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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism
Mixed Monarchy
by Wormuth, Francis D.

At the close of the Middle Ages came a revival of trade and the integration of local economies into larger units. There resulted a quickening of political life in all fields, but particularly in the field of international affairs. Evidence of this new activity is found in the practice of maintaining ambassadors at foreign capitals; several Italian cities had adopted it by the close of the fifteenth century, and the northern nations took it up during the sixteenth. The wars of aggrandizement and religion, the intrigues and plots of assassination gave rise to a new branch of political science — "reason of state." Machiavelli was the expositor of this discipline, which had consequences in other fields besides morality. To deal with secret and urgent matters of state the king must act secretly and arbitrarily, in contravention not only of rules of morality but of rules of law. In England the claim of Queen Elizabeth to act irresponsibly in the field of foreign affairs was conceded by her Parliament; and in the reign of James I the judges of the courts of common law affirmed that the king possessed an "absolute prerogative" to act contrary to common law in all matters of state. His "ordinary prerogative" was to do justice according to law, but his absolute prerogative was a discretionary power to safeguard the nation by any means that seemed to him appropriate.

Another current of thought set in the same direction. The internal disorder following the wars of religion in France in the sixteenth century had led Jean Bodin to make his celebrated if imperfect statement of the doctrine of sovereignty. To Bodin, as to the whole school of politiques, it appeared that the very existence of society was possible only if there were some overriding power capable of exacting complete obedience from all subjects. James I, in the light of his unhappy experiences in turbulent Scotland, held the same view. Order was dependent upon the relationship of command and obedience. All organization derived from superiority and subordination: God in the celestial universe, the king among men, the shepherd among the sheep, Satan among the legions of hell, all averted chaos by the organizing power of command. Other writers argued to the same effect. Without a sovereign, said Edward Forsett, "no people can ever as subjects range themselves into the order, and community of human society, howsoever, as men, or rather as wild savages, they may perhaps breathe a while upon the earth." Roger Manwaring, chaplain of Charles I, rendered this point of view in terms of "divine right." The organization of a multitude into unity was the work of power, and all power was derived from God. Kings were the vicegerents of God and participated in His omnipotence.

There was, however, another and older way of looking at monarchy — in terms of double majesty. Before the Civil Wars the medieval notion of a kingship absolute in its sphere but limited to that sphere by an autonomous body of law was the dominant conception. The classical idea of the mixed state was sometimes employed, but before 1641 it appears to have been merely a thin literary tradition. Thomas Starkey in 1538 declared "a mixed state to be of all others the best and most convenient to conserve the whole out of tyranny."1 When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne John Aylmer reassured those troubled at the accession of a woman by pointing out that she was not an absolute but a "mixed ruler": "The regimen of England is not a mere monarchy, as some for lack of consideration think, nor a mere oligarchy nor democracy, but a rule mixed of all these, wherein each of them have or should have like authority."2 Sir Walter Raleigh spoke with approval of the "royal, mixed government of Sparta" in a passage which seems to liken the English polity to the Spartan.3 Sir Francis Biondi, in his History of the Civil Wars in England, published in Italian, 1637-1644, and in an English translation by the Earl of Monmouth in 1641, described England as "una ben constuita aristodemocratica monarchia." With the outbreak of the war the idea came into active controversial use and largely displaced the doctrine of double majesty. John Milton in 1641 asserted that neither Sparta nor Rome was "more divinely and harmoniously tuned, more equally balanced as it were by the hand and scale of justice, than is the commonwealth of England."4 What chiefly gave currency to the idea of the mixed state was the reply of Charles to the Nineteen Propositions of Parliament in 1642. The mixed state now represented the King's highest ambition; he wished only to be recognized as one of three equal estates, in order to prevent hostile action by the other two. The reply was written by Sir John Colepepper,5 who followed the arguments of Polybius.

There being three kinds of government amongst men, absolute monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and all these having their particular conveniences and inconveniences, the experience and wisdom of your ancestors hath so molded this out of a mixture of these, as to give to this kingdom (as far as human prudence can provide) the conveniences of all three, without the inconveniences of any one, as long as the balance hangs even between the three estates, and they run jointly on in their proper channel (begetting verdure and fertility in the meadows on both sides) and the overflowing of either on either side raise no deluge or inundation. The ill of absolute monarchy is tyranny, the ill of aristocracy is faction and division, the ills of democracy are tumults, violence, and licentiousness. The good of monarchy is the uniting of a nation under one head to resist invasion from abroad, and insurrection at home: the good of aristocracy is the conjunction of counsel in the ablest persons of a state for the public benefit: the good of democracy is liberty, and the courage and industry which liberty begets.6

The "mixture" lay in the joint possession of legislative power by all three elements and in the assignment of appropriate functions to each of the three singly. The king was charged with the conduct of foreign relations, the power of appointment, the pardoning power, and other functions; the Commons possessed the sole right to propose taxes and to impeach; the Lords possessed power of judicature.

