This week is Parliament Week, a programme of events and activities that connects people across the UK with Parliament and democracy. To mark it, every day this week we are publishing a blog on ‘unlikely parliamentarians’ – the men and women across history who became parliamentarians only unexpectedly.
In today’s blog, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1603-29 section discusses a group of parliamentarians unlikely because of their religion – Catholics in the early Stuart period – and asks whether they were in fact able to act freely…
The religious settlement at the start of Elizabeth I’s reign saw the return of Anglican Protestantism as the official faith of England and Wales, and, by definition, the rejection of Catholicism. Elizabeth famously had no wish to ‘open windows into men’s souls’, but she did expect public conformity to the new patterns of worship. Those who refused to comply could expect to be marginalized within society. Recusancy, failure to attend Anglican services, was punishable by heavy fines, confiscation of property, or even imprisonment. All clergy, and most public officials, were required to take a new oath of supremacy, acknowledging the queen as supreme governor of the Church, and rejecting the authority of the Pope. After 1563, this oath was administered to all Members of the House of Commons before they took their seats. In addition, after the abortive Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an oath of allegiance was introduced as a further test of loyalty. Initially this was imposed only on recusants, who were obliged to denounce all conspiracies against the Crown, and also to deny that the Pope could absolve them from their obligation to protect the monarch. However, from 1610 this oath was extended to all adults, and became another condition of parliamentary membership.
These policies largely achieved their objectives. By the start of the seventeenth century, practising Catholics probably formed less than 1% of the population. Decades of war with Spain and anti-Catholic propaganda had decisively shifted popular opinion towards Protestantism, and the House of Commons strongly reflected that bias even before the Gunpowder Plot inextricably linked popery with treason. Nevertheless, the picture in the upper echelons of society was more complicated. Wealthy Catholics were better placed to endure or evade the penalties of recusancy, and the old religion retained a solid foothold within the peerage. In the opening decades of the Stuart regime, nearly one-fifth of the men eligible to sit in the House of Lords were either openly or secretly Catholic. The Crown, which still relied heavily on such people to fill the ranks of government, turned a blind eye to them where possible. Peers were exempted from taking the oath of supremacy, so there was no bar on Catholics sitting in the Lords until the oath of allegiance was applied to them in 1610. After that, around a third of such peers opted to stay away from Parliament, but the remainder managed to square the oath with their consciences, and continued to attend as usual. Those who were willing to go further, and conform at least occasionally to the Church of England, could still expect to enjoy an active parliamentary career. Despite puritan protests, a handful of Catholics similarly found their way into the Commons, frequently representing small boroughs where the dominant landowner was a recusant. For example, Sir Richard Weston sat in the 1604-10 Parliament for Midhurst, courtesy of the Catholic Viscount Montagu, and found a seat at Arundel in 1621 through the crypto-Catholic earl of Arundel. Having served in the Commons during seven parliaments, Weston was himself elevated to the Lords in 1628, and in that same year he became lord treasurer, the Stuart equivalent of prime minister.
Weston was widely suspected of Catholic leanings throughout his life, but he did not openly acknowledge his true faith until he lay on his deathbed. Without this discretion his political achievements would have been impossible. The unofficial toleration from which he benefited was conditional on public compliance with the status quo. In 1604 Viscount Montagu used a debate in the Lords to deliver an impassioned attack on the treatment of English Catholics, and was promptly imprisoned until he apologised. An equally outspoken critic of the oath of allegiance, he rarely attended Parliament subsequently. It was even more important that those Catholics who won election to the Commons kept their beliefs to themselves. In 1624 the Liverpool Member Sir Thomas Gerrard gave himself away by refusing the two oaths, and was duly prevented from taking his seat. Sir Ralph Grey, who represented Northumberland in 1604, promoted a bill to write off arrears of recusancy fines, a measure which would have benefited his own family, but this move was firmly rejected by the Commons and thereafter he thought it best to maintain a low profile. Thomas Sheppard, described by one contemporary as a ‘base, jesuited papist’, secured a seat at Shaftesbury in 1621 with the help of the Catholic peer Lord Arundell, but was expelled from the Commons for mocking a puritan-inspired bill to enforce sabbath observance. Thus, while it proved impossible to exclude Catholics entirely from Parliament during this period, their freedom of action was effectively just as circumscribed at Westminster as it was in society at large.