Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Seven Bishops

The court politics of early 1688 were dominated by the queen’s pregnancy (which was going well) and the campaign to pack Parliament (which was going badly).

The pregnancy was announced in December 1687 (late - presumably in order to be sure). Once the news became public Catholic zealots were convinced that the child would be a boy; Aphra Behn wrote A Congratulatory Poem … on the Universal Hopes of All Loyal Persons for a Prince of Wales. In this atmosphere of increased confidence Father Petre was made a privy councillor. The Catholic triumphalism convinced Protestant conspiracy theorists believed that a spurious child was being foisted on the nation. James's daughter, Princess Anne of Denmark, went out of her way to plant this notion in her sister’s mind. When William heard the news he became intensely anxious, and many of his English contacts argued that Mary would lose her right to the throne, the Protestant cause in England would be lost, James might purge the army of Protestants and James and Louis would mount a campaign against Holland.

On 27 April 1688 James re-issued the Declaration of Indulgence, with a postscript stating his intention to call a Parliament by November at the latest. On 4 May issued an order to the Anglican clergy to read it from their pulpits first in London and then in the rest of the country.

On 17 May William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops (William Lloyd, bishop of St Asaph; Francis Turner, bishop of Ely; John Lake, bishop of Chichester; Thomas Ken, bishop of Bath and Wells; Thomas White, bishop of Peterborough; Jonathan Trelawney, bishop of Bristol) signed a petition to the king claiming that they refused to publish the Declaration because it ‘is founded upon such a dispensing power as hath often been declared illegal in Parliament’. James: ‘This is a standard of rebellion. … I will be obeyed’. But to his dismay many leading Dissenters supported the bishops. To add to his problems, it was not clear what law the bishops had broken. Significantly, Jeffreys and the Commission for Ecclesiastical Causes wanted nothing to do with the case.

On 8 June, the bishops were brought before the Court of Kings Bench on a charge of scandalous libel (altered a few days later to seditious libel), and were sent to the Tower pending the hearing of their case. This immediately turned them into martyrs and revealed the limitations of the Anglican doctrines of passive obedience and non-resistance.