London Tower’s Seven Bishops

seven bishopsBackground: In 1688 the growing crisis caused by James II, a Roman Catholic sovereign over the church of England, came to a head. James II, alongside his catholic clients, were using Indulgences granted to religious Dissent to divide Churchmen from their Presbyterian and Independent counterparts. Meanwhile, James was busy advancing the Papal Interest. However, seven Anglican bishops, galvanized by the political networks of London clergy, refused to read the King’s Declaration (an unusual request on the Crown. Normally, reading of injunctions were left to the lower clergy not Bishops). Instead, the Seven took opportunity to petition James II, explaining their intention to protect England’s constitution while uniting Protestant Dissent to the established Church. Of course, the Bishops were arrested, but their speedy trial ended with their declared innocence and subsequent release into jubilant crowds. The Petition became a high water mark for national Protestantism, resolved to halt the Romanist party and the Arbitrary Power of James II.

The famous Petition to King James which set the course of events is copied below. Dr. Fawcett describes the complaint of profound importance, not only historically, but also liturgically, because it was frequently referred to with varying interpretations in the literary controversy of 1689 and later into the eighteenth century. By literary controversy, I assume Fawcett means debates over certain points of moderation though the primary motive is rule of law and custom. Regardless, it represents the care and keeping of the Nation¹. The letter to James reads:

“To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,

The humble Petition of William Archbishop of Canterbury, and the divers of the suffragan Bishops of that Province (now present with him), in behalf of themselves and others of their absent brethren and the Clergy of their respective Dioceses.

Humbly showeth; 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 in her constant practice unquestionably loyal; and having, to her great honour, been more than once publicly acknowledged to be so by your gracious majesty), nor yet from any want of 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 amongst many other considerations, from this especially, because that Declaration is founded upon such a Dispensing power, as hath been often declared illegal in parliament, and in particular in the years 1662 and 1672, and 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, honor or conscience so far make themselves parties to it, as the distribution of it all over the nation, the solemn publication of it once and again, even in God’s house, and in the time of divine service, must amount to, in common and reasonably 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…”

These same Bishops then launched a plan of comprehension in order to maintain a united front with English Protestants against Roman Catholicism. While in the Tower, the Bishops were visited by ten non-conformist ministers, with whom they began some preliminary talks, later continuing these conversations under royal commission.

Ironically, among the bishops who advanced the scheme to invite moderate Presbyterians and some Independents into the Publik Establishment was Archbishop William Sancroft. Sancroft, the designer of the Petition, and at least five out of seven petitioners– including Turner, Lake, White, and Lloyd–  initially engaged this limited review of church standards for the sake of an alliance with Dissenters. However, what makes the Petitioners’ participation unusual was that these same men later composed the root of the English Jacobitism.  The tenderness to Dissent tends to break the stereotype of Anglican nonjurors, and maybe the point ought to be the differences between the early stock of non-swearing versus their later generation.

The scheme solicited proposals dating back to the Restoration period when comprehension with moderate Presbyterianism sometimes ran hot or cold. The basic plan was to allow the omission of certain innocent ceremonies from the BCP like the signing the cross at baptism, kneeling at communion, and/or the use of marriage rings. A few other modifications, like dispensing with the surplice, were relegated to canons while points of doctrinal significance belonging to the Articles of Religion were left binding². Overall, the intent was alter standards in a minimal way such that it strengthened the Church with no change to its doctrine and primitive character. Writing twenty years later, Archbishop Wake recalls the plan:

“The scheme was laid out, and the several parts of it were committed, not only with the approbation, but by the direction of that great prelate [Sancroft], to such of our divines as were thought most worthy to be intrusted with it… The design was in short, this: to improve, and if possible, amend our discipline; to review and enlarge our Liturgy by correcting some things, by adding others and, if it should be thought advisable by authority, when this matter should be legally considered, first in Convocation, then in Parliament, by omitting some few ceremonies which are allowed to be indifferent in their usage, so as not to make them of necessity binding on those who had conscientous scruples respecting them, till they should be able to overcome either their weaknesses or their prejudices respecting them, and be willing to comply”.

