March 1672: The Declaration of Indulgence

In March 1672 Charles II issued a document to remove harsh sanctions against religious non-conformity. But what brought about this ‘Declaration of Indulgence’ and why was a supposedly tolerant measure met with heavy criticism? History of Parliament Director Dr Paul Seaward explores…

On 15 March 1672, 350 years ago, the English government issued a document headed His Majesty’s Declaration to all his loving subjects, but which has become known as the Declaration of Indulgence. It was an astonishing statement, reversing the position of English monarchical governments since Elizabeth I towards Protestant religious dissent or nonconformity. Not only that, but in explicitly suspending a large body of parliamentary legislation which required church attendance and forbade the holding of alternative religious meetings (‘conventicles’) outside the framework of the Church of England it overrode the authority of parliament itself.

“His Majesties Declaration to All His Loving Subjects, Concerning the Treasonable Conspiracy Against His Sacred Person and Government, Lately Discovered. Appointed to Be Read in All Churches and Chappels Within This Kingdom. / by His Majesties Special Command” (1683). 
English Historical Library of Wallace Notestein. 29.

Astonishing, but not entirely unpredictable. During the Civil War, in the 1640s, the so-called ‘penal laws’ against protestants who failed to conform to the established rites and ceremonies had been unenforceable. Neither the Republic nor the Protectorate in the late 1640s and 1650s had been able or willing to recreate a national Church. At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the future of the Church was one of the most pressing issues for the new government of Charles II. The preferences of the king and his leading ministers, as well as their anxieties about the subversive potential of religious diversity, led them to resurrect the established Church in (almost) its full glory. A new parliament (the ‘Cavalier Parliament’) elected in 1661 in the first flush of enthusiasm for the return to pre-Civil War stability not only enthusiastically supported its reinstatement, but went about bolstering it with new measures that would draw the boundaries more sharply between those who conformed to all of its doctrine and litury, and those who didn’t. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 squeezed out of the Church many ministers who had hoped that the edges of conformity would remain fuzzy enough; the Conventicle Act of 1664 introduced additional penalties for those trying to build their own communities of worship.

There were two problems, though, with these efforts to stamp out protestant nonconformity and force everyone back into Church. The first was that it was never very easy to enforce: nonconformity had in the 1650s put down some quite firm roots, and many local communities were not particularly active in suppressing it. The other was that the king himself, and some of his chief ministers, became less keen on it – not because they were necessarily in favour of protestant nonconformists (whom many continued to regard with suspicion as potential subversives), but because they had other fish to fry. At least one of them, Anthony Ashley Cooper, later Earl of Shaftesbury, was hostile to the power of the Church itself. Others, including the king himself, were more interested in the removal of the restrictions on Catholics, rather than Protestants. In this, the king reflected the interests of his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, and his formative years in the cosmopolitan courts of Europe. But he was firmly at odds with his Protestant subjects, who regarded Catholics, in theory at least, as a subversive fifth column who would, if given half a chance, take over the government, invite in the armies of the Catholic powers and the Roman inquisition to forcibly convert Protestants, or, failing that, burn them.

Charles II had already made one attempt to lift the restrictions on his Catholic subjects, announcing in the Declaration of Indulgence of 1662 an intention to introduce legislation to ‘exercise with a more universal satisfaction that power of dispensing which we conceive to be inherent in us’ – in other words to allow the king to issue some sort of licence that would enable people to escape the penalties prescribed in the penal laws against both Protestants and Catholics. But some royal ministers, particularly the Earl of Clarendon, the lord chancellor, as well as the House of Commons, were horrified when plans were unveiled that would effectively give full personal authority to the king – rather than parliamentary statute – to determine the religious regime of the country. The Commons protested and the idea was unceremoniously dropped. After Clarendon’s dismissal and exile in 1667, further attempts were made to get parliament to legislate on the subject, but they got nowhere.

The 1672 Declaration constituted a radical rethink of the whole scheme. It has long been associated with the king’s shady alliance with France in 1670, whose publicly unstated purpose was to initiate an invasion of the Dutch republic, and with the even more shady intrigue of the conversion to Catholicism not only of the king’s brother, James, Duke of York, but of the King himself. A huge amount of uncertainty surrounds these events and exactly how Charles believed they would all play out: his on-off negotiations with France in the course of 1670 and 1671 suggest rapid cold feet about the whole business. But the Declaration was clearly part of the plan. Part of its motivation seems to have been to keep Protestant nonconformists quiet since they might be expected to be loudest in their denunciation of a Catholic-led attack on the Protestant Netherlands. But it was also designed to bring about the toleration of Catholics which the king had long promised to his international Catholic allies, and to firmly establish the king’s personal authority over the Church and religious law. It was predicated on the assumption that the king could avoid having to meet a parliament – which would surely demand the declaration’s abrogation – for the moment, at least.

The Declaration was issued a few weeks before the attack on the Dutch republic. It announced that the religious penal laws were suspended forthwith, and that those Protestant ministers that wanted to establish their own congregations, outside the Church, could do so if they applied for licences. It placed dissenting ministers and their communities in an acute dilemma: if they applied for a licence to set up a dissenting conventicle, they would be implicitly acknowledging a royal authority that many regarded as illegal, as well as associating themselves with Catholic liberty and the attack on one of Europe’s foremost Protestant powers. Nevertheless, thousands did and enjoyed for a brief time a flourishing culture of free nonconformist worship.

It didn’t last. The war with the Dutch went badly, and in less than a year the king was forced to return to parliament after all to request new taxation in order to keep fighting. Inevitably, the price was the cancellation of the Indulgence, which was done just short of a year after it had been published. It had, though, given an impetus to the development of dissenting organisations and networks which survived, the basis for the Toleration Act passed in the wake of the Revolution of 1689 and the English tradition of nonconformity.


Read more of Dr Seaward’s blogs at the Reformation to Referendum: Writing a New History of Parliament blog site.

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