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
"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
"'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
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
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
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."