Diary entry reveals King’s toleration

24 May 2013

©NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON

AN ACCOUNT of a speech on religious liberty given by the last Roman Catholic king of England has been published for the first time, showing that he viewed freedom of conscience as a human right.

A diary account of arguably the most important speech by King James II on the subject of toleration has been discovered by a historian from the United States, Professor Scott Sowerby.

It suggests that the Stuart monarch, who was deposed in 1688, viewed religious liberty as a fundamental human right rather than a privilege, placing him years before his time, Professor Sowerby says.

In his speech in Chester, in August 1687, the King likened religious beliefs to the colour of a person's skin, and called for the repeal of the penal laws and Test Acts, under which Protestant Dissenters, Roman Catholics, Jews, and Quakers faced imprisonment, and exclusion from civil and military office.

"Suppose said he there would be a law made that all black men should be imprisoned," the diary account by Sir Willoughby Aston, one of the men at the meeting, says.

"'Twould be unreasonable, and we had as little reason to quarell with other men for being of different opinions as for being of different Complexions, desired we should shew our selfs Englishmen, and he was sure no Englishman could desire to see others persecuted for differences of opinion, and therefore again told us, the way to reconcile all differences was to take of[f] those Lawes which made men uneasie under them and deprived them of theyre Rights."

Professor Sowerby, an Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern University, a private research university in Illinois, said that the speech had not been cited in any published discussion of the reign of James other than in his own work.

In his book Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution, he says that the speech is significant because it reveals that the King had developed a "sophisticated rationale for an expansive liberty of conscience", and that he understood religious liberty as an "indefeasible right".

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He writes: "Over the course of two years, from 1685 to 1687, he had shifted from making grants of liberty of conscience to individuals and groups of whom he approved, to issuing a general pardon that freed dissenters [from jail] in large numbers, indiscriminately, to making a universal grant of toleration for all English people, which he sought to make irrevocable by an Act of Parliament.

"In his speech at Chester, James described the underpinnings of his new line of argument, declaring liberty of conscience to be a fundamental right of all English subjects."

But before he could call a "tolerationist" Parliament the following year, James was replaced by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange. They invaded with a Dutch army after a group of resistant Anglicans, led by the Bishop of London, complained to them about the King's policies.

He went into exile in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, where he was joined by senior Anglican clerics who were loyal to him, such as the Bishop of Chester, Thomas Cartwright, and the Dean of Durham, Denis Granville.

Historians have since depicted James as a reckless king who angered his subjects by seeking undeserved favours for his co- religionists. But Professor Sowerby argues that he was part of a broad and popular "Repealer" movement that gathered pace in his reign, and which was supported by many Anglicans, as well as by non-Anglicans.

The Principal Secretary of the Royal Stuart Society, Thomas FitzPatrick, said that James had been treated "unkindly" by history, and that recent research is "possibly going some way to redress the balance. . . James knew person- ally the effects of religious intolerance, having been adversely affected himself; so had a sym- pathy for others disadvantaged under the law for their personal beliefs."

The archivist of the RC archdiocese of Westminster, Fr Nicholas Schofield, said that the "most sinister of interpretations" had often been ascribed to James's "eminently reasonable" policies. "A strong military base, and freedom of worship, were equated, in many people's minds, with the collapse of the Church of England and the destruction of the Reformation settlement."

Even in exile, James continued his tolerationist stance, Fr Schofield said. "At Saint Germain, he protected and employed Anglicans and Dissenters: his secretary, Edward Roberts, was a Baptist, and the man who saddled his horse was a Quaker.

"Documents such as his speech at Chester should lead us to re- assess this much-maligned figure."

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