Introduction: the 1723 Loyalty Oaths

The Swearing of the Oaths

The oath taking was conducted at adjourned Midsummer and Michaelmas Quarter Sessions at locations within 45 different parishes around the county. That these were to take place was communicated in advance by an order issued by the county Quarter Sessions on 16 July 1723.85 The most commonly occurring location is the Castle in Exeter, which fell within the jurisdiction of the county of Devon rather than the city.86 In total 4,325 men and women from some 250 parishes around the county made the journey to Exeter to take the oaths. In general the sessions were held in market towns or larger parishes, often at a local inn such as the George in Kingsbridge, the Half Moon at Moreleigh and the White Hart, Cullompton. Less frequently, an individual’s house would be used, such as the home of Richard Squire in Chittlehampton where 652 people took the oaths on 19, 20 and 29 September. Other cases occur of small numbers of more prominent individuals having the oaths administered to them at the home of a member of the local gentry. Thus on 23 December Lady Diana Wrey and Sir Henry Northcote and his wife were among just sixteen people who swore at the home of Sir Bouchier Wrey in Tawstock. When John Ivie and John Short attended the home of Stephen Northleigh at Peamore, they adminsitered the oaths to a select group of ten including Dame Abigail Davie, Lady Francis Chudleigh and Northleigh and his wife Susanna (see Figure 1). On this occasion it is possible that some additional political undertones may have been in operation: as noted above Northleigh was a suspected Jacobite sympathiser.

The number of individuals who attended a single adjourned Quarter Session varied from the handful present at Northleigh’s house on 4 December to the 508 who trooped through the home of Richard Squire on 20 September. On more than thirty occasions the number who attended a single session exceeded three hundred. The scale of this operation suggests that some mechanisms were adopted to speed along what must have been a lengthy process. It is to be assumed that not all of those whose names appear as having sworn actually recited the full text of the oaths.87 There is no indication on any of the documents to suggest how the process was managed. However, evidence from the Protestation of the 1640s provides some indication of what might have happened. At St Katherine Cree in London the text was read aloud by the minister, after which ‘the people expressed themselves after this manner as follows: I A.B. in the presence of Almighty God freely and heartily promise, vow and protest the same which the leading person George Rush did’.88 It seems reasonable to assume that a similar practice would have been followed in 1723. Some indication of what form the actual process of swearing may have taken is provided by an account from 1710 of the oath of admission to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This provides a sense of the ritual elements that still surrounded oath taking in the early eighteenth century:

He first gave me the oath to look over, and then took a little Greek testament from a bag, gave it open into my hand, and himself read the oath aloud to me, while I kept two fingers of the right hand on the open book. After this... he guided my hand with the book to my mouth, to be kissed, which is a form usual in all oaths in England.89
The raising of three fingers in acknowledgement of the Trinity was another commonly employed ritual associated with swearing.90

To add to the general inconvenience of having to travel to a suitable location in order to take the oaths, the oath takers also appear to have been obliged to pay a small fee. The 1723 Oath Act states that ‘for taking and subscribing the Oaths and Assurance appointed by this Act, three pence shall be paid, and no more; and for any certificate thereof, if required, One Shilling, and no more’.91 How widespread the practise of issuing certificates was in Devon cannot be determined. No such documents have been found in the Devon Heritage Centre. However, two certificates have been identified in a private collection in the Somerset Record Office. These certify that Joan and Mary Southward of Churchstanton ‘took and subscribed the Oaths appointed to be taken and subscribed’ at the Dolphin in Honiton on 2 October 1723 and are signed by William Martyn junior, Deputy Clerk of the Peace (see Figure 2).92 Since the certificates were printed, it can be assumed that they were issued in relatively large numbers.

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  1. The Post-master, or the Loyal Mercury, nos 131 & 133 (2 & 16 Aug. 1723).[back]
  2. Exeter was a royal castle administered on behalf of the crown by the sheriff of Devon. See Mark Stoyle, Circled with Stone: Exeter’s City Walls 1485-1660 (Exeter, 2003), 26-27 and W.G. Hoskins, Two Thousand Years in Exeter (Exeter, 1960), 26-28. [back]
  3. Read aloud relatively quickly, the three oaths take around two and a half minutes to recite. Even at this speed, it would have taken 500 people over 20 hours to complete the process if each read the text individually. The actual process would have taken considerably longer if we allow for varying levels of literacy. [back]
  4. Cited in Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order, 67. Slightly different instructions were given for the administering of the Solemn League and Covenant: Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order, 69. [back]
  5. The diary of Z.C. von Uffenbach cited in Spurr, ‘A Profane History’, 44. [back]
  6. Spurr, ‘A Profane History’, 46. [back]
  7. 9 Geo. I c. 24. [back]
  8. Somerset Record Office, DD/MT/24/19/2, Mattock of Lowton Manuscripts, Various, Miscellenea, including Quarter Sessions oath certificates (2), Mary and Joan Southwood of Churchstanton. Churchstanton was transferred from Devon to Somerset in 1896. [back]