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The Seven Bishops who defied James II, were tried for their defiance and whose acquittal was one of the triggers for the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In the year 1685 James II succeeded his brother Charles II as king of England. Whereas Charles was rather secretive about his adoption of the Catholic faith, brother James was quite open and adopted a policy of appointing and promoting Catholics to positions of responsibility and authority wherever possible.

On the 4th April 1687 James issued his first Declaration of Indulgence effectively exempting all Catholics and Dissenters (and indeed anyone else for that matter) from the previously applied penal statutes such as the Test Act of 1673 that sought to ensure that only bona fide members of the Church of England were eligible for government office. In this he made his Catholic sympathies quite evident with the words, "We cannot but heartily wish, as it will easily be believed, that all the people of our dominions were members of the Catholic Church.", but stated that his intention was to ensure the liberty of conscience for all his subjects.

It is a matter of debate as to whether James genuinely believed in religious toleration or whether (as was the general if not universal opinion of the time) that toleration was simply a smokescreen for the eventual re-imposition of the Catholic faith in Britain.

Almost a year later James issued a second Declaration of Indulgence on the 27th April 1688 which was essentially the same as the First Declaration, with the addition that through the Privy Council it was ordered to be read from the pulpit of each and every church during the Sunday services to be held on the 20th May in London, and on the 27th May for the remainder of the kingdom. A number of the senior bishops in the Church of England were unhappy about this for various reasons and met to debate their response. Eventually seven of their number decided to refuse to comply and responded on the 18th May with their own Petition (the text of which is given below).

These Seven Bishops were;

Their objection was not so much the content of the Deceleration which they were required to read (although they may well have objected to that as well) but rather that James II had no legal right or power to make such a declaration on his own; as they claimed that James' declaration was "founded upon such a dispensing power as hath often been declared illegal in parliament".

Annoyed at this open defiance of his will James II had the seven bishops arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. They were released on bail after a week and brought to trial under the charge of 'preferring, composing, making, and publishing, and causing to be published, a seditious libel'.

At the trial,which began on the 29th June, the accused Bishops exercised their right or silence to avoid incriminating themselves and claimed in their defence, that their Petition could not be libelous as there was nothing in that was not true. The trial therefore became an argument regarding the nature of the king's constitutional authority and whether or not he had the power to suspend legislation without the consent of Parliament. The four judges presiding over the trial were divided in their opinion but the jury were of one mind. On the 30th June 1688 the jury returned with a verdict of 'Not Guilty' to rapturous popular acclaim; even the soldiers of the army that James II had assembled at Hounslow Heath were heard to cheer the news of the verdict.

James dismissed the two judges that failed to support him namely, Richard Holloway and John Powell and attempted to use the ecclesiastical commissioners to enforce the reading of his Declaration of Indulgence but to little or no effect. But the damage had already been done. On the afternoon of the 30th June, after hearing the jury's verdict and the public response to the declaration of 'Not Guilty', certain members of parliament formally issued an invitation to one William of Orange to take James' place on the throne and thus was put in motion the chain of events that led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Ironically of these seven bishops, five of them namely, William Sancroft Francis Turner John Lake, Thomas Ken and Thomas White, were later to maintain their loyalty to James II and refused to take the oath of loyalty to William III.

The Petition of the Seven Bishops
18 May 1688

The humble petition of William, Archbishop of Canterbury, and of divers suffragan bishops of that province now present with him, in behalf of themselves and others of their absent brethren, and of the clergy of their respective dioceses,
Humbly sheweth,
That the great averseness they find in themselves to the distributing and publishing in all their churches your Majesty's late declaration for liberty of conscience proceedeth neither from any want of duty and obedience to your Majesty, our Holy Mother, the Church of England, being both in her principles and constant practice unquestionably loyal nor yet from any want or due tenderness to dissenters, in relation to whom they are willing to come to such a temper as shall be thought fit when that matter shall be considered and settled in Parliament and Convocation, but among many other considerations from this especially, because that declaration is founded upon such a dispensing power as hath often been declared illegal in Parliament, and particularly in the years 1662, 1672, and in the beginning of your Majesty's reign, and is a matter of so great moment and consequence to the whole nation, both in Church and State, that your petitioners cannot in prudence, honour or conscience so far make themselves parties to it as the distribution of it all over the nations, and the solemn publication of it once and again even in God's house and in the time of His divine service, must amount to in common and reasonable construction.
Your petitioners therefore most humbly and earnestly beseech your Majesty that you will be graciously pleased not to insist upon their distributing and reading your Majesty's said declaration.

The text of the Petition is derived from pages 583-584 of the Sources of English Constituitonal History, edited by Carl Stephenson and Frederick George Marcham (New York: Harper & Row, 1937) reproduced at http://members.rogers.com/jacobites/documents/16880518.htm

The transcript of the Trial of the Seven Bishops was published very soon after the conclusion of the trial itself as;
The Proceedings and Tryal in the Case of the Most Reverend Father in God, William, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury (London: Printed for Thomas Basset and Thomas Fox, 1689)

Various excerpts are availabe only at:-

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