However, Sancroft and colleagues ultimately removed themselves from the revision process. What compelled their withdrawal wasn’t consternation over ceremony or doctrine, but scruples about canonical authority following William III’s invasion. Prince William landed on England’s shores Nov. 5th. By December the Petitioners realized the Regency they expected was off-the-table. Dismayed, they removed themselves all consequent church commissions and likewise political roles. Thomas Rogers describes the change of atmosphere which generally transpired from January of 1689 to the summer, when the split among high churchmen over William’s arrival completed itself:

“In February Morrice had bemoaned the size of the Tory minority on the abdication question. In March, on the religious question, the two sides were, in the words of Sir John Reresby, ‘almost equally matched, and sometimes one carried a vote in both houses, and sometimes the other’. On 14th March the comprehension and indulgence Bills received their second reading; two days later we hear of the Devil’s Tavern Club, so named from the fact the Devil Tavern was the meeting place of a large number of members of Parliament, not confined to Tories, but all pledged to the Church of England. Reresby’s remark was ‘indeed it was high time for her sons to exert themselves’.” p. 247 From Unity to Uniformity.

Within a four month period, opinion regarding Protestant unity, like William’s ‘Deliverance’, apparently followed suite. The first breach was William’s recognition of Presbyterians versus Episcopalians in Scotland. Harold Wood describes the troubles in Scotland indicating William’s favor:

“Resentment at the attitude of Scottish Presbyterians at this time also hardened Anglican churchmen against English non-conformists. News came from Scotland of Presbyterians, now restored as the established church of Scotland, destroying copies of the Prayer Book and driving out episcopal clergy. ‘All these things were published up and down England, and much aggravated, and raised the aversion that the Church had to the Presbyterians so high, that they began to repent their having granted a licence to a party that, where they prevailed, showed so much fury against those of the Episcopal persuasion.'”  . 272 Church Unity

The second blow to unity was likely Nottingham’s introduction of the Toleration Act thereby legalizing rival communions. The latter was not a high church proposal, and even latitudinarians like Stillingfleet and Sharp generally disliked granting Indulgences to non-conformists as it weakened the position of the national church. Together, these factors created a growing fear that the church was imminently threatened by historical Dissent under William not so much Papacy by James. Hence, by the middle of 1689 comprehension was essentially dead. Adding fuel to the fire was a second, more radical version of comprehension proposed by Independents. By this time, Tories accepted Toleration as the lesser to two evils, dropping all versions of Comprehension.

Regardless, the early absence of Sancroft proved fatal to the success of limited comprehension. Sancroft concluded his Archbishopric ‘withdrawn’, in other words, buried in study at Lambeth palace rather than battle over any particular position. His irresolution probably left a rift in Convocation and Parliamentary politics that became more or less permanent for the 18th century. Dr. Sykes describes the trauma dealt to Comprehension upon the withdrawal of the higher churchmen,

“…the substitution of William and Mary as King and Queen for James II involved the Archbishop and others of his brethren in the delicate conflict of conscience, which forbade them to take an oath of allegiance to the new sovereigns. When, therefore, the ecclesiastical aspects of the Revolution settlement came under consideration and the question of comprehension was again raised, the secession of the non-juroring prelates and clergy fatally weakened the Church at a moment when authoritative and firm leadership was essential.” p. 147-148 A History of the Ecumenical Movement.

More Criticism: Would comprehension of moderate Dissent occurred if high churchmen got their Stuart Regency? Patrick Collinson believes the implications of Sancroft’s retreat (along with the withdrawal of other Jacobite bishops) proved hugely damaging to the long term prospects of the national church and a united Protestantism. He says,

“Their defection had profound consequences not only for the Church of England but for English Christianity more generally. For it is possible (to believe the spin later put on these events) that if they, and Sancroft in particular, had stayed on board, playing an active role in Parliament and Convocation, the revolution settlement would not have merely tolerated Protestant Dissent but would have accommodated the more moderate Dissenters, especially the Presbyterians, within a more broadly defined national Church. That was implicit in the greater measure of latitude and ‘tenderness’ which Sancroft’s Church, assisted by more moderate churchmen and some of the leading Dissenters themselves, had improvised at the time of the trial of the Seven Bishops. The failure of the 1689 comprehension, the indirect rather than direct result of the non-juroring schism, determined that from henceforth the Church of England, while remaining uniquely privileged and established, would forfeit the status of a truly national church…” p. 193 from_Cranmer to Sancroft. 

Obviously, Collinson is pretty harsh with Sancroft, laying blame for much of the church question on Sancroft’s lap. Evidently, Sancroft was chosen to the Lordship of Canterbury for his queit academic personality vis-a-vis candidates like Bishop Compton or the impression of older Archbishops, like Sheldon, who more often troubled Stuarts.

