Thursday, January 12, 2006

James and the Church of England

James’s chief problems lay with the Church of England. In spite of its doctrines of non-resistance and passive obedience, it was jealous of its privileges and deeply resentful of the Catholicising policies. In March 1686 James issued a set of Directions to Preachers ordering the clergy to steer clear of provocative topics like attacks on Rome. In May, John Sharp, dean of Norwich and rector of St Giles in the Fields, disobeyed. James ordered Henry Compton, bishop of London, to suspend him from preaching. Compton refused, highlighting James’s inability to control the Anglican clergy. In an attempt to put this right, he established a Commission for Ecclesiastical Causes under Jeffreys in July. Its first act in September was to suspend Compton from his bishopric.

This was followed by the dismissal from office of his two brothers-in-law. Clarendon, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, went in the summer of 1686 and was replaced by Tyrconnell at the end of the year. Tyrconnell then began a vigorous purge of Protestants in local government. Rochester was given the chance to show his support for James’s plans by turning Catholic. When he refused he was dismissed as Lord Treasurer on 27 December 1686. Halifax had already been dismissed from his post of Lord President of the Council, and the king now had no chief ministers who were unequivocal Anglicans.

At some time James decided to revive his brother’s unsuccessful policy of the 1670s and to seek an alliance with the Protestant dissenters. During 1686 he made several overtures to individual dissenters, of which the most prominent was William Penn, whom he dispensed from the penal legislation. In November 1686 he established a Licensing Office where dissenters could buy certificates of dispensation. By the beginning of 1687 the persecution of Dissenters had virtually ceased.

Penn, a genuine believer in religious toleration, seemed to be a useful ally. He organized petitions of thanks from some dissenting congregations, and in November 1686 he went to Holland to get the support of William and Mary for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. But William said that he was prepared to allow Catholics to worship unmolested, but not to admit them to public office.

The hounding of Rochester and Clarendon out of office was part of a new and more vigorous phase in the campaign to secure the repeal of the penal laws and the Test Acts. On 4 April 1687 James announced the corner-stone of his new policy: a Declaration of Indulgence which suspended all the penal laws, the Test and Corporation Acts. This was to claim a prerogative for the crown parallel with the dispensing power: the suspending power. James’s reliance on the dissenters to provide him with a packed parliament was a serious miscalculation based on an over-estimate of their numbers. James also underestimated dissenting distrust of his motives. In the summer of 1687 Halifax published a Letter to a Dissenter. You are ‘to be hugged now, only that you may be the better squeezed at another time’. James’s policy only served to unite Anglicans and Dissenters.

The Magdalen College Affair: In April 1687 James began a long campaign to force the fellows of Magdalen College , Oxford, to accept a reputed Catholic, Anthony Farmer, as their president. (He had already forced the fellows of Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, to accept a Catholic convert as their master.) In defiance of the king, the fellows promptly elected their own candidate. In October the Commission for Ecclesiastical Causes deprived all twenty-five Fellows of their fellowships. ‘By his rigidity and vindictiveness [James] put himself in the wrong and completed the alienation of the Anglicans.’ In the following March a Catholic, Bonaventure Gifford, was imposed on the college and mass was publicly celebrated in its chapel.

The Purging of the Corporations: On 2 July James dissolved Parliament and clearly hoped that a new parliament would repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. From the autumn of 1687 he and his advisors, notably Sunderland and Jeffreys, began systematically to build up a powerful electoral organization, purging JPs who did not support repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and issuing quo warranto writs against recalcitrant boroughs. They were consciously imitating the tactics of the Whig exclusionists in the elections of 1679 and 1681. By the spring of 1688 14 of the twenty-four Lords Lieutenant, three-quarters of all JPs and over 1,200 members of town corporations had been dismissed and replaced by what John Evelyn called ‘the meanest of the people’.