–9.
Coply, An Answer; and, most extensively, John Barnes, Dissertatio contra aequivocationes
(Paris, 1625); see also the writings cited in Higgons, A Sermon Preached at St Paul’s,
pp. 54–5; Thomas Morton, A Full Satisfaction concerning a double Romish Iniquitie
(1606); Mason, The New Art; contra Parsons, A Treatise, ch. 7, pp. 275–81, 296–306;
ch. 8, pp. 313–18.
Coply, An Answer, p. 199; for variation on this see, for example, John King, A Sermon
Preached at Whitehall (Oxford, 1608); Robert Tynely, Two Learned Sermons (1609);
Mason, The New Art, pp. 2, 12.
Morton, A Full Satisfaction, pt. 3, pp. 47, 85; Mason, The New Art, ch. 1; Sommerville,
‘New Art’, p. 179.
288 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
stand. The upshot, as Thomas Morton revealingly put it, was to fashion
a Gygean language, making plots invisible to Protestants.86
In sum, equivocation threatened what Hobbes would regard as a nat-
ural condition of language use, unsocial and solipsistic. As Quentin
Skinner has observed, Hobbes’s state of nature is a condition of the most
radical paradiastole; only by escaping it can we establish a society.87 The
disputes between temporal and spiritual can thus be seen to be secondary
to these issues, for if we have Jesuit theory and practice neither sphere of
office can stand. Of course, such operatic extremes were generated by the
standard tactic of argument from implication. What was crucial, however,
as Mason stressed, was the uncertainty engendered by the very possibility
of reservational ploys; it could even infect the oaths that had hitherto
bound society together. The Jesuits were insistent that England was no
longer a defensible polity, and its rulers no longer operated within their
proper sphere, so if oaths and weaker social bonds are still respected, how
can we know?
The ingenious convolutions attempted by Robert Parsons proved
largely unconvincing in the atmosphere following the Gunpowder Plot.
He assured readers that Catholics and Protestants could still live peace-
ably together; that equivocation was only used in extremity and when
blessed by the priestly office; and that no one abhorred lying more than he.
Oaths remained sacrosanct (if imposed by a proper authority within its
sphere) and yet he downplayed their significance. In an uncorrupt world
they would be unnecessary.88 The Jesuits would, in fact, back away from
the doctrine of equivocation, dealing with truth less in terms of a duty to
tell than a right to hear, this being directly contingent on the conventional
question of personae in office.89
It is not unreasonable to see the arguments over equivocation as a
context for a man writing a generation later. Hobbes grew up with such
controversies and they rolled on beyond his death. For the whole seven-
teenth century, the possibility of equivocation provided some of the tacit
conditions that necessarily informed oath-taking and certainly oath for-
mulation. Moreover, the doctrine was defended in France when Hobbes

Morton, A Full Satisfaction, fol. A4, pt. 3.15; Mason, The New Art, pp. 21, 32–3; Donne,
Pseudo-Martyr, p. 48: equivocation is a tower of Babel in placing its practitioners above
earthly majesty and in destroying communication.
Quentin Skinner, ‘Hobbes on Rhetoric and the Construction of Morality’, in Visions of
Politics, vol. III, Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 116–20.
Parsons, A Treatise, Epistle; ch. 7 (the specific defence against Morton); ch. 8 on the
antiquity and biblical basis of the doctrine. Despite the weight of Augustinian
prohibitions, there was also some support from writers (uncited by Parsons) like Peter
Grotius, De jure, 3.1; Toulmin and Jonsen, The Abuse of Casuistry, pp. 211–13.
The oath of allegiance of 1606 289
was moving in high clerical and scientific circles. Cardinal Richelieu hired
Charles de Condren, a respected non-Jesuit and an influential court
confessor, to write a defence of equivocation. In measured, simple but
distancing prose, itself suggesting the touch of amphibologia, de Condren
put the case that the truth might be concealed under figures, or be partially
presented if circumstances were trying and the cause good. Naked truth,
except to God, was not the only virtue, and it might damage the exercise of
others. This modal casuistry would come back to England later in the
century with the reiterations that equivocation was a theory for the
confessional, and that oaths were exempt.90 But the Jesuit head and
bloody bones were too valuable as relics of the oath of allegiance contro-
versy, and so a lurid redaction of the doctrine was but more fuel to anti-
Catholic and by extension anti-clerical fires, heaped around the celebrated
pre-yule log of the Gunpowder Plot itself and its ritualised recollection on
the fifth of November.

