1534 - 1776

Discover the Birth of Independence

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

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. 

The Birth of Independence
It has been thought that the first ‘Independents’ to challenge the rule of monarchy appeared in England soon after the Scottish and Irish rebellions against King Charles I from 1637-1641. However, manuscripts which belonged to the Puritan Walter Travers (c. 1548-1635), Provost of Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1590s, prove that Independence had been in fermentation for a long period beforehand. 
When King Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, the crown claimed supreme authority over the Church of England. The earliest ‘Independents’ emerged in an underground Puritan movement against the Church of England’s hierarchy at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1603. They argued for a particular view of Independence that was shocking at the time: the view that it was not enough to be left alone to do as they pleased. They insisted upon a guarantee of religious Independence to ensure that no one could ever interfere with their beliefs. 

Royal Insult

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.

Royal Insult (audio)

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.

From Publication to Prison (audio)

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.

Universal Scandal

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.

Universal Scandal (audio)

Cutting Criticism

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.

The Royall Oake of Brittayne

This satirical woodcut draws attention to the humble nature of 'Independents' in the English Revolution. Their actions are seen to be illegitimate as they seize power and property which rightfully belong to the King and Commonwealth.

Universal Freedom?

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.

Universal Freedom? (audio)

Planting Independence

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.

Planting Independence (audio)
Conclusion
The idea of Independence and the possibility of universal freedom, concepts first espoused by Jacob and his Puritan colleagues in a religious context, became enshrined in the American identity. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence set a global precedent as the first national ‘birth certificate’. This exhibition reveals that its sentiment may be traced back to the Puritan ‘Independents’. For further context see http://historyofindependence.com/tcd
Polly Ha
Credits: Story

Curation:
Dr Polly Ha
University of East Anglia
Claire Allen
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.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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