Introduction: the Documents

Status of the Oath-takers

For the vast majority of individuals who swore the oaths the only biographical information that can be gleaned from the documents are their names, parish of residence, and whether or not they could sign their name. Concentrating on male oath-takers first, a small amount of information is provided for the Devon oath-takers in the form of status and occupation. This information appears more consistently on the Exeter oath rolls, although parishes of residence are not provided. In Devon, the information is inconclusive, but suggests that the oath was administered to individuals from across the social spectrum. Additional biographical information is provided for 1,234 male oath-takers (see Appendix 4). As might be expected, the gentry feature prominently amongst this group, with 295 (23.9%) described as ‘gent’ or ‘gentleman’ and 219 (17.7%) as ‘esq’ or ‘esquire’. The next most prominent groups are yeomen (215, 17.4%) and the clergy (188, 15.2%), while the county’s maritime tradition is reflected in the next most numerous group of 40 mariners (3.2%). Evidence of the social extent of the group is provided by the appearance of 35 weavers, 32 husbandmen and 5 individuals described as labourers. Other occupations appearing in the list include butcher, woolcombers, tailors and bakers. Clearly, the sample size is too small to draw any firm conclusions concenring the proportion of oath-takers drawn from different sections of society. Nonetheless, any assumptions that wealthier groups with more to lose from failing to comply with the legislation were more likely to swear should be balanced against this sketchy occupational evidence.

Further evidence of the social groups most likely to have sworn can be found from examining lists of freeholders compiled for the purposes of identifying those suitable to serve on juries. The 1721 list contains the names of 1,443 freeholders, organised by hundred and then by parish within each hundred.105 A sample of 147 parishes was examined, from ten different hundreds.106 From a total of 668 freeholders named, 537 can be identified among individuals having sworn the oaths of allegiance. Assuming this to be a fair reflection of the list as a whole, then we might expect to find 80% of the 1721 freeholders having sworn the oaths. This would suggest that swearing was more common among the wealthier groups than among society as a whole. However, it should also be noted that this would still only give us about 1,100 of the 25,000 oath takers. Since the composition of the freeholders lists varies year on year, an examination of a larger sample of returns for the 1720s and early 1730s would provide a clearer indication of the proportion of oath-takers who might be considered amongst the elite within Devon society. Nonetheless, here it can be suggested that the chances of finding an individual among the oath-takers increases higher up the social scale.

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  1. DHC, QS/7/9, List of Freeholders (1721). The number of names recorded for each parish varies from one year to the next. More names are recorded on the 1721 list than the following year. No list survives for 1723. [back]
  2. The hundreds were: Axminster, Black Torrington, Braunton, Cliston, Coleridge, East Budleigh, Ermington, Winkleigh, Witheridge and Wonford. [back]