Are oaths inclusive or exclusive?

The suggestion by British politician Sajid Javid that public servants should take an oath of loyalty suggests we are living through a period of political and religious crisis. Edward Vallance examines the historical parallels. 

First collected edition of Hudibras by Samuel Butler, 1674–1678‘Oaths are but words, and words but wind/Too feeble implements to bind’, Samuel Butler suggested in his Restoration satire Hudibras.  It was to such ‘feeble implements’ however, that Sajid Javid, the UK government's Communities Secretary, resorted in suggesting that an oath of allegiance to ‘British values’ should be sworn by all holders of public office. Javid’s proposal was in turn prompted by Dame Louise Casey’s recently published report into social cohesion, which also urged an ‘integration oath’ aimed at migrants.

Most of the responses to the mooted new oath have focused on what precisely ‘British values’ might mean. (For Javid, they include tolerance, freedom of speech, democracy and the rule of law). For many commentators, perhaps following Butler, the fact that this pledge would take the form of an oath was irrelevant. Yet, the Communities Secretary’s suggestion that these principles should be embodied in a solemn pledge was not unprecedented. It was foreshadowed by the 2008 proposal from Gordon Brown’s Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, that all school leavers should swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The swearing of oaths, promising allegiance to the Queen and to uphold democratic values, is also now an integral part of British citizenship ceremonies.

Critics of Goldsmith’s 2008 proposals noted that the inspiration behind these new oaths of loyalty was American not British. Consequently, it is no coincidence that these and later proposals were advanced as solutions to problems of social cohesion: for the author of the US pledge of allegiance, the Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy, the goal was to revive patriotic feeling in a polyglot nation. Bellamy spoke of his pleasure, years later, in hearing the words of his pledge expressed ‘in the tones of the variegated races in this American melting pot’.

Looking at the history of oath-taking in England, however, can also reveal some of the problems with seeing these devices as solutions to problems of social cohesion and integration. First, we need to consider what an oath is. An oath is a solemn promise or statement in which God is called to witness the truthfulness of the swearer’s testimony. In the Tudor and Stuart period it was believed that those that swore falsely would be subject to divine punishment, not just in the next life but in this: John Vicar’s pamphlet Dagon Demolished, published in 1660, detailed the grisly ends of those who broke their promise of allegiance to the king by swearing loyalty to the English republic in 1649, including the case of one Mr James Ashton of Oldham who, ‘became so full of Lice, continually, that all the shift and attendance that possible was used, could not cleanse him from this filthy Vermine’. Divine punishments were complemented by earthly laws, with perjurers subject to fines, imprisonment and the pillory.

It was also in the Tudor and Stuart period that the medieval oath of fealty was transformed into a vehicle for political and religious controversy. The process began under Henry VIII as a means of securing public acquiescence to the break with Rome. The 1534 Oath of Succession required those taking it to swear that the progeny of Henry and Anne Boleyn were the legitimate heirs to the throne. Barely two years later, Anne’s trial for treason and Henry’s subsequent marriage to Jane Seymour led to a new oath, which now confirmed that the succession was determined by the king’s will. The same year (1536) another oath was devised, confirming the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy, which was later required of all public officers. During the English Civil Wars, oaths were used to mobilise supporters and neutralise opponents: the Vow and Covenant issued by Parliament in June 1643 required subscribers to testify that the parliamentarian army was ‘raised and continued for their just defence and for the defence of the true Protestant Religion’. It made no mention of the subject’s duty of loyalty to the king. The Solemn League and Covenant of September 1643 confirmed the military alliance between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters. Royalists who wanted to prevent their estates being seized and liquidated by Parliament also had to swear the Covenant, forcing them into a public submission to the parliamentarian cause.

Though Butler’s Hudibras would satirise ‘forced’ oaths of this kind as a piece of Puritan hypocrisy, the Restored monarchy also made use of these devices. Oaths underpinned the Restoration church settlement and, via the declarations embodied in the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678, were employed to exclude Protestant nonconformists and Catholics from public office.

The revolution of 1688 did not end this practice of public oath-taking. However, the role of oaths of loyalty was changing. While oaths were still being used to stigmatise political opponents – Tory office-holders were targeted for their enduring affiliation to the exiled James II – they were now also being employed to demonstrate public support for the post-revolutionary regime. The 1696 Association in defence of William III, tendered following the discovery of an assassination plot, was subscribed in remarkable numbers – contemporary press reports estimated that 70,000 had taken the Association in Suffolk alone (a figure probably close to the entire adult population of the county at the time.) A similar exercise was undertaken in 1723, again in the wake of an assassination plot, as tens of thousands of men and women swore loyalty to George I: the subscriptions of so many women representing a remarkable feminine intervention in a political public sphere usually seen as reserved for the male sex.

The last instance of mass public oath-taking in England took place in 1723. The classic explanation for the death of the ‘state oath’ was advanced by the historian Christopher Hill, who claimed that sworn bonds, enforced by the threat of divine punishment, came to be replaced by an understanding of political obligation as governed by corporate and/or private interest. However, another, arguably more persuasive argument for the end of state oaths was made by Paul Langford. For Langford, oaths of the kind imposed in 1723 with significant financial penalties for non-subscription were hard to square with the ideal of political life as being organised on basis of voluntary association. As contemporaries also noted, oaths of this kind, closely related to the ‘penal laws’ targeting Catholics, also appeared contrary to the ‘revolution principle’ of religious toleration (though this was only legally extended in 1689 to some Protestant dissenters). By 1723, other vehicles for expressing popular support, the loyal address and loyalist voluntary associations, had been developed which, at least at face value, appeared to be the product of public initiative rather than state direction.

State oaths proliferated in England during periods of political and religious crisis. Their presence in public life diminished as a fundamental consensus was established about the nature of political authority. While the English Bill of Rights did not put this as clearly as the Scottish Claim of Right, authority was now understood to be contractual and government founded on public consent. The 21st century revival of ‘state oaths’ has been driven by a belief that they can be vehicles to support and enhance social cohesion and integration. Yet, in English history, oaths have been more frequently used as weapons of exclusion and discrimination. If anything, their reappearance suggests that the social contract that underpins political authority is in peril. As Samuel Butler noted more than 350 years ago, ‘quarrels still are seen/With oaths and swearings to begin’.

Ted Vallance is Professor of early modern British political culture at the University of Roehampton. 

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