O Miserable England: John Ponet’s “Short Treatise,” Part V
“O miserable England[, plagued] by a tyrant…But how much more miserable shall you be by the wars that are most certain to come…God be merciful unto thee.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In the conclusion to his treatise “On Political Power,” John Ponet exhorted (or rather warned) his countrymen in England to rise in their God‐given strength to hurl back the Catholic usurpers. Our author looks to the cosmos for signs of doom, having already found abundant horrors on earth. He invokes history as well as mysticism, recalling for his audience the destruction brought to England with William the Conqueror. Englishmen indeed had only consult their own gurgling stomachs to discover how dire were their times. “When were ever things so dear in England,” he asks, “as in this time of the popish Mass and other idolatries restored?” While he does not explicitly call for the English to execute Queen Mary in the streets, he earnestly warns them that God’s unrelenting fury awaits those societies which failed to chastise corrupted rulers. Ponet died shortly after publishing this book, still exiled in Strasbourg. His powerful arguments long outlived him, however, and a century later the English finally took it upon themselves to execute their king. This time, yet another Catholic family had seized the throne and violated the commonwealth’s good order. Charles I paid for his tyranny with his head, and after a brief interlude in republican tyranny, the crown returned as a much‐weakened institution. A century after that, John Adams declared Ponet’s ideas among the earliest and most important precursors to American republican thought.
Compiled by Dr. John Ponet, Bishop of Rochester and Worchester.
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.
An Exhortation, Or Rather, A Warning, To The Lords And Commoners Of England.
…There was never great misery, destruction, plague, or visitation of God, that came on any nation, city, or country, which as they be indeed, so may they justly be called wounds, but be sent of God for sin, and be not suddenly laid on the people, but are before prophesied and declared by the prophets and ministers of God’s word, or by some revelations, wonders, monsters in the earth, or tokens and signs in the elements.
For God as He is most just, and will not fail to punish sin, so is He most merciful, and wills not the death of sinners, but rather that they should turn to him and live.
And therefore beforehand gives them warming what shall follow, it in time they repent not, as by the histories of all ages it does appear. And none of these admonitions have you lacked, countrymen.
For the preachers and ministers of God’s word, in the time of the godly Josiah, King Edward the Sixth preached and prophesied unto you, what miseries and plagues should certainly come to you…
But then you passed nothing on it…you laughed and jested at your preachers words, nothing regarding the threats of God, but containing them, yes increasing in your wickedness, and now at length murdering most cruelly the minister of God.
And seeing words of warning took no place with you, God for His loving mercy has warned you also by monstrous marvels on the earth, and horrible wonders in the elements, to put you beside all manner of excuses. What wonderful monsters have there now lately been born in England?…
The horrible comet and blazing star that was seen this year greater in England than elsewhere, what else does it signify, but the great displeasure of God? And therefore famine, pestilence, wars, sedition, death of princes, invasion of foreign nations, destruction of some or many cities and countries, and the alteration and changing of the state and government? For if it be lawful for man to diving of God’s wonderful works, and by the like things past, conjecture those that be to come: why should we not affirm, that these plagues will follow? Before the great wars made by Xerxes against the Greeks, and the overthrowing of the whole sate of Greece, there was a blazing star seen of the shape of a horn, and an eclipse of the sun…
In the year 1061, before the invasion of William the Conqueror into England, and the conquest of the same, and in which Harold, King of England with twenty thousand true Englishmen in the defense of their country against a tyrant were slain: there was seen a wonderful comet, which everyman thought ( as indeed it followed) to be much mischief and the alteration of the state, as hereafter you shall hear. A little before the great wars in Normandy (whereof you have heard before) there was seen in Normandy a great comet, and two full moons at one time shining, the one in the East, the other in the West…
In what nation under the scope of Heaven, has God showed greater tokens of his Savior, and it so little set by, as in England? What contempt of Him, His word and ministers has there been? What dissimulation with God? What hypocrisy? What swearing and foreswearing? What treason to their country? What disobedience to the governors in good, godly, and necessary things? What ready obedience to their rulers in wicked and evil things? What unnatural relations used between the father and daughter, brother and sister? What abominable whoredom suffered unpunished? Yea in many and the chiefest places the greatest whoremongers, the most imprudent ribalds, the worst bribers, and the lewdest persons made Justices of the Peace, and correctors of vice? What railing and revilling of the worthy pure preachers of God’s Gospel for only rebuking of vice? What horrible murders secret and open, not only of private persons, but also of the most honorable peers and reverend ministers of God? What butchering and burning of true English Christians, young and old, whole and lame, seeing and blind, man , woman, and child, without respect of age, sex or estate? What pillaging and pulling, taking and snatching, stealing and robbing, not only among the mean sort, but among the greatest? Where is so great hatred and malice, so little love and charity, as in England? I should never make an end, if I should tell but that I have myself seen and known, much less if I should declare all that other credible persons of their own knowledge report to be most certain and true.
