Who in Thorncombe did not sign the 1723 Devon Loyalty Oaths and Why?

By Eve Higgs

Jacobite Sympathisers

Although his name does not appear in 'The List', those identified among contemporary documents relating to the Atterbury plot as being sympathetic to the Jacobite cause, there is strong circumstantial evidence that Francis Gwyn had leanings in that direction which may have influenced his attitude towards the 1723 oath and those of his tenants.3 A member of the Welsh gentry, and born the year before Charles I's execution, Gwyn was an MP from 1673, cutting his political teeth in the Court of James II.

In his capacity as Clerk in Council he attended James II in his Salisbury chambers while the King waited in vain for military reinforcements to oppose William of Orange's triumphant progress from Brixham to London in what became known as the 'Bloodless Revolution' of 1689. A nineteenth century transcription of a surviving fragment of Gwyn's diary, found by chance hidden among other papers, describes those agonising last days for James. Despite the high drama of the occasion, Gwyn played his cards close to his chest, restricting his observations to the succession of visitors with news of defections, the King's nose bleeds and the royal party's frequent attendances at chapel.4

Gwyn's impressive social and political connections and his diplomatic skills ensured his political and personal survival during this politically unstable period. He was also rich, with estates and properties in Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Wales. Related to Queen Anne's prime minister Robert Harley by marriage, Gwyn was her Minister for War, nailing his flag firmly to the Tory mast and enjoying a cordial relationship with the monarch. The Queen died shortly before she was scheduled to make a private visit to Forde Abbey. A four poster bed made specially for her visit survives at Forde Abbey. Mortlake tapestries lining the walls of the saloon were presented to Gwyn by Queen Anne.

While the majority of Tories were for the restoration of the Old Pretender, historians are divided over the extent of the Tory Jacobite threat to political stability. Support by country Tories in particular, of whom Gwyn was one, 'rarely amounted to more than drinking toast to "the king across the water"', which perhaps accounts for why Gwyn signed each of the 1715 and 1719 oath rolls. Discretion perhaps being the better part of valour, suffice to say Francis Gwyn Esq was appointed Father of the House of Commons at the end of George I's reign.5

Further evidence suggests wavering among others of Thorncombe's 'better sort' when presented with the prospect of the 1723 loyalty oaths. A contemporary account of Guy Fawkes Night celebrations in Axminster in 1714 reports that 'a Jacobite High Church rabble from... Thorncombe rescued effigies of the Pope and Pretender from a bonfire, proclaiming the latter King of England'.6 Although oath taking was losing its political potency, churchmen were still frequently consulted regarding the ethical implications of false swearing.7 Those Thorncombe parishioners eligible to take the 1723 oath but with succession issues could therefore be expected to turn to their parish priest for guidance.

Describing himself on the 1723 rolls as Thorncombe's Clerk, Thomas Cooke, like Francis Gwyn, also appears to have wrestled with his conscience before signing the loyalty oaths. As required by law and as magistrates, both being holders of public office, Francis Gwyn and William Bragge signed the rolls for the earlier 1719 oath but significantly Cooke who was also legally required to take the oath, as a parish priest, did not. Married to the daughter of a cleric from Wells, his name appears in Kettlewell's list of 'nonjurors', 400 priests and bishops which included Archbishop Ken of Wells. Their refusal to take the 1689 Association Oath on the grounds that William III's succession was not validated by divine right, led to a schism in the Church of England, loss of livings and persecution among those churchmen who followed their consciences and stood up for their principles.8

Given Thorncombe's incumbency was in the gift of Sadborow, this also implicates William Bragge. He gave Cooke the living in 1702. Circumstantially this therefore puts Bragge among Thorncombe's Jacobite sympathisors, with a pragmatic view of public oath taking by 1723. Conventional wisdom says parishioners in closed parishes took their lead from their social betters during this period. In this case whatever their private doubts Thorncombe's secular and spiritual opinion-formers appear to have given a positive lead. However, a significant number of potentially eligible parishioners are still unaccounted for.

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  1. See http://www.foda.org.uk/oaths/intro/introduction4.htm (accessed 15.10.2009); Cruickshanks, E. and Erskine-Hill, H., The Atterbury Plot (Basingstoke, 2004), 106. [back]
  2. Gatty, C., Fortnightly Review, (September 1886), 358-364. [back]
  3. Jenkins, P., The Making of the Ruling Class: Glamorgan Gentry 1640-1790, (Cambridge, 2002), xv, xxv, 140; Roberts, J., The Jacobite Wars: Scotland and the military campaigns of 1715 and 1745, (Edinburgh, 2002), 60-61. [back]
  4. Monod, Jacobitism and the English People, 179; An Account of the Riots, Tumults, and other Treasonable Practices; since His Majesty's Accession to the Throne (London, 1715), 12-13. See http://www.foda.org.uk/oaths/intro/introduction4.htm (accessed 15.10.2009). [back]
  5. Langford, P., Public Life and the Propertied Gentleman 1689-1798, the Ford Lectures delivered at the University of Oxford 1990, (Oxford, 1991), 682.[back]
  6. Ibid., 103; DD\FS\78/2/1-4 Somerset Records, Marriage Settlement Thomas Cook of Thorncombe Devon, 1705; Hickes, G., Memoirs of the life of Mr John Kettlewell... Wherein is contained some accounts of the transactions of his time. Compiled from the collections of Dr George Hickes and Robert Nelson, etc., (London, 1718), xxxiiij; http://www.jacobite.ca./essays/nonjurors.htm (accessed 15.10.2009). [back]