“Evil customs (be they never so old) are not to be suffered, but to be utterly abolished: and none may prescribe to do evil, whether king or subject.”

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

When Martin Luther nailed his ninety‐​five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, he inaugurated a movement that transformed European civilization. During the ensuing “Century of Iron,” (ca. 1520s‐​1650s) Europeans slaughtered one another in wholesale orgies of religious violence throughout the entire continent: The start was the German peasant rebellions. Protestants seized Switzerland and fought Catholic forces. Catholic armies under the Holy Roman Emperor attempted to crush the Lutheran Schmalkaldic League. Dutch Protestants revolted against the Catholic Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs for eighty years. As many as four million French died as a result of their own thirty‐​six years of religious civil war. Eight million Europeans (including roughly ten per cent of all Germans) expired during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). The English Civil War remains the most costly war in British history (when the death toll is measured as a percentage of the population). Through it all–and the above list is far from exaustive–the people suffered and states grew immensely powerful. Empire fueled war, war fueled empire, and by the end of the “Century of Iron,” massive nation‐​state militaries and navies battled each other on a global scale for the first time in human history.

It was in this context of intense intellectual, political, and social upheaval that the Anglican Bishop of Winchester began his theological studies. John Ponet earned his BA from Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1533 and his MA in 1535. From Queens’, Ponet joined the Anglican priesthood, inaugurating a somewhat short, though fabulously storied, career in the church. Always the renegade, Ponet defied the Parliament’s standing ban on clerical marriage and wed in 1548. He was arrested in 1549 for his involvement in court intrigue, but emerged from the affair being elected Bishop. He failed, however, to escape the Catholic reconquest of England during the reign of Mary I (1553–1558). Fleeing with roughly 800 fellow Protestant elites, Ponet spent the last years of his life exiled in Strasbourg. Seething, stuck in Germany, and fuming with hatred for the Catholic queen of England, Ponet published his Short Treatise on Political Power shortly before his death (1556). In this second set of selections from Ponet, our very agitated author condemns the notion of absolute government authority and argues that all men are subject to the laws of nature.

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

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

Chapter II. Whether Kings, Princes, and other Governors have absolute power and authority over their subjects.

For as much as those that be the rulers in the world, and would be taken for gods (that is, the ministers and images of God here in earth, the examples and mirrors of all godliness, justice, equity, and other virtues) claim and exercise an absolute power, which also they call a fullness of power, or prerogative to do what they lust, and none may contradict them: to dispense with the laws as it pleases them, freely and without correction or offense do contrary to the law of nature, and other god’s laws, and the positive laws and customs of their countries, or break them: and use their subjects as men do their animals, and as lords do their villains and bondsmen, getting their goods from them by hook and crook, with sic volo, sic jubeo, and spending it to the destruction of their subjects: the misery of this time requires us to examine whether they do it rightfully or wrongfully, that if it be rightful, the people may the more willingly obey and receive the same: if it be wrongful, then those that use it may leave it for fear of God. For (no doubt) God will come and judge the world with equity, and revenge the cause of the oppressed. Of the popes power (who believes himself one, yes, the chief of these kind of gods, yes, above them all, and fellow to the God of God’s) we mind not now to treat: no other is a requisite. For all men, yes half women and babes can well judge, that his power is worthy to be laughed at: and were it not bolstered and propped up with the sword and faggot, it would (as it will notwithstanding) shortly lie in the mire, for it is not built on the Rock, but on sand, not planted by the Father of Heaven, but by the devil of hell, as the fruits manifestly declare. But we will speak of the power of kings and princes, and such potentates, rulers, and governors of commonwealths.

Before you have heard how for a great long time, that is until after the general flood, there was no civil or political power, and how it was then first ordained by God Himself, and for what purpose He ordained it: that is (to comprehend all briefly) to maintain justice: for everyone doing his duty to God, and one to another, is but justice. You have heard also how states, political bodies, and commonwealths have authority to make laws for the maintenance of the policy, so that they are not contrary to God’s law and the laws of nature: which, if you note well the question before propounded whether kings and princes have absolute power, shall appear not doubtful, or if any world affirms it, that he shall not be able to maintain it. First with God’s laws (by which name also the laws of nature are comprehended) kings and princes are not joined makers here with God, so that thereby of themselves they might claim any interest or authority to dissolve them or dispense with them, by this maxim or principal, that He that may knit together, may loose asunder: and He that may make, may marry: for before magistrates were, God’s laws were. Neither can it be proved that by God’s word they have any authority to dispense or break them: but that they are still commanded to do right, to minister justice, and not to swerve, neither on the right hand or on the left…

If we will not submit ourselves to God’s judgment expressed by his word, as Christians should, let us mark the result: and thereby gather God’s judgment, as Ethnarcs do. For when we have wrought our wits our, and devised and done what we can, we can not exclude God, but he will have a word with us.

God’s word, will and commandment is, that he that willfully kills a man, shall also be killed by man: that is, the magistrate. But this law has not been observed and all ways executed, but kings and princes upon affection have dispensed and broken it, granting life and liberty to traitors, robbers, murderers, and etc.