´ ´ `
Charles de Condren, Traite des equivoques (Paris, 1643) in Oeuvres completes, ed. Abbe
Pin (Paris, 1847–8); Gabriel Daniel, Discourses of Cleander and Eudoxus on the Provincial
Letters (1694, 1704).
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _Engagement___________________________________ _ _ with____________ _ _ _a__ _ _ _ free__________ _ _ _ state_____________ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

[B]ut what state the body can be in, if the head, for any infermitie that
can fall to it, be cut off, I leave to the readers judgement.
(James VI&I, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, in Workes, p. 205)

In the winter of 1650, the Reverend Thomas Washbourne sent his servant
from his parish at Dombleton in Gloucestershire to the deeper chill of
Boothby Paynell, Lincoln, with a letter for the logician and theologian
Dr Robert Sanderson. It sought advice on The Engagement.1 After the
brisk execution of Charles I and the abolition of the House of Lords,
England had been declared a Commonwealth and its Council of State
promulgated something like an oath of allegiance to it. This Engagement
required of ministers of state was extended by January 1650 to include all
adult males.2 Subscription gave a voice at law, refusal risked loss of prop-
erty without redress.3 So confronting Mr Washbourne had been an ap-
parently simple document with apparently straightforward consequences
upon his decision.
‘I, A. B. declare and promise, that I will be true and faithful to the
Commonwealth of England, as it is now established, without a King
or House of Lords.’4 That was all. Except, of course, it was not. As
Washbourne wrote to Sanderson, oaths were sacred, so in taking this,
previous oaths were undone; but perhaps circumstances had undone them
already, perhaps it was not an oath, and perhaps it was something to be

Sanderson, ‘The Case of the Engagement’, pp. 19–21.
Gardiner, Constitutional Documents, pp. 380, 384; John M. Wallace, ‘The Engagement
Controversy, 1649–52: An Annotated Checklist of Pamphlets’, Bulletin of the New York
Public Library, 68, 6 (1964), pp. 385–6.
Marchamont Nedham, The Case of the Commonwealth Truly Stated (1650), ed. Philip
Knachel (Virginia, 1969), pp. 28–33.
Gardiner, Constitutional Documents, p. 391.

Engagement with a free state 291
taken in one’s own sense. Just what had the imposers intended and did
they have authority?5
The decision to impose an engagement had only been taken after
considerable discussion. A confrontational version was abandoned and
the one promulgated had been extended against a background of unrest.6
It was at once a symbolic proclamation of new authority and a ‘careful
indulgence’ for continuity of law.7 Whether, as some hoped, it would help
flush out malignancy was another matter.8 The loyal hardly needed it,
while ‘malignants’ and ‘apostates’ would not blench at equivocation and
perjury.9 The apparent displacement of a demand to ‘swear’, a loophole
noted by Mr Washbourne, would not have escaped wider notice. As Blair
Worden cites a contemporary newswriter, known royalists, swallowing the
Engagement with alacrity, would vomit it up with ease.10 This had some
encouragement from the exiled Charles II and such disingenuousness was
justifiable on established theories about the tacit conditions necessary for
licit oaths.11 There was, it was said, always a ‘fast and loose’ to promissory
oaths.12 So only tender consciences would be likely to agonise; if left to
sleep they would lie, if woken by a call to engage, they would make a fuss
about needing to.
None of these possibilities should have seemed strange to the imposers,
for the main issues of taking oaths to conquering powers were hardly