But to return to the matter. Look well England, look well, whether the comet past, and eclipses to come, touch them? Are you not all ready plagued with famine? Yes, and with such a famine, as you never before heard of…When were ever things so dear in England, as in this time of the popish Mass and other idolatries restored? Who ever heard or read before, that a pound of beef was at four pounds. A sheep twenty shillings. A pound of candles at four pounds. A pound of butter at four shillings. A pound of cheese at four pounds, two eggs a penny, a quart of wheat, sixty‐three shillings. A quart of malt as fifty shillings, or above: the people driven of hunger to grind acorns for bread meal, and to drink water instead of ale? And what? Shall this famine away, before his walking mate and fellow (pestilence) come? No surely, without your earnest speedy repentance, and God’s exceeding miraculous mercy, it is not possible: for hitherto the one went never before, but the other come either arm in arm, or else quickly after.
But it shall almost come to late for common people, for they are so hanged up by twenty and forty in a plump (and a great number of them, because they confessed and professed, that they should be saved by the only merits of Christ’s passion) that the pestilence shall have little matter among the mean sort to be occupied on: but therefor must be the more occupied with the great.
And have you (England) had no sedition and inward grudge? Yes, so much that the heads and governors does not peep out of their privy chambers: not one neighbor seen to talk with another, for fear to be noted and accused of conspiracy. Yea and that (that is worst of all, and to be lamented of all Englishmen) there is inward grudge, and secret malice between the members, that is, the nobility and commoners.
The one hates and condemns the other, which is the work of the devil, and his ministers the popish prelates and priests. They cast water into the coals, to make the fire greater: for they know, unless such division and dissension be fostered and nourished, their kingdom would soon lie in the dirt. This is the practice of such as mind the conquest or utter destruction of any people, to maintain and prick forward dissension, division, and discord among the people. For Christ’s words are true, who says that every kingdom divided against itself shall be desolate, and every city or house divided against itself, shall not continue…
Who that fears your wrath, O Lord, will not amend his life, and call to you for mercy? What naughty nobility were that, that would oppress the commoners, and afterward be used and oppressed themselves, by strangers, as their predecessors have been before time? What devilish commoners might that be called that would repine or rebel against the nobility and gentlemen, and then to be overrun themselves: with priests and foreigners, and to be pined with such misery, as you hear that our ancestors were: and all because the gentlemen and commoners agreed not among themselves? Who is a natural Englishman, that will not in time foresee and consider the misery toward his country and himself, and by all means seek to let it? Who is it, that can hope for quietness, peace, health, plenty, and such like gifts of God, without God’s favor and mercy. And how is it possible that God should use mercy with them, that bears inward hatred and grudge one to another, and will use no mercy with others? If you forgive other men their offenses that they commit against you (says Christ) your Heavenly Father will forgive the offenses that you have committed against him. But if you do not forgive other men their faults, neither will your Father forgive you your faults. No while you say the Lord’s Prayer, and be full of rancor, malice, hatred, and envy toward you neighbor, you condemn yourselves, and desire God’s plagues and vengeance to fall on yourselves: for you mean vengeance to your neighbors, and wish all evil to fall on them. And so it does fall on you…
Remember, remember (good countrymen, and true English hearts) the misery that followed in our poor country upon the conquest made by the ambitious William, Duke of Normandy: upon how small a title he entered, and how tyrannously he used himself. His only color was a bequest or promise made to him by King Edward, brother to Cauntas and Harold, kings of England, when he was a banished man in Normandy, if he should die without issue, as he did. At his first entry, he had a great battle with the new chosen king of England, and slew him and twenty thousand of our countrymen, which put such a fear in all men, the nobility, the clergy, the Londoners, and the commoners, that it made them sue for peace, and to give pledges for their fidelity, whom he sent into Normandy…
He spoiled the nobility of their goods and possessions, made them slaves, and his own slaves lords: and upon the commoners he put immense taxes and impositions. He tool from the people their weapons and harness, and made a law that no man should come out of his house after [eight o’clock]…He executed many wonderful cruel things, and specially on the nobility, and such as he saw to be stout men: some he caused to be murdered, some their nostrils to be slit, and their hands cut off. Happy was he that could fly out of the realm: he so spoiled Yorkshire, and Durham, and all the north ports, that ten years together it lay waste and uninhabited. He could in no wise abide the English nobility, but utterly destroyed them. And all this he did by the law of the devil, which they call the law of arms. The good laws and customs of England he clean took away, and made his own lusts his laws, and put them in his own Norman tongue, that his friends might always have the interpretation of them, and that he might catch the poor Englishmen, when it pleased him: and would have the laws to be pleaded and all things to be done in French. And he was not taken to be the Norman’s friend, not no gentleman, that could not speak french. And thereof comes the old proverb : Jack would be a gentleman, but he cannot French. He removed the English bishops, and placed Normans by the aide of the bishop of Rome. He pulled down town, villages, and houses, and put out the poor people to make him sporting places, pricey