But what has followed as a result of it? Have they (whose offenses have been so pardoned) afterwards shown themselves penitent to God, and thankfully profitable to the commonwealth? No, God and the commonwealth have had no greater enemies. They have added murder to murder, mischief to mischief, and of private malefactors, have become public, and of men killers, they have at length grown to be destroyers of their country, yes and many times those that have been saved from hanging and other just pains of the law. And this is no marvel: for God does not only punish the principals and authors of such mischief, but also those that are accessories and maintainers of it, and plagues iniquity with iniquity. You may likewise see what fruits have followed, were popes have dispensed, that marriages might be made contrary to God’s laws. We shall not need to rehearse any? The end will declare all. But let us leave to reason that, wherein something may be said: that is, whether kings and princes may do things contrary to the positive laws of their country. For example:

It is a positive law that a mean kind of apparel, or a mean kind of diet should be used in a commonwealth, to the intent that men leaning the excess thereof, where many occasions both to destroy nature and to offend God follow, they might convert that they spent evil, to the relief of the poverty, or defense of their country.

Answer this question, this divisions ought to be made, that there be two kinds of kings, princes, and governors.

The one, who alone may make positive laws, because the whole state and body of their country have given, and resigned to them their authority to do so: which nevertheless is rather to be thought a tyranny than a king, as Dionisius, Philippus, and Alexander were, who saved whom they would and plundered whom they desired. And the other be such, unto whom the people have not given such authority, but keep it themselves: as we have before said concerning the mixed state.

It is true that in indifferent matters, that is of themselves be neither good nor evil, hurtful, or profitable, but for a decent order: kings and princes (to whom the people have given their authority) may make such laws, and dispense with them. But in matters that are not indifferent, but godly and profitably ordained for the commonwealth, they can not (for all their authority) break them or dispense with them…

If this were tolerable, then is it in vain to make solemn assemblies of the whole state and long parliaments? Yes (I beseech you) what certainty should there be in anything, where all should depend on one’s will and affection? But it will be said that although kings and princes cannot make laws, but with the consent of the people, they may dispense with any positive law, by reason that a long time ago they used to, and prescribed so to do: for long custom makes a law.

To this it may be answered that evil customs (be they never so old) are not to be suffered, but to be utterly abolished: and none may prescribe to do evil, whether king or subject. If the laws appoint you to the term of thirty or forty years to claim a sure and perfect interest in what you enjoy, yet if you know that either yourself or those by whom you claim came wrongfully by it, you are not in deed a perfect owner of it, but are bound to restore it. Although the laws of man do excuse and defend you from outward trouble and punishment, yet they do not quiet the conscience, but when your conscience remembers that you enjoy is not yours, it will convict you that you have done wrong: it will accuse you before the judgment of God, and condemn you. And if princes and governors would show themselves to be half as wise as they would have men take them to be, and by the example of others learn what mischief might happen to themselves, they would not (if they might) claim, much less execute any such absolute authority. No, neither would their counselors (if they loved them) maintain them in it: nor would the subjects suffer their prince to do what he lusted for.

For the one purchases for themselves a perpetual uncertainty of life and goods: and the other procures the hatred of all, although it be colored and dissembled for a season, yet it does not at length burst out, and works the revenge with extremity…

He is a good citizen that does not do evil (so said a noble wise man) but he is better who does not allow others to hurt or do injustice to the innocent. For the blood of the innocent shall be demanded not only from those that shed blood, but also of those that make or consent to wicked laws, to condemn the innocent, or suffer their head to kill them contrary to just laws, or to spoil then of what they justly enjoy be the order of law.

Now kings, princes, and governors of commonwealths have not, not can justly claim, and absolute authority, but the end of their authority is the maintenance of justice, to defend the innocent, and to punish evil. And that so many evil and mischiefs may follow, where such absolute and, indeed, tyrannical power is usurped: let us pray that they may know their duty, and discharge themselves to God and to the world, or else that those which have the authority to reform them, may know and do their duty, that the people finding and acknowledging the benefit of good rulers, may thank God for them, and everyone labors to do their duty: and that saying‐​the head is not spared, but evil sin is punished‐​they may be more willing to abstain from tyranny and other evil doings, and do their duties, and all glorify God.

Chapter III. Whether Kings, and other Governors are subject to God’s laws, and the positive laws of their country.

