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To Depose an Evil Governor, and Kill A Tyrant: John Ponet’s “Short Treatise,” Part IV

“For punishment of a tyrant among Christian men, the question is, whether it is lawful to kill such a monster and cruel beast covered with the shape of a man.”

Editor’s Note

In John Ponet’s final remarks on political philosophy, the “Marian exile” Bishop of Winchester struck at the remaining roots of late medieval royalism.  The Short Treatise’s fifth chapter dispels the feudal mythology that the king owned all the realm as his personal property.  To Ponet, the commonwealth remained the prince’s overriding and proper interest.  The good prince existed on a meager taxation and ruled wisely, purely for the good of his charges.  Should worldly rulers exceed their natural and moral authorities, however, the sixth chapter argues that the people may go so far as executing kings.  No longer should the English labor under the false feudal idea that the king’s body was a sacred instrument.  Men—which is to say all men—were by nature corrupt and fallen.  He and his contemporaries had only glance around them to see the results of evil, self-interested rulers.  The Bishop concluded that “Kings, princes, and other governors, although they are the heads of a political body, yet they are not the whole body,” and that sometimes even decapitation could be justified.  Yet if the people refused to replace wicked leaders with new heads-of-state, they had only themselves to blame should God demolish their evil society.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

A Short Treatise on Political Power, and of the true obedience which subjects our to kings and other civil governors, with an Exhortation to all true and natural English men.

Compiled by Dr. John Ponet, Bishop of Rochester and Worchester.

Chapter V. Whether All The Subject’s Goods Be The Kaisers and Kings Own, And That They May Lawfully Take Them As Their Own.

The Anabaptists wresting Scripture to serve their madness, among other foul errors, have this: that all things ought to be common, they imagine man to be of that purity that he was before the Fall, that is, clean without sin, or that (if he will) he may so be: and that as when there was no sin, all things were common, so they ought to be now.

But this mingling of the state of man before the Fall, and of him after the Fall deceives them much. For by the Fall, and ever after the Fall, this corruptible flesh of man is clogged with sin, and shall never be rid of sin, as long as it is in this corrupt world, but shall be always disposed and prone to do that which is evil. Therefore, as one means to be uncombered of the heap of sin, God ordained that man should get his living by the sweat of the brow: and that he should be the more forced to labor, the distinction of things and property (mine, and yours) was (contrary to Plato’s opinion) ordained, being apparent by these two laws: Thou shall not steal: Thou shall not covet your neighbors wife, not his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is his. Afterward, in deed, Scripture speaks of communion of things, not that they ought so to be (for so Scripture should be directly against Scripture) but that there was such charity among people, that of their own free will, they gave and sold all they had, to relieve the misery of their poor brethren: who for impotency, or for multitude of children, were not with their labor able to get sufficient to relieve their necessity. Nor of this so given might every man take as much as lusted for, but to everyone (according to his necessity) sufficient was distributed. So that it stood in the liberality of the giver, and not in the liberty of the taker.

But there are some in these days, not of the meanest or poorest sort, but of the chief and rich: that is, many wicked governors and rulers, who in this error excel the common Anabaptists. For the common Anabaptists do not only take other men’s goods as common, but are content to let their own also be common, which smacks of some charity: for they themselves do not to others, but as they themselves are content to suffer.

But the evil governors and rulers will have all that their subjects have, common to themselves, but they themselves will depart with nothing, but where they ought not: no, not so much as pay for those things, that in words they pretend to buy of their subjects, not pay those poor men their wages, whom they force to labor and toil in their works. But the manner of coming thereby is so divers, that it makes the justness of their doings much suspect. For some do it under pretense to do the people good: some by crafty and subtle means, color their doings: and some of right (but without right) claim them for their own.

Of the first sort are those, that put great taxes and impositions on drink, for as much as the people with overmuch drinking become drunkards (and so sin against God) they would seem by making them pay as much or more to them as the drink is worth, they should force them the rather to abstain from too much drinking, and so from sin. But in this it may appear they seek not abstinence from sin, and the wealth of the people, but their own private profit…

The second sort be those that rob the people indeed, yet would not have their doings known. They walk in nets, and think no man sees them. And of this kind be those, that contrary to all laws (both of God and man) and contrary to their other, changing the coin that is ordained to run between man to man, turning the substance from gold to copper, from silver to worse than pewter, and advancing and diminishing the price at their pleasure…

The third sort of these evil princes are those that claim all their subjects goods for their own, who allege for them this common saying: All things are the Kaisers, all things be the kings, all things be the princes. And as the devil brought forth Scripture to serve his purpose against Christ, so they abhorring all other parts of Scripture, that teach them their office or Christian duty, pike out only a piece that may maintain their tyranny…

