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date: 16 September 2021

Great Tew circlefree

(act. 1633–1639)

Great Tew circlefree

(act. 1633–1639)
  • Sarah Mortimer

Great Tew circle (act. 1633–1639), comprised the scholarly friends of Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland, who conversed and studied together at his house in the village of Great Tew in Oxfordshire. Falkland retired to Great Tew in 1633, having inherited property there a year before. For him and his friends it was the ideal location for intellectual pursuits, being just 18 miles from Oxford and its university. Many of the guests travelled from college rooms to partake of Falkland's hospitality, which also attracted some of the London literati and learned local gentry. At Great Tew they were free to study in Falkland's impressive library and to discuss their findings; the host and several of his guests used their time to write works of theology, literature, and poetry. This pattern continued until 1639, broken by the troubles in Scotland and then England. The works, but most importantly the ethos, created at Great Tew ensured that the spirit of the circle lived beyond the death of its patron at the battle of Newbury in September 1643.

The range of Falkland's guests reflected the experiences of their host. He had spent the later 1620s in London with poets and playwrights, becoming an admirer of Ben Jonson and finding the ‘sons of Ben’ congenial company. His literary connections continued; the poet Edmund Waller was certainly a frequent guest at Great Tew and later Falkland developed a strong relationship with Abraham Cowley. In London Falkland also became acquainted with the lawyer and future historian Edward Hyde, later the first earl of Clarendon. The strong friendship that grew between them lasted throughout Falkland's life, and Hyde's experiences at Great Tew impressed the young lawyer deeply. Indeed, it is Hyde who has provided the most famous descriptions of the atmosphere at Falkland's house to which the circle came 'to study in a purer air, finding all the books they could desire in his library and all the persons together whose company they could wish, and not find in other society' (Hyde, Life, 1.37–45). During the 1630s the acquaintances Falkland formed were mostly with Oxford divines. He invited John Earle, university proctor in 1631 and chaplain to the university's former chancellor, to teach him Greek, while Charles Gataker [see under Gataker, Thomas], a graduate student at Pembroke College in the mid-1630s, later served as Falkland's chaplain. Other clerical friends included Henry Hammond, until 1634 a fellow of Magdalen College, Gilbert Sheldon, fellow and then warden of All Souls College, and George Morley, the future bishop of Winchester.

Falkland's most intimate friend in the 1630s was William Chillingworth. The godson of William Laud, chancellor of the university from 1630 and archbishop of Canterbury from 1633, Chillingworth had been educated for the ministry at Trinity College, Oxford. Although elected to a fellowship in 1628, he wrestled with doubts about protestantism and the Church of England, and sought a sure source of authority in religion. The two friends shared this critical approach; Falkland described himself as 'rather an inquirer than an absolute defender of any thing' (Lady Falkland, 181). The question of the relative merits of the Catholic and protestant churches was a pressing one for the Carys and their friends, since Falkland's mother, Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland, was a recent and zealous convert to Catholicism who spared no opportunity to proselytize.

Chillingworth had entered a Roman Catholic seminary for a brief period in the late 1620s, and for a time had been attracted to the notion of a universal, catholic, church that could unite all Christians. Ultimately, however, he found the notion of papal infallibility unconvincing, while the diversity and contradiction evident among the church fathers seemed to prove the instability of Catholic tradition. Indeed Chillingworth spent much of his time at Great Tew working on his magnum opus, The Religion of Protestants: a Safe Way to Salvation (1638). This was a strident attack upon the claims to authority made by the Roman Catholic church, and a defence of scripturally based Christianity. Falkland's own, similar views found expression in a more slender volume, A Discourse of Infallibility, printed posthumously in 1645.

Hostility to Rome was matched at Great Tew by scepticism towards several protestant claims. Many of Falkland's friends were deeply concerned to protect and foster individual moral responsibility, and this led them to oppose the doctrine of predestination. Although a range of views could be found at Great Tew, from the Calvinism of Morley to the strong Arminianism of Hammond, in practice all looked for a version of Christianity that left some space for individual effort and good works. The poems of Ben Jonson, emphasizing as they did the need for virtuous action, may have made an early impression on Falkland. Later he and his friends were attracted to Arminianism, particularly as it was presented by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius. Because the Arminians saw faith as a matter of choice, they were also concerned to show that Christianity was a credible and advantageous religion, worthy of rational creatures. A translation of Grotius's defence of Christianity was published at Oxford in 1632, and Chillingworth, Falkland, and Hammond all expressed their admiration for the Dutch writer. Grotius's concern to sift the true doctrines of Christianity from the false, and to demonstrate the practical importance of religion, was similar to their own.

As suggested by their preference for Grotius and the Arminians, the circle took a critical approach towards both protestant doctrine and the scriptural text. In particular Chillingworth began to reflect upon the basis of men's religious knowledge. He came to argue that some things could be accepted on the basis of probability, but could not be known with absolute certainty. With Falkland, he felt that the essentials of Christianity consisted in a small core of truths that could be clearly found in the Bible, for the scriptures provided a credible, 'morally certain' record of the ministry of Christ, and did not need to be interpreted by an infallible church. On these grounds Chillingworth began to develop a concept of 'moral certainty', which he applied to Christianity. Later it would be taken up by Restoration divines and natural philosophers and would prove influential in later discussions of probability, certainty, and the significance of evidence. Chillingworth himself found it difficult to apply his critical ideas too stringently, however, for his opponents accused him of undermining the key mysteries of Christianity, such as the Trinity. Indeed, Jesuits and puritans alike charged him (along with Falkland and Hammond) with Socinianism. Although none of Falkland's circle was a follower of the Italian heretic Faustus Socinus in any strict sense, they all read with care the arguments he made for a reasonable and ethical Christianity.

All the members of the circle were united by a desire for peace, and here the appeal of another, earlier Dutch writer may have been even greater. This was Desiderius Erasmus, the great proponent of unity in Christendom and a man whom Falkland 'much esteemed' (Discourse of Infallibility, introduction). Falkland, like Erasmus, looked for harmony through a simple set of Christian beliefs, reinforced by freedom of religious belief and expression that would ensure that 'all would flow againe in the same Chanell' (Cary, Lucius Cary, 139). This vision of unity in truth and freedom underpinned the ethos he created at Great Tew, where all opinions were heard, and agreement was sought rather than imposed. Such an idea, which has a strong Neoplatonic and Stoic flavour to it, is seen in the poetry as well as the religious tracts of the circle.

In the increasingly polarized religious climate of the 1630s the Great Tew circle distanced itself both from Archbishop Laud and from the puritans. Falkland and his friends objected to Laud's clericalism, his active interference in the political realm, and his desire to suppress individual critical reason. Perhaps the clearest evidence for this stance was the translation by George Sandys of Grotius's verse drama Christus patiens, a strident attack upon political interference by churchmen. Falkland contributed a prefatory poem to Sandys's work, and when parliament met again in 1640 he also attacked the Laudian programme. Falkland maintained some links with Charles I's court, but his unease with Laud's policies no doubt contributed to his growing alienation from Caroline policies. This did not translate into sympathy for the puritan agenda, however, and he and his friends denounced not only the puritans' theology of predestination but also their asceticism in worship.

Religion was not the only issue that occupied members of the Great Tew circle; Falkland and his friends kept up to date with the latest thinking on natural philosophy. This is clear from the library catalogues of Hyde and Morley (unfortunately no record remains of Falkland's own books). The ideas of Francis Bacon, Descartes, and Gassendi all featured in correspondence between members of the circle. Closer to home, there were a number of links between Great Tew and the seat at Welbeck of William Cavendish, first earl of Newcastle (later first duke of Newcastle), home during the 1630s to Thomas Hobbes and to the mathematically minded chaplain Robert Payne.

During the first bishops' war in 1639 Falkland and some of his friends joined the king's army on its abortive campaign to crush the covenanter rebellion in Scotland. The royalism of the circle was confirmed when war broke out in England, for most of its members sided with the king. Their political views may have been shaped by the writing of Hobbes; Sheldon, Hyde, and possibly others read Hobbes's The Elements of Law in manuscript. Hammond wrote tracts opposing parliament's resort to arms that have also been linked to Hobbes, but his concern to protect liberty of conscience and non-coercive clerical power distanced him from the philosopher. The upheavals of these years brought Falkland from Great Tew to Oxford when Charles made it his capital in late 1642, but although he found many of his friends there, the irenic discussions of the past could not continue.

The royalism common to the Great Tew circle was lukewarm, stemming from their opposition to resistance and bloodshed. This standpoint can be seen in Hammond's tracts, and his views were shared by the peace-loving Chillingworth (who none the less put his own mathematical skills to use designing a siege engine for the royalist army at Gloucester). Although Falkland was willing to serve in Charles's army, only reluctantly did he agree to join Hyde in serving as secretary of state in 1642. Falkland and his friends were ill-prepared for civil war and conflict, and this was reflected in their ambivalent relationship to the royal cause. From the standpoint of one whose own active royalism eventually took him into exile, Hyde later recalled that by 1643 Falkland was suffering from a 'dejection of spirit' (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 3.187), and the viscount was fatally wounded on 20 September during a reckless charge at the first battle of Newbury. In January of the following year Chillingworth succumbed to a sickness contracted at Gloucester. The war represented the shattering of the circle's irenic ideal of union and harmony through reason and criticism, and neither Falkland nor Chillingworth came to terms with this tragedy before their deaths.

Falkland's estate passed to his wife, Lettice Cary, but four of his clerical friends—Hammond, Sheldon, Morley, and Earle—were named as overseers of her will in 1649. They spent much of the interregnum sorting out his estates and seeking to rein in his spendthrift family; the circle may even have tightened after Falkland's death as some of its members worked together to preserve worship according to the prayer book and to prepare for a restoration of the monarchy. Hammond saw some of Falkland's works through the press, keeping the views of the circle in the public eye. His own strong attachment to the Church of England and to apostolic tradition led Hammond to moderate Falkland's critique of the church fathers, however.

Falkland's early death, with the tragic aura that soon came to surround it, prevented his scholarly reputation from being tarnished by the compromises of war. Thus the contrast between the halcyon days of Great Tew and the troubles of the 1640s was heightened and strengthened with hindsight, and encouraged the idealization of the circle as a model for conversation and friendship among men of letters. Hyde's descriptions are the most famous, but echoes can be found in the work of the antiquary John Aubrey and others. For Aubrey the Great Tew circle brought together 'all the excellent of that peaceable time' (Aubrey, 56). While the mere existence of an informal scholarly grouping centred around a country house no longer looks remarkable, this particular circle has continued to fascinate historians attracted to its ethos. In the twentieth century this picture of Great Tew as a place of peace and rational conversation was emphasized by Hugh Trevor-Roper. He placed the group within a broader European trend of religious moderation that found its fulfilment in the Enlightenment. Although Richard Tuck has disputed this reading of the thought of Great Tew, emphasizing the sceptical and absolutist strands within the circle, its members and their admirers clearly wished to portray Great Tew as a meeting place for critical enquiry where liberty of conscience was preserved and respected.


  • J. Ellison, George Sandys: travel, colonialism, and tolerance in the seventeenth century (2002)
  • K. Weber, Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland (1940)
  • R. Orr, Reason and authority: the thought of William Chillingworth (1967)
  • H. Trevor-Roper, ‘The Great Tew circle’, Catholics, Anglicans and puritans: seventeenth century essays (1987), 166–230
  • J. C. Hayward, ‘The “mores” of Great Tew’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1982
  • J. C. Hayward, ‘New directions in the study of the Falkland circle’, Seventeenth Century, 2 (1987), 19–48
  • Elizabeth Cary, Lady Falkland: life and letters, ed. H. Wolfe (2001)
  • Aubrey's Brief lives, ed. O. L. Dick (1949)
  • The life of Edward, earl of Clarendon … written by himself, 3 vols. (1759)
  • R. Tuck, Natural rights theories: their origin and development (1979)
  • L. Cary, second Viscount Falkland, Sir Lucius Cary, late lord viscount of Falkland, his discourse of infallibility, with an answer to it: and his lordships reply (1651)
  • L. Cary, second Viscount Falkland, A speech made to the House of Commons concerning episcopacy, by the Lord Viscount Faulkeland (1641)
  • W. Chillingworth, The religion of protestants: a safe way to salvation (1637)
  • H. J. McLachlan, Socinianism in seventeenth-century England (1951)
  • H. Grotius, Christs passion: a tragedie, trans. G. Sandys (1640)
  • P. Zagorin, ‘Clarendon and Hobbes’, Journal of Modern History, 57 (1985), 593–616
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E. Hyde, earl of Clarendon, , 6 vols. (1888); repr. (1958); repr. (1992)