Oaths of office, integration and the politics of swearing

I have written a blog post on the History Today website placing recent proposals regarding an ‘integration oath’ for migrants and new ‘oaths of office’ for public officials in historical context. You can read it here:




Women, politics and the 1723 oaths of allegiance to George I

My article on the above is now available online on the Historical Journal website.

In other news, Dr Alex Craven is producing a transcription of the City of London returns which will be integrated into the London Metropolitan Archives’ catalogue, helping users research early eighteenth-century Londoners. In due course, we plan to hold a workshop showcasing the transcription and enriched catalogue, illustrated through an exploration of the biographies of a number of subscribers.

Women, politics and the 1723 oaths of allegiance to George I

I’m very pleased to announce that my article entitled ‘Women, politics and the 1723 oaths of allegiance to George I’ has been accepted for publication by The Historical Journal. You can find a copy of the accepted manuscript version of the article below. The final version of the article will appear in The Historical Journal in due course. I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for permission to reproduce the accepted manuscript.

Women, politics and 1723 oaths accepted manuscript web version

Names, numbers and titles

I’ve been taking a look at the York city roll again with the aim of producing a breakdown of the proportion of married women, spinsters and widows who signed the list. Information on the occupation of married women’s husbands also offers some indication of the economic status of the women subscribing. Work of this kind has already been done by Simon Dixon in a paper on the Exeter rolls which he kindly shared with me. The detailed and already transcribed York list seemed to offer a good comparison.

As I’ve indicated in previous posts, a desire to protect property and/or the right to inherit/administer property could explain why widows and the wives of gentlemen appear on the lists. What did it mean, however, that the wife of Thomas Plaister, labourer, also signed the list 5th December 1723? (YCA F12, f 146v) Was her subscription the product of political pressure, spousal direction or personal conviction?

I’ll put up the statistical findings here in due course but looking at the roll again also prompted questions about identity. While most women on these lists are given some form of identity, whether as widow, spinster or wife, women do appear on roll without any additional description, such as Elizabeth Jeele who subscribed the York list on 24 September 1723 (YCA F12, f. 141v). Was the lack of a description of Elizabeth an indication of poverty or marginality in some way? If the former, how did she pay the subscription fee of 3d?

More intriguing still are two women (or, I should I say possible women) who appear on the list with seemingly male titles. On 19 December, one Cornelia _ayley[?] Esqr subscribed the York roll, while on 21 Dec an Eliz. Aldridge was listed as ‘Baker’. In the case of Aldridge, while Brian Jones’ transcription identified the forename as ‘Eliz’, my own transcription had the abbreviation as ‘Clir’, which might suggest a male forename instead (Clifford)? Both Jones and I transcribed ‘ayley’ as Cornelia, however, and reviewing the image again, this still looks the most plausible reading of that name. Have we or the scribe made a mistake, or was a women really being described
as an Esqr on one of these lists?

In other news, I will be speaking about the 1723 oaths on 12 March in Liverpool not 11 as indicated in an earlier post. I’ll try and record this talk as the podcast technology didn’t work for the IHR paper.

It also appears as if there may be a 1723 oath roll for New York held in the archives of the New York Historical Society.

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.


1723 oath pun

In a letter to the Earl of Oxford, Dr Thomas Tudway reported that in Sir Robert Walpole’s county (Norfolk) ‘where some gentlemen met at an adjourned sessions, for the people of those parts to take the oaths, … it being hot weather, the justices called out to have the windows opened, to let in the air, upon which a gentleman who had just taken them cried out, “Why, what the devil have we been doing all this while, I thought we had come hither to swear to keep out the h[ei]r.”’

Report on the Manuscripts of the Duke of Portland preserved at Welbeck Abbey, vol. v (Norwich, HMSO, 1899), p. 638.

In other news, I will be posting an updated version of the finding list shortly with new oath roll finds for Cumbria and Kent included.