But let us imagine an untruth, that all the subjects goods were the princes, and that he might take them at his pleasure. Let us imagine, that the subjects were only carnal men without knowledge and fear of God. Yes, and let it be granted also, that they were spoiled of all their armor, and great garrisons set in every place to keep them in office, so that they had not wherewith to address their injuries, as nature would counsel them: were this a way to make the people labor, when others should take the bread out of their mouths? Would they desire to increase the world with children, when they knew that they should be left in the worst estate, than unreasonable beasts? No surely, and that you may see by the work of nature in the people of the West Indies, now called New Spain: who knew of Christ nothing at all, and of God no more that nature taught them. The people of that country when the Catholic Spaniards came to them, were simple and plain men, and lived without great labor, the land was naturally so plentiful of all things, and continually the trees had ripe fruit on them. When the Spaniards had by flattery put in their foot, and little by little made themselves strong, building forts in various places, they to get the fold that was there, forced the people (that were no used to labor) to stand all the day in the hot sun gathering gold in the sand of the rivers. By this means a great number of them (not used to such pains) died, and a great number of them (seeing themselves brought from so quiet a life to such misery and slavery) of depression killed themselves. And many would not marry, because they would not have their children slaves to the Spaniards. The women when they felt themselves with child, would eat a certain herb to destroy the child in the womb. So that where at the coming of the Spaniards, there were believed to be in that country nine hundred thousand persons, there were in short time by this means so few left, as Peter Martyr (who was one of the Emperor Charles the fifth’s counsel there, and wrote this history to the Emperor) says, it was a shame for him to name.

This is the fruit, where princes take all their subjects things as their own. And where at length will it come, but that either they must be no kings, or else kings without people, which is all one. But you will say: where comes this common saying: all things be the kaisers, all things be the kings? It cannot come from nothing. But with that already said, you see that every man may keep his own, and none may take it from him, so that it cannot be interpreted, that all things be the kaisers or kings, as his own property, or that they may take them from their subjects at their pleasure, but thus it is to be expounded, that they ought to defend what every man has, that he may quietly enjoy his own, and to see that they be not robbed or spoiled thereof…The princes watch ought to defend the poor man’s house, his labor the subject’s ease, his diligence the subject’s pleasure, his trouble the subject’s quietness. And as the sun never stood still but continually goes about the world, doing his office: with his heat refreshing and comforting all natural things in the world: so ought a good prince to be continually occupied in his ministry, not seeking his own profit, but the wealth of those that are committed to his charge…

Chapter VI. Whether It Be Lawful To Depose An Evil Governor, And Kill A Tyrant.

As there is no better nor happier commonwealth nor no greater blessing of God, than where one rules, if he is a good, just, and godly man: so there is no worse nor none more miserable, nor greater plague of God, than where one rules, that is evil, unjust and ungodly. A good man knowing that he or those by whom he claims was to such office called for his virtue, to see the whole state well governed, and the people defended from injuries: neglecting utterly his own pleasure and profit, and bestows all his study and labor to see his office well discharged. And as a good physician earnestly seeks the health of his patient and a shipmaster the wealth and safeguard of those he has in his ship, so does a good governor seek the wealth of those he rules. And therefore the people feeling the benefit coming by good governors, used in times past to call such good governors, fathers: and gave them no less honor than children owe to their parents. And evil person coming to the government of any state, either by usurpation, or by election or by succession, utterly neglecting the cause why kings, princes, and other governors in commonwealths be made (that is, the wealth of the people) seeks only or chiefly his own profit and pleasure. And as a sow coming into a fair garden, roots up all the fair and sweet flowers and wholesome simples, leaving nothing behind, but her own filthy dirt: so does an evil governor subvert the laws and orders, or makes them to be wrenched or racked to serve his affections, that they can no longer do their office. He spoils the people of their goods, either by open violence, making his ministers to take it from them without payment therefore, or promising and never paying: or craftily under the mane of loans, benevolences, contributions, and such gay painted words, or forbear he gets out of their possession that they have, and never restores it. And when he has it, consumes it, not to the benefit and profit of the commonwealth, but on whores, whoremongers, dice games, cards, bankletting, unjust wars, and such evils and mischiefs, wherein he delights. He spoils and takes away from them their armor and harness, that they shall not be able to use any force to defend their right. And not content to have brought them in to such misery (to be sure of his state) seeks and takes all occasions to dispatch them of their lives. If a man keeps his house, and nothing in metal, than shall it be said that he frets at the state. If he comes abroad and speaks to any other, further with it is taken for a just conspiracy. If he says nothing, and shows a merry countenance, it is a token, that he despises the government. If he look sorrowful, than he laments the state of his country, how many so ever be for any cause committed to prison, are not only asked, but are racked also to show whether he is privy of their doings. If he departs, because he would live quietly, then he is proclaimed an open enemy. to be short, there in no doing, no gesture, no behavior, no place can preserve or defend innocence against such a governor’s cruelty: but as a hunter makes wild beasts his pray, and uses toils, nets, snares, traps, dogs, ferrets, mining and digging the ground, guns, bows, spears, and all other instruments, engines, subtle devises and means, whereby he may come by his prey: so does a wicked governor make the people his game and prey, and uses all kinds of subtleties, deceits, crafts, policies, force, violence, cruelty, and such devilish ways, to spoil and destroy the people, that be committed to his charge. And when he is not able without most manifest cruelty to do by himself that which he desires, then fain unjust causes to cast them into prison, where like as the bearwards muzzle the bears, and tie them to the stakes, while they are baited and killed by mastiffs and curies, so he keeps them in chains, while the bishops and his other tormentors and heretical inquisitors do tear and devour them. Finally, he says and denies, he promises and breaks promises, he swears and forswears, and no other passes on God nor the devil (as the common saying is) so he may bring to pass that which he desires. Such an evil governor men properly call a tyrant.

