The Seven Bishops of the Church of England were those imprisoned and tried for seditious libel over their opposition to the second Declaration of Indulgence issued by James II in 1688. They were found not guilty.
The Declaration granted broad religious freedom in England by suspending penal laws enforcing conformity to the Church of England and allowing persons to worship in their homes or chapels as they saw fit, and it ended the requirement of affirming religious oaths before gaining employment in government office.
Sequence of events
The Declaration of Indulgence had originally been given out on 4 April 1687. The King republished it, with some new prefatory matter, on 25 April 1688. On 4 May the King and his council ordered the bishops that the declaration should be read in all the (Anglican) churches - those of London on 20 May and outside London on 27 May and the two following Sundays. This was the only way, in those days, of making the document swiftly and generally known, which was James's straightforward object; the Anglican clergy, however, felt it a challenge to themselves, for many of them were opposed to the toleration of Roman Catholics and Nonconformists, as were very many of the population of England at that time.
Nine days passed with no objection; then, on 13 May, at Lambeth Palace, Compton (Bishop of London), Sancroft (Archbishop of Canterbury), Turner (Bishop of Ely) and White (Bishop of Peterborough), resolved to defy James's order. They summoned seven others; the four who actually came were Lake (Bishop of Chichester), Lloyd (St Asaph), Trelawny (Bristol) and Ken (Bath and Wells). It will be noticed that this (ignoring the three who did not come) makes a total of eight bishops, counting the Archbishop of Canterbury. Compton is not counted in the reckoning of the seven because he was under suspension at the time due to an earlier dispute with the king. The seven bishops (minus Compton) signed a memorial requesting the King that they might be excused; they claimed that the King did not have the legal right to make exemptions from statutes, which was untrue: the King's power to dispense individuals from the provisions of a statute was not seriously in question and had recently been reaffirmed in Godden v Hales.
On the night of Friday, 18 May - not giving James much time - they presented the King with their petition, by way of an ultimatum. James was prepared to negotiate and asked them to come back the next day when he would be able to give a yes or a no answer. Before the hour appointed on that Saturday, the memorial of the bishops had been published in numerous copies and broadcast all over London.
The Council were not sure what to do, but summoned them to appear before them on Friday 8 June. The Bishops could have given their own recognizances for coming up for trial, and thereby avoided being imprisoned before their trial. Sancroft had urged this; even Compton agreed to it; but Sancroft changed his mind. The Bishops seem to have been angling for a delay in the trial proceedings – by refusing to give recognizances, they would have the right to delay the trial until the beginning of Michaelmas term on 23 October. The king, however, wanted a speedy trial, and the only way to get it, apart from convincing the Bishops to give their own recognizances, was to imprison them in the Tower of London before their trial; within the Tower, however, they had complete freedom. Their imprisonment lasted only a week and had the effect, desired by the king, of speeding up the proceedings so that a trial could be held in June. But, in Hilaire Belloc's deliberately ironic words, "Compton had had the satisfaction of seeing a vast popular gathering acclaiming these fathers in God on the way to the horrid dungeon of a Tyrant." Lord Jeffreys, the Lord Chancellor, advised the King to drop the prosecution; on being overruled he asked caustically if the King needed advisers or whether " the Virgin Mary is to do all".
The trial took place at the Court of King's Bench on 29 June, with Sir Thomas Powys the Attorney General and William Williams the Solicitor General prosecuting and Sir Robert Wright, the Lord Chief Justice as the presiding judge, sitting with John Powell, Richard Holloway and Richard Allibond. The bishops had a formidable team of defence counsel, headed by Francis Pemberton, a former Lord Chief Justice, and including former Attorneys General Sir Robert Sawyer and Sir Creswell Levinz, as well as John Somers, a future Lord Chancellor. The jury deliberated all night and the bishops were found not guilty on the morning of 30 June. There was great rejoicing; those opposed to Toleration had gained their victory.
The verdict was a disaster for the Government, but was largely due to its own ineptitude. Of the four judges only Allibond, a Roman Catholic, showed any real desire for a conviction. The Attorney General almost caused the case to collapse at the outset by failing to prove that the Petition had been presented at all; and while Williams, the Solicitor General, handled the case with greater skill, his bitter personal feud with the Lord Chief Justice (who accused him, without any relevance to the case, of taking bribes) did nothing assist the prosecution's case. A modern historian remarked that the trial "had a strong element of the grotesque".
The Seven Bishops were:
|William Sancroft||Archbishop of Canterbury|
|Thomas Ken||Bishop of Bath and Wells|
|John Lake||Bishop of Chichester|
|William Lloyd||Bishop of St Asaph|
|Jonathan Trelawny||Bishop of Bristol|
|Francis Turner||Bishop of Ely|
|Thomas White||Bishop of Peterborough|
Despite their petition and their trial, five of these bishops (all but Lloyd and Trelawny) remained loyal to James II after the Revolution of 1688 and were among the nine bishops who became non-jurors, refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to William and Mary, and losing their bishoprics as a result.
Rights of petition and religion
The bishops exercised the right to petition preserved in the Magna Carta (1215) (clause 61). The following year Parliament cited James II's trial of the Seven Bishops as a grievance. It explicitly preserved the right of petition in the Bill of Rights (1689).
" . . .the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons,. . .do in the first place (as their ancestors in like case have usually done) for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties declare . . . That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;"
These rights of petition for redress of grievances and of religion and conscience were preserved in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
- Milne-Tyte, Robert Bloody Jeffreys- the hanging judge André Deutsch London 1989 p189
- Milne-Tyte p.189
- Sowerby, Scott, Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution, Harvard University Press, 2013, pp. 178-181
- Belloc, Hilaire, "James the Second," Faber & Gwyer, 1928, p. 216. The section from "The Declaration of Indulgence had originally" to this quotation is paraphrased from this book.
- Milne-Tyte p.196
- Kenyon, J.P The Stuart Constitution 2nd Edition Cambridge University Press 1986 p.391
- Kenyon p.391
- Kenyon p.409
- Kenyon p.391
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Seven Bishops.|
- Chapter VIII of Macaulay's History of England - the last third of this chapter describes the circumstances surrounding the Petition and Trial of the Seven Bishops
- Petition of the Seven Bishops
- Documents by and about the Nonjurors from Project Canterbury
- William Gibson, James II and the Trial of the Seven Bishops, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)preview
- Herbert Mortimer Luckock (1896). The bishops in the tower. London. ebook
- Agnes Strickland (1866). The Lives of the Seven Bishops Committed to the Tower in 1688. ebook
- George D'Oyly (1840). The life of Archbishop Sancroft. John W. Parker, London.