When the Party of the Puritan Moses Slew Their King

On January 30, 1649, the revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, working with his rebel parliament, beheaded King Charles I in England. Cromwell styled himself a “Puritan Moses,” and believed he was guided by the finger of God. He was also known as the “General of the Parliament.” His military successes buttressed his view that he was divinely appointed to establish Christ’s kingdom on earth and the long-awaited reign of the saints in the Church.

First the Puritan party, which had gained control of the English Parliament, held King Charles prisoner for three years. During that time, Cromwell constantly pressed the king for concessions to remove his power and increase parliament’s. But the beleaguered king would not agree to more than he had already given away (which was too much), so finally the time came to do away with him. The rebels brought a charge of treason against the lawful head of the state.

I can’t go into all the background here, but I will in Part 2 of the Story of the Matthew Bible. (It’s important, in order to understand many of the changes made to the Scriptures, and especially the notes, in the Geneva Bible.) Suffice to say, to help trump up a treason charge against Charles, parliament passed a resolution shortly before the trial declaring that “by the fundamental laws of the kingdom, it was treason in the king of England for the time being to levy war against the parliament and the kingdom of England.” The prosecutor at the specially constituted tribunal fanatically denounced Charles as the very image of “Nimrod, the first tyrant.”

Charles protested that the proceedings were illegal, because a king could not be tried by any superior jurisdiction on the earth. But these men were a law unto themselves. After they obtained Charles’ conviction on January 20, 1649, they stayed his execution for ten days to pass an Act prohibiting the proclaiming any person to be King of England or Ireland, or the dominions thereof. This made it an offence to proclaim a successor after the King died. Now no one, not even Charles’ lawful heir, could fill his shoes after they killed him. The goal was of course to undo the monarchy entirely, so that they could call the shots.

Finally then, with all their ducks in a row, the party of the Puritan Moses, after a long season of humiliating their true and right king, slew him. As his severed head fell from his body, there was a stunned silence, and then a long groan from the onlookers. Soon after, Charles’ statue was thrown down, and on the pedestal was engraved the inscription Exit tyrannus regum ultimus or The last of the tyrant kings passes away. Thus was he dishonoured right to the end.

When foreign governments would not deal with Cromwell’s illegal government, parliament appointed the poet John Milton as Latin Secretary to the Council of State, a kind of foreign ambassador, to champion their cause. Milton was the poet who had earlier penned the line, “Presbyter is but Old Priest writ large,” but he sold out to the Presbyters. Historian Goldwin Smith explains “It is on a principle something like that of the social contract that [Milton] bases the responsibility of kings, and maintains the right of tyrannicide in default of more regular justice.”(1)

But what is this principle of the “social contract” or “compact”? It was straight from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and other writings, which developed a doctrine of revolution based on God’s “natural law” and a “king’s compact.” To put is simply and clearly, Calvin taught that if a king or other high ruler breached his supposed “compact” with the people required by the supposed natural law, then lower level public officials may rise up against him. Therefore, Calvin’s “natural law” trumps the laws of the state.

Oxford Professor Herbert Foster put Calvin’s teaching together quite clearly in his essay The Political Theories of Calvinists before the Puritan Exodus to America. Foster is sympathetic to Calvin and the Puritans, but the discerning reader will (hopefully) see the terrible leaven that lurks herein. (It is always best to go to the source and learn what the advocates themselves say.)

For more study, see Theodore Beza’s book Droits des Magistrats. In it, Beza justified revolution to protect the people’s liberty, and also justified regicide as “tyrannicide.”  Beza’s treatise became a major manifesto of Puritanism, and the constant war-cry “tyrant, tyrant” was one of the slogans that stirred up simple,  gullible people, and fuelled the Puritan revolution in England.

(1) Goldwin Smith, The United Kingdom: Political History, Vol. I (Toronto: The Copp Clark Company, 1899), page 576.