Introduction: the 1723 Loyalty Oaths

The Administration of the Oaths in Devon

The 1723 oath rolls for the county of Devon contain the names of approximately 25,000 men and women from the county.71 The rolls for the city of Exeter, as administered by the separate Exeter Quarter Sessions, are supscribed by a further 1,595 individuals. Devon in 1723 contained a further eleven incorporated boroughs, all of which held their own Quarter Sessions.72 Of these, oath rolls only survive for the town of Great Torrington, containing the names of 366 oath takers.73 One single sheet of parchment has survived for Dartmouth containing the names of those who swore at the Guildhall on 18 December 1723.74 However, it is badly worn and most of the names are illegible. In addition, Tiverton had contrived to have its royal charter suspended in 1723 following the failure of the mayor, Samuel Burridge, to attend the election of his successor on 27 August. As a result the town fell under the jurisdiction of the county courts leaving its inhabitants compelled to attend the adjourned meetings of the Devon Quarter Sessions in order to swear the oaths.75 This has resulted in the names of 423 men and women from Tiverton being included in the Devon oath rolls. The total number of oath-takers for whom records survive is 26,378. The missing nine incorporated boroughs include some of the larger towns, such as Barnstaple and Dartmouth, so the total number of oath-takers for the county as a whole is likely to have been approximately 29,000.76

Recent estimates of the population of Devon have suggested that the number of inhabitants of the county in 1660 was approximately 227,000, rising to 358,987 by the beginning of the nineteenth century.77 This suggests that the population increase in Devon was slightly slower than for the rest of the country.78 Given that the national population was probably only slightly higher in 1723 than it had been in 1660 it seems reasonable to conclude that Devon shared a similar experience.79 Therefore, a county population estimate similar or slightly higher than the 1660 figure seems likely. Assuming that approximately 37% of the population was aged under 18, the adult population of Devon in 1723 was somewhere in the region of 143,000.80 If the ‘missing’ oath rolls for the incorporated towns are included, then it is likely that approximately 20% of the eligible population of Devon actually swore in 1723. Broken down by gender, the figures are 1 in 4 men who swore the oaths and 1 in 10 women.81

It should also be noted that, as described above, in theory those who had already sworn the oaths under previous legislation were excused from doing so again. The names of pre-August 1723 oath takers for Devon are contained in a separate series of oath rolls that have also been transcribed.82 These contain a further 4,054 supscriptions by office-holders who swore the oaths between 1715 and 1723. The total number of individuals named is smaller as some people swore on more than one occasion during the period. Whilst these oath-takers were not required to swear again in the Summer and Autumn of 1723, in fact a number of them did so. Therefore, the four thousand pre-1723 supscriptions cannot simply be added to the total figure for 1723 to determine the exact number of individuals who attested their loyalty to George I between 1715 and 1723.

How the level of supscriptions to the 1723 oaths of allegiance in Devon compares to other English counties cannot be determined without further research on other parts of the county. However, the oaths were sworn by people across England in supstantial numbers. The midsummer roll for Hampshire was supscribed by 6,500 people, the surviving rolls for Essex contain 6,000 names, and 1,800 inhabitants of York swore the oaths at the city Quarter Sessions. The Buckinghamshire returns have been indexed, and contain the names of 8,000 men and women. This appears to represent a figure comparable to the 1 in 5 Devonians who swore.83 Oath rolls also survive in the county record offices in Cheshire, Derbyshire, East Sussex, Norfolk, Staffordshire and Worcestershire and at the Corporation of London Record Office and the Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service.84

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  1. The exact number of entries on the Devon rolls (DHC, QS17/2/1-7) is 25,329. However, 882 of these are crossed through, often because the individual named has signed elsewhere in the sequence. Thus the total number of separate individuals named is around 24,500. [back]
  2. These were Barnstaple, Bideford, Bradninch, Dartmouth, Great Torrington, Okehampton, Plymouth, South Molton, Tiverton, Totnes and Plympton. Several other towns returned members of parliament, but did not hold royal charters. See W.G. Hoskins, Devon (London, 1954), 112. [back]
  3. The Great Torrington rolls are held in the North Devon Record Office (NDRO), 2558-2/102/1, Great Torrington Borough Council, Borough Sessions, Rolls of oaths of allegiance. [back]
  4. DHC, DD63889, 18 Dec. 1723, Names of those who swore the prescribed oaths of allegiance. [back]
  5. On the revocation of Tiverton’s charter see Mike Sampson, A History of Tiverton (Tiverton, 2004), 148-51; Martin Dunsford, Historical Memoirs of the Town and Parish of Tiverton in the County of Devon Collected from the best Authorities With Notes and Observations (Exeter, 1790), 210-12. [back]
  6. The figure of 26,378 excludes names entered on the oath-rolls and subsequently crossed through. Many of these are duplicate entries of names that appear elsewhere on the rolls. An additional estimate of 2,500 oath-takers from the incorporated towns is based on population estimates for the nine missing towns provided by Jonathan Barry, ‘Towns and Processes of Urbanisation in the Early Modern Period’ in Roger Kain and William Ravenhill (eds), Historical Atlas of South-West England (Exeter, 1999), 417. The total population of the towns around 1660 is estimated at 19,150. In some cases Barry has included the wider urban area in his estimates, including parishes that fell outside the jurisdiction of the borough sessions for our purposes. However, in using his 1660 estimates, rather than those for 1750 it is hoped that population growth in the sixty years after 1660 will have offset the ‘extra’ inhabitants included in the estimates. Nonetheless, the 2,500 figure should be viewed as a very rough estimate of the number of missing oath-takers from the incorporated towns. [back]
  7. Jonathan Barry, ‘Population Distribution and Growth in the Early Modern Period’ in Roger Kain and William Ravenhill (eds), Historical Atlas of South-West England (Exeter, 1999), 116. [back]
  8. Based on quinquennial English population totals 1541-1871 estimated by E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, The Population History of England 1541-1871 (London, 1981), 208-09. These give the national population in 1661 as 5,140,743 and 8,664,490 in 1801. A similar rate of increase would have taken the population of Devon to 382,863 by 1801. Barry, ‘Population Distribution’, 115 notes that the percentage of the English population living in Devon had fallen from 4.42% in 1660 to 3.87% in 1805. [back]
  9. Wrigley and Schofield, Population History, 531-35 gives annual population estimates. [back]
  10. Wrigley and Schofield, Population History, 218 gives an estimated age structure for 1696. This places 39.64% of the population aged 19 and under. This model has been adjusted slightly to produce an estimate of the size of the adult population likely to have taken the loyalty oaths. [back]
  11. For the sake of simplicity an even gender balance has been assumed in the population. [back]
  12. DHC, QS17/1/13, 13A, 14-17. [back]
  13. The population of Buckingshire based on the Compton Census of 1676 was 68,618. At the time of the 1801 census this figure had risen to 107,444. Thus a figure of approximately 75,000 for 1723 seems likely. This yields an adult population in the region of 50,000 indicating that around 1 in 6 eligible adults swore in the county. I am grateful to Bill Torrens of the Buckinghamshire Local Studies Library for providing the 1676 and 1801 figures. [back]
  14. Based on searching collections catalogued on Access to Archives [, accessed 17 October 2005]. At the time of writing there is no comprehensive list of surviving 1723 oath rolls. [back]