Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

The English Reformation having been imposed by the Crown, it was natural that submission to the essential points of its formularies should have been exacted with some solemnity, by oath, test, or formal declaration, and that these should change with the varying moods of those who dominated in the State.

I. OATH OF ROYAL SUPREMACY (1534)

This oath was imposed in March 1534 (26 Henry VIII, c. 1). The title "Supreme Head" had first been introduced by Henry VIII into a decree of convocation, 11 February, 1531; and had been strenuously resisted by the clergy. Though it did not as yet have any religious significance, and might be a matter of compliment only, it might, they feared, receive another interpretation later. But acting under the advice of Fisher, Warham, and others, whose orthodoxy is above suspicion, they submitted after adding the conditional phrase, "quantum per legem Dei licet". Two years later a change had taken place, which had previously seemed inconceivable. The king had actually broken with the pope, and Parliament had enacted that the king should be "taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme head on Earth of the church of England " by every one of his subjects. But no formula for the oath was laid down in the Act, and great differences seem to have prevailed in practice. Many long "acknowledgments of supremacy" are extant (Camm, "English Martyrs ", I, 401) but it would seem that most people were only asked to swear to the Succession, that is to the king's marriage with Anne Boleyn, which the pope condemned, and which therefore involved the supremacy, though the form of the Oath of Succession preserved in The Lords' Journals , refers to the supremacy with insidious lightness. We do not know what was its from, when Fisher and More refused to sign it. They were ready to accept the succession of Anne Boleyn's children, but refused the supremacy ( Bridgett, infra 264-86).

The Act of Supremacy was repealed by Queen Mary (1 Ph. and M. c. 8) and revived by Elizabeth (1 Eliz. c. 1). The formula then adopted ran: "I, A.B., do utterly testify and declare in my conscience, that the Queen's Highness is the only supreme Governor of the Realm . . . as well in all Spiritual or Ecclesiastical things or causes as Temporal, &c. &c. &c. So help me God." This was not to be proposed at once to every one; but was to be taken by the clergy, and by all holding office under the Crown; by others, when asked. This moderation in exacting the oath helped to prevent an outcry against it, and enabled the Government to deal with the recalcitrant in detail. Many years elapsed, for instance, before it was imposed on the graduates of the universities. The last laws passed by Elizabeth against Catholics (1592-3) enjoined a new test for Recusants (35 Eliz. c. 2). It comprised (1) A confession of "grievous offence against God in contemning her Majesty's Government"; (2) Royal Supremacy; (3) A clause against dispensations and dissimulations, perhaps the first of its sort in oaths of this class. The success of Elizabeth's "settlement of religion", had been really due to her alliance with the party afterwards called Puritans, and they were not in love with the supremacy, or unaware that it was unpopular and tyrannical.

In order to excuse their persecutions they therefore preferred (especially after the excommunication of the queen) to make an informal test by asking the suspected person whether he would fight against the pope, if he sent an army to restore Catholicism. The Catholics called this the "bloody question". There was no law to enforce an answer, there was no specific penalty for refusal. But those who refused to answer, were decried as traitors ; and then proceeded against to the uttermost by other persecuting laws. Those who in their answers showed any loyalty to the Holy See were in the same plight, a mark for persecution till they bent or broke. But those who answered disrespectfully, were treated less cruelly.

Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign, a split began in the Catholic ranks on this subject. Some of the priests who had joined in the well-known Appeal against the archpriest Blackwell had afterwards presented to Elizabeth a "Protestation of Allegiance" ( Tierney -Dodd, infra , iii, Ap. 188). Declarations of loyalty there had been before in plenty: those made by the martyrs being often extraordinarily touching. But the signatories of 1603, perhaps stimulated by the Cisalpine ideas, for the Protestation was drawn up in Paris, besides protesting their loyalty, went on to withhold from the pope any possible exercise of the deposing power. Before this Catholic loyalists had only denied the validity of the deposition pronounced by Pius V. Several reasons seemed to justify this Protestation, at the time it was made (see W ILLIAM B ISHOP ), though unfortunate developments followed later.

