Introduction: the 1723 Loyalty Oaths

The Exeter Press and the Oaths

Information concerning the oaths similar to that provided by the London Gazette was published in Exeter by local printer Andrew Brice in The Post-master, or the Loyal Mercury.63 Brice made his feelings about the legitimacy of the oaths clear during July and August 1723 by reproducing in full an anonymous work entitled The Wickedness of a Disregard to OATHS; and the pernicious Consequences of it to Religion and Government.64 The pamphlet, which has been dubiously attributed to Daniel Defoe, eloquently supports the case for oaths of allegiance in general and those to George I in particular.65 The argument is framed within the context of the mutual rights and obligations of governments and subjects, stating that:

some kind of Assurance of the Subject's Obedience is Necessary to the Safety of every Government; and that the Obligation of an Oath being a proper Security of that Obedience, any Government may lawfully require it, because every Subject may Lawfully enter into it.66
The author goes on to tackle the non-juring argument that those who had taken loyalty oaths to James II were committing perjury by swearing allegiance to his successors. This was not the case, it is argued, since it was not perjury to break an oath of allegiance to a Prince who failed to protect his subjects, making them 'slaves' rather than preserving their liberties (a reference to James II and the revolution of 1688).67 Brice reprinted the work on the first two pages of each issue of his newspaper over a period of seven weeks. That he chose to do so suggests that the oaths were being debated by his readers in the coffee shops of Exeter and beyond.

In the same issue that Brice reproduced the fifth part of The Wickedness of a Disregard to Oaths he also printed an order issued by the Devon Quarter Sessions dated 16 July 1723.68 This was identical in wording to those published in the London Gazette from the Middlesex and Westminster sessions. It referred to the 1723 Oath Act and stated that the oaths of allegiance, supremacy and abjuration must be sworn by 'all Persons, as well Women as Men, above the Age of Eighteen Years, having any Freehold or Copyhold, or other real Estate' who had not already taken them. The order went on to state briefly the terms of the Act and to provide a list of locations at which adjourned sittings of the court would be held and the dates on which they would take place. As in Middlesex and Westminster the order concludes by stating that on these occasions, 'any Person may have an Opportunity of taking the said Oaths'. In the issue dated 16 August 1723 Brice finally finished his reprint of The Wickedness of a Disregard to Oaths, to which he appended the text of the three oaths in full. On 7 and 13 September he would follow the practice of the London Gazette in reproducing the text of the 1723 Oath Act, beginning on the front page.69 This was so that 'no Person may, through Ignorance of the Law, or Inadvertency, omit complying with the Directions of the Act herein after set forth'.70

Copies of Brice's newspaper do not survive for the remainder of 1723, so it cannot be determined for how much longer news of the administration of the loyalty oaths would continue to dominate his front page. The 16 July order from the county Quarter Sessions related to the Midsummer session only, and it can be assumed that a further order would have been issued at Michaelmas 1723. Nonetheless, the oaths were regarded as being of sufficient importance to take up most of the first two pages of the paper for the whole of July and August 1723 and probably most of September as well. The message being imparted as to exactly who was expected to attend the appointed adjourned Quarter Sessions was confused. The order of 16 July referred specifically to freeholders, copyholders and other owners of real estate, but also commented that anyone who wished to take the oaths could do so. The text of the Act of Parliament was preceded by a statement that the information was for the attention of 'all Persons whatsoever, both Men and Women'. As discussed elsewhere in this introduction, this alone is not sufficient to determine who did and did not swear allegiance to George I in Devon from August to December 1723.

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  1. On Brice see Ian Maxted, 'Brice, Andrew (1692-1773)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 14 Aug 2006]. Microfilmed copies of The Post-master, or the Loyal Mercury from 1723 can be consulted in the West Country Studies Library, Exeter. [back]
  2. The Post-master, or the Loyal Mercury, 127-133 (5 Jul.-16 Aug., 1723); The Wickedness of a Disregard to Oaths and the Pernicious Consequences of it to Religion and Government (London, 1723). [back]
  3. The Wickedness of a Disregard to Oaths was attributed by J.R. Moore, A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe, 2nd. ed. (Hamden, Connecticut, 1971), 184-185 as being 'Very probably, not certainly, by Defoe'. For a sharp critique of Moore's attributions see P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens, Defoe De-attributions: A Critique of J.R. Moore's Checklist (London and Rio Grande, 1994), xxvii-xxxi. The Wickedness of a Disregard to Oaths is treated on 132-133 with the comment 'One can see no good reason why Moore should have made this tentative attribution to Defoe'. [back]
  4. Wickedness of a Disregard to Oaths, 4. [back]
  5. Wickedness of a Disregard to Oaths, 14-15. [back]
  6. The Post-master, or the Loyal Mercury, no. 131 (2 Aug. 1723), 2-3. The order was published again in no. 133 (16 Aug. 1723) with two additional dates. [back]
  7. The Post-master, or the Loyal Mercury, nos 137-138 (7 & 13 Sept. 1723). [back]
  8. The Post-master, or the Loyal Mercury, no. 137 (7 Sept. 1723), 1. [back]