The Accession oath: violent, abusive, and vulgar
On December 10, 1678, Lord Chancellor Finch (1st Earl of Nottingham) addressed a circular letter to all the members of the House of Peers adverting to the “Act for the more effectual preserving the King’s Person and Government, by disabling Papists from sitting in either House of Parliament” [30 Charles II stat.2 (1678)] and requesting their attendance at Westminster within the next fortnight. It read:
December 10: 1678
My very good Lord.
The late Act of Parliament which disables papists to sit in Parliament requires every Peer of the Realm to take their oaths of allegiance and supremacy and to subscribe a declaration therein mentioned before he can be capable of being present at any debate or making any proxy in Parliament.
To the end therefore that your Lordship may give due satisfaction to the King and Kingdom by good obedience to the law the House of Peers has thought fit to command your personal attendance upon them within fourteen days after the receipt of this letter. And I am further commanded to let your Lordship know that no excuse for any default herein shall be received unless it be attested at the bar of the Lords’ House upon oath by two witnesses there to be sworn, and so I bid your Lordship heartily farewell and am
Your Lordships very humble servant
(Copy in the Parliamentary Archives: “receipted this letter the 12th of December”).
The “declaration therein mentioned” reads:
“I, Name, do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare, that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the Elements of Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, at, or after, the Consecration thereof by any person whatsoever; and that the Invocation or Adoration of the Virgin Mary, or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are Superstitious and Idolatrous.”
In other words, “I am a Protestant”. The same applies today as then. Since the days when there was great jubilation at Rome when news reached of Fr Dominic Barberi having received Newman into Holy Mother Church there does seem to have been a practice in Vatican statements and documents of distinguishing (at least on some occasions, I don’t know about all) between “Protestants” and “Anglicans” (NOT Episcopalians of whichever provenance but precisely “Anglicans”). However, I am wholly unaware of any other Protestant, formally or otherwise, country which so excoriates the Catholic Faith in this way within its constitution and accession procedures.
When King George VI had died his heiress, the High and Mighty Princess – the official description − Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, Duchess of Edinburgh, was now Queen. But she was in
Kenya with the Duke, on their way to Australia and . They had returned to
their residence, Sagana Lodge, from an evening’s entertainment at Treetops
Hotel when the news reached them. The Duke took the call. New Zealand
The preservation and defence of the Church of Scotland was the last thing on the new Queen’s mind. But, constitutionally, it should have been the first. And, whether it be Prince Charles or Prince William who in time succeeds her, unless there are changes to our constitutional law, it will be the preservation and defence of the Church of Scotland that will be required to be the first concern of her successor.
On that historic day, Wednesday, February 6, 1952, from Sandringham House in Norfolk, the late King’s Private Secretary, Sir Alan Frederick “Tommy” Lascelles, had already notified the Rt Hon Frederick James Marquis (later the First Earl Woolton), Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council, of the King’s death. As Lord President of the Council, the fourth of the Great Offices of State of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Frederick Marquis was responsible for summoning the Accession Council to meet at Saint James’s Palace.
This august body consists of the Privy Councillors, certain members of the House of Lords including the three Lords Spiritual, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, and the High Commissioners of the Commonwealth countries of which the monarch is Head of State (known as Realm Commonwealth countries; in 1952 that was all of them, except the Republic of Ireland, but today they number fifteen; we shall refer back to these below).
Normally when the Accession Council meets the Heir to the Throne is in attendance but, as noted above, she was in
. And thus
it was that she was not immediately able, after stating her choice as regnal
name, as her first act as Sovereign of these lands to swear in presence of the
Accession Council, as is constitutionally required of the new monarch, an oath
to preserve and defend the Church of Scotland. Kenya
Unusually, the Accession Council had to meet a second time so that this requirement could be belatedly fulfilled. However, meeting at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, they did on the day draft the Proclamation of Accession. It was decided that the proclamation would be given at 11 o’clock on the Friday morning, February 8. It would be read out at the gates of Saint James’s Palace and at other places in
Cardiff and . Its precise terms need not concern us
here apart from noting that she was proclaimed “Defender of the Faith”. The
Protestant faith, that is. York
Later that year, on Tuesday, November 4, at her first State Opening of Parliament, Her Majesty would take an oath regarding the Church of England, amongst other things. And I believe that it is these Oaths, and not any impediment to marrying a Catholic placed upon anyone in the line of succession, with which we should be concerned.
