Introduction: the Documents

Extent of the Oath-taking

As described above, the 1723 Oath Act required that ‘every Person and Persons’ above the age of eighteen were expected to swear the loyalty oaths. This was with the sole exception of those officeholders who had already sworn under previous legislation. Those who refused to swear the oaths were to register their estates as Roman Catholics. Yet as has also been noted, only approximately 1 in 5 eligible Devonians actually took the oaths. The penalty for failing to either swear or register estates was the forfeiture of estates. As mentioned in the discussion of the orders from the Devon Quarter Sessions of 16 July 1723 there is some evidence that only wealthier inhabitants of the county were expected to swear. However, it is not clear from the documentary evidence how strictly this objective was enforced and it would be wrong to conclude that all of the names contained in the transcripts are of individuals who can accurately be described as property owners.101 Therefore, one question to answer concerning the oath rolls is how representative they are of the overall population. Further research would be needed to determine exactly which sections of the population were most likely to swear, but some initial observations can be made here.

Firstly, the clause exempting those who had already taken the oaths as holders of public office does not seem to have been properly understood. An examination of the oath rolls from earlier in the reign of George I indicates that many of those who swore in 1723 had already done so. Taking Axminster hundred as a sample of the pre-1723 oath takers, 54 inhabitants of 9 parishes appear as having sworn earlier in the reign of George I. From this group, nineteen can be identified as having taken the oaths again in 1723.102 More detailed research would be required on individual parishes to determine how many of the earlier oath-takers who do not appear in 1723 had died or moved to a different parish by that time. Nonetheless, enough is known to be able to conclude that at least some of the 4,000 subscribers to the three oaths prior to 1723 went on to take them again following the discovery of the Atterbury plot. Some individuals swore several times between 1715 and 25 December 1723. Sir Copplestone Warwick Bampfylde, the Jacobite activist, swore loyalty oaths twice on successive days in 1715 and again in 1723.103 Thomas Byrdall junior, vicar of Dunsford, swore on 20 December 1715; 14 December 1714 (abjuration only); 15 January 1716/17 and again in 1723.104 The most likely explanation for repeat oath-taking, as suggested by the 1724 Act explaining the previous legislation, was the incorrect interpretation of the law. Alternatively, individuals may have been motivated by a desire to renew their allegiance to the crown or, in the case of Jacobites such as Bampfylde, to deflect suspicions over their lack of loyalty.

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  1. For example, the Quarter Sessions Order Books are silent on the matter. No other evidence has been found of how the legislation was interpreted in Devon. On the evidence of the Devon press see above. [back]
  2. The parishes sampled were Axminster, Axmouth, Kilmington, Luppitt, Membury, Musbury, Thorncombe, Upottery and Yarcombe. [back]
  3. Bampfylde’s signature appears on DHC, QS17/1/13A/10; QS17/1/13/1 and QS17/2/6/1. [back]
  4. DHC, QS17/1/13A/4; QS17/1/13/9; QS17/1/15/5; QS17/2/5/5.[back]