II. OATH OF ALLEGIANCE OF JAMES I (1606)

Also called the O ATH OF O BEDIENCE . After the Gunpowder Plot a systematic effort was made to persecute Catholics at every turn from the cradle to the grave, by penalizing Catholic baptisms, marriages, burials, as well as education, acquisition of property, &c. An attempt was also made to divide and disgrace Catholics in the matter of allegiance. It was known, from the "Protestation", that there were differences of opinion on the subject of the pope's deposing power, and an oath of allegiance was drafted to make capital out of those differences (for the authorship of the formula, see Thurston infra, and Tierney -Dodd, iv. 71). The more important clauses are the following:--"I, A.B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge, &c. that our sovereign lord, King James, is lawful and rightful King &c. and that the pope neither of himself nor by any authority of Church or See of Rome, or by any other means with any other, has any power to depose the king &c., or to authorize any foreign prince to invade him &c., or to give licence to any to bear arms, raise tumults, &c. &c. Also I do swear that notwithstanding any sentence of excommunication or deprivation I will bear allegiance and true faith to his Majesty &c. &c. And I do further swear that I do from my heart abhor, detest, and abjure, as impious and heretical this damnable doctrine and position,--that princes which be excommunicated by the pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or by any other whatsoever. And I do believe that the pope has no power to absolve me from this oath. I do swear according to the plain and common sense, and understanding of the same words &c. &c. &c" (3 James I, c. 4). This oath was proclaimed law on 22 June, 1606.

Objections

On 22 September following the pope condemned the formula, "It cannot be taken, as it contains many things evidently contrary to faith and salvation." It was prudent of the pope, not to attempt to enumerate the objectionable points, for this would have increased the tension, and it is even now difficult to specify them, partly because of the ambiguity of the terms used; partly because of the deceitful interpretation put upon them by the English authorities. For James now hypocritically asserted that his oath was not meant to encroach upon anyone's conscientious convictions. Hereupon minimizers began to maintain that the words of the oath might be interpreted by the intention of the law-giver, that the oath might therefore be taken. But it is necessary here to advert to the Church's doctrine concerning veracity in oaths. These we believe to be addressed to God himself and to be accepted in the precise sense of the words pronounced. If King James had made his subjects swear specifically "in the sense by him explained", the oath might perhaps have been endured, but when he made them "swear according to the plain and common sense, and understanding of the same words", to what was injurious to Catholic consciences, this could not be tolerated. Of the many objections raised against the oath the following are perhaps the chief.

A. Objectionable Words

The most objectionable words were those in which the deposing power was sworn to be "impious, heretical and damnable." In previous centuries generations and generations of loyal subjects, and numberless patriots and lawyers, and doctors and saints of the Church (with exceptions, of course, but upon the whole in a large majority ) had considered that this power was a valuable safeguard for liberty both religious and civil. In later days some people might think it out of date, inapplicable, extinct, perhaps even a mistake. But to call God to witness that one execrated it as "impious, heretical and damnable", was what no God-fearing adherent of the old Faith, who knew what he said and to whom he spoke, could conscientiously do. Indeed anyone who carefully weighs the terms of this oath, will see that the rights of the pontiff are so unreservedly denied, that no room whatsoever is left for the assertion of ecclesiastical liberties. This shows the affinities of the oath with Gallicanism, which was acquiring such vogue upon the continent in those days. The Sorbonne, on 30 June, 1681, very shortly before approving the Gallican articles, censored the English oath, and found in it very little to object to (Butler, I, 351). The words here under discussion also evidently presume that he who takes the oath believes in the "Divine right of kings".

