James I and the Puritans: John Spiller Assesses James I's Impact on the Puritans and the Puritans' Impact on James I

By Spiller, John | History Review, September 2008 | Go to article overview

James I and the Puritans: John Spiller Assesses James I's Impact on the Puritans and the Puritans' Impact on James I


Spiller, John, History Review


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The Self-Styled 'Godly'

The Puritans embraced a range of views on religion, society and the role of monarchy. There were especially important differences among them relating to how the state church should be governed, and these may have confused Elizabeth I regarding what the majority of them believed.

Separatists amongst them posed the greatest threat to the unity of the via media (middle way) Queen Elizabeth established in the Church of England in 1559. They maintained that congregations should be free to worship separately, outside a national church structure. Independents wanted to have some degree of congregational autonomy within a looser national church structure, while moderate Puritans generally supported the idea of a national framework, with the monarch as head of a state church buttressed by bishops. Presbyterians, who were not as numerous in England as in Scotland, agreed with a national framework but wanted bishops replaced by elders and national synods, and they were also against the idea of the monarch being head of the church. James VI of Scotland had had his fill of the Presbyterian Kirk, but he had been raised as a Calvinist and many English Puritans anticipated his arrival eagerly as King James I of England in 1603.

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Most, though not all, Puritans believed in a Calvinist theology centred on predestination, sermons, the Bible and respect for the Sabbath. They emphasised individual faith and preaching, which they wanted to be based more on the Bible than the Book of Common Prayer of 1559. Most Puritans felt strongly that there should be some sort of 'reformation of manners' to stop drunkenness, fornication (intercourse outside marriage), adultery, swearing and immoral conduct. They also wished to remove certain abuses from the Church of England, including all traces of the old Catholic faith.

Puritan Petitioning

The best organised and best known of all the petitions which were presented to James following his accession to the English throne was that which became known as the Millenary Petition (allegedly signed by 1,000 members of the clergy, but undoubtedly supported by thousands more). It was presented to him en route from Scotland by men who, by their own definition, were 'neither factious ... nor schismatics' but 'loyal subjects'. Men such as Henry Jacob, Arthur Hildersham and Thomas Cartwright, who were behind the petition, were not Separatists but did want change. The first section of the petition focused on the removal of 'popish remnants' (such as the use of the ring in marriage, the mandatory wearing of the cap and surplice, and the term 'priest') and on aspects of the church service. It urged stricter Sabbath observance and the cutting down of the service time in church. The petition also called for good quality clergy who could preach. The petitioners thought this might be aided by improving financial provision for ministers, which in turn would put an end to the need for pluralism (the holding of more than one parish by a minister) and the consequent problem of non-residence. A total of 3,849 out of 9,244 parish livings were possessed by laymen, some of whom held livings open and, rather than appointing ministers, paid a curate on a lower wage, while also collecting the tithes and rents due and paying only a small fraction to the Church.

Following further agitation in Sussex, James banned religious petitions from those who, he said, 'seditiously seek reformation in church matters'. The use of the term 'seditiously' gives some indication of how strongly he objected to some of his petitioners and regarded the threat they posed. Despite his apparent annoyance, however, he had agreed to hold a conference to discuss the issues raised by the Millenary Petition.

The Vice Chancellor, the Doctors, proctors and other heads of Houses at Oxford University advised James that the Millenary Petition threatened 'the utter overthrow of the present Church government'--exactly what the petitioners professed they did not want--and 'the setting up of a Presbitery in every parish'. …

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