Collinson relies heavily upon the work of Norman Sykes, probably a foremost historian on the Restoration and Hanoverian eras. Sykes further convinces the point of Sancroft’s failure.  Syke insists,

“The full import of the withdrawal of Sancroft and his Non-juroring brethren from all participation in the ecclesiastical measures of the Revolution settlement became evident, however, in the proceedings of the Royal Commission appointed to prepare the comprehension scheme for consideration of Convocation and Parliament. Not only did their absence deprive the commission of its natural and authoritative leadership, but it also encouraged several of the members in turn to dissociate themselves from business… The fatal weakness, however, lay in the absence of Sancroft, and to a lesser degree of Lampulgh of York. The latter indeed was important solely officii virtue; but Sancroft’s defection together with that of his fellow non-juroring bishops inflicted a mortal wound on the commission and its proceedings. It was the heaviest blow to befall the church that, when presented with a second chance to revise its liturgy and canons and to repair the omissions of the Restoration, the indispensable leadership and authority were lacking. From this standpoint the non-juroring secession was a disaster difficult to exaggerate and overestimate.” p. 87-8. From Sheldon to Secker.

The withdrawal of the non-juroring party left the commission to swearing high churchmen, later known as “latitudinarian”, namely, Tillotson, Stillingfleet, Burnet, Patrick. et al. However, Sykes along with Dr. Every insist the recommendations of the final commission “differed in no point of importance if the Higher Churchmen had pulled their weight”(p. 87). The difference between swearing and non-swearing churchmen really was political astuteness. Dr. Overton comments regarding the non-juroring lot,

“It is, however, as ecclesiastics, not as politicians, that the deprived fathers appeal to our sympathies. Many will think– though the thought would be quite foreign to the feeling of the seventeenth century– that the less they interfered with the politics the better. For, truth to tell, their political wisdom does not appear to have been remarkable. They were all for a Regency. But was it reasonable to suppose that a keen and ambitious statesman and soldier, like William of Orange, would come over with an armed force to ‘deliver’ a country which he never loved, and then go back again? Or, that he would ever be content with the strange position of having a roi faineant in the background– in other words, with doing all the work and incurring all the responsibility, while another be held the honor?” p. 27 The NonJurors

In William’s defense, the Prince of Orange offered preference to Scottish Episcopalians first, but Bishop Rose refused to profess William as sovereign. Also, William was relatively slow in replacing their seats with new appointments. So says Dr. Overton regarding their status after deprivation,

“The bishops were here on their proper ground, and it was hard to dislodge them from it by argument. This seems to have been clearly perceived by the new Government, which showed considerable forebearance, and made various attempts to conciliate the recalcitrants. The sees were kept vacant for some time in order that the late Non-juroring holders might be won over.” ibid.

There is some disagreement by scholars over Sancroft’s genuine enthusiasm for the project. Generally, high churchmen virulently opposed any change to the BCP. This wasn’t absolutely true, and among high churchmen there was a spectrum of opinion. Even staunch Anglicans like Bp. George Morley (a Laudian of his time in the diocese of Worcester) who actively killed a comprehension plan in 1674 under Charles II was willing to accept minimal changes.  Indeed, comprehension was usually judged preferable over Toleration.

Where Sancroft exactly stood is a matter of debate, but much is to gained from the Seven Bishops admission, in their letter to James, to give “due tenderness to Dissenters, in relation to whom they are willing to come such a temper, as shall be thought fit, when that matter shall be considered and settled in parliament and convocation”. More Anglo-catholic scholars will stress the second over the first part from the above quote, viz., leaving alterations to Parliament and Convocation. Yet, ‘tenderness to Dissenters’ seems to match Sancroft’s pastoral epistle to his clergy of the same year where he urges,

“That they (clergy) also walk in wisdom towards those that are not of our communion; and if there be in their parishes any such, that they neglect not to confer with them in a spirit of meekness, seeking by all good ways and means to gain and win them over to our communion; more especially that they have a very tender regard to our brethern the protestant Dissenters; that upon occasion, offered they visit them at their own homes, and receive them kindly at their own, and treat them fairly wherever they meet them; persuading them (if it may be) to a full compliance with our church, or at least whereto we have already attained, we may all walk by the same rule and mind the same thing. And in order hereunto that they take all opportunities to assuring and convincing them, that the Bishops of this church are really and sincerely irreconcilable enemies to the errors…of the Church of Rome…and that they warmly and most affectionately exhort them to join with us in daily fervent prayer to the God of peace, for the universal union of all reformed Churches both at home and abroad against our common enemies; that all they who do confess thy Holy Name of our Dead Lord, and do agree in the truth of his holy word, may also meet in one communion, and live in perfect unity and peace together. ” Pastoral Letter 27 July 1688.

