Exactly which sections of the population were expected to swear the three loyalty oaths is not made entirely clear by the Acts of Parliament of 1723, and required subsequent clarification. The 1723 Oath Act stated that all persons aged eighteen years and above ‘not having already taken the Oaths appointed in and by an Act made in the first year of his Majesty’s Reign’ must now swear’.56 Under the 1715 Oath Act only certain officeholders were required to take the oaths. Since all officeholders tended to be male, there was no question that this did not include women. Now that the oath was to be widened to include other sections of the population there was no explicit statement that only men needed to swear. In addition, no wealth qualification was either implied or explicitly stated in the wording of the Acts. One recent commentator has regarded such ambiguity as a deliberate ploy on behalf of Walpole to coerce people into taking the oath.57 The objective was to repeat the success of the 1696 Association so that the nation was seen to repudiate Atterbury in defence of George I. Thus in some areas the entire adult population paraded before the justices of the peace, women lining up alongside men for the first time on such an occasion.58 According to Arthur Onslow the response of the populace in 1723 to this measure was far from enthusiastic:
I saw a great deal of it, and it was a strange as well as ridiculous sight to see people crouding to give a testimony of their allegiance to a government, and cursing it at the same time for giving them the trouble of so doing, and for the fright they were put into by it; and I am satisfied more real disaffection to the king and his family arose from it than from anything which happened in that time.59
That the initial intention was for the universal administration of the oath is indicated by examining the pages of the London Gazette from the summer of 1723. From late-July until mid-September the Gazette published the text of the 1723 Oath Act in full in alternate issues.60 On each occasion the text of the Act was prefaced by a brief statement dated Whitehall, 26 July, noting that the oaths should be taken by ‘all Persons whatsoever, both Men and women’ aged 18 and over who had not already taken them under the previous legislation. Exactly what this meant in practice is questionable. If the alternative to swearing was to register one’s estates it would presumably follow that anyone without legal rights to property of their own did not need to swear the oaths. This is certainly implied by an order by the Middlesex Quarter Sessions issued on 8 July 1723 laying out the times and locations at which individuals could appear in order to swear. Here, it was stated that the oath was to be taken by all persons ‘as well women as Men... having any Freehold, Copyhold, or other real Estate’.61 As discussed in the following section, a similar order was published by the Devon Quarter Sessions at about the same time.
That there was some ambiguity concerning exactly who was supposed to be swearing the oaths is reflected in the passage of an Act in March 1723/4 entitled ‘An Act for Explaining and Amending an Act of the last Session of Parliament, Intituled, An Act to oblige all Persons... to Register their Names and Real Estates’.62 Here, it was noted that ‘by Reason of the Shortness of the time allowed for that Purpose [of taking the oaths], many Persons have been prevented from taking the same’. Moreover, ‘divers Doubts and Questions have arisen... in respect of the Description of the Persons thereby required to take the said Oaths’. To clear up such confusion it was enacted that nothing in the previous Act should have been interpreted to mean that women were required to take the oaths or register their names and real estates. Moreover, only those with ‘Lands, Tenements, or hereditaments, of the clear yearly Value of Ten Pounds, or upwards’ were expected to swear. This new Act also stressed that anyone who had already taken the oaths under the 1715 legislation was exempt. The Act went on to extend the deadline for taking the oaths to 28 November 1724, while the registration of names and estates was extended to 24 June 1725. However, the absence of any further oath rolls in Devon corresponding with this later Act suggests that it was not enforced. Moreover, it should be added that no evidence has been found of any Devonians having been penalised for not swearing.