Sanderson, ‘The Case of the Engagement’, p. 19.
Vallance, ‘Oaths, Casuistry and Equivocation’, p. 61; Wallace, ‘Engagement Contro-
versy’, p. 386; Blair Worden, The Rump Parliament (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 213–15, 226–
31; Sarah Barber, Regicide and Republicanism: Politics and Ethics in the English
Revolution, 1646–59 (Edinburgh, 1998), pp. 174–201.
Warren, The Royalist Reform’d, p. 41.
John Moyle, cited in Worden, Rump Parliament, p. 227; cf. Margaret Sampson,
‘ “Giving Obedience for Peace and Quietnesse”: The Political Thought of Anthony
Ascham and the Engagement Controversy, 1648–50’, B.A. Hons. thesis, Australian
National University, undated, pp. 18–19; Jonathan Scott, Algernon Sidney and the
English Republic 1623–1677 (Cambridge, 1988), p. 93; Anthony Ascham, A Discourse
Wherein it is Examined, What is Particularly Lawful during the Confusions and
Revolutions of Government (1648), p. 84; Anon., Arguments & Reasons to prove the
inconvenience . . . of taking the New Engagement (?1650), p. 7.
Anon., Some considerations about the nature of an oath (1649), ms note on Folger copy.
See also Wallace, ‘The Engagement’, p. 392; John Dury, Objections against the taking of
the Engagement answered (1650), pp. 20–4.
Worden, The Rump Parliament, pp. 228, 231; but according to Clarendon, History, bk.
9, vol. IV, pp. 499–500, it was taken as an oath and many lost office because they could
not swear to it.
Sanderson, ‘The Case of Engagement’, p. 23; Vallance, ‘Oaths, Casuistry and
Equivocation’, pp. 64, 68.
Ascham (?), The Bounds and Bonds of Publique Obedience (1649), p. 48; at greater length,
Nedham, Case of the Commonwealth, pp. 41–50.
292 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
new.13 But the Engagement controversy was played out in immediate
counterpoint to The Solemn League and Covenant of 25 September 1643.
Between it and the extended Engagement England had made a conquest
of itself. Although the king’s execution had harnessed well-worn argu-
ments about tyranny releasing its victims from obligation, such casuistry
could not avoid the awkward piety of The Solemn League.14 It had been
drawn up by a parliament at war with the king, yet swearing to defend
his ‘person and authority’.15 It exemplified the ‘straights and complexi-
ties’ of identity in office but never encompassed casting ‘the Kingdome
old/ Into another Mold’.16 It had left no room for equivocation, insisting
twice that the oath was taken ‘sincerely, really and constantly’. All who
swore, with ‘hands lifted up to the most high God’ did so, as the formula
had it, according to his vocation, or calling.17 Then, in 1648, Anthony
Ascham printed an argument for settlement regardless of established
rights, for the government of England was already so dramatically altered
that the question of obedience to an illegal regime was apparent.18 The
very totality of victory had ‘destroyed the great work of time’, and thus
any purchase on traditional authority.19 So now for something completely
different, only six years after those pious covenanting arms had been so
solemnly lifted to Heaven. It is not surprising that Mr Washbourne’s
servant had to saddle up and brave the long north-easterly trudge to
Dr Sanderson. The advice, when it came, was instructive for its subtlety
and for its insistence that the sanctity of oaths is dependent upon relation-
ships of office.
Allegiance, Sanderson wrote, does not arise from any oath as such, but
is entailed in the notion of a subject and the idea of rule. Under duress it
can be suspended, but in principle, obedience to the ruler remains virtually

