Freedom and authority of conscience: religion and politics in the thought of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648)
This thesis focuses on a long-misunderstood person – Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648), a diplomat, philosopher, and historian. He has been labelled ‘the father of English deism’, a title invented by John Leland (1691-1766) more than a hundred years after his death. Although this label has recently been challenged, modern scholarship continues to pay disproportionate attention to Herbert’s religious ideas, while research on political and historical aspects of his thought remains quite underdeveloped. This thesis places Herbert in the context of contemporary issues of religion and politics, including the controversy over the royal supremacy, the relationship between King and Parliament, and debates over the lawfulness of resistance to tyrants in the Early English Civil War. It argues that his viewpoints on these issues reflected his deep concern for the freedom and authority of individual conscience. Herbert held that laws enacted in the name of the royal supremacy should not force individuals to accept anything contrary to the judgement of their consciences. He also suggested that the safety and liberty of the people took priority over the prerogatives of the King, and that Parliament, as the highest court in the kingdom, had the authority to protect the people’s consciences from the oppression of the King’s unlawful commands. Finally, Herbert held that resistance to tyrants was indeed lawful and that conscience granted that a tyrant’s misdeeds could lawfully be bridled. The thesis is based on a close analysis of Herbert’s religious treatises, his manuscript collections deposited in the National Library of Wales, and his historical works, including ‘On the King’s Supremacy in the Church’ and The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth. His manuscript collections and historical treatises in particular have never been properly examined. The main contributions of the thesis are to restore Herbert’s thought to its seventeenth-century context, broaden the research on Herbert to include his political thought, and reveal that the common purpose of his works of philosophy, religion, and history was to save the people from unjust religious coercion. This approach provides a more comprehensive understanding and a more complete picture of Herbert’s thought, and challenges several commonly held views of Herbert: that Herbert’s thought was a precursor to eighteenth-century deism, that his theory of common notions represented the whole picture of his thought, and that his historical works were of little value and aimed only at gaining royal recognition.