B. The Deposing Power

While all Catholics would condemn the extreme statements just mentioned, as to the deposing power, there were also many at that time, and they of the highest name, who considered any denial of that power as illicit. Two or three generations only had passed since the discipline of papal deposition for extreme case of misgovernment had been generally accepted. In some parts of Europe it was still the law. Many, and Paul V with his medieval ideals was among them, had not yet perceived that this discipline would never be in vogue again, even in Catholic countries. This explains why Bellarmine, Persons, and several other early opponents of the oath went further in their condemnation of it than later theologians would have done. At the same time it is a mistake to suppose that Catholic resistance to the oath was chiefly or solely due to belief in the deposing power. This statement, however, is often made by Protestants (e.g., Hallam) and also by the Catholic writers, like Preston and others who wrote in defence of the oath, or who had Gallican leanings, such as Charles Butler and Canon Tierney (Butler, I, 359, 396; IV, 120, &c.; Tierney -Dodd, IV, 78 n., 81 n.). We have seen on the contrary that there were from the first English Catholic Non-jurors who explicitly rejected the deposing power. Doctor William Bishop, for instance, did this, but still underwent imprisonment for refusing the oath ; and he was afterwards made a bishop by the Holy See.

C. Fraudulent Object of the Oath

It was always known that the loyalty of the Catholic body was unimpeachable. The reign of Charles I and the fall of the Stuarts showed that it was really far stronger than that of any other religious body. The Oath of Allegiance was designed to obscure this. As a man's repute for veracity may be impaired by prolonged examination on the subject of mental reservation and the like, and by exacting oaths about truthfulness, so these elaborate protests against the deposing power were intended to throw doubt upon the loyalty of Catholics, and so to divide and disgrace them, and this it actually did. Like all religious tests imposed by enemies it was something, not to amend, but to avoid altogether.

D. The Dishonour to the Holy See

This oath and all those of a similar character amount to a statement beforehand of "the conditions under which the Holy See will be disobeyed", and Rome has ever considered such proposals as dishonourable to herself, just as a nation would consider it a disgrace to lay down beforehand the terms under which her soldiers were to capitulate.

E. The Controversy

The archpriest Blackwell, then head of the English clergy, had at first disapproved of the oath, then allowed it, then after the pope's Brief disallowed it again, and finally being arrested and thrown into prison, took the oath, relying on James's statement that no encroachment on conscience was intended, and recommended the faithful to do the like. The pope at once issued a new Brief (23 August, 1607), repeating his prohibition, and on 28 Sept., 1607, Cardinal Bellarmine wrote to Blackwell exhorting him to obey the Brief at any cost. As this also proved ineffectual a new archpriest, George Birkhead, or Birkett, was appointed 1-10 Feb., 1608, and Blackwell was informed that his faculties would be taken away if he did not retract in two months. This, however, he still refused to do, and, much to King James's satisfaction, continued to defend his opinion for three years before he was finally suspended. Blackwell's example, as may be imagined, had but too great an influence, and he found successors in his unfortunate apostolate for many a year afterwards.

