In the second half of the sixteenth century both Protestant and Catholic writers began to construct theories of resistance to authority.
British theories of resistance
The first to do this were English Protestants in the reign of Mary I (1553-8) when Protestant exiles conducted a vigorous campaign in print against her religious policies, her Spanish marriage and the fact that she was a woman.
In his A Short Treatise of Politic Power (1556) John Ponet (c. 1514-56), bishop of Winchester, exiled in Strassburg, maintained that the power of the monarch rested on a contract with his people. This meant that their obedience was conditional: they would obey him as long as he ruled justly. Should he break this contract by depriving his subjects of their goods or murdering them, the people had the right to rebel and replace him with a leader more to their taste. In extreme circumstances they had a right to assassinate an evil ruler. Ponet’s justification of tyrannicide was not taken up in later centuries but his contract theory was to influence John Locke and provide the basis for the American Declaration of Independence.
In Geneva the Marian exiles were especially uncompromising. One of these exiles, Christopher Goodman published How Superior Powers ought to be Obeyed in 1558. Goodman believed that England was bound by the covenant God made with the Israelites. As prescribed in Deuteronomy, the ruler had to be a native-born male of the true religion. This meant that Mary ruled illegitimately; she was a murderous queen who had handed the country over to foreign idolaters and it was the duty of the magistrates (or, failing them, the people) to depose her.
The most famous attack on female rulers was John Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment [Rule] of Women. Unfortunately for Knox and Goodman the year that saw the publication of their books also saw the accession of Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth refused to allow them entry into England so they went to Scotland instead. The accession of Elizabeth forced some Protestants into rethinking their views about women rulers. From the beginning of her reign Elizabeth was portrayed as the new Constantine (the restorer of true religion) and Deborah (the ‘mother in Israel’).
Huguenot resistance theory
The St Bartholomew massacre radicalized French Huguenots in the same way that Mary Tudor’s religious persecution radicalized the English Protestants. In both cases a woman was to blame!
In 1573 the lawyer François Hotman published Francogallia. He grounded his arguments in secular political theory rather than religious polemic, arguing that the original constitution of France dated from the Gauls and gave only limited powers to the monarch. Originally, French kings were nothing but magistrates elected by assemblies of the people, and it was these assemblies rather than the monarch that had the power to make laws, decide on war and peace and confer honours. If the king was a tyrant, the assembly had the power to depose him and to appoint a successor. Like Knox, Hotman argued that a woman ruler was an aberration of nature and that history showed that queens were more savage and tyrannical than kings. Subjects therefore had a duty to depose (if necessary, to assassinate) female rulers.
Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Calvin’s successor at Geneva did not go as far as Hotman in arguing that the people had the right to overthrow the ruler – this should be the duty of the magistrates. However in his The Right of Magistrates over their Subjects he suggested that an individual assassin might act against a ruler who had turned oppressor.
The most celebrated Huguenot tract was the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579) which developed the Old Testament doctrine of the covenant: the tract argued that there were two covenants, one between king and people jointly on the one hand, and God on the other; the second contract one between the people and the king. According to contract theory, the people had given their power to the king conditionally, and if the king broke his side of the bargain, the people – represented by the magistrates - were freed from the duty of obedience.
Contract theory stripped monarchy of its mystique. The king was no longer the ‘Lord’s Anointed’ but a man like any other who held his power by consent.
Catholic resistance theory
Similar political theories were also being developed by the enemies of the Huguenots – the propagandists of the Catholic League. Using arguments similar to those of Knox and Goodman, they argued that no heretic could rule. When Henry III ordered the assassination of the Duke of Guise, the League turned against him and began to argue for a right of resistance even to a Catholic ruler. In their writings, the Leaguers bypassed the magistrates and argued for popular sovereignty and treated Jacques Clément, the assassin of Henry III as a hero. The Just Authority of a Christian Commonwealth, possibly written by an English exile, William Reynolds, called for an end to hereditary kingship and the popular election of rulers after the Church had declared them fit for office. If the ruler proved unjust, then the people could declare him subject to tyrannicide.
The most active Catholic resistance theorists were the Jesuits. In 1595 the English Jesuit Robert Persons waded into the succession controversy at the end of Elizabeth’s reign by arguing that the people had the right to depose an ungodly monarch. The Spaniard
Juan de Mariana (1536-1624) (left) defended the assassination of Henry III. This was too extreme for most Jesuits and the mainline position was set out by Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) who argued that only the pope could depose rulers and that only for endangering the souls of the people.
Sovereignty and the divine right of kings
In the light of the political instability in the second half of the sixteenth century, and in particular, the chaos on France, resistance theories ran into strong opposition, most notably in Jean Bodin’s Six Books of the Republic (1576). In place of the medieval theory of a mixed monarchy, Bodin put forward a new doctrine (though one with its origins in Roman law) – that of sovereignty. By sovereignty he meant supreme authority in the state, with the power to make, enforce and judge law. In times of peace the sovereign had certain restraints on his power – he could not break contracts or seize property – but in time of emergency his authority was absolute.
Bodin’s theory was fundamentally secular but it went hand in hand with the religious doctrine of the divine right of kings. Listen here to Melvyn Bragg's In our Time programme on the subject. Kings were established on their thrones by God, they were anointed with holy oil which gave their kingship a sacral quality, and their right to rule was hereditary. This theory was set out in James VI’s True Law of Free Monarchies (1598). It formed the foundation of the French absolutist state in the 17th century.
Shakespeare’s plays express the flux of late 16th century political theory. Julius Caesar condemns tyrannicide but presents Brutus sympathetically (in contrast to Dante who placed him in the lowest circle of hell). King Lear shows the folly of a ruler who divests himself of his power. Macbeth and Hamlet are about the murders of monarchs. The most ambivalent play of all is Richard II, which was written in 1595 and staged again in 1599 to coincide with the earl of Essex’s rebellion. Its most controversial scene – the deposition of the king- was never performed. At the end it is left unclear whether the deposition of Richard was justified but in the plays that followed Shakespeare showed the dreadful consequences of the deposition and murder of an anointed king.