Interesting to read today that Her Majesty's Government are proposing to change the Act of Sucession in order to allow older princess's to ascend the throne instead of having to step aside in favour of a younger brother. Apparently, this is to bring the law in this regard into conformity with human rights principles.
No mention of reversing the discrimination against Catholics. If, in this regards, they didn't want to start with anything as allegedly complicated - it actually wouldn't be all that complicated - as the Act of Succession itself, what about the Oath of Accession?
The anti-Catholic Constitution
“It having pleased Almighty God to take to His mercy our late Most Gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Victoria of blessed memory, who departed this life yesterday between the hours of six and seven o’clock in the evening, at Osborne House, in the Isle of Wight; and Her late Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, and others, having met this day at St James’s Palace, and having directed that His Royal Highness Albert Edward Prince of Wales be proclaimed King, by the style and Title of Edward the Seventh.”[Hansard, 23 Jan 1901.]
The 20th century was barely three weeks old when, on Tuesday 22 January 1901, Victoria died. The Queen was dead. Long live the King!
But King Edward was soon to discover that one of the first duties required of him under the constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as it then was, was most definitely NOT to his liking. Hansard for Thursday, 14 February 1901, records:
The King’s Speech
The King being seated on the Throne, and the Commons being at the Bar with their Speaker, His Majesty made and subscribed the Declaration against Transubstantiation pursuant to the Bill of Rights and afterwards made a Most Gracious Speech.
Victoria had reigned for over 63 years and so the terms of the Declaration which King Edward was required to make — which terms of words, obviously, had not been spoken from the Throne by any monarch in the (adult) lifetime of any of those present that day and so had become lost to the public mind — came as a shock not only to himself (see below), but also to many Members of both Houses of Parliament.
Moreover, members of the legislative assemblies of Canada, New Zealand and the new Commonwealth of Australia, which had just come into existence on 1 January 1901, the first day of the 20th century, were also scandalised by this Declaration, which was in fact a threefold one.
Firstly, Edward had to swear that he did not believe in Transubstantiation. Then, secondly, he had to further attest that he believed the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary, or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass as practised by the Church of Rome were superstitious and idolatrous. These first two parts of the Accession Oath were sworn thus:
“I, Edward, 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 worth noting that the founder of the Church of England, Henry VIII, “Defender of the Faith”, could not in good conscience have so sworn.
The third aspect of the Oath required Edward to pledge that he 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”.
The importance of this latter part of the Declaration is that no one secretly a Catholic, or in the process of converting to Catholicism, or even simply contemplating conversion, could in conscience swear the Declaration.
On 14 February 1901, seconding the traditional motion in the Commons to send an Humble Address thanking His Majesty for His Most Gracious Speech, Sir Andrew Agnew (Edinburgh, South) said: “We all feel that with a new reign and a new century we have entered upon a new and distinct stage in our history.”
Less than ten years later, after Edward’s sad demise, Asquith introduced on 28 June 1910 a Bill “To alter the form of the Declaration made by the Sovereign on Accession”. The proposed revised form of the Accession Declaration was intended to make it less offensive to the Roman Catholics of England and Wales, of Scotland and of Ireland, as well as to their then estimated 12,000,000 co-religionists “spread throughout the length and breadth of the Empire”.
For Britain’s Catholics it seemed that we were indeed entering a “new and distinct stage in our history”. Mr John G MacNeill recalled during the Second Reading Debate that: “Lord Herries, a Catholic nobleman who passed away a few months ago, stated publicly that he was in the House of Lords, close to King Edward when he made the Declaration, and he never saw anyone so embarrassed and so confused as the late King, who ran over the language of the declaration as if it hurt not only his own feelings, but the feelings of everyone around him.”
Earlier, during the First Reading Debate William Redmond had noted that 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.”
How came this to be the case? In fact the Accession Declaration 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 (England!) 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.”
He was referring to the dastardly work of Titus Oates with his self-invented Jesuit plot to kill the King. In the hysteria whipped up by Danby and Shaftesbury, Parliament passed: “an Act for the more effectual preservation of the King’s person and Government by disabling Papists from sitting in either House of Parliament.” The Declaration it contained was to be made and subscribed by all Members of both Houses and by those other persons described in the Act as “sworn servants of the Sovereign”. It was not then intended that it ever need be sworn by the sovereign.
The intent of the Act was simply to remove from Parliament those Roman Catholic peers who up until that time had been excused from taking the Oath of Supremacy and had, therefore, been able to continue to sit and serve in Parliament. Now disbarred, like their Commoner fellow Catholics, and despite the fact that Titus Oates was soon executed for perjury, they would not be allowed to re-take their seats until the passing of the Relief Act of 1829.
Asquith’s modest proposal of June 1910 ― which could not, did not, and has not by one iota altered the constitutional position as to the Protestant Succession ― needless to say met with mindless but voluble opposition from the Ulster Unionist Orangemen in both Houses of Parliament and their Tory allies.
For example Mr Agar-Robartes (I kid you not) (St Austell Division) said: “Already Cornwall is roused, and even faithful Scotland is fretful. Scotland in the past has ever been a harbour of refuge for beaten Ministers. It would be a pity if in the future they had to go for safe seats to Ballyshannon or Connemara… I quite admit that it is laid down by statutory enactment that the King MAY not be a Roman Catholic. What we wish to see is that the King CAN not be a Roman Catholic.”
Mr Hilaire Belloc, a Catholic, observed in reply: “I have been told that there is a strong movement in Scotland, and I dare say there is, in favour of something rude being said about the Catholic Church; but I think it is quite untrue to say that there is a widespread and rising popular opposition to this proposal.”
And indeed there was not, and so it soon was passed.
(Belloc was, indeed, a true man of the people. Although his mother, Elizabeth Rayner Belloc ― a Unitarian who converted to Catholicism and was the granddaughter of the scientist and political reformer Joseph Priestley ― and his sister, Marie Belloc Lowndes, were strong supporters of women’s rights, he once opined: “I am opposed to women’s voting as men vote. I call it immoral, because I think the bringing of one’s women, one’s mothers and sisters, into the political arena disturbs the relations between the sexes.”)
King George VI died on Wednesday 6 February 1952. On the following Monday, 11 February, Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, rose in the Commons to move an Address and Message of Sympathy to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He began: “With the end of the Victorian era we passed into what I feel we must call the terrible 20th century. Half of it is over and we have survived its fearful convulsions.”
The other half of that 20th century drew to its close at midnight on 31 December 2000, but as things currently stand, in the early days of the 21st century and the 3rd Christian Millennium, whoever next ascends the Throne in the House of Lords to swear and subscribe the Accession Declaration on the first sitting of the new Parliament after the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (of England and Wales) and I (of Scotland ) will utter the same words she did on Tuesday, 4 November 1952:
“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.”
However, while Her Majesty’s Roman Catholic subjects might well have been less offended by the terms of this form of the oath as compared to that sworn by Edward VII, nonetheless they should have been sensible to the fact that the terms of that previous oath were implicit in the newer one. In 1689 an Anglican “Divine” (a holder of a Doctor of Divinity degree) 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." [Tracts Vol 13, 1688-1691; David Murray Collection (1928) Mu 44-d.13, University of Glasgow Special Collection.]
And, of course, as things currently stand Mr Agar-Robartes will have his way for whomsoever our next monarch MAY be, he (or she) CANNOT be a Catholic!
I'll come back to the Act of Succession shortly.