Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Seven Bishops

Charles II., who had certainly during his life showed himself as careless of religion as a man could be, declared himself on his death-bed to be a Roman Catholic. His brother, James, Duke of York, who succeeded him, had for many years belonged to the Roman Church. There had, indeed, been an attempt to prevent him from becoming king on this account, but it had failed. Now, those who professed the Roman Catholic faith had much to put up with. They could not hold offices under Government, nor sit in Parliament, nor were they allowed to have public service in their churches or chapels. King James was determined to release them from their "disabilities," as they were called. In 1687 he published a Declaration, in which he said that though he would gladly see all his people of the same faith as himself, he would not use any force to bring this about. He wished his subjects, whatever their belief, to have liberty to practise it openly. The Established Church should still have her legal rights, but those who differed from her were not to suffer for it. No one, in particular, was to be kept out of any office because he did not belong to the Established Church.

Now all this may have been right, but the King had no power to do it. He was really trying to repeal, by his own simple word, a number of Acts of Parliament. The Declaration was issued a second time on April 27, 1688. A week afterwards the King made an Order in Council that it was to be read on two Sundays—May 20th and 27th—in every church and chapel in London, and on two other Sundays—June 3rd and 10th—in all the other churches of England and Wales.

The clergy of London held a meeting to decide whether the Order was to be obeyed. At first the majority were disposed to obey. But one of their number declared that, whatever others might do, he would not read it. Some of the most eminent of the others agreed with him. In the end it was generally determined that the Declaration should not be read. The Bishops also held a meeting, and came to the same conclusion. They consulted with some of the other clergy, and drew up a petition to the King. They should be ready, they said, to do all they could to relieve in the proper way the consciences of those who differed from them, but they had been advised that the King had no power to issue the Declaration, and that therefore they could not send it out for the clergy to read. This paper was signed by the Archbishop and six Bishops. The six went to the King to put it before him. No time was to be lost, for it was Friday, and the next Sunday was the day appointed for its first reading. Bishop Lloyd, of St. Asaph, presented it to the King. James, who had not expected them to resist, was very angry. "I did not expect this from you. This is a standard of rebellion." The Bishops were greatly troubled by the word. Trelawney, Bishop of Bristol, fell on his knees and said, "For God's sake, sir, do not say so hard a thing of us. No Trelawney can be a rebel. Remember how my family has fought for the Crown." "We are ready," said another, "to die at your feet." The King grew more and more angry. "I will be obeyed," he said; "go to your dioceses and see that I am obeyed. This paper I will keep. I will remember you that have signed it."

On the Sunday the Declaration was read in four only out of the hundred churches in London. Even in these the congregation left the place before the reading was finished. Much the same happened in the country. Not one clergyman in fifty obeyed the order.

A few days afterwards the Seven were called before the Council. The King could do nothing to make them change their minds, and that evening they were sent to the Tower. As they were taken down the Thames from Whitehall, they were greeted by thousands of people with loud cheers; many even rushed into the water to ask for their blessing. The very sentinels of the Tower did the same, and the garrison would drink no other health. Many people of the highest rank came next day to pay them their respects. Among their visitors were ten Nonconformist ministers. The Protestant Dissenters would not consent to be helped by the King, if this was to be done against law. The Bishops remained in prison for a week only; on June 29 they were brought to trial.

[Illustration] from English History Stories - III by Alfred J. Church

Meanwhile the whole country was greatly moved by what had happened. In Cornwall, the native county of Bishop Trelawney, the miners sang a ballad of which the chorus was—

"And shall Trelaway die, and shall Trelaway die?

Then twenty thousand Cornish boys will know the reason why."

When the 29th came, the lawyers of the Crown did their best to "pack" the jury, i.e.  to let no one be a member of it who would not be likely to find a verdict of guilty. But they could not hinder the prisoners' right to object to a certain number of jurymen. Some of the forty-eight summoned were Roman Catholics, some were in the King's service. To these the lawyers objected. The Crown lawyers, on the other hand, objected to some whom they believed to be inclined to the cause of the Bishops. The Chief justice and the three other Judges of the King's Bench sat to try the case. The Bishops were accused of publishing a "libel," i.e.  something either false, or, if true, of such a kind as to do injury to some one.

The first thing was to prove that the petition presented to the King was written by the Bishops. The lawyers called witnesses to swear to the handwriting, but they could get nothing certain from them. Then they called a Clerk of the Council, who had been present when the Bishops had been brought before it. He swore that he had heard them own to their signatures. Then it came out that they had done this at the King's command, and in the belief that their doing this would not be used against them. The King had, indeed, made no promise, but the Bishops had understood that they would be safe in doing what they did. This was the reason why the lawyers had tried to prove the writing in other ways. It was not to the credit of the King that he should have made the prisoners give evidence against themselves.

Then it became necessary to prove that the libel had been published. The Bishops had written and signed the paper, but was this the paper given to the King? Here also there was a difficulty, but at last this too, was removed by the Earl of Sunderland, who was President of the Council.

Lastly came the great question which the jury had to decide. Was the petition really a libel, false or malicious? The lawyers on both sides argued this question, and the judges gave their opinions. The Chief Justice thought that it was false and malicious; so did another of the judges. The third, however, declared that it seemed to him nothing more than what a subject might lawfully present; and the fourth boldly affirmed that the Declaration of Indulgence was against the law, and that therefore the Bishops were quite in the right.

The jury was locked up to consider their verdict, being carefully watched to see that no food or drink reached them. At first nine were for acquitting, and three for convicting. Then two of the three gave way. The only one that held out was Michael Arnold, the King's brewer. He had been very unwilling to serve. It was reported that he had said, "Whatever I do I am sure to be half-ruined. If I say Not Guilty, I shall brew no more for the King; if I say Guilty, I shall brew no more for any one else." One of the eleven wished to argue the question with him. Arnold sulkily refused. His conscience was not satisfied, and he would not acquit the Bishops. "If it comes to that," said the other, "look at me. I am the largest and strongest of the twelve; before I find such a petition as this a libel, here will I stay till I am no bigger than a tobacco pipe." It was six in the morning before Arnold yielded.

At ten o'clock the court met, and the foreman of the jury gave in the verdict of Not Guilty. It was met with a tremendous shout of applause. Everywhere the news was heard with delight. That day the King visited the camp at Hounslow. When the news was brought to him, he set out for London. As soon as his back was turned, the soldiers broke out into a cheer. He asked the reason. "Nothing, sire," was the answer. "They are only cheering because the Bishops are acquitted." "Do you call that nothing?" he said; "so much the worse for them." Less than five months afterwards King James fled from England.