The Seven Bishops were members of the Church of England tried and acquitted for seditious libel in June 1688, an act viewed as a significant element in the events that led to the November 1688 Glorious Revolution and deposition of James II.
In November 1685, James II dismissed the Parliament of England for refusing to pass measures removing legal restrictions on Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists. In August 1686, the Parliament of Scotland 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 of 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.
Despite his Catholicism, James II 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. Less than four years later, he was forced into exile; although religious toleration was the ostensible issue, historians generally view it as the continuation of a century-long struggle for control between Crown and Parliament, which included the 1638–1651 Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Such measures were also badly timed; after the October 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau revoked tolerance for French Protestant Huguenots, over 200,000–400,000 went into exile, 40,000 of whom settled in London. The killing of 2,000 Vaudois Protestants in 1686 and French expansion under Louis XIV reinforced fears Protestant Europe was threatened by a Catholic counter-reformation.
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 comprised less than 1% of the English population, while Protestant Nonconformists formed about 4%. The second was the Test Act which required all public officials to subscribe to the beliefs of the Church of England. Many were willing to allow private worship but viewed the Test Act as essential, since the royal prerogative could exempt individuals from certain laws, but also be withdrawn at will, unlike an Act of Parliament.
Sequence of events
The Declaration of Indulgence was issued in Scotland on 12 February 1687, then England on 4 April. Many disliked it but did not actively oppose it, although the political implications caused considerable debate. As king, James himself was not subject to the Test Act and could also 'dispense' or exempt individuals. Although only intended for exceptional cases, it was widely used by James to appoint Catholics to senior positions in the army and government; after dismissing those judges who opposed his interpretation, he obtained a legal ruling in 1686 in his favour. Few challenged a long-standing principle established during the Tudor period, but in a society that feared instability and relied on the law to ensure against it, his approach caused resentment and unease. 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, he 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."
The Declaration also effectively abolished an Act, a right reserved for Parliament and reconfirmed in 1663 and 1673 by the 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. The implications led to intensive debate, one of the most powerful opponents being the London priest William Sherlock. Republished in April 1688, on 4 May James ordered the Declaration to be read in every church, starting in London on 20 and 27 May, then 3 and 10 June elsewhere. The objective was to force the Church of England to publicly back suspension of the Test Act.
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. While not present, the Bishop of Winchester, Gloucester and Norwich were said to have approved this course of action. Compton had already been suspended for refusing to ban John Sharp from preaching after he gave an anti-Catholic sermon. The other seven signed a petition requesting they be excused, referencing the Parliamentary decisions of 1663 and 1673.
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. 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 Nonconformists supported the decision of their Church of England colleagues not to comply.
Senior government advisors like the Earl of Melfort, a Scottish Catholic convert, argued publication of the bishops' petition constituted seditious libel and urged James to put the bishops on trial. The Ecclesiastical Commission of 1686, set up to enforce discipline on Church of England clergy, 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". James instructed the bishops to appear before him on 8 June to explain their actions; they did so but refused to answer, arguing that "no Subject was bound to accuse himself" and were ordered to appear in court on the 15th. When asked to provide bail, they claimed exemption as peers and offered to give their word instead; James lost his temper and ordered them to be held in the Tower of London.
Although there was little evidence to suggest they intended to provoke this reaction, the result was a public relations disaster for James. 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. Among those pledging bail for Bishop Ken was a Quaker, the Nonconformist sect most sympathetic to James.
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 Sheriffs of the City 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 Richard Allibond impartial.
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. 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.
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". Their acquittal resulted in wild celebrations throughout London, including regiments of the Royal Army based in Hounslow, much to James' annoyance and concern.
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. 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. The same day, an Invitation was sent to William of Orange, 'inviting' him to take the throne on behalf of his wife Mary, James' Protestant daughter. Drawn up by Henry Sydney, Sunderland's uncle and close friend since childhood, it was signed by the Immortal Seven, representatives from the key political constituencies whose support William needed to commit to an invasion.
Following the November 1688 Glorious Revolution, 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. 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 the Occasional Conformity Act 1711 allowed Catholics and others to avoid serious fines.
The Seven Bishops
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Seven Bishops.|
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