Meantime James had himself undertaken to answer the missives sent to Blackwell. This he did anonymously in a tract with the quaint title, "Triplici nodo, triplex cuneus" ("A triple wedge for a triple knot", i.e., for two Briefs and the Cardinal's letter). This was answered by Bellarmine, also anonymously, "Responsio ad librum: Triplici nodo, triplex cuneus" (1608). James now dropped his anonymity, and reprinted his tract with a "Premonition to Christian Princes", and an appendix on his adversaries' supposed mistakes (Jan., 1609). Upon this, Bellarmine published, now also using his own name, his "Apologia pro responsione ad librum Jacobi I" (1609). James opposed to this a treatise by a learned Scottish Catholic, W. Barclay , "De potestate papf" (1609). Barclay was a decided Gallican, and Bellarmine 's answer, "Tractatus de potestate summi pontificis in rebus temporalibus" (1610), gave such offence to the gallicanizing party in France, that it was publicly burnt in Paris by a Decree of 26 Nov., 1610. A similar fate befell Father Francisco Suárez's answer to James through an arrêt of 26 June, 1614; but this decree was eventually withdrawn at the request of the pope. At every stage of the contest between the two champions a host of minor combatants joined the fray. Here it must suffice to enumerate the chief names. On the Catholic side, Cardinal Duperron, Leonard Lessius, Jacob Gretser, Thomas Fitzherbert, Martin Becan, Gaspar Scioppi, Robert Persons, Adolph Schulckenius (who according to Somervogel is an independent writer, not a pseudonym for Bellarmine, as has been asserted), N. Coeffecteau, A. Eudfmon Joannes. On the other side Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, William Barlow, Robert Burhill, Pierre du Moulin, and especially the Benedictine Roger Widdrington, vere Preston . Most of the Protestant books written in Latin, together with all the publications of Preston and Barclay, were put upon the Roman Index.

F. Subsequent History

Some ideas of the pressure caused by the oath may be gathered from the Acts of the Venerable martyrs, Drury, Atkinson, Almond, Thulis, Arrowsmith, Herst, Gervase, Thomas Garnett , Gavan, and Heath; the last two have left writings against it. Another illustration will be found in the history of the first Lord Baltimore, whose attempt to settle in Virginia, where the oath had been introduced in 1609, was defeated by it. The second Lord Baltimore, on the other hand, ordered his adventurers to take the oath, but whether he insisted on this is uncertain (Hughes, "Soc. of Jesus in N. America", pp. 260-1, 451 and passim ). King Charles I generally recognized that Catholics could not conscientiously take the Oath of Supremacy, and frequently exerted his prerogative to help them to avoid it. On the other hand his theory of the Divine right of kings induced him to favour the Oath of Allegiance, and he was irritated with the Catholics who refused it or argued against it. Urban VIII is said to have condemned the oath again in 1626 (Reusch, 327), and the controversy continued. Preston still wrote in its defence; so also, at King Charles's order, did Sir William Howard (1634); this was probably the future martyr. Their most important opponent was Father Edward Courtney (vere Leedes; cf. Gillow, "Bibl. Dict.", s. v. Leedes, Edward), who was therefore imprisoned by Charles. The matter is frequently mentioned in the dispatches and the "Relatione" of Panzani, the papal agent to Queen Henrietta Maria (Maziere Brady, "Catholic Hierarchy ", Rome, 1883, p.88).

III. OATH OF ABJURATION UNDER THE COMMONWEALTH (1643)

When the Puritan party had gained the upper hand during the civil wars, the exaction of the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance fell into desuetude, and they were repealed by the Act of February, 1650, and their place taken by an "engagement of allegiance" to the Commonwealth. But the lot of the Catholics was not only not ameliorated thereby; it was made far worse by the enactment of an "Oath of Abjuration". This was passed 19 August, 1643, and afterwards, in 1656, reissued in an even more objectionable form. Everyone was to be "adjudged a Papist" who refused this oath, and the consequent penalties began with the confiscation of two thirds of the recusant's goods, and went on to deprive him of almost every civic right. Monstrous as the enactments were, their barbarity caused some shame among the more high-minded, and in practice they were sparingly enforced. They checked the gallicanizing party among the English Catholics, which had at first been ready to offer forms of submission similar to the old oath of Allegiance, which is stated (Reusch, 335) to have been condemned anew about this time by Innocent X. The chief writer on the Catholic side was the lawyer Austin, who generally used the pseudonym Birchley.

