Oaths, English Post-Reformation

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From the first days of the English Reformation oaths, tests, and formal declarations were used to secure submission to the changes imposed by conformity to the Established Church. Later they were employed to penalize Catholics, and finally, as a condition of relief from legal disabilities.

Oath of Supremacy, 1534 to 1559. The early history of this oath is complicated. The statute (22 Henry VIII ch. 15) of 1530 confirmed henry viii's pardon of the English clergy for unlawfully acknowledging Thomas wolsey's legatine authority in return for a grant of £100,000 and the Convocations' recognition (February and March 1530) that he was "of the Church and Clergy of England, [the] especial Protector, single and supreme Lord, and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even Supreme Head." The qualification, "as far as the law of Christ allows," inserted in the Convocations' declaration at the instance of St. John fisher, was omitted in a similar acknowledgement made by Parliament after the break with Rome in the Dispensations Act, 1534 (25 Henry VIII ch. 21). Then, the first Act of Succession in 1534 (25 Henry VIII ch. 22), having recited and approved Thomas cranmer's annulment of the king's marriage with catherine of aragon and Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, enacted that everyone "at their full ages shall make a corporal oath" to keep "the whole effects and contents of this present Act." Refusal was punishable with loss of goods and life imprisonment, but no form for this oath was provided. The text of the oath taken by Lords and Commons (Lords' Journals, 1.82) before Parliament was prorogued in March 1534 refers, however, not only to the Act of Succession but to "all other Acts and Statutes made since the beginning of this present Parliament anything therein contained," and thus to the Dispensations Act. This may have been the form of oath that was widely tendered and taken during the summer of 1534, but refused by John Fisher and Thomas more, among others.

In December 1534 an Act of Supremacy (26 Henry VIII ch. 1) reaffirmed that the "King is the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia," and a second Act of Succession (26 Henry VIII ch. 2) gave a form of oath said to be that intended by the earlier act. It differs from that in the Lords' Journals only by omitting the phrase "made since the beginning of this present Parliament," and so equally required an acknowledgement of royal supremacy. Another statute (26 Henry VIII ch. 13) made the denial of any royal title treason, so that refusal of the oath was (after Feb. 1, 1535) treason. It was for this offense that Fisher and More were convicted and executed. In July 1536 an act "For Extinguishing Papal Authority" (28 Henry VIII ch. 10) provided a new oath by which all officeholders (ecclesiastical and lay) and all who held lands of the king or took holy orders or religious vows swore they would "assist and defend" the supremacy. The Act of Succession, 1544 (35 Henry VIII ch. 1), enacted another new and very long oath that involved a profession of faith in the royal supremacy. It was to be taken by all officeholders and by anyone when required.

All legislation inconsistent with papal primacy was repealed in 1554 (1 and 2 Philip and Mary ch. 8) and most of it was revived by the first of Elizabeth I's statutes, the Act of Supremacy, 1559 (1 Elizabeth I ch. 1). This reintroduced what was substantially the 1536 oath, viz, "I, A.B., do utterly testify and declare in my conscience that the Queen's Highness is the only Supreme Governor of the Realm as well as in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes as temporal, and that no foreign prelate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction power or authority ecclesiastical or spiritual within this realm." It was to be taken by the clergy and by all holding office under the Crown, and by those taking university degrees; refusal entailed disability from holding office or preferment. It appears in practice not to have been tendered in the universities or to the parochial clergy; an undertaking to use the Book of common prayer was thought sufficient. A statute of 1563 (5 Elizabeth I ch. 1) provided that the oath could be required of schoolmasters, lawyers, and legal officials, and that refusal by anyone should be punished on the first occasion by the penalties of praemunire (forfeiture of lands and goods, and life imprisonment) and on a second (after the lapse of three months), as treason.

Oath of Allegiance (or Obedience), 1606. In response to a royal proclamation of November 1602, distinguishing between Jesuits and the secular clergy, and extending to the latter, in veiled language, hope of some amelioration of the laws against them, 13 secular priests on Jan. 31, 1603, submitted to Elizabeth I a Protestation of Allegiance in which they denounced papal sponsored plots of invasion, and bound themselves to disobey any papal decree of excommunication or deposition of the Queen. She was dying, however, and the Protestation had no immediate effect. After the Gunpowder Plot (1605) the persecution of Catholics was intensified, and the first of two severe statutes (3 and 4 James I ch. 4, 5) included (ch. 4 sec. 8, 9, 27) a device to create dissension among the Catholics. Although there could be no serious doubts as to Catholic loyalty, the Protestation and the negotiations preceding it had shown that there were differences of opinion on the pope's deposing power, which was stoutly defended by the Jesuits, among others. The following Oath of Allegiance was therefore drafted to exploit these differences and to cast doubt on that loyalty: "I, A.B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge that our sovereign lord, King James, is lawful and rightful king and that the pope neither of himself nor by any authority of the Church or See of Rome, or by any other means with any other, has any power to depose the king or to authorise any foreign prince to invade him or to give license to any to bear arms, [or] raise tumults . Also I do swear that notwithstanding anysentence of excommunication or deprivation I will bear allegiance and true faith to His Majesty. And I dofurther swear that I do from my heart abhor, detest, and abjure, as impious and heretical this damnable doctrine and position,that princes which be excommunicated by the pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or by any other whatsoever. And I do believe that the pope has no power to absolve me from this oath. I do swear according to the plain and common sense and understanding of the same words." The oath became law on June 26, 1606. It could be required of anyone convicted or suspected of recusancy, and refusal entailed liability to the penalties of praemunire. After 1610 (7 James I ch.6) it could be demanded of anyone over 18. Subscription did not, however, relieve Catholics of any of the penalties of the anti-Catholic legislation as the 1603 signatories had hoped.

On Sept. 22, 1606, Paul V condemned the oath "as it contains many things evidently contrary to faith and salvation," though he prudently refrained from enumerating them. James I replied that the oath was not meant to encroach upon anyone's conscience, and among the Catholics, minimizers maintained that the oath might be interpreted by the lawgiver's intention and might, therefore, be taken. But the Church's doctrine has always been that oaths are addressed to God Himself and must be accepted in the precise sense of the words pronounced. If James had made his subjects swear specifically "in the sense by him explained," the oath might perhaps have been endured, but when he made them "swear according to the plain and common sense and understanding of the same words" to what was injurious to Catholic consciences, this could not be tolerated. The most objectionable words were those condemning the deposing power as "impious, heretical, and damnable." The doctrine of the deposing power was, as far as practical politics went, already merely an embarrassment. But it was implied by the then-current Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church, and until the previous two or three generations it had been generally accepted as a valuable safeguard for liberty, both religious and civil. Many, including Paul V, had not realized that the power would never be in vogue again, even in Catholic countries, and they believed that it could not be denied without seriously impairing the Roman primacy. And while Robert bellarmine, Robert persons, and several other early opponents of the oath thus went further in condemning it than later theologians have done, it is still difficult to see how a Catholic could conscientiously swear that a doctrine long maintained by the popes and by many in the Church, albeit not de fide, was "impious, heretical, and damnable." On its side, Rome could not allow the state to judge what was heresy or to specify the conditions under which Catholics would disobey the Holy See. Resistance to the oath was not, therefore, chiefly or solely the result of belief in the deposing power as Catholics such as Thomas preston (roger widdrington), who wrote in its defense, or those with Gallican leanings, such as Charles butler or M. A. Tierney, have claimed. (The Sorbonne on June 30, 1681, very shortly before approving the Gallican Articles, censored the oath and found in it very little that was objectionable.) English Catholics like William bishop (later made a bishop by Rome) and Leander Jones, President of the English Benedictines, who explicitly rejected the deposing power, nevertheless refused the oath. Bishop was imprisoned for refusing it, while Jones consented only to an oath of his own drafting.

The archpriest George blackwell, then head of the English clergy, had at first disapproved of the oath, but then in July 1606, after conferring with some of the leading clergy, allowed it. Later, after the Pope's brief, he disallowed it again, and finally, being imprisoned, he took the oath, relying on James's statement that no encroachment on conscience was intended. In a pastoral letter Blackwell recommended the faithful to do the same. The Pope issued a new brief (Aug. 23, 1607) repeating his prohibition, and on Sept. 28, 1607, Cardinal Bellarmine wrote to Blackwell exhorting him to obey the brief. As this also proved ineffectual, a new archpriest, George Birkhead, was appointed in February 1608, and Blackwell was told that his faculties would be withdrawn if he did not retract within two months. This he refused to do, and much to James's satisfaction, continued to defend his opinion for three years before he was finally suspended. Meanwhile James himself answered the missives sent to Blackwell in an anonymous tract Triplici Nodo, Triplex cuneus ("A triple wedge for a triple knot," i.e., the two briefs and Bellarmine's letter). This was answered by Bellarmine, also anonymously, in Responsio ad librum: Triplici nodo, triplex cuneus (1608). James now dropped his anonymity and reprinted his tract with a Premonition to Christian Princes and an appendix on his adversaries' supposed mistakes (January 1609). Upon this Bellarmine published under his own name his Apologia pro responsione ad librum Jacobi I (1609). James opposed to this a treatise by a learned Scots Catholic, W. Barclay, De porestate papae (1609). Barclay was a decided Gallican, and Bellarmine's answer, Tractatus de potestate summi pontificis in rebus temporalibus (1610), gave such offense to the Gallican party that it was publicly burned in Paris by a decree of Nov. 26, 1610. A similar fate befell Francisco suÁrez's answer to James, Defensio Fidei Catholicae adversus Anglicanae sectae errores, both in Paris and London. At every stage of the contest a host of other combatants joined the fray. On the papal side were Cardinal Du Perron, Leonard Lessius, Jakob Gretser, Thomas Fitzherbert, Martin Becanus, Caspar Scioppius, Robert Persons, N. Coeffeteau, A. Eudaemon Joannes, and Matthew Kellison. On the other side were Bp. Lance-lot Andrewes, Isaac Casaubon, Paolo Sarpi, William Barlow, Robert Burhill, Pierre du Moulin, William Barrett, John Barnes, and especially the Benedictine Thomas Preston writing as Roger Widdrington. Most of the Protestant books written in Latin, together with the works of Preston and Barclay, were put on the Roman Index.

Some idea of the pressures caused by the oath may be gathered from the Acts of the Martyrs of England and Wales (see england, scotland, and wales, martyrs of) during these years. When William laud succeeded to Canterbury, the policy of splitting the English Catholics and driving the Jesuits from England was revived (1634), and in a new attempt to induce Catholics to take the oath another book defending it was produced, it seems by Preston, using (with his consent) the name of William Howard. An answer written in extreme terms by a young Jesuit, Edward Courtney, vere Leedes, led to Courtney's imprisonment, and was used to foster the impression that only Jesuit intrasigence prevented a settlement between the English government and the Catholics. Courtney was attacked also by Leander Jones who had come to England hoping that he could negotiate a rapprochement between Rome and Canterbury, or, failing that, toleration for the English Catholics. Jones unsuccessfully urged that Rome should withdraw its condemnation of the oath if Charles I declared it involved "nothing else but a true and natural civil obedience and loyalty" and was not "a denial of any spiritual authority belonging to His Holiness," and he attempted to devise a formula for the oath that would be acceptable to both sides. Similar proposals were mooted during the Commonwealth and after the Restoration, but none were acceptable to Rome.

Oath of Abjuration, 1643 and 1655. With the success of the Puritans in the civil wars the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance naturally fell into desuetude, though they were not repealed until 1650. An act of Aug. 29, 1643, provided that Catholics should forfeit two-thirds of their estates, personal and real, and that everyone should be "adjudged a papist" who refused an oath renouncing papal supremacy, transubstantiation, purgatory, and other doctrines. No Catholic could possibly take this oath. In 1655 the penalties that before 1650 attached to failure to attend the Anglican Church were, by an ordinance, attached to refusal of this oath, which was reissued in an amended (and more objectionable) form. This measure was, however, only sparingly enforced.

Test Oaths, 1672 and 1678. In 1672 after the conversion of James, then Duke of York, a Test Act compelled all holders of office under the Crown to make a short "Declaration against Transubstantiation," viz, to swear that "there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever" (25 Charles II ch.2). This test was effective: James resigned his post as Lord High Admiral. After the oates plot (1678) a much longer test was devised with a further clause that "the invocation of the virgin Mary, or any saint and the Sacrifice of the Mass are superstitious and idolatrous and that I make this declaration without any evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation whatsoever, and without any dispensation already granted me by the pope." (30 Charles II st. 2 ch. 1). This formula later became notorious as the "King's Declaration." At the time it was appointed for officeholders and members of both Houses, except for the Duke of York.

James II largely freed himself from the obstacle to appointing Catholics to office which the Test Act imposed. He did this by exercising the prerogative dispensing power after the judges had held in Godden v. Hales (1686; II State Trials 1165) that it was contrary to the principles of the constitution to deprive the Crown of the services of any of its subjects when they were needed. After the revolution of 1688 the test was more stringently enforced; a clause was even added to the Bill of Rights requiring the sovereign himself to take the declaration (1 William and Mary sess. 2 ch. 2). Since the test was obligatory on all officeholders, the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance became otiose, and were therefore cut down to a line or two and joined with the Oath of Fidelity to King William (1 William and Mary sess. 1. ch. 8). This oath could be tendered to anyone by any two justices of the peace at their discretion. Persons refusing the oath were deemed popish recusants and were thereupon liable to all the penalties of the statutes punishing absence from church and were disabled from practicing as lawyers and voting at elections (7 and 8 William and Mary ch. 4; 1 George I st. 2 ch. 13).

The Irish Oath, 1774, to Emancipation, 1829. The first relaxations of the system of penal oaths were due to external pressure: the need to pacify Canada and the military demands of the war of American Independence. The Quebec Act, 1774 (14 George III ch. 83), provided that Catholics resident in the province might freely practice their religion, and should not be obliged to take the Oath of Supremacy under 1 William and Mary sess. 1 ch. 8. A simple oath of allegiance was substituted. In the same year the Irish Parliament similarly authorized an oath of allegiance to King George and rejection of the Stuart Pretender, which involved no rejection of the pope's spiritual authority or any article of faith and which could be taken by Catholic soldiers. The alleged malpractice of "no faith with heretics" was renounced; so was the deposing power, but without the objectionable words, "impious, heretical and damnable." The "temporal and civil jurisdiction of the pope, direct and indirect within the realm" was also renounced, and the promise was given that no dispensation from the oath should be considered valid. This Irish Oath was embodied in the first Catholic Relief Act, 1778 (18 George III ch. 60), which provided that English Catholics on taking it should be freed of the worst penalties of laws passed during the reign of William and Mary (11 and 12 William III ch. 4); the clergy readily took the oath.

In 1788 a committee of lay Catholics with Gallican leanings (who later formed the Cisalpine Club) were negotiating with the government for further relief. To them Lord Stanhope made it clear that if more concessions were required, more assurances should be given. A long Protest was accordingly drafted, which not only rejected the alleged malpractices disowned by the Irish Oath, but did so in strong and untheological language. It reintroduced, for instance, the objectionable terms "impious, heretical, and damnable" of the 1606 oath. Nevertheless, the committee insisted (1) that the words would be understood in a broad popular way, and (2) that to obtain the Relief Act, it must be signed at once. For this reason it was freely signed by laity and clergy and by the four vicars apostolic, although two later retracted their names. When the signatures had been obtained, the new Relief Bill was brought forward by the government with an oath founded on the Protest (hence called the Protestation oath), which excluded from relief those who would not swear to it and accept the name of "Protesting Catholic Dissenters." This bill would have divided the Catholic community. The successful opposition to it was led by John milner, then only a country priest, and the second Relief Act, 1791 (31 George III ch. 32) passed without any significant changes in the previous oath and without changing the name of Catholics. Even though the Emancipation Act, 1829 (10 George IV ch. 7) was eventually carried without any tests, this was not at first foreseen. The Catholic Committee continued its endeavors to disarm Protestant prejudices with proposals (like the Veto) that savored of Gallicanism. So too did the oath annexed to the bill proposed in 1813, which, from its length, was styled the "Theological Oath."

Repeal of the Statutory Oaths, 1867 to 1910. The Relief Acts were generally only measures of relief, leaving the old statutes, oaths, and tests on the statute book. The disused tests and oaths were repealed between 1867 and 1910. In 1867 the declaration was repealed (30 and 31 Victoria ch. 75). After this, the only person bound to pronounce the oath was the king himself at his accession. In 1871 the Promissory Oaths Act removed all the old Oaths of Allegiance (34 and 35 Victoria ch. 48). Between 1891 and 1908 five unsuccessful bills or motions were introduced into Parliament for the abolition of the king's declaration, and it was only in 1910 that this last anti-Catholic declaration was repealed by the Accession Declaration Act (10 Edward VII and 1 George V ch. 29).

Bibliography: Statutes of the Realm, ed. a. luders et al., 12v. (London 181028). Statutes at Large (London 1762). Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum 164260, ed. c. h. firth and r. s. rait, 3 v. (London 1911). c. butler, Historical Memoirs Respecting the English, Irish, and Scottish Catholics from the Reformation to the Present Time, 4 v. (London 181921). h. tootell, Dodd's Church History of England, ed. m. a. tierney, 5 v. (London 183943). For particular oaths: p. hughes, The Reformation in England, 3 v. in 1 (5th, rev. ed. New York 1963) v.2. r. g. usher, The Reconstruction of the English Church, 2 v. (New York 1910). c. j. ryan, "The Jacobean Oath of Allegiance," American Catholic Historical Review 28 (1942) 159183. g. sitwell, "Leander Jones's Mission to England, 163435," Recusant History 5 (195960) 132182. t. clancy, "English Catholics and the Papal Deposing Power 15701640," ibid. 6 (196162) 114140, 205227; 7 (196263) 210. w. k. l. webb, "Thomas Preston OSB, alias Roger Widdrington 15671640," Biographical Studies 2 (195354) 216268. w. birchley, The Catholiques Plea (London 1659); Reflections on the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance (London 1661). h. thurston, Titus Oates' Test (London 1909). j. milner, Supplementary Memoirs of English Catholics (London 1820). b. n. ward, Dawn of the Catholic Revival in England, 17811803, 2 v. (London 1909); The Eve of Catholic Emancipation, 3 v. (London 191112).

[p. r. glazebrook]