The end of oaths?

The 1723 oaths to George I are the last example of the tendering of a test of loyalty en masse in early modern England. In the introduction to the finding list, I pondered why this practice ended in the early eighteenth century. Some indication of the possible intellectual changes which may have brought mass oath-taking to an end can be found in the text of a charge to the Grand Jury of Gloucester delivered at the Midsummer sessions 1723 by the Whig Parliamentary diarist Sir Richard Cocks.

Given the timing of the charge, Cocks was clearly intent on reminding the grand jury of the importance of the work of the special sessions of that year, gathering subscriptions to the oaths to George I. But though homilies on the importance of oaths were commonplace in a legal context (whether delivered in ‘charges’ of this kind or assize sermons), Cocks’ reasoning was noticeably different from earlier treatments of the obligation of sworn statements. References to God or the binding power of oaths on the individual conscience are largely absent from Cocks’ text. Instead, political obligation is directed by law and by reason.

Addressing the issue of the king’s title and hereditary right, Cocks imagines the hypothetical case of a man renting land. If a ‘busy body’ were to tell the tenant that their good, kind landlord did not, in fact, have the title to the property that they leased but that it belonged instead to another who had a reputation for treating his tenants harshly what rational individual would switch landlords? Similarly, even if the Pretender did have a better hereditary title, Cocks argued that reason dictated it was better to give our loyalty to the king who could be trusted to govern within the laws and protect Protestantism (George I).

Cocks was also a religious controversialist but, in this charge, the confessional identity of the monarch is important primarily because this is now regulated by law (through the 1701 Act of Settlement). So, a Catholic Pretender cannot be our rightful monarch because he is legally disqualifed. Parliamentary statute is absolute: once again indulging in a hypothetical, Cocks argued that the public’s  duty of allegiance to George I would also be ended if he were to convert to Catholicism.

In this short charge, there is no room for extended discussion of the fine distinctions between de facto and de jure rulers, nor is there space for a casuistic exploration of the obligation of promises made before God. In Cocks’ view, law and reason are all and Parliament is paramount.

Cocks had begun his charge asking, seemingly rhetorically, ‘What Obligation can Art or Invention imagine, or find out, to supply the Place of Oaths?’ Yet, in his short ‘Charge’ he had laid out a theory of political obligation in which sworn bonds were subordinate to rational choice directed by the sovereign lawmaker, Parliament.

For Cock’s charge see

‘A Charge Given to the Grand-Jury Of the COUNTY OF GLOUCESTER, AT THE Midsummer Sessions, 1723’ by Sir Richard Cocks – 2nd edn.
in Charges to the Grand Jury 1689-1803, ed. G. Lamione, (Camden 4th series, vol. 43, London, 1992), pp. 175-89.