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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

1 - Constitutional Royalism Reconsidered: Myth or Reality?


Charles I built up support for his position on the eve of the English civil war, we have long been told, by representing himself as a constitutional monarch committed to upholding the rule of law. According to James Daly, royalist writers of the civil war were ‘at pains to claim that the king's powers were legally limited’: they sought to defend Charles I ‘in his new coat of limited monarchy’, which was ‘the monarchy as overhauled in 1641’. For Conrad Russell, the civil war royalists were not ‘absolutists’ but as ‘attached to the principles of the rule of law’ as their parliamentarian opponents. David Smith, in his book-length study of constitutional royalism, while acknowledging that some civil war royalists remained quite absolutist, pointed to the existence of a significant and influential group – politicians such as Edward Hyde, Viscount Falkland, Sir John Culpepper and the earls of Dorset and Southampton, and pamphleteers such as Dudley Digges, Henry Ferne, John Bramhall and Robert Sheringham – who ‘were united in seeing England as a limited monarchy where royal government operated within the rule of law’. Such views have not gone unchallenged. Paul Seaward, Glenn Burgess, David Scott and Johann Sommerville have all warned against positing too stark a dichotomy between alleged constitutionalists and absolutists, suggesting that the former's constitutionalist credentials can often be found suspect, while even supposed absolutists believed that the English monarchy was in some way limited. Nevertheless, the idea that Charles I repositioned himself as a constitutional monarch from 1642 onwards, and that those who fought for him embraced a vision of monarchy that was limited by law and by the constitution, continues to hold considerable traction. As Richard Cust has recently put it, Charles I on the eve of the civil war ‘set out to present himself as the constitutional monarch par excellence’. Alan Cromartie has written of ‘the royalism invented in 1642’.

From the later-Stuart perspective, however, the political thought of the supposed constitutional royalists does not appear particularly constitutionalist. John Locke, in his Second Treatise, famously complained of ‘a generation of men’ who flattered princes that they had ‘a divine right to absolute power’, endorsed Bodinian notions of indivisible sovereignty and insisted that there were ‘no jurisdictional limitations upon the Crown’.