J. G. A. Pocock, Obligation and Authority in Two English Revolutions (Wellington, 1973),
pp. 6–7; Hunton, Treatise, pp. 4, 22–3.
See, especially, Parliament’s Declaration; Milton, Tenure; Cook, King Charls His Case;
Quentin Skinner, ‘Conquest and Consent: Thomas Hobbes and the Engagement
Controversy’, in G. E. Aylmer, ed., The Interregnum: The Quest for Settlement (London,
1972), pp. 79–81; Barber, Regicide, pp. 175–82; Gee, A Plea, pp. 42, 5, 49, 52.
Gardiner, Constitutional Documents, p. 269; Clarendon, History, bk. 7, vol. III, pp. 206–12.
Andrew Marvell, ‘An Horatian Ode of Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, in Elizabeth
Donno, ed., The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth, 1978 edn), lines 35–6. Heylyn
insisted, however, that overthrow was the whole point of parliament’s actions, Rebells
Catechism, pp. 5–8; Anon., The Iniquity of the Late Solemn League or Covenant
Discovered (1643), pp. 2–4, 5–7; Anon., Certaine Observations upon the Two Contrary
Covenants (Oxford, 1643), pp. 3–4.
Gardiner, Constitutional Documents, pp. 268, 269.
Ascham, Discourse; Wallace, ‘The Engagement’, p. 389.
Sampson, ‘Giving Obedience’, p. 9; Marvell, ‘Ode’, line 34.
Engagement with a free state 293
in the subject. Therefore, where possible, attempts should be made to
restore the king. Thus also, The Solemn League could only have been
taken in ways consistent with allegiance. As for affirming the Engagement
in one’s own sense, that was to be abhorred as equivocation. Yet, the new
king seems to permit subscription in some fashion and there is hardly any
part of the text that cannot be construed differently. Loyalty to
the Commonwealth, for example, might refer to those in power, or
to the nation or country, to which all patriots had a duty.20 Through a
detailed analysis, Sanderson offered two extreme readings: a ‘high’ one
making the Engagement a sacrilegious oath to usurpers, and a ‘low’ one
which did not preclude re-establishing allegiance to the rightful ruler. But
if the document is so demonstrably ambiguous, Sanderson suggests that
the real equivocation is to be found among the imposers; the Engagement
was much as he had understood The Protestation, deliberately evasive and
encompassing. But it is not, he assures Washbourne, the swearer’s busi-
ness to fathom motives. Invited latitude is enough to justify subscription
in a ‘low’ sense, if it cannot be avoided altogether.21 Equivocation might
be a heinous sin but nothing illustrates its accommodating elasticity better
than Sanderson’s letter.
The ‘protean ambiguity’ of the Engagement was noted by others;22
and it may well have encouraged acceptance. John Lilbourne illustrated
just how its brevity could be exploited. Always his own man, his vindica-
tion of the Engagement was an audible slap in the face to the govern-
ment.23 Mostly, however, the print controversy was more earnest and
anguished. It concentrated on adjacent issues of oath-taking in the context
of office, and these presumed the document to be read in Sanderson’s
‘high’ sense.

With qualification, John Wallace dates the beginning of the controversy
from the publication of Francis Rous’s The Lawfulness of Obeying the
Present Government, in April 1649. Wallace’s checklist of the main

Sanderson, ‘The Engagement’, pp. 21–2, 24, 29; cf. Anon., Arguments & Reasons, pp. 3–4;
cf. also Anon., Memorandums of the Conferences held between The Brethren scrupled at the
Engagement and others who were satisfied with it (1650), pp. 12, 15–16; John Lilbourne,
The Engagement Vindicated and Explained (1650), pp. 2–4.
Sanderson, ‘The Engagement’, pp. 26–8, 30–4.
Gee, A Plea, p. 10.
Lilbourne, Engagement Vindicated, at length; Commonwealth meant the people, or the
Leveller ideal; it could not mean government as trustees, any of whom could be
294 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
contributions is probably a statistically reliable guide to the undulations of
argument. In 1649 some twenty items appeared, equally divided between
those supporting the Engagement and their critics. In 1650, a further
thirty-five tracts were printed (I am excluding pirated versions of Hobbes’s
works), twenty-three favouring subscription. In 1651, of thirteen titles,
only one was hostile. In 1652 only two pro-Engagement tracts came out.24
Additionally, Edward Gee’s Divine Right and Original of the Civill Magis-
trate (1658) provides a summation of his earlier anti-Engagement argu-
ments and there was substantial comment in newspapers, poems,
broadsides and satires. Most notable was the manuscript of Marvell’s
‘Horatian Ode’ in mid-1650, printed in 1681.25 Finally, there is the cuckoo
in the nest, Leviathan, the conclusion to which, with its allusions to the
controversy, has had the effect of inserting the whole of Hobbes’s civil
philosophy into the debate. This is not without reason, as part of The
Elements of Law and Cotton’s translation of De cive gave the exiled
Hobbes a mighty presence.26 Because the discussion was assimilated to
long-standing arguments about usurpation, conquest and tyranny, the
controversy as a whole was a fly in the amber of office. The subsequent
reliance on similar tests of loyalty during the Restoration, and an
Engagement-like new oath of allegiance to William and Mary in 1689,
made sure that the initial discussions lost none of their point. Oaths
treated as necessary instruments of security, bred a nagging incubus of
doubt and a good deal of hermeneutic dexterity with which the ingenuity
of oath texts did battle.
The main debate probably fizzled out because after a period of un-
even subscription the Engagement was repealed partially in 1653 and
completely in the following year.27 The marked preponderance of pro-
Engagement tracts prior to this may evidence concerns over subscription
rates, yet the new regime was surviving. In this respect, those urging

