If He Doesn’t Do Right, He Doesn’t Get to Be King (And You Don’t Have to Obey Him)

Real history, not the pop-history of apologists, is incredibly fascinating. I’ve written a number of posts on this blog and research papers as well outlining the fact that from the earliest times all the way up to the eve of the Reformation, there were two parallel traditions about what “authority” in the Church was. One tradition said the king (ecclesiastically speaking the pope) was sovereign, above the law, unaccountable to anyone on earth and indeed answerable only to God in the next life. The other tradition said the king (ecclesiastically speaking the pope) was fundamentally limited in his power by the consent of the community that he governed, subject to the law as an external source of authority which he could not control, and accountable on this earth and in this life to those whom he governed.

These contradictory traditions developed side-by-side in the Christian Church and the societas Christiana (Christian society) of which she was an integral part for many centuries, and it is simply false to the records we possess to imagine, as may Roman Catholics who are anything but “deep in history” represent things, that the tradition of limited government was only ever held by “heretics” and “rebels” who contumaciously attempted to destroy God’s Own Ordained Way of Doing Things. As I said, I’ve chronicled the parallel traditions in many posts and papers here, and interested readers unfamiliar with this theme of my work will want to begin perusing the archives.

Today I officially began my research for my Master’s thesis, which is going to be on the topic of “The Political Use of the Saint Cult of Edward the Confessor.” Edward’s reign and the pious mythology that was built up around it after his death by the native Anglo-Saxon church as one of its ways of culturally surviving the traumas of the Norman Conquest (1066) is a fascinating lens through which to examine the contradictory and parallel traditions about authority in Western Christian society. I will likely write more about this as my research continues, but for now let me just whet your appetite with the following provocative citation from the Laws of Edward the Confessor:

The King, because he is the vicar of the highest king, is appointed for this purpose, to rule the earthly kingdom, and the Lord’s people, and, above all things, to reverence his holy church, to govern it, and to defend it from injuries; to pluck away wicked doers, and utterly to destroy them: which, unless he do, the name of a king agreeth not unto him, but he loseth the name of a king.:”(As cited by Janelle Greenberg in “The Confessor’s Laws and the Radical Face of the Ancient Constitution,” in The English Historical Review, Vol. 104, No. 412 [Jul., 1989], pg. 617.)”:

Why is this interesting? Consider that it comes from the 11th century, which is the same time that the papacy, under Pope Gregory VII, began its meteoric (but short-lived) rise to political dominance over Western Christendom. Right at the beginning of the high papalist scheme of authority in the Church, we here see the contrary principle being articulated in the secular sphere, with the secular king being given the title not just of “vicar of God,” but also of governor and defender of the Church. Notice also the fact that his status as these things is directly dependent upon his fulfilling his responsibilities as king both to God and to his people. Should he fail to fulfill his responsibilities, says this portion of Edward the Confessor’s Laws, then he forfeits his right to be called “king” – a fact which immediately implies that his subjects may lawfully – not “rebelliously” – resist his claims to have authority over them.

Many later political writers relied upon Edward’s Laws – or more importantly, upon their repeated reception by the kings themselves – to argue that there was a confluence of biblical, natural, and common law which fundamentally limited the power of kings and made them accountable to those whom they governed. As one, Bracton, would later put it, “the king should exercise the power of law as God’s agent and servant; the power to do wrong is of the devil, not of God. When the king stoops to crime, he is the devil’s servant.”:”(Cited in ibid., pg. 629.)”:

Friends, this sort of language is exactly what developed in the Church as well throughout the 12th to 15th centuries leading up to the Reformation, as bishops, theologians, canon lawyers, and philosophers carried on an intensive debate about the nature and limitations of the power of the pope. What the Laws of Edward the Confessor here state about the secular king comes to be widely accepted about the ecclesiastical king as well, and this fact directly underwrites the Reformation’s lawful resistance to the lawless tyranny of the papacy. The Reformation was not a “rebellion” against lawful authority; it was a lawful protest against the occupiers of an office which, whatever its original good intentions, had become a simple feudal tyranny and which by so doing had destroyed its own claim to legitimate authority.

Stay tuned for more!

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