Where does our freedom come from?
Should it apply to all people?
Why was ‘Independence’ a dirty word when it first appeared? This exhibition presents newly discovered evidence that the concept of Independence in the English-speaking world emerged out of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, half a century earlier than believed.
In 1574, Travers’s treatise on reformed church government confirmed Queen Elizabeth I’s fears that the Puritans posed a threat to her political and religious authority. It was written in the company of Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor in Geneva and one of the most notorious advocates for resistance to monarchical rule in Europe. The text on this page implies that the subject’s obedience to the monarch is conditional, and that monarchs are themselves subject to divine authority.
The Travers Code
Elizabeth I formally suppressed Travers’s Puritan colleagues. Charges were drawn up against Travers. He managed to escape prosecution and stayed in favour with the most powerful men in government. Elizabeth’s chief advisor Lord Burghley backed Travers’s appointment as Provost of Trinity College Dublin in 1594. This page presents evidence that Travers carried out secret correspondence with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, who had been silenced in 1577 by suspension from his jurisdictional duties. The contents are concealed in a code devised by Travers using Greek characters.
From Publication to Prison
Travers’s colleague Henry Jacob, a Puritan minister, petitioned for religious reform when James I acceded to the English throne in 1603. Disillusioned by the monarchy’s failure to reform the church Jacob developed a radical case for religious liberty. His ideas were published in a series of treatises. In this text, he argued for the power of the people to determine ecclesiastical matters by their ‘free consent.’ This idea posed a serious threat to royal and clerical authority over the church and was deemed so dangerous that he was imprisoned soon after first publishing these ideas in 1604.
The First 'Declaration of Independence'?
This tract represents Henry Jacob’s most explicit defence of Independence: the view that freedom exists in the absence of any dependence on a higher authority. On this page he declares that ‘the only true Constitution [of] … every visible church of Christ … [is] having power of free Consent ordinarily in their owne Church affaires & so in power is independent.’ Jacob further justified the natural right of the people to create new religious societies based on this idea of freedom: ‘This liberty and power…bee the peoples right; and [they are] command[ed] earnestly to use it, alwaies.’ Acting on this principle, in 1616 Jacob secretly established the first Independent church on English soil. This placed power directly in the hands of the Puritan congregation in defiance of royal and clerical authority.
Echoing the social order of the classical world, Travers reserved freedom for an elite group of male citizens. In contrast, Jacob was the first person in England to broaden the classical idea of freedom by applying it to the New Testament. Thus its potential application became universal, cutting across social rank and gender. In this extensive refutation of Jacob’s view, Travers coined the term ‘Independency’ and condemned Jacob’s idea as a ‘disease.’ He alleged that Jacob was a man who would ‘begin a new world.’ Ironically this anticipated the subsequent viral spread of Independence in the English Revolution and Jacob’s later emigration to America.
The 'Independents’ became a derogatory label for revolutionaries in the mid-seventeenth century. Members of Jacob’s Independent congregation, and its offshoots, played a central role in events which culminated in the trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649. One such Independent, Colonel Thomas Pride forcibly removed conservative members of parliament. Clement Walker criticised the revolutionary actions of the ‘Independents’, alleging that the army and its allies deliberately hindered a settlement with the monarch and sought power for themselves.
Some of the boldest arguments for religious toleration appeared during the English Civil Wars. Citing Henry Jacob, the Independent clergyman John Goodwin called for a broad religious toleration, based on the idea that individuals, including women, were capable of judging both spiritual and political matters for themselves. Placing such authority directly into the hands of the people represented a crucial step towards the Independence of religious and political thought.
Some religious 'Independents', including Jacob, emigrated to the American colonies, where they spearheaded bold experiments with religious and political freedom. Jacob died shortly after his arrival in Virginia, but his ideas continued to spread and flourish. Nathaniel White defended Independence and religious freedom in Bermuda and the Bahamas informed by John Goodwin’s argument for religious toleration and by Henry Jacob’s ideas about the church.
Dr Polly Ha
University of East Anglia
Manuscripts & Archives Research Library
Images: Gillian Whelan
Digital Resources & Imaging Services
Technical support: Greg Sheaf
Digital Systems and Services
With thanks to Dr Jason McElligott and Marsh’s Library, Dublin, for permission to film their copy of The Royall Oake of Brittayne.