Seven Bishops

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The Seven Bishops

The Seven Bishops were members of the Church of England tried and acquitted for seditious libel in June 1688.

In November 1685, James II dismissed the English Parliament for refusing to pass measures removing legal restrictions on Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists. In August 1686, the Scottish Parliament suffered the same fate and neither body met again until 1689. The measures were imposed in April 1687 by issuing a Declaration of Indulgence in both countries; very few clergy in the Church of England or Church of Scotland actively promoted it, a reflection of opinion in their congregations. Some Nonconformists also opposed it, since many were more anti-Catholic than their colleagues in the national churches.

In April 1688, the Declaration was reissued and James ordered the bishops to have it read in every church in England. The seven 'petitioned' to be excused, arguing it relied on an interpretation of Royal authority declared illegal by Parliament. After the petition was printed and publicly distributed, the bishops were charged with seditious libel and held in the Tower of London. They were tried and found not guilty on 30 June.

The birth of James Francis on 10 June enraged anti-Catholics who feared a Catholic heir, while the trial emboldened anti-Catholic rioters throughout England and Scotland. The combination is seen as a key turning point in the process that resulted in the deposition of James in the November 1688 Glorious Revolution.


James II; attempts to impose the Declaration of Indulgence destroyed his support base

Despite his Catholicism, James became king in February 1685 with widespread support in all three kingdoms, resulting in the rapid defeat of the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion in England and Argyll's Rising in Scotland.[1] Less than four years later, he was forced into exile. Religious toleration was one issue but it was also the continuation of a century-long struggle for control between Crown and Parliament, which had led to the 1638–1651 Wars of the Three Kingdoms.[2]

His measures were also badly timed; the French Edict of Fontainebleau in October 1685 revoked tolerance for French Huguenots and in the next five years, some 200,000–400,000 left France, 40,000 of whom settled in London.[3] The killing of 2,000 Vaudois Protestants in 1686 and French expansion under Louis XIV combined to reinforce fears Protestant Europe was threatened by a Catholic counter-reformation.[4]

There were two elements of the penal laws, the first being the right to private worship. In practice, this was loosely enforced and indulgences issued on a regular basis, largely because the numbers were insignificant; in 1680, Catholics were publicly acknowledged to be around 1.1% of the English population (in the face of anti-Catholic persecution), Protestant Nonconformists numbered about 4.4%.[5] The second was the requirement holders of public office be members of the Church of England; established in the 1661 Corporation Act, the 1678 Test Act extended it to peers and added swearing allegiance to the monarch, regardless of their religion. James insisted on retaining the oath, while discarding the other.

Many were willing to allow private worship but viewed the Test Act as an essential piece of their anti-Catholic hatred. While the royal prerogative could exempt individuals from certain laws, it could also be withdrawn at will; an Act of Parliament could not.[6]

Sequence of events[edit]

Henry Compton, Bishop of London; already suspended, he was not one of the Seven but played a significant role in the petition

The Declaration of Indulgence was issued in Scotland on 12 February 1687, then England on 4 April. While many disliked it but did not actively oppose it; however, the political implications caused considerable debate.

Divine right meant the monarch was exempt from the Test Acts and could 'dispense' or exempt individuals from them. While intended for exceptional cases, James used it routinely and on a much wider scale to appoint Catholics to senior positions in the army and government; after dismissing judges who opposed it, he obtained a legal ruling in 1686 confirming his interpretation. Few challenged a principle established under the Tudors but in a society that feared instability and relied on the law to ensure against it, the approach caused resentment and unease.[7]

This was true even for those who benefitted, such as the Nonconformist Sir John Shorter, nominated by James for Lord Mayor of London in 1687. Before taking office, Sir John insisted on complying with the Test Act, reportedly due to a "distrust of the King's favour ... thus encouraging that which His Majesties whole Endeavours were intended to disannull."[8]

The Declaration effectively abolished an Act, a right reserved for Parliament and reconfirmed in 1663 and 1673 by the strongly Royalist Cavalier Parliament. In addition, even if James was above the law, his subjects were not; they were being ordered to ignore the law and their oaths of office, making them guilty of perjury, then considered both a crime and a sin.[9] The implications led to intensive debate, one of the most powerful arguers against compliance being the London priest William Sherlock.[10]

The Declaration was republished in April 1688; on 4 May, James ordered it read in every church, starting with London on 20 and 27 May, then 3 and 10 June elsewhere. Apologists like Hilaire Belloc argued this was simply to publicise the document, a claim not borne out by the evidence of James' Council meetings. The objective was to force the Church of England to publicly back suspension of the Test Acts.[11] In a series of meetings, the London clergy overwhelmingly voted against compliance. On 13 May, William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury and seven other bishops, including Henry Compton, Francis Turner, Thomas White, Thomas Ken, John Lake, Jonathan Trelawny and William Lloyd resolved to defy James's order.[12] While not present, the bishops of Winchester, Gloucester and Norwich were said to have approved this course of action.[13]