IV. THE TEST OATH (1672, 1678)

(Also known as the D ECLARATION OF A TTESTATION O ATH .) The first Parliament after the Restoration revived the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance, which were taken on 14 July, 1660. The Catholics in England being at first in some favour at Court, managed, as a rule, to escape taking it. In Ireland the old controversy was revived through an address to the Crown, called "The Irish Remonstrance", which emphasized the principles of the condemned Oath of Allegiance. It had been drawn up by a Capuchin friar (who afterwards left the order), called Peter Walsh (Valesius), who published many books in its defence, which publications were eventually placed upon the Index. (Maziere Brady, "Catholic Hierarchy ", Rome, 1888, p. 126) After the conversion of James, then Duke of York, the jealousy of the Protestant party increased, and in 1672 a Test Act was carried by Shaftesbury, which compelled all holders of office under the Crown to make a short "Declaration against Transubstantiation ", viz., to swear that "there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, . . . at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever" (25 Chas. II, c. 2). This test was effective: James resigned his post of Lord High Admiral. But when the country and the Parliament had gone mad over Oates's plot, 1678, a much longer and more insulting test was devised, which added a further clause that "The invocation of the virgin Mary , or any Saint and the Sacrifice of the Mass. . . are superstitious and idolatrous. . . and that I make this declaration without any evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation whatsoever, and without any dispensation already granted me by the pope, &c., &c. (30 Chas. II, ii. 1). In modern times, the formula has become notorious (as we shall see) under the title of "the King's Declaration". At the time it was appointed for office holders and the members of both Houses, except the Duke of York. On the death of Charles, James II succeeded, and he would no doubt have gladly abolished the anti-Catholic oaths altogether. But he never had the opportunity of bringing the project before Parliament. Of the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance we hear less in this reign, but the Test was the subject of constant discussion, for its form and scope had been expressly intended to hamper a reform such as James was instituting. He freed himself, however, more or less from it by the Dispensing Power, especially after the declaration of the judges, June, 1686, that it was contrary to the principles of the constitution to prevent the Crown from using the services of any of its subjects when they were needed. But the Revolution of 1688 quickly brought the Test back into greater vogue than ever. The first Parliament summoned after the triumph of William of Orange added a clause to the Bill of Rights, which was then passed, by which the Sovereign was himself to take the Declaration (1 W. & M., sess. 1, c. 8). By this unworthy device no Catholic could ever be admitted to accept the new regime, without renouncing his faith. This law marks the consummation of English anti-Catholic legislation.

V. THE IRISH OATH OF 1774 TO EMANCIPATION, 1829

For ninety years there seemed no hope of obtaining legislative relief from the pressure of the penal laws, and the first relaxations were due to external pressure. In 1770 General Burgoyne had proposed to free Catholic soldiers from the obligations of the Test, but in vain. In 1771, however, it was necessary to pacify Canada, and the Quebec Act was passed, the first measure of toleration for Catholics sanctioned by Parliament since the days of Queen Mary Tudor. Soon after began the war of American Independence, the difficulties of which gradually awakened English statesmen to the need of reconciling Catholics. The Irish Government took the first step by undoing William III's wicked work of joining the profession of fidelity to the sovereign with the rejection of papal authority. In 1774 an oath was proposed of allegiance to King George (§ 1) and rejection of the Pretender (§ 2), but without prejudice to the pope's spiritual authority, or to any dogma of the Faith. The alleged malpractice of "no faith with heretics " was renounced (§ 3), so was the deposing power (§ 4), but without the objectionable words, impious, damnable and heretical." The "temporal and civil jurisdiction of the pope, direct and indirect within the realm" was also abjured (§ 5), and the promise was given that no dispensation from this oath should be considered valid (§ 6). This Irish Oath, of 1774, was accepted by the legislative authorities as proof of loyalty, and it was freely taken, though several clauses were infelicitously worded, though no advantage accrued from so doing. In 1778 however, the first Relief Bill, also called Sir George Savile's Act, to relieve the English Catholics from the worst consequences of the penal laws, came before the English Parliament, and in it was embodied the Irish Oath (18 George III, c. 60). This Act was passed with little difficulty, and the oath was taken without remonstrance by the clergy of all schools.