This conception was immediately adopted by the pamphleteers of both parties. Royalist writers rested their case upon the king's right, never contested before the war, to participate equally with Lords and Commons in the government of the country. The Parliamentarians attempted to refute this claim. Philip Hunton, a serious and honest thinker, argued in his Treatise of Monarchy7 that the purpose of the balance between King, Lords, and Commons was "that one should counterpoise and keep even the other." Consequently, if the King should "run in any course tending to the dissolving of the constituted frame," the Lords and Commons were obliged to restrain him.

But some champions of the king denied the possibility of a mixed monarchy. Robert Sheringham, a Cambridge scholar, wrote a pamphlet called The King's Supremacy Asserted8 in which he insisted that monarchy is "the government of one alone." "His Majesty acknowledgeth monarchy to be so mixed with aristocracy and democracy in the exercise of some part of his power, that the conveniences of all those forms of government, without the inconveniences of any of them, are obtained by such a mixture; but he denieth the mixture to be in the power itself, for the convenience which he saith it hath from monarchy, is, that it is governed by one head."

Sheringham failed to state his case clearly, but Thomas Hobbes and Sir Robert Filmer drove straight to the central issue. The whole burden of the teaching of Hobbes was the necessity and the indivisibility of sovereign power. Sovereignty might reside in one man, or in a corporate group, but it could not be partitioned into several hands. "For although few perceive, that such government is not government, but division of the commonwealth into three factions, and call it mixed monarchy; yet the truth is, that it is not one independent commonwealth, but three independent factions; nor one representative person, but three."9

Such a state was diseased. Filmer vigorously attacked both the scholarship and the logic of Hunton's Treatise.10

There is scarce the meanest man of the multitude but can now in these days tell us that the government of the Kingdom of England is a limited and mixed monarchy: and it is no marvel since all the disputes and arguments of these distracted times both from the pulpit and the press do tend and end in this conclusion.

The author of the Treatise of Monarchy hath copiously handled the nature and manner of limited and mixed monarchy, and is the first and only man (that I know) hath undertaken the task of describing it; others only mention it as taking it for granted. ...

I have with some diligence looked over this Treatise, but cannot approve of these distinctions which he propounds; I submit the reasons of my dislike to others' judgments. I am somewhat confident that his doctrine of limited and mixed monarchy is an opinion but of yesterday, and of no antiquity, a mere innovation in policy, not so old as New England, though calculated well for that meridian. ...

Machiavell is the first in Christendom that I can find that writes of a mixed government, but not one syllable of a mixed monarchy: he in his discourses or disputations upon the Decades of Livy falls so enamoured with the Roman commonwealth, that he thought he could never sufficiently grace that popular government, unless he said, there was something of monarchy in it: yet he was never so impudent as to say, it was a mixed monarchy.

Hunton's monarch is in fact, Filmer argues, no monarch at all. He possesses only the executive power, and sovereignty resides in legislative power.

But whatever the theoretical soundness of the conception of mixed monarchy, it took an extraordinarily firm grip on the public mind. The anonymous author of a learned work published in 1648, Several Politic and Military Observations upon the Civil and Military Governments, declared:

The government of England is then one of the best in Christendom : and it is not by any defect of it, that civil contentions do reign among us this day, but from our sins and ingratitude, and the impenitency of the whole nation, who have justly provoked the Lord to send the spirit of division in the land, and to permit the prelates, and the court favorites, to bend the treble of the instrument of the commonweal higher than the base: for all composed monarchies are like unto a musical instrument, that can afford no melody (although the artist that plays upon it be never so skilful in his art) except the strings of it be tuned alike.

In 1649 a group of Presbyterian ministers in Lancashire, at a time when the regicide and the abolition of the House of Lords had apparently struck a fatal blow at mixed monarchy, passed a series of resolutions which included the wistful proposition that "The government we are under is good, wholesome, equitable for the constitution of it, balanced and proportioned, being reduced to the golden mean; lying between monarchical tyranny and popular anarchy, it hath had the general suffrage to be one of the moderatest and best tempered governments in Europe."11 And in 1650 Captain Edmund Hall, in his Digitus Testium, or a Dreadful Alarm to the Whole Kingdom, Especially the Lord Mayor, the Aldermen, and the Common Council of the City of London, declared that the mixture of the three estates was "the absolutest best government in the world, as is clear from God and Nature. God Himself who is the Almighty Monarch of all spirits, hath pleased to reveal Himself to man in a Trinity of persons, and governs the universe by Himself, angels, and men; celestial bodies, by sun, moon, and stars; the little world man by understanding, will, and affections; and the Kingdom of England, by King, Lords, and Commons."