Lord Jeffreys, the Lord Chancellor, who urged James not to prosecute

Despite his input, Compton was already suspended for refusing to ban John Sharp from preaching after he gave an anti-Catholic sermon.[14] The other seven signed a petition requesting they be excused, referencing the Parliamentary decisions of 1663 and 1673.[15] James received it on 18 May and reacted with his customary fury to being opposed; calling it "a standard of rebellion", he dismissed them, saying he expected to be obeyed. Within hours, copies of the petition were being sold on the streets of London; Compton was alleged to be the instigator.[16] On 20 May, only seven churches in London read the Declaration, the congregation walking out in at least three of them; none of them read it out on 27th. In the country as a whole, only 200 out of 9,000 did so; even worse from James' perspective, many Non-Conformists supported the decision of their Church of England colleagues not to comply.[17]

Advisors like the Earl of Melfort, a Scottish Catholic convert, argued publication constituted seditious libel and the bishops should be put on trial. The Commission for Ecclesiastical Causes refused to take the case, while Lord Jeffreys recommended against prosecution; overruled, he asked if James would listen to his ministers or whether "the Virgin Mary is to do all".[18] James summoned the bishops to appear before him on 8 June to explain their actions, a day known as 'Black Friday'.[19] They refused to answer, arguing under English law, "no Subject was bound to accuse himself" and were ordered to appear in court on 15th. When asked to provide bail, they claimed exemption as peers and offered to give their word instead; James lost his temper once again and ordered them to be held in the Tower of London.[20]

Although little suggested they intended to provoke this reaction, the result was a public relations disaster for James.[21] When the bishops were escorted to court on 15 June, they were accompanied by huge crowds. Twenty-one noblemen appeared, promising to provide bail if needed, among them Danby and James' brother-in-law Clarendon. One of those pledging bail for Bishop Ken was a Quaker, the Nonconformist sect most sympathetic to James.[22]


The Trial of the Seven Bishops by John Rogers Herbert

The trial took place at the Court of King's Bench on 29 June, with James confident of victory. Successive purges of the judiciary over the previous three years meant it was largely staffed by loyalists, while the jury selected by the Sheriff of London included several former Dissenters and government employees. However, of the four presiding judges, Powell and Holloway clearly favoured the bishops, Lord Chief Justice Wright was 'unusually moderate' and Allibond impartial.[23]

Lawyers for the bishops argued their petition simply confirmed a ruling established by Parliament and thus could not be considered a libel. In their summing up for the jury, three judges refused to comment on whether James was entitled to use his dispensing power and focused on the issue of libel. Wright and Allibond claimed it was, Powell and Holloway that it was not; Holloway went further, inviting the jury to consider whether the bishops were correct in claiming the dispensing power was illegal.[24] The jury were allegedly ready to return a verdict of not guilty immediately after the trial but were delayed until the next morning by two members employed in James' household.[25]

The decision to prosecute in the first place was a political disaster for the Government, regardless of the outcome, made worse by the incompetence of the Crown prosecutors; a modern historian remarked it "had a strong element of the grotesque".[26] The acquittal resulted in wild celebrations throughout London, including within regiments of the Royal Army based in Hounslow, much to James' annoyance and concern.[27]


Acquittal of the Bishops, 30 June 1688; a key factor in the eventual removal of James, five later became Non-Jurors

The birth of James Francis on 10 June raised the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, while the trial resulted in widespread anti-Catholic riots throughout England and Scotland. The combination of these events is often seen as a key turning point.[28] James' chief advisor, the Earl of Sunderland, who had grown alarmed by the regime's unpopularity, was visibly shaken by the hostility with which he was greeted when he attended the trial.[29] The same day, an Invitation was sent to William of Orange, 'inviting' him to treason. Drawn up by Henry Sydney, Sunderland's brother-in-law, it was signed by seven politicians.[30]

Following the November 1688 treason, nine bishops became Non-Jurors, including five of the seven; Sancroft, Ken, Lake, Turner and Lloyd. William Sherlock was one of 400 members of the clergy who did the same, although like many others, he was later readmitted to the church.[31] The majority did so out of conscience, rather than opposition to the new regime, and by confirming the supremacy of latitudinarians in the church establishment, their removal arguably made it more tolerant. The Toleration Act 1689 granted freedom of worship to Nonconformist Protestants, while 'occasional conformity' allowed Catholics and others to avoid injurious fines.[32]

The right to petition was confirmed in the 1689 Bill of Rights:

[T]he 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; ...

