Introduction: Historical Context

Oath-taking in England 1534-1715

Oaths of allegiance played a central roll in defining the relationship between rulers and ruled in early modern England.1 They were employed by successive governments to secure the loyalty of their subjects and to flush out potential opponents.2 Beginning with the Act of Supremacy of 1534 and the Elizabethan Oath of Supremacy of 1559, oaths of religious and political loyalty are a regular feature of the history of post-Reformation and revolutionary England. The 1534 oath was tendered to all men over the age of 14 and required the swearer to assert that the children of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were rightful heirs to the throne. In 1584 the murder of the Dutch leader William of Orange and the uncovering of the Throckmorton plot led to the drawing up of an ‘Instrument of Association’, which bound those taking it to give their ‘lyves, landes and goodes’ in defence of the Queen.3 The government response to the gunpowder plot of 1605 included the formulation of the Jacobean loyalty oath the following year. The purpose of this measure was to expose Catholics who were actively disloyal to the King. It was not intended to be universally prescribed, and was only to be taken by those persons aged over 18 who were convicted or indicted for recusancy.4 The Civil War years saw a further series of loyalty oaths, notably the Protestation Oath (1641), the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) and the Engagement (1650).5 In taking the Protestation Oath the swearer promised to defend ‘the true reformed religion expressed in the doctrine of the Church of England’ and expressed his ‘duty of allegiance’ to ‘maintain and defend His Majesty’s royal person and estate, as also the power and privilege of Parliaments’.6 The surviving returns for the county of Devon contain the names of 63,254 subscribers.7

In 1696 the discovery of a plot to assassinate William III resulted in the imposition of the so-called Association Oath, embodied in the ‘Act for the better security of his majesty’s royal person and government’. In its wording and form this oath harked back the to the 1584 Association: a point not lost on contemporaries.8 Subscribers were to ‘heartily, sincerely, solemnly profess, testify and declare, That his present Majesty, King William, is rightful and lawful King of these Realms’, and promised to revenge the King’s death should an assassination attempt prove successful.9 Under the Act of Parliament only officeholders were required to swear the oath, but such was the level of patriotic outrage that in some parts of the country virtually every adult male subscribed to the Association.10 The purpose of the 1696 Association was essentially political: an attempt by the Whig ministry to undermine the Tory challenge and the country opposition more generally. The early eighteenth century witnessed the imposition of a further series of loyalty oaths to successive monarchs. In 1702 an ‘Act for the further Security of His Majesties Person, and the Succession of the Crown in the Protestant Line’ was passed requiring all holders of public office to swear the abjuration oath, declaring that ‘our Sovereign Lord King William is Lawful and Rightful King of this Realm’ and abjuring ‘any Allegiance or Obedience’ to the young James III.11 Following the death of William III a further Act was passed amending the text of the oath to account for the change of monarch.12 A subsequent Act of the first year of the reign of George I added oaths of allegiance and supremacy, the first binding the swearer to ‘be faithful, and bear true Allegiance to his Majesty King George’ and the second, ostensibly an anti-Catholic oath, condemning as ‘impious and heretical, that damnable doctrine and Position, That Princes excommunicated or deprived by the Pope’ could be deposed or murdered by their subjects or any foreign power.13 Jacobite riots of 1715-16 saw unsuccessful attempts to revive the Association to safeguard the protestant succession.14 The final movement to impose a universal loyalty oath occurred in 1723 following the discovery of the Atterbury plot of the preceding two years.

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  1. This summary is based on John Spurr, ‘“The Strongest Bond of Conscience”: Oaths and the Limits of Tolerance in Early Modern England’ in Harold E. Braun and Edward Vallance (eds), Contexts of Conscience in Early Modern Europe 1500-1700 (Basingstoke, 2004), 151-165, esp. 157; and Edward Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant: State Oaths, Protestantism and the Political Nation, 1553-1682 (Woodbridge, 2005). D.M. Jones, Conscience and Allegiance in Seventeenth Century England: The Political Significance of Oaths and Engagements (New York, 1999); C. Robbins, ‘“Selden’s Pills”: State Oaths in England 1558-1714’, Huntington Library Quarterly, XI (1974), 303-21; Christopher Hill, ‘From Oaths to Interest’ in his Society and Puritanism in pre-Revolutionary England (London, 1964), 328-361. A case study of one group whose religious scruples prohibited the swearing of oaths is Nicholas Morgan, Lancashire Quakers and the Establishment, 1660-1730 (Halifax, 1993), 113-170. [back]
  2. Eveline Cruickshanks and Howard Erskine-Hill, The Atterbury Plot (Basingstoke, 2004), 5. [back]
  3. Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant, 20-21.The 1584 Association was not designed to be universally administered, although in some areas subscriptions extended beyond the gentry and office holders it was initially targeted at: David Cressy, ‘Binding the Nation: the Bonds of Association, 1584 and 1696’, in Delloyd J. Guth and John M. McKenna, Tudor Rule and Revolution: Essays for G.R.. Elton from his American Friends (Cambridge, 1982), 217-234 at 22-24. [back]
  4. Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant, 26. On this oath see M. C. Questier, ‘Loyalty, Religion and State Power in Early Modern England: English Romanism and the Jacobean oath of Allegiance’, The Historical Journal, 40 (1997), 311-329. [back]
  5. For the protestation oath see David Cressy, ‘The Protestation Protested, 1641 and 1642’, The Historical Journal, 45 (2002), 251-279.[back]
  6. Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant, 52, but see 51-53, 107-115. [back]
  7. T.L. Stoate, The Devon Protestation Returns, 1641 (1973). [back]
  8. Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant, 201; Cressy, ‘Binding the Nation’, 227-234; 7 William III c. 27. [back]
  9. Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant, 201; 7 William III c. 27. [back]
  10. David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: reading and writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 1980), 96-97. [back]
  11. For example 13 Will. c. 6. [back]
  12. 1 Anne c. 22. [back]
  13. 1 Geo. I c. 13. [back]
  14. Eighteenth century loyalty oaths have received less attention than those from the seventeenth century. For a brief discussion see Vallance, Revolutionary England and the National Covenant, 209-16. [back]