Sancroft was deprived of his See in 1691 for refusing explicit Allegiance to William III. However, he is remembered as an apostolic and scholarly man. Overton describes him,

“Sancroft, though no great writer, was essentially a bookish man, more at home in his library than in the conduct of affairs. This may, perhaps, give the clue to some apparent inconsistencies in his later conduct. Had he consulted his own inclination, he would probably have been happier as Master of Emmanuel than as Archbishop of Canterbury.” p. 31

Nonetheless, Sancroft was renowned for his translations. During his tenure, Sancroft translated to English, likely for the sake of mass consumption, both Filmer’s Patriarcha and Overall’s Convocation, texts which advocated passive obedience to the Stuarts. However, the irony of the Convocation book was it simultaneously decreed, under Overall’s heading of ‘Canon XXVII’, that a de jure King might be replaced by one de facto given the passage of time as a verdict of Providence.

However, there was also a practical element with Sancroft’s retreat. Dr. Every outlines the growing breakdown of unity after William’s landing. Whereas Presbyterians were earlier willing to reconcile with Churchmen, upon the arrival of a Prince William– a Calvinist himself with little patience for Regency or compromise with James II– English Presbyterians perceived an advantage that they did not wish to squander, gambling on the favoritism William shewed toward Scottish Presbyterians against Anglican establishment. Dr. Every discusses the Presbyterian’s shift, and obviously not all the blame can be cast on High Church reticence,

“The Presbyterian leaders had preferred comprehension to an indulgence shared with Roman Catholics from a Roman Catholic King [James II] intent on the promotion of his own religion. But under a Calvinist King intent they were sure of toleration, and hopeful of changes in the Test and Corporation Acts that would enable them to take office without conforming to the Church of England. The scottish presbyterians were already planning to use the revolutionary crisis to establish Presbyterian government in Scotland. In Ireland, where the destiny of the three kingdoms was most likely to be decided on the fields of battle, Ulster, where the Protestants were in the main Presbyterians, alone afforded a bridgehead for the revolutionary cause against the Roman Catholic and Jacobite south; there the Anglican ascendancy was likely to be overwhelmed now that James had lost his motives for restraint in the employment of Irish Roman Catholics. The English and Scottish presbyterians were strongly represented among the returned exiles who had come from Holland in the Prince of Orange’s army. The prospects of the Presbyterian [rather than Protestant] interest were sufficiently bright to make them think of command rather than compromise.” High Church Party, p. 28-29.

Ironically, the success of comprehension depended upon the looming persistence of James II’s catholicism. Once it became clear William had no intention on securing Regency, or otherwise negotiating a settlement with James II, the specter of Papist reaction evaporated, and churchmen lost their brokerage. The grasping of Dissenters upon the occasion of William’s invasion further alienated the high church party. Sancroft likely concluded the impossibility of concord in such a situation, so quietly withdrew himself.

Dr. Sancroft retired in the rustic village of his birth, concluding his remaining years in study and prayer. Despite his non-juroring convictions, he occasionally visited the parish church of Fressingfield and kept cordial relations with the Williamite clergy there. Though Sancroft had been trained in the school of Caroline divines (John Cosin being an early mentor and patron), he was ‘constructive’ not ‘destructive’ in his church outlook. Dr. Overton says of Sancroft’s “Laudianism”,

“Even of Laud the Churchman it was the constructive rather than destructive work which he admired; for he showed a tenderness toward Dissenters which was not at all in the Laudian vein, and there was a marked change of policy on the side of leniency towards them when Sancroft succeeded Sheldon in the Primacy. He also projected a scheme of comprehension, of the details of which one would have liked to have known more; for a scheme drawn up by a man of Sancroft’s principles would never have compromised the Church as some such schemes did; while his obviously kind feelings towards Dissenters would have led him to go as far as a consistent Churchman could.” p. 32 Non-Jurors

Thoughts: What’s fascinating about this episode of history is, though the work of the commission and its plan of comprehension never gained English law, the substance of the Proposals were adopted by the American church after our Revolution, leaving the American prayer book, even with its 1928 revision, a material link to the liturgical reforms of 1689. Indeed, the American Book Preface makes note of the 1689 commission as the last attempt or precedent for revision. The fact that American founders drew from the work of the 1689 commission is proved by their longer-proposed Preface set forth in 1785. After a delineation of the main points of review recommended by the 1689 commission, the longer Preface says,