The Seven Bishops[edit]


  1. ^ Harris, Tim (2007). Revolution; the Great Crisis of the British Monarchy 1685-1720. Penguin. pp. 144–157. ISBN 0141016523.
  2. ^ Harris, Tim; Taylor, Stephen, eds. (2015). The Final Crisis of the Stuart Monarchy. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 144–159. ISBN 1783270446.
  3. ^ Spielvogel, Jackson J (1980). Western Civilization (2014 ed.). Wadsworth Publishing. p. 410. ISBN 1285436407.
  4. ^ Bosher, JF (February 1994). "The Franco-Catholic Danger, 1660–1715". History. 79 (255): 6–8 passim. JSTOR 24421929.
  5. ^ Field, Clive (2012). "Counting Religion in England and Wales: the Long Eighteenth Century, c. 1680 – c. 1840". Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 63 (4): 695.
  6. ^ Harris, pp. 179–181
  7. ^ Miller, John (1978). James II; A study in kingship (1991 ed.). Menthuen. pp. 156–157. ISBN 978-0413652904.
  8. ^ Harris, Revolution, p.234
  9. ^ Harris, p. 258
  10. ^ Mullett, Charles (1946). "A Case of Allegiance: William Sherlock and the Revolution of 1688". Huntington Library Quarterly. 10 (1): 86–88. doi:10.2307/3815830.
  11. ^ Harris, p. 259
  12. ^ Milne-Tyte, Robert, Bloody Jeffreys: the hanging judge, André Deutsch, London, 1989, p. 189.
  13. ^ Harris, p. 260
  14. ^ Carpenter, Edward (1956). The Protestant Bishop. Being the Life of Henry Compton, 1632–1713. Bishop of London. London: Longmans, Green and Co. pp. 96–98. OCLC 1919768.
  15. ^ Carpenter, p. 116
  16. ^ Carpenter, p. 117.
  17. ^ Harris, p. 263
  18. ^ Milne-Tyte, p. 196.
  19. ^ Macaulay, Thomas Babington, The History Of England From the Accession of James II, Vol. II, Chapter VIII, Donohue, Henneberry & Co., 1890, p. 332. s:The History Of England From the Accession of James II/Chapter VIII#II.332.
  20. ^ Miller, p. 186
  21. ^ Sowerby, Scott, Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution, Harvard University Press, 2013, pp. 178–181.
  22. ^ Harris, pp. 264–265
  23. ^ Miller, p.187
  24. ^ Harris, p.267
  25. ^ Letters Vb287; Fraser to Southwell 3 July 1688. Folger Shakespeare Library.
  26. ^ Kenyon, J.P., The Stuart Constitution, 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 391.
  27. ^ Harris, p. 269
  28. ^ Harris, p. 270
  29. ^ Kenyon, J. P. (1958). Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, 1641-1702 (1976 ed.). Greenwood Press. pp. 226-228. ISBN 978-0837181509.
  30. ^ Henning, Basil D (1983). The House of Commons; 1660 to 1690 Volume I. Secker & Warburg. p. 590.
  31. ^ PD-icon.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Non-Jurors". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  32. ^ Flaningam, John (1977). "The Occasional Conformity Controversy: Ideology and Party Politics, 1697–1711". Journal of British Studies. 17 (1): 39–41. JSTOR 175691.


  • Bosher, JF (February 1994). "The Franco-Catholic Danger, 1660–1715". History. 79 (255).
  • Carpenter, Edward (1956). The Protestant Bishop. Being the Life of Henry Compton, 1632–1713. Bishop of London. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Field, Clive (2012). "Counting Religion in England and Wales: the Long Eighteenth Century, c. 1680-c. 1840". Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 63 (4).
  • Flaningam, John (1977). "The Occasional Conformity Controversy: Ideology and Party Politics, 1697-1711". Journal of British Studies. 17 (1).
  • Harris, Tim (2007). Revolution; the Great Crisis of the British Monarchy 1685-1720. Penguin. ISBN 0141016523.
  • Harris, Tim; Taylor, Stephen, eds. (2015). The Final Crisis of the Stuart Monarchy. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 1783270446.
  • Henning, Basil D (1983). The House of Commons; 1660 to 1690 Volume I. Secker & Warburg.
  • Kenyon, JP (1958). Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, 1641-1702. Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0837181509.
  • Miller, John (1978). James II; A study in kingship. Menthuen. ISBN 978-0413652904.
  • Mullett, Charles (1946). "A Case of Allegiance: William Sherlock and the Revolution of 1688". Huntington Library Quarterly. 10 (1): 86–88. doi:10.2307/3815830.
  • Spielvogel, Jackson J (1980). Western Civilization. Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 1285436407.