The relief given by the Bill of 1778 was so imperfect that further legislation was soon called for, and now the disadvantages of the system of tests were acutely felt. A committee of lay Catholics, with Gallican proclivities, who afterwards characteristically called themselves the Cisalpine Club were negotiating with the Government (see C HARLES B UTLER ). To them it was represented that if more concessions were required more assurances should be given. They were accordingly presented with a long "Protest", which not only rejected the alleged malpractices, already disowned by the Irish Oath, but declaimed against them and others of the same kind in strong but untheological language. It reintroduced, for instance, the objectionable terms "impious, heretical and damnable" of James's Oath of Allegiance. That complications might have ensued from signing such a document was not difficult to foresee. Nevertheless, the committee insisted (1) that words would be understood in a broad popular way, and (2) that, to obtain the Relief Act, it must be signed instantly. To prevent such a misfortune, it was freely signed by laity and clergy, and by the four vicars Apostolic, but two of these recalled their names. When, however, the signatures had been obtained, the new Relief Bill was brought forward by Government, with an oath annexed founded on the Protest (hence called the "Protestation Oath "), which excluded from relief those who would not swear to it, and accept the name of "Protesting Catholic Dissenters". A crisis had arisen for the Catholic Church in England ; but with the crisis came the man. It was John Milner, then only a country priest, to whose energy and address the dissipation of this danger was chiefly due. The Second Relief Act, therefore, passed (1791) without changing the previous oath, or the name of Catholics. Though the Emancipation Bill was eventually carried without any tests, this was not foreseen at first. The Catholic Committee continued its endeavours for disarming Protestant prejudices, but their proposals (like the Veto) too often savoured of Gallicanism. So too did the oath annexed to the bill proposed in 1813, which from its length was styled the "Theological Oath ". Eventually, owing to the growing influence exercised by Daniel O'Connell and the Irish, Catholic Emancipation was fully, if tardily, granted without any tests at all in 1829.

VI. REPEAL OF THE STATUTORY OATHS AGAINST CATHOLICITY (1867-1910)

The Relief Bills, hitherto mentioned, were generally measures of relief only, leaving the old statutes, oaths, and tests still upon the Statute Book, and some of the chief officers of State had still to take them. The actual repeal of the disused tests and oaths of William III have only taken place in quite recent times. In 1867 the Declaration was repealed (30, 31 Vict., c. 75). After this, the only person bound to pronounce the oath was the king himself at the commencement of his reign. In 1871 the Promissory Oaths Bill removed all the old Oaths of Allegiance (34, 35 Vict., c. 48). In 1891 the first attempt was made by Lord Herries in the House of Lords to get rid of the king's Declaration, but the amendments offered by Government were so insignificant that the Catholics themselves voted against their being proposed at all. In 1901 strong resolutions were passed against its retention by the Canadian House of Commons, as also by its hierarchy, and these were emphasized by similar petitions from the hierarchies of Australia, and the Catholics of the English colonies. In 1904, 1905, and 1908 bills or motions to the same effect were introduced by Lord Braye, Lord Grey, Lord Llandaff, the Duke of Norfolk, and Mr. Redmond, but without the desired effect. After the death of King Edward VII, however, King George V is believed to have urged the Government to bring in a repealing Act. This was done and public opinion, after some wavering, finally declared itself strongly on the side of the Bill, which was carried through both Houses by large majorities, and received Royal Assent on 3 August, 1910, thus removing the last anti-Catholic oath or declaration from the English Constitution.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Job 9:1-12, 14-16
1 Job spoke next. He said:2 Indeed, I know ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 88:10-11, 12-13, 14-15
10 Do you work wonders for the dead, can shadows rise ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 9:57-62
57 As they travelled along they met a man on the road ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 1st, 2014 Image

St. Therese of Lisieux
October 1: Generations of Catholics have admired this young saint, called ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter