Front Page Titles (by Subject) ENGLAND UNDER CHARLES II. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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ENGLAND UNDER CHARLES II. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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ENGLAND UNDER CHARLES II.
Deism, which Charles II. seemed openly to profess, became the reigning religion among the many others then in the kingdom, and has since made surprising progress in other parts of the world. The earl of Shaftesbury, son of the minister, and one of the chief supporters of this sect, says positively in his “Characteristics,” that the noble appellation of deist cannot be too highly reverenced. A number of eminent writers have made open profession of deism; and the major part of the Socinians have ranged themselves under its standard. This sect, now very numerous, is accused of admitting only the light of reason and rejecting all revelation. It is not possible for a Christian to stand up as their advocate; but the strict impartiality with which we are desirous to draw this great picture of human life obliges us, while we condemn their doctrine, to do justice to their behavior. We cannot therefore but acknowledge that this is the only sect of all others that has not disturbed the peace of society by its disputes; and, though erroneous, has been always clear of fanaticism. It is indeed impossible that such a sect should be other than peaceable, since its followers are united with all mankind in the principle common to all ages and all countries; namely, the worship of one only God; and differ from other men only in having neither forms nor places of worship, in believing only in one just God, allowing for the diversity of opinions in others, and seldom disclosing their own. They say that their pure religion, which is as old as the world, was for a long time the only true one, before God Himself gave another to the Hebrew nation. They found this notion from its having been always the religion of the Chinese literati; but these literati had a public form of worship, whereas the European deists have only a private one, every person worshipping God in his own house, and assisting without scruple at all public ceremonies; at least there have hitherto been but a very inconsiderable number of those called Unitarians, who have formed an assembly; and these may be called primitive Christians rather than deists.
Notwithstanding the great change in minds and affairs in England, the love of liberty and faction did not change among the people, nor that passion for absolute power which prevailed in the king and his brother, the duke of York; so that in the midst of the pleasures and festivities of a court, confusion, division, and animosities between sects and parties overspread the kingdom. There were not indeed any violent civil wars, as in the time of Cromwell; but numberless intrigues, plots, and murders, committed under the solemn mask of justice, and in virtue of laws which hatred or party misapprehension construed according to their own purpose, threw a cloud over a great part of the reign of Charles II. This prince indeed seemed, by the amiable mildness of his character, formed to render his people as happy as he made every one who had the honor of approaching him; and yet the blood of the subject flowed under the hand of the executioner during this good prince’s reign, as well as under those of others. Religion was the sole cause of these disasters, notwithstanding that Charles himself was perfectly indifferent on that head.
Charles had no children, and his brother, who was heir presumptive to the crown, had lately turned Papist, a name which is held in execration by the parliament and kingdom of England in general. As soon as it was positively known that the duke had changed his religion, the fear of having one day a Papist for their king made a change in almost all minds. Some wretches among the dregs of the people hired by the faction that opposed the court, pretended to discover a plot much more extraordinary than that known as the Gunpowder Plot. They declared, and swore to it, that the Papists had formed a design to murder the king and place the crown upon his brother’s head; that Pope Clement X., in a congregation called “de Propaganda,” held in 1675, had declared that the kingdom of England belonged to the popes by an imprescriptible right; that, in virtue of this right, he had appointed Oliva, general of the Jesuit order, his lieutenant there; and that this Jesuit had made over his authority to the duke of York, the pope’s vassal; that an army was to be raised in England to drive Charles II. from the throne; that Father La Chaise, a Jesuit and confessor to Louis XIV., had remitted a thousand louis d’or to London to set the operations on foot; that Conyers, another Jesuit, had bought a poniard which cost him twenty shillings, with which he was to stab the king; and that a certain physician had been offered ten thousand pounds to poison him. At the same time they produced a list of the names and commissions of all the officers who had been nominated by the general of the Jesuits to command the army to be raised in defence of popery.
Never was accusation more absurd. The rabbet woman, or the bottle–conjurer in England, or with us the affair of the bull Unigenitus, the convulsionists, and the charges brought against philosophers and men of learning, were not more ridiculous. But when once the minds of men come to be heated, the more preposterous an opinion is, the more it is credited.
The whole nation took the alarm. The parliament, in spite of all the endeavors of the court, proceeded in the most severe manner. There was some mixture of truth in these incredible falsehoods, and that was sufficient to sanctify the whole. The informers pretended that Oliva had appointed one Coleman, a dependant on the duke of York, his secretary of state in England. This Coleman’s papers were seized, and some letters were found among them written by him to Father La Chaise, in which were the following expressions: “We have a great undertaking in hand, no less than the conversion of three kingdoms, and perhaps the total extirpation of heresy; we have a prince zealous in our cause, etc. You must send a large sum of money to the king, money is the only prevailing logic at our court.”
It is plain by these letters that the Catholic party wanted to get the upper hand, that they placed great dependence on the duke of York, and that the king himself was inclined to favor the Catholics, provided they would supply him handsomely with money; and, lastly, that the Jesuits were doing all in their power to serve the pope in England. All the rest was manifestly false; and the informers contradicted themselves so grossly in their depositions that at any other time they would have been laughed at by every one.
But Coleman’s letters, and the murder of a justice of peace, which happened about that time, made anything be believed of the Papists. Several persons who were accused lost their lives on the scaffold, and five Jesuits were hanged and quartered. Had these men been condemned as disturbers of the public peace, or for holding illicit correspondence, and endeavoring to subvert the religion by law established, their sentence would have been perfectly just; but certainly they should not have been put to death as captains or chaplains of a popish army, which was to have conquered the three kingdoms. The zeal against popery, however, was carried so far that the house of commons almost unanimously passed the bill of exclusion against the duke of York, by which he was declared forever incapable of succeeding to the crown of England. This unhappy prince, a few years afterward, did but too well confirm this sentence of the house of commons.
England, all the northern kingdoms, one–half of Germany, the seven United Provinces, and one–fourth of the Swiss cantons, had hitherto contented themselves with considering the Roman Catholic religion as idolatrous. But this obloquy had not passed into a law in any of these states. Now, however, the English parliament tacked the oath of abjuration to that of the test, and obliged the people to swear to their abhorrence of popery as an idolatrous religion.
What changes have happened in the human mind! The first Christians accused the Roman senate with paying divine honors to statues, which they certainly did not. The Christian religion continued three hundred years without images; twelve Christian emperors treated as idolaters those who prayed before the pictures or figures of saints. This mode of worship was afterward received by the Eastern and Western churches, and after that held in abhorrence by one–half of Europe. At length, Christian Rome, which places its chief glory in the destruction of idolatry, was ranked with the heathens, by the laws of a powerful and discerning people, who are deservedly held in high esteem by all other nations.
The enthusiasm of the common people did not stop at these demonstrations of horror and aversion to popery; accusations and punishments were still continued.
But the most deplorable circumstance was the execution of Lord Stafford, a venerable nobleman, of tried fidelity to his king and country, who had retired from public business, and was closing the career of an honorable life, by the exercise of every domestic virtue. This good man passed for a Papist, though he was not such. He was accused by one of the state informers, of having hired him to murder the king; and though it was proved that he had never spoken to the person who was his accuser, yet the wretch was believed. The innocence of Lord Stafford availed him naught in the day of trial; he was condemned to lose his head; and by the same shameful and wicked weakness that had cost his father his crown and his life, Charles did not dare to pardon him. This example proves that the tyranny of public bodies is always heavier than that of a king. There are a thousand ways to pacify the resentment of a sovereign; there are none to bend the inflexible cruelty of the public, when carried away by prejudice. Each member is filled with the fury that animates the whole, imparts it with redoubled force to his companions, and gives himself up without fear to the most pitiless inhumanity, conscious that an individual is not answerable for the actions of a community.
While the Papists and the Church of England party were exhibiting these bloody spectacles in London, the Presbyterians in Scotland presented a scene no less absurd, and infinitely more abominable. They murdered the archbishop of St. Andrews, primate of that kingdom, where the Episcopal government still continued, because this prelate had stood up in defence of his prerogatives. After this noble action, the Presbyterians assembled the people, and in their sermons openly compared their shocking deed with those of Jael, Ehud, and Judith, recorded in Holy Writ, and to which indeed it bore a close resemblance. From the church they led their infatuated auditors with the sound of drums and bagpipes to Glasgow, of which they made themselves masters. After this they took an oath that they would no longer acknowledge the king as supreme head of the church, nor his brother as king after his death; and that they would show obedience to no one but the Lord, to whom they would sacrifice all the bishops who opposed the workings of the saints.
The king was now obliged to send his natural son, the duke of Monmouth, with a small army against these saints. The Presbyterians marched to meet them with eight thousand men, headed by ministers of the gospel. This army styled itself “the army of the Lord.” An old minister got up on a little hillock, and caused his hands to be supported, as we read of Aaron, in order to insure victory to those of his party; notwithstanding which, the army of the Lord was routed at the very first onset, and twelve hundred of the saints taken prisoners, all of whom the duke treated with the greatest humanity; he hanged only two of the most active of their priests, and set at liberty every one who would take an oath not to make any more disturbances in the country, in God’s name. Nine hundred accepted their liberty on these conditions, the remaining three hundred declared that it was better to obey God than man, and that they had rather suffer death themselves than not be allowed to kill all Church of England men and Papists. Upon this they were transported to America; and the ship that was carrying them over being cast away, they all received the crown of martyrdom at the bottom of the sea.
This spirit of folly continued some time longer in England, Scotland, and Ireland; but at length the king found means to restore the public tranquillity, not so much by his prudence perhaps, as by his amiable disposition, and that pleasing affability which won him the hearts of all who approached him, and insensibly softened the gloomy ferocity of discontented factions, and harmonized the minds of jarring parties.