Now for as much as there is no express positive law for punishment of a tyrant among Christian men, the question is, whether it is lawful to kill such a monster and cruel beast covered with the shape of a man.

And first for the better and more plain prose of this matter, the manifold and continual examples that have been from time to time of the deposing of kings, and killing of tyrants, do most certainly confirm it to be most true, just and constant to God’s judgment. The history of kings in the Old Testament is full of it…

But here you see the body of every state may (if it will) yea and ought to redress and correct the vices and heads of their governors. And for as much as you have already seen, whereof political power and government grows, and the end where unto it was ordained: and seeing it is before manifestly and sufficiently proved, that kings and princes have not an absolute power over their subjects: that they are and ought to be subject to the law of God, and the wholesome positive laws of their country: and that they may not lawfully take or use their subjects goods at their pleasure: the reasons, arguments, and law that serve for the deposing and displacing of an evil governor, will do as much for the proof, that it is lawful to kill a tyrant, if they may be indifferently heard. As God has ordained magistrates to hear and determine private men’s matters, and to punish their vices: so also will he, that the magistrates doings be called into account and reckoning, and their vices corrected and punished by the body of the whole congregation or commonwealth…

For in some places and countries they have more and greater authority, in some places less. And in some the people have not given this authority to any other, but retain and exercise it themselves. And is any man so unreasonable to deny, that the whole may do as much as they have permitted one member to do? Or those that have appointed an office upon trust, have not authority upon just occasion (as the abuse of it) to take away that they gave? All laws do agree, that men may revoke their proxies and letters of Attorney, when it pleased them: much more when they see their proctors and attorneys abuse it…

For it is no private law to a few or certain people, but common to all: not written in books, but grafted in the hearts of men: not made by man, but ordained of God: which we have not learned, received or read, but have taken, sucked, and drown it out of nature: where unto we are not taught, but made: not instructed, but seasoned: and (as St. Paul says) man’s conscience bearing witness of it.

This law testifies to every man’s conscience, that it is natural to cut away an incurable member, which (being suffered) would destroy the whole body.

Kings, princes, and other governors, although they are the heads of a political body, yet they are not the whole body. And though they be the chief members, yet they are but members: no other are the people ordained for them, but they are ordained for the people…

Good kings, governors, and states in time past took it to be the greatest honor that could be, not to take cities and realms to their own use (when they were called to aid and relieve the oppressed) as princes do now a days: but to rescue and deliver the people and countries from the tyranny of the governors, and to restore them to their liberties…

If a prince robs and spoils his subjects, it is theft, and as a thief ought to be punished. If he kills and murders them contrary or without the laws of his country, it is murder, and a murderer he ought to be punished. If he commits adultery, he is an adulterer and ought to be punished with the same pains that others be. If he violently ravish men’s wives, daughters, or maidens, the laws that are made against ravishers, ought to be executed on him. If he goes about to betray his country, and to bring the people under a foreign power: he is a traitor, and as a traitor he ought to suffer. And those that be judges in commonwealths, ought (upon complaint) to summon and cite them to answer to their crimes, and so to proceed, as they do with others…

And where this justice is not executed, but the prince and the people play together, and one winks and bears with the others faults, there cannot be, but a most corrupt, ungodly, and vicious state, which although it prosper for a season, yet no doubt at length they may be sure, that unto them shall come that came to Sodom, Gomorrah, Jerusalem, and such other, that were utterly destroyed.

And on the other side, where the nobility and people look diligently and earnestly upon their authorities, and do see the same executed on their heads and governors, making them to yield account of their doings: than without fail will the princes and governors be as diligent to see the people do their duty. And so shall the commonwealth be godly, and prosper, and God shall be glorified in all. But you will say, that if the nobility, and those that be called to common Councils, and should be the defenders of the people, will not or dare not execute their authority: what is then to be done? The people be not so destitute of remedy, but God has provided another means, that is, to complain to some minister of the word of God, to whom the keys be given to excommunicate not only common people for all notorious and open evils: but also kaisers, kings, princes, and all other governors, when the spoil, rob, undo and kill their subjects without justice and good laws…


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