“…yet, upon the principles already laid down, (namely, “the promoting of peaceand unity in the church; the exciting of pietyand devotion, and the removing, as far as possible, of all occasion of cavil or quarrel against the liturgy,”) the pious and excellent divines who were commissioned in 1689, proceeded to the execution of the great work assigned them. They had before them all the exceptions which had, since the act of uniformity been at any time made against parts of the church service, which are chiefly set forth in the foregoing queries. They had likewise many propositions and advices, which had been offered at several times by some of the most eminent Bishops and Divines upon the different heads in question. Matters were well considered, freely and calmly debated; and all was digested into one entire* correction of every thing that seemed liable to any just objection. But this great and good work miscarried at that time, and the civil authority in Great Britain hath not since thought it proper to revive it by any new commission.”

Of second fascination (and this section deserves further treatment) is how comprehension might be construed as an original high church idea, even with Laudian precedents; at least, until the matter of rightful succession following William & Mary’s arrival interrupted talks. After all, Laud’s 1637 prayer book incorporated similar exceptions– though Covenantors would have none of it! Nonetheless, the bishops (like Tillotson) who finalized the plan, set before Parliament as the famous Bill, shared a common point of origin with non-jurors– their main difference not being doctrinal as  political, namely, breaking or making Oaths. Of this scruple, Dr. Nathaniel Marshall said of the non-swearers in his Defence of our Constitution

“it is most evident, that the greatest number of non-jurors, if not all of them, would have come into a Regency; and then, I say, would have been settled by Methods as irregular in point of form, and the thing itself when settled, would have been less known to our Constitution, than the establishment which at last was fixed upon. The same objections might certainly have been made to one, which are made to another, from the Notions of Allegiance, and Nonresistance” p. 106.

In retrospect, a Regency kept by William III would have had more success and better secured the project of modest comprehension, keeping high churchmen together by satisfying their scruples about Allegiance while Dissenters would have been more compelled to cooperate with Churchmen given the sovereignty was still Stuart with the menace of France. When consensus broke down, Independency won against the National Church.

I hope this essay gives meditation to better comfort and reconcile us to the contributions of New England Episcopalians, or the American high church party under Seabury, as not altogether alien to currents in the Mid-Atlantic states sometimes dubbed “latitude”. But, by the time of the American Revolution, “latitude” could mean several things so we must be careful to identify it by a continuity with the Williamite bench, namely, moderate high churchmen.  Perhaps these close relations may clarify the basis of the American settlement, 1785-1801.

Collinson, Patrick. From Cranmer to Sancroft. Hambledon 2006
Every, George. The High Church Party 1688-1718. London SPCK. 1956
Geoffrey & Chadwick, Owen. London SPCK 1962
Rouse, Ruth. A History of the Ecumenical Movement. London SPCK 1954
Sykes, Norman. From Sheldon to Secker. Cambridge 1958

Thomas, Roger. “Comprehension and Indulgence” in From Uniformity to Unity, ed. Nuttal, 
Wood, Harold. Church Unity without Uniformity Epworth Press 1963

¹This is something of a proof for constitutional monarchy as effected by the Restoration Settlement.
² Of the 39 articles, the doctrines of grace, the Lord’s Supper, and Trinitarian creeds were sacrosanct. Dissenting exceptions usually hung on Discipline rather than Doctrine, oftentimes the relationship of Bishop to his presbyters. If dealing with Baptists, then, of course, the christening of infants was a troubled point. But most orthodox latitudinarians were not interested in going so far with unity, loosening the terms of subscription instead of the textual content of the Articles themselves. Allegedly, the former was Sancroft’s preference (see Every, p. 42). Comprehension and Toleration were expected to work together. The former intended to unite moderate Dissent to the Church while the latter expelled radicals by granting them a regulated Independency.

7 responses to “London Tower’s Seven Bishops

  1. Very interesting Charles, it’s good to see you writing again!


  2. My mother-in-law gave me a break from the kids while my wife was taking care of the newborn. Thanks guys!


  3. Would Bishop Cummins and his creation of the REC be seen as an extension of this failed attempt at a comprehensive church?


    • Somewhat… however, the Cummins’ Declaration goes further than Tillotson’s proposals whether judged from the Restoration or Revolution period.


  4. Pingback: Lee on the American BCP | Anglican Rose

  5. Pingback: Our Chapel’s Hermeneutic | Anglican Rose

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