The Oath, or Declaration, Her Majesty had to swear on that day was in a form of words significantly different to that sworn by her great-great-grandmother, Queen
and her great-grandfather, Edward VII. Victoria
HH Asquith introduced a Bill on June 28, 1910 “To alter the form of the Declaration made by the Sovereign on Accession”. The proposed revised form had in fact been urged upon the Prime Minister by Edward VII. It is usually stated that it was intended to make the Oath sworn by the new Sovereign less offensive to the Roman Catholic subjects of
England and Wales,
of Scotland and of , as
well as their then estimated 12,000,000 co-religionists “spread throughout the
length and breadth of the Empire”. Ireland
And that, of course, is perfectly true. But what is also true is that Edward himself, and, it has been said, his mother, Queen Victoria, before him, had been mortified by the words they had had to recite aloud. And Edward wished his own son to be spared that same embarrassment.
So Georges V and VI and Queen Elizabeth II swore in these terms: “I, Name, do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.”
Much less offensive to the Catholic lieges than that sworn by Queen Victoria and Edward VII: “I, Name, do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare, that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the Elements of Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, at, or after, the Consecration thereof by any person whatsoever; and that the Invocation or Adoration of the Virgin Mary, or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are Superstitious and Idolatrous.”
It is, perhaps, worth noting here that King Henry VIII, founder of the Anglican Church, could not have so sworn!
Victoria and Edward had then to go on and swear that that they had made this Declaration in the plain and ordinary sense of the words as they are commonly understood by English Protestants “without any dispensation, or hope of dispensation, from the Pope or any other authority”.
During the debate on Asquith’s modest proposal, which in no way threatened the Protestant succession, Willie Redmond said of this Declaration: “The Catholic grievance in relation to this Declaration never merely was that the language employed against ourselves and our religion was violent, abusive, and vulgar. Our great grievance was that our religion, and our religion alone of all the various beliefs in the world, was singled out by the King at the most solemn moment of his life for vehement and violent repudiation.”
Whether it be Prince Charles or William who succeeds Queen Elizabeth, we, Her Majesty’s Roman Catholic subjects, would be less offended by the altered terms of the oath as sworn by Queen Elizabeth, her father and grandfather as compared to that sworn by Edward VII and Victoria. Nonetheless we should be sensible to the fact that the terms of that previous oath are implicit in the newer one. In 1689 a scholarly Anglican clergyman wrote: “…in Matrimonial Contracts, though the Clause of Divorce in Case of Adultery, be not expressed, AS IT IS USUAL TO EXCLUDE CLAUSES THAT ARE ODIOUS (my emphasis); yet cannot we infer from thence, that that condition is not as expressly to be understood, as if it had been expressed in plain words and at large."
Put simply, our religion, and our religion alone, will still be singled out for vehement and violent abuse, albeit implicitly, at the most solemn moment of our next King’s life UNLESS the various acts relating to the Declaration of Accession are repealed.
And this can be done without reference to the 15 Realm Countries of the Commonwealth as they have nothing to do with the Act of Succession. Indeed, this oath was never originally intended to be sworn by the Sovereign at all. It was drafted in 1678 during the reign of Charles II when, according to Asquith as he introduced his Bill, “Parliament and the great mass of the population of this country (
!) were in a state, it may
almost be said, of panic, in consequence of the revelations, or supposed
revelations, of the existence and the ramifications of the Popish Plot.” England
Which plot never in fact existed. So now time, surely, to undo the dastardly evils wrought by Titus Oates and by Danby and Shaftesbury. Then time enough to contemplate the Act of Succession and the implications for the Establishment of the Church of England of allowing heirs in line of succession to marry a Catholic. Or for the Sovereign to be a Catholic.
Uncomfortably for us, since we will brook no interference in the election of our Supreme Pontiff, can we really demand that the head of the Church of England should be able to be a Catholic? Or will we insist that our Church must allow the Catholic partner in a mixed marriage to not strive to have issue of the marriage brought up as Catholics? But only in the case of English royalty?