pleasures, forts, pikes, and chases. O miserable England, that once thus was by a tyrant and outward enemies plagued. but how much more miserable shall you be by the wars that are most certain to come shortly to be. God be merciful unto thee. But I think I hear your papists, bishops, priests, friars, and such like antichristian monsters say, that these plagues which have fallen and shall come to England (for they know they cannot be avoided, no they are occasioned and helped forward by them) have grown for things done in King Henry and King Edward’s time, for that their abomination was disclosed, their burrows and dens dug up, their monasteries thrown down, and the lands divided and sold to the laity. Ah hypocrites, ah subtle wolves, ah viperous generation. When the fox preaches, beware you geese. Where in Scripture do they find, that any such belly gods as they are, should be maintained? No, Scripture would have such merchants whipped out of the church, such burrows and cellars of men’s souls. Wo be unto you hypocrites (says Christ) for you swallow up the houses of the poor and miserable, that is, that which should be converted to the relief of the poor and needy: and that under pretense of long prayers. Wo be unto you (you masking hounds) which go from place to place, by sea and by land, to make a novice of your own order, and when you have him, you make him the child of hellfire twofold more than yourselves. I know you not (says Christ) away from me, you workers of iniquity. It is only their god, the belly, that they seek to serve, they pass on the God in Heaven, nor the devil in hell, so they may have wherewith to maintain themselves on earth, in their whoredom, buggery, pride, and all abomination. And this I say, is not fained or imagined, but evident in all men’s eyes that will not be willfully blind…
But you will say: what shall we do to avoid the calamity and misery that is both present and toward? Would to God you did ask it from the bottom of your heart. But I fear you do dissemble and speak it with your lips only, as you were wont…All these plagues that before you have heard rehearsed, famine, pestilence, sedition, wars, destruction of countries, captivity of people, and alterations of states, are the instruments of God sent and powered on the people for their sins, that they should be sorry and repent them of their former wicked life, call to God for mercy, and lead a new life in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life: which if you will earnestly do, no doubt but as God is merciful, so will He use mercy towards you. For God that never deceived any, but abhors all practices, all deceit, and all practicers (the workers of deceit) promised it by the mouth of His prophet Ezekiel. If (he says) the ungodly will turn away from all his sins that he has done, and will keep all my commandments, and of the thing that is just and right, doubtless he shall live and not die. For all the sins that he did before, shall not be thought upon anymore: but in his righteousness that he has done, he shall live. For I have no pleasure in the death of a sinner (says God) but that he should repent him of his wicked life and live &etc. It follows in the prophet thus: wherefore repent and return from your wickedness, and your wickedness shall not be your destruction. Cast from you all your ungodliness, make you a new heart and a new spirit: wherefore will you die, o you house of Israel (that is, all such as trust to be saved by Christ) seeing I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies, say the Lord God. Turn therefore, and you shall live.
…If you will in time earnestly repent you of your sins, leave your idolatry, and honor and worship God truly, as you were taught in blessed King Edward’s time, abhor the fantasies and foolish traditions of men, and cleave to the sincere word of God, and be desirous for the knowledge of it: leave your blasphemy and vain swearing and horrible forswearing and perjury, no longer hate your country, but be true and faithful to it, and by all godly means seek the wealth and safety of it: if you will obey God’s commandments before your governors, and your governors in that is godly, honest, and just, and nothing else: If you will leave your bawdry, whoredom, and improper relations, and drive out of all places whores, whoremongers, and whorehouses, and all such as favor and maintain them: If you will abstain from cruel murdering of the saints of God and innocents, and rather yourselves to be content to suffer all martyrdom, then you will embrew your fingers in their blood, or consent to it: If you will leave oppressing of your neighbors, you subtlety, craft, and deceit, and yourselves leave to love greediness, and inordinate desire of the trash of this world: If you leave your inward hat reed, grudge and malice one to another, if the nobility will love and cherish the commonality, and the commoners honor and love the nobility: If one will show himself a brother and neighbor indeed to another: than no doubt if you do these things from the bottom of your heart, that the mouth and heart agree together, your sayings and doings be all one: than shall you perceive, that God will be easily entreated to turn. Then may you boldly ask of God in Christ’s name, and your desires shall be heard and granted…Then will He send you His benediction for malediction, plenty for famine, health for pestilence, peace for was, quietness for trouble, for cruel tyranny, a godly and just government: for sedition, such force and power, that you being a few, shall be able to withstand all the tyrannies of the world, and enemies of God and our country, and utterly confound them and destroy them. You shall avoid the eternal pains of hell prepared for sinners: and at length you shall be sue also to make a change from your earthly country to the Heavenly Paradise: from variable England, to the constant Jerusalem: from the company of men, to the fellowship of angels: from mutable and frowning countenances of worldly powers, to the unchangeable and most comfortable sight of the King of all Kings, our most merciful Eternal Heavenly Father. To whom with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be all honor, praise, and glory, now and forever. Amen.