The origins of the 1723 loyalty oaths lie in the discovery, in the Summer of 1722, of a plot to bring about the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Until recently, the Atterbury plot has been regarded as the muddled scheme of a band of deluded Jacobites, some of whom had only a tenuous grasp of reality. A more detailed evaluation has revised this view, describing it instead as ‘a serious and intelligent project which adapted itself thrice to the rapidly changing situation of an England in extreme crisis’.15 The plot, named after Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, was the last in a series of Jacobite schemes that threatened the survival of the Hanoverian dynasty in the immediate years following its inception in the person of George I.16 The next serious Jacobite challenge did not take place for a further two decades, finally to be defeated at Culloden in April 1746.17 The most dangerous of the early Jacobite schemes was the rebellion of 1715, orchestrated by John Erksine, Earl of Mar, who landed in Scotland and raised the standard of James III. Mar’s act took the exiled Jacobite court by surprise, and whilst James embarked upon a rapid and dangerous journey to join him, his arrival was too late to be of much help to Mar.18 There followed a succession of schemes to restore the Stuart regime, each of which shared a number of common features. The blueprint for revolution involved an armed landing, backed by a major European power, designed to coincide with an anticipated popular insurrection in Britain leading to the ejection of the King and his replacement by the Pretender, James III. In each case, plans for a landing in England centred upon the west country. When initial French support was withdrawn in 1716, and James himself was forced to leave France for Rome in the wake of the negotiation of the Anglo-French alliance of that year, new support was sought. This led the Jacobites to turn first to Sweden in 1716-17 and then to Spain in 1719 in their search for a foreign power to support the proposed invasion attempt.19
In 1716 James appointed Francis Atterbury, the Bishop of Rochester, as his representative in England. Atterbury was a man of substantial intellect and diverse talents. A clergyman, politician, and accomplished man of letters – not to mention a clear and forceful preacher – his doctrinal conservatism was popular with his congregations.20 In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century he became a leading proponent of the high-church cause. In 1696 he penned the Letter to a Convocation Man, which argued for the right of the convocation of the Church of England to meet alongside parliament. His role in the convocation controversy was followed by his appointment to the archdeaconry of Totnes in 1701, a position obtained on account of Atterbury’s friendship with Bishop of Exeter, Jonathan Trelawney.21 He then went on to become Dean of Carlisle in 1704 and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford in 1711. In June 1713 he became Bishop of Rochester, in itself not an especially high-profile appointment, but enhanced by the fact that the incumbent also held the more prestigious deanery of Westminster. This advancement also provided Atterbury with a seat in the House of Lords. The collapse of the Tory ministry in 1714 was followed by a vigorous Whig purge that left the Tories excluded from high office. The Whigs themselves became divided into two factions: the Court Whigs who by 1715-16 exercised an almost exclusive monopoly of government office, and the Country Whigs who found themselves excluded.22 Atterbury had no affinity with the Jacobite cause before 1716, and he had little sympathy for the Catholic church. However, the sea-change in English politics that took place in the early years of George I’s reign turned the High Church Bishop into a fully-fledged Jacobite conspirator. His increasing despair that the Tory party would never regain sufficient power to restore the Anglican Church to what he considered to be its rightful place in English life and society brought him to the view that only a Jacobite military intervention could break the Whig hegemony.23 Atterbury’s career is summarised in his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, with the description that he was ‘the model of a political prelate, in an age when religion, and in particular relations between church and dissent, constituted the stuff of political debate’.24
Atterbury’s role as James III’s representative in England meant that all efforts to secure a Stuart restoration needed to be met with his approval. However, he does not seem to have been the unassailed leader of the plot which bears his name, with other managers including Lord North and Grey, the Earl of Arran, General (Arthur) Dillon, the Earl of Mar, the Duke of Ormond and George Granville, Baron Lansdowne.25 Lansdowne, Mar and Dillon coordinated the plot in France, while Ormond had the benefit of commanding all the armies of Spain. Other notable players included Christopher Layer, a member of a substantial Norfolk gentry family and John Plunkett, a Roman Catholic. Plunkett’s religion is worthy of comment. Despite the best efforts of Whig propagandists to draw links between Jacobite conspiracies and England’s small population of Catholics, in truth Jacobitism was a movement of High Anglican Tories. Like his father before him, James III himself was a Roman Catholic. However, this was only of minor concern to the conspirators. The Whig hegemony that followed the succession of George I led a number of leading Tories to pursue desperate measures in their attempts to regain power. It has been suggested that, at the time of the Atterbury plot, all but a handful of leading Tories were active Jacobites.26
The occasion for the intensification of Jacobite scheming in 1720 was the economic crisis and political scandal brought about by the collapse of the South Sea Company. To us the South Sea scheme was an ugly affair, founded as it was upon the right of Britain to export slaves from Africa to South America as agreed as part of the peace treaty of 1713. At the heart of this was the desire to gain access to South American markets and be paid in Spanish bullion.27 Under the scheme the whole £9 million of National Debt was to be incorporated into the company. From 1713 the South Sea Company was allowed to supply 4,800 negroes a year to Spanish colonies in South America for 30 years. In 1718 George I became governor of the Company, and in December 1719 subscriptions for South Sea stock were opened in the belief that this would relieve the burden of National Debt. In an effort to kick-start the scheme thousands of pounds in unpaid for stock was distributed to the monarch, his mistresses and members of the Lords and Commons. There followed a clamour for South Sea shares causing prices to soar. In September 1720 South Sea stock began to fall fast, causing financial ruin to many and provoking outrage against the Whig ministry and the House of Hanover. It was this dissatisfaction that the Jacobite party sought to exploit with the plots of the next two years.
The plan, briefly, was for the capture of London and the city of Westminster to precede a rising in the counties. Lansdowne was to land in Cornwall and lead a rising in the west country. Meanwhile, a separate party would sail to Scotland and provide arms for a rising to take place there, while Ormond would land in Bristol where he had some influence. In advance of this Christopher Layer was dispatched with John Plunkett to present James with a document described as ‘so important as to be merely referred to as “the list”.’28 ‘The list’ divided England into counties or groups of counties, and contained the names of leading individuals in each county who could be relied upon to support the rising. It also names ‘chiefs’ for fourteen counties, two ‘2nd chiefs’, Whigs from whom opposition could be expected and those whose support was deemed dubious. It has been suggested that the list was drawn up by Lord North and Grey in collaboration with Lord Strafford and Lord Arran.29
The Atterbury plot first came to light in April 1722 following the death of the Earl of Sunderland. On the day of Sunderland’s death the Regent of France informed Robert Walpole and Viscount Townshend that a coup was being planned in England at the beginning of May and that he had been asked to send 3,000 troops. Walpole then ordered the seizure of Sunderland’s papers, wherein he found a letter of thanks from the Pretender. At first, Walpole acted with little evidence upon which to base his suspicions. Nonetheless, this did not stop him from ordering the arrests of the chief suspects: Arran, Strafford, Orrery, North and Grey, Sir Henry Goring and Atterbury. Other arrests were made, including George Kelly, Mar’s agent, and Christopher Layer. Atterbury himself was betrayed by Mar and arrested on 24 August. He was confined to the Tower and subsequently tried. He was exiled for life, and went on to become secretary of state to James III. North and Grey was not tried, but followed Atterbury into exile in 1724. Christopher Layer was tried and convicted of high treason and sentenced to be drawn, hanged and quartered. A bill of pains and penalties was passed in parliament against George Kelly, leading to his imprisonment in the Tower of London. John Plunkett, who had accompanied Layer on his meeting with James III, suffered a similar fate.