Thomas Preston

(1567—1647) Benedictine monk

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Thomas Preston was born in Shropshire and died in the Clink prison, London. Roland (later Thomas) Preston emigrated to Rheims and in 1586 to Rome, where he joined the English College. He was ordained priest in 1590, entered the Benedictines at Monte Cassino in 1591 and became a professed monk of the order in 1592, henceforth taking the name of Thomas. In 1603 he was sent as a missionary to Protestant England. In 1605 the Gunpowder Plot was discovered, and in the following year Parliament enacted legislation exposing Catholics to a new oath of allegiance rejecting papal claims to be able to depose heretical kings; those who refused the oath could lose their goods and be imprisoned at the king's pleasure. The pope condemned the oath. A bitter war of words resulted, in which Protestants such as King James I and Lancelot Andrewes argued on theories of Church-State relations with Catholics such as Bellarmine, Suarez and Parsons. In this controversy a number of Catholics sided with the king against the pope. These included William Barclay and for a while his son John Barclay, and also Preston. Indeed, Preston was one of the most able and prolific of all the contributors to the oath controversy. From 1611–20 he produced a series of English and Latin books on Church-State relations under the pseudonym of Roger Widdrington. His writings attracted international attention. One of his books was reprinted in the German Melchior Goldast's collection of medieval and more recent writings on Church and State, while others were favourably cited by the great Dutch theorist Grotius. Preston wrote while a prisoner of the Protestant authorities, but there is no evidence that he acted under duress. His imprisonment in the Clink was very comfortable, and was arguably intended less as a punishment than as a means of protecting him from papalist reprisals. Using impressive learning in scholastic theology, and also more recent writings such as the works of Paolo Sarpi and William Barclay, Preston exposed the weaknesses of the so-called theory of the indirect deposing power espoused by Bellarmine and his allies, including Edward Weston. On the question of oath, he also deployed casuistical ideas to good effect, claiming that if there were weighty authorities on both sides of a dispute – as there clearly were in this controversy between the pope and the king – individuals should side with the party in power, namely the king. Many of the arguments against Bellarmine in the forty-second chapter of Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) have parallels in Preston's writings.

From The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Philosophy.

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