The idea of balance which was expressed in the doctrine of mixed monarchy appears in the proposals of all constitution-makers of the period except the Levellers and the Rump republicans. The Humble Petition and Advice, which was adopted in 1657, created a Cromwellian House of Lords and was lauded as restoring the ancient trinity and balance of the constitution. In 1659 and 1660, when there seemed to be some possibility that the Stuarts might return, Royalist pamphlets praised the old constitution and urged the restoration of Charles II. The failure of all the experiments of the past decade made the advice more persuasive. Sir Roger L'Estrange addressed a pamphlet to General Monk in which he argued that England could enjoy stable government only under mixed monarchy.12

... our English nature is not like the French, supple to oppression, and apt to delight in that pomp and magnificence of their lords, which they know, is supported with their slavery and hunger; ... so doth it, as little or less, agree with the Dutch humor, addicted only to traffic, navigation, handicrafts, and sordid thrift, and (in defiance of heraldry) every man fancying his own scutcheon; doth not every one amongst us, that hath the name of a gentleman, aim his utmost to uphold it? Everyone that hath not, to raise one? To this end, do not our very yeomen commonly leave their lands to the eldest son, and to the others, nothing but a flail or a plow? Did not everyone, that had anything like an estate, pinch himself in his condition, to purchase a knighthood or small patent? What need further proof? Our late experience of that glimpse and shadow of monarchy (though in persons hated, and scorned, and upon a most scandalous account) yet (for mere resemblance) admitted as tolerable, and in respect of a commonwealth, courted, clearly evinces, how grateful the substance would be to Englishmen. ...

This was that triple cord, ... this was our gold, seven times refined, for every bill, being thrice read, debated and agreed, in either House, was, at last, brought to the King, for his royal assent, the mint of our laws: a trial so exact, that surely, no dross could escape it; since all interests must thereto concur (as truly, it was but fit they should, in the establishment of that, which must bind them all) ... as by sad events, we have since seen, that, power being engrossed by one of the three estates, purged and modeled to the interest of a faction, a consequence natural to such premises (as a balance consisting of but one scale), nothing hath been

weighed, our laws have been mandrakes of a night's growth, and our times as fickle as the weather or multitude.

It was with the relief of turning to old and tested things that the Convention Parliament in 1660 voted that government belonged to king, Lords, and Commons.


(1) England in the Reign of King Henry VIII, II, ii, 95.

(2) Quoted by C. H. McIlwain, Constitutionalism Ancient and Modern (Ithaca, N. Y., 1940), p. 106.

(3) Cited by Zera S. Fink, The Classical Republicans (Northwestern Univ. Studies in the Humanities, No. 9: Evanston, Ill., 1945), p. 24.

(4) "Of Reformation in England," cited by Fink, op. cit. supra, p. 108.

(5) Stanley Pargellis, "The Theory of Balanced Government," in Conyers Read, ed., The Constitution Reconsidered (New York, 1938), p. 40.

(6) An Exact Collection of all Remonstrances, etc., between the King's Most Excellent Majesty and His High Court of Parliament, December 1641-March 21, 1643 (London, 1643), p. 266.

(7) (London, 1643), Pt. I, chap. 4. The theoretical part of the book was republished in 1689 and this latter edition was included in Volume VI of the Harleian Miscellany.

(8) The quotation is from the third edition, London, 1682.

(9) Leviathan (Everyman's Library), p. 176.

(10) The Anarchy of a Limited or Mixed Monarchy (1648).

(11) The Paper called the Agreement of the People Taken into Consideration, and the Lawfulness of Subscription to It Examined, and Resolved in the Negative, by the Ministers of Christ in the Province of Lancaster (London, 1649).

(12) A Plea for a Limited Monarchy, As It Was Established in this Nation, before the Late War (London, 1660). This is reprinted in the Harleian Miscellany (London, 1810), i., 20. The attribution to L'Estrange is in Samuel Halkett and John Laing, Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature (ed. Kennedy, Smith, and Johnson), iv, 361. An expanded version of this pamphlet is included in The Interest of the Three Kingdoms with Respect to the Business of the Blade Box, and All the Other Pretensions of His Grace the Duke of Monmouth (2nd impression, London, 1680), which has been attributed to William Griffith but appears to be by the same hand as A Plea for a Limited Monarchy.


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