Perhaps this should be twenty-two. Eaton’s The Oath of Allegiance is largely taken up
with ‘An Answer to a Paper’ attacking Eaton’s original position; Wallace, ‘The
Engagement’, p. 400.
See Worden, Rump Parliament, p. 231, citing A Perfect Diurnal . . . Armies (1650);
Charles Steynings, cited in David Underdown, Somerset and the Civil War and
Interregnum (Newton Abbot, 1973), p. 158; Annabelle Patterson, Marvell and the Civic
Crown (Princeton, 1976), p. 26. Other valuable studies are J. A. Mazzeo, ‘Cromwell as
Davidic King’, in Reason and the Imagination (New York, 1962); Norbrook, Writing the
English Republic, pp. 254–72; Christopher Wortham, ‘Marvell’s Cromwell Poems: An
Accidental Triptych’, in C. Condren and A.D. Cousins, eds., The Political Identity of
Andrew Marvell (Aldershot, 1990), esp. pp. 16–29.
Noel Malcolm, ‘Charles Cotton, Translator of Hobbes’s De cive’, Huntington Library
Quarterly, 61, 2 (2000), pp. 259–87.
Glenn Burgess, ‘Usurpation, Obligation and Obedience in the Thought of the
Engagement Controversy’, Historical Journal, 29 (1986), pp. 515–36.
Engagement with a free state 295
subscription were correct: people did prefer peace to another war.28
Broadly this would remain the case even though the government was
unpopular, the Rump ridiculed and the settlement sought by the ‘restless
Cromwel’ remained unsecured at his death.
The controversy of 1649–52 covered much the same ground as that
following the oath of allegiance in 1606, but there were clear differences
of emphasis. First, against a backdrop of such stark governmental change,
the nature of rule itself loomed as a central issue. Second, the relationships
between the temporal and spiritual guidance took on a new significance.
These points need explication, for the first has been misread, the second
largely overlooked.
Zagorin set the reductive terms of debate on the nature of rule: it was
all a matter of right versus might.29 While those urging refusal of the
Engagement denied the Commonwealth any right to rule, those justi-
fying subscription pointed to its might; there was no practical option
but to engage with it, hence the tag ‘de facto’ theorists. Irrespective of
Zagorin’s impatient caricature, the existence of a group of de facto theor-
ists in opposition to those adhering to the principle of de jure rule has
been unchallenged.30 A corollary to this ideological delineation has
been a strong association of the de facto writers with a secular political
The following features of argument, however, confound the accepted
polarities: that the Commonwealth originated in de facto violence and
that it had to be accepted out of prudence, utilitas or necessitas was largely
common ground.32 So too was the axiom that God instituted human
governance. This allowed both sides to make strong moral claims about
obedience to the office of rule, each relying on pragmatism and self-
interest to support argument from principle. Both sides recognised that
the Engagement demanded a moral commitment, so those defending it
would have missed its point had they mainly urged the de facto acceptance


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