One who observes the proceedings of princes and governors in these days will note how ambitious they are to usurp the dominions of others, and how negligent they are to see their own well governed, might think that wither there is no God, or that he has no care for the things of this world: or they think themselves exempt from God’s laws and power. But the wonderful overthrow of their devices (when they think themselves most sure and certain) is so manifest, that it is not possible to deny that there is a God, and that he cares for the things of this world. And His word is so plain that none can contradict that they are to be subject and obedient to God’s laws and word. For the whole Decalogue and every part thereof is written as well to kings, princes, and other public persons, as it is to private persons. A king may no more commit idolatry than a private man: he may not take the name of God in vain, he may not break the Sabbath, no more than any private man. It is not lawful for him to disobey his parents, to kill any person contrary to God’s laws, to be a whoremonger, to steal, to lie and bear false witness, to desire and covet any man’s house, wife, servant, maid, ox, ass, or anything that belongs to another, more than any other private man. No, he is bound and charged under great pains to keep them more than any other, because he is both a private man in respect of his own person, and a public figure in respect to his office, which may appear in a great many places which I will recite. The Holy Ghost said by the mouth of a king and a prophet: “And now you kings understand, and be learned you that judge the earth. Serve the Lord in fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son (that is, receive with honor), lest the Lord become angry, and you lose the way, when His wrath shall in a moment be kindled.” And in another place: “The Lord upon your right hand shall smite and break into pieces even kings in the day of His wrath.” Isaiah, the prophet, also says: “The Lord shall come to judgment against the princes and elders of the people.” Likewise, the Prophet Micah speaks to all princes and governors under the heads of the house of Jacob, and the leaders of the house of Israel: “Hear all you princes and governors. Should you not know what was lawful and right? But you hate the good, and love evil, you pluck off men’s skin, and the flesh from their bones: you chop them into pieces, as it were in to a caldron, and as flesh in to a pot. Now the time shall come that when you call unto the Lord, He shall not hear you, but hide His face from you, because through your own imaginations you have dealt wickedly.” And again he says: “O hear all you rulers and governors, you that abhor the thing that is lawful, and waste aside the thing that is straight: you that build up Zion with blood, your majesty and tyranny with wrong doing.” So may Zion and Jerusalem be well expounded: “O you judges, you give sentence for gifts: O you priests, you teach for lucre: O you prophets, you prophesy for money: yet they will be taken as those that hold upon God and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? How can any misfortune happen to us?’ But Zion (that is, your cities) for your sakes shall be plowed like a field: and Jerusalem (that is, your palaces) shall become a heap of stones, and the hill of the Temple (that is, your monasteries, friaries, and chantrys) shall become a high forest.” The Holy Ghost also speaks by the mouth of King Solomon: “Hear, O you kings, and understand. O learn you that be judges of the ends of the earth. Give ear, you that rule the multitudes, and delight in many people. For the power is given unto you is from the Lord, and the strength from the high heavens, who shall try you works, and search out your imaginations, how you being officers of His kingdom have not kept the law of righteousness, nor walked in His will. Horribly and soon He shall appear to you, for upon the highest among you, He will execute a most severe judgment. Mercy is granted unto the simple, but those that are in authority shall be punished. For God, who is Lord over all, shall not regard any man’s person, neither shall He regard any man’s greatness, for He cares alike for all. But the mighty shall have a sorer punishment. To you therefore (O princes) do I speak, that you may learn wisdom, and not offend…

Therefore, seeing no king or governor is exempted from the laws, hand, and power of God, but that he ought to fear and tremble at it, we may proceed to the other part of the question: that is, whether kings, princes, and other governors ought to be obedient to the positive laws of their country. To discuss this question, the right way and means is as in all other things, to resort to the fountains and roots, and not to depend on the rivers and branches. For if men should admit that the church of Rome were the catholic church, and the pope the head of it, and God’s only vicar on earth, and not seek further how he comes by that authority: then no man could say that all his doings (were they never so wicked) should seem just: so if men should build upon the authority that kings and princes usurp over their subjects, and not seek from whence they have their authority, not whether that which they use, be just, there could be nothing produced to let their cruel tyranny. But as we see from whence all political power and authority comes, that is, from God: and why it was ordained, that is, to maintain justice: we ought (if we will judge rightly) by God’s word examine and try this matter.

Saint Paul, treating the subject of who should be obedient, and to whom obedience is due, says: “Let every soul be subject to the powers that rule, for there is no power but from God.” There are some who would have this word, soul, taken to be man, not as he consists of soul and body both together, but only of the flesh: and by that word, soul, should be understood only as a worldly man, that is, a lay man or temporal man (as we term it) and not a spiritual man and a minister of the church. Where upon Antichrist, the bishop of Rome, seeking for subjects to be under his kingdom, has taken the clergy to be his subjects, along with everything that belongs to them: and he has made laws that they should be his subjects, obedient to him and not to the political power and authority, where he leaves subjects only the temporal…

But here it may be asked, who handed out this justice to kings and princes before that time, since it was only then committed to the bishop of Rome? We need not answer that at this time, for we do not seek presently to know who should be judge, but only the declare and prove that kings and princes ought, both by God’s law, the law of nature, man’s law, and good reason, to be obedient and subject to the positive laws of their country, and may not break them, and that they are not exempt from them, not may dispense with them, unless the makers of the laws give them express authority to do so.

Who shall be the kings judge, you will hear later.

For the full text, see: http://​www​.con​sti​tu​tion​.org/​c​m​t​/​p​o​n​e​t​/​p​o​l​p​o​w​e​r.htm