Seven Bishops' Trial

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A turning point in the history of ENGLISH LAW, the Seven Bishops' Trial, 12 Howell's State Trials 183 (1688), involved issues of church and state, the authority of the monarchy, and the power of the judiciary. In 1688 King James II brought the proceeding against seven prominent bishops of the Church of England. For defying a controversial order of the king, the prelates were accused of seditious libel, a grave offense that constituted rebellion against the Crown. Their successful defense against the charge helped to encourage the opposition to the king that culminated six months later in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. The king fled, and subsequently

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England had a new monarchy and a new BILL OF RIGHTS. The bishops' challenge to authority and the subsequent expression of popular political will were important precedents that helped to inspire later revolutionaries among the American colonists.

The trial took place against a backdrop of anti-Catholicism. The English Parliament had restricted the rights of Catholics to hold public office and engage in other activities. James II was a devout Catholic, however, and believed that it was his duty to protect the rights of English Catholics. Accordingly, on April 4, 1687, he issued the First Declaration of Indulgence, which suspended the restrictions and led directly to Catholics holding public offices. A year later, on April 27, 1688, James repeated his first order and went further: to better inform the citizenry, he commanded the Anglican clergy to read his Second Declaration of Indulgence in their churches.

The king's order was universally unpopular. Seven senior prelates took action. Led by William Sancroft, the archbishop of Canterbury, they sent the king a petition professing their loyalty to him but also indicating their refusal to read the declaration in church. The petition enraged James, especially since the ostensibly private statement was published throughout the kingdom. Viewing the bishops' petition as an act of rebellion, he began the process of prosecuting them for SEDITIOUS LIBEL. In such a case, the accused were required to post a payment called a recognizance or else await trial in prison. This the bishops refused to do, claiming that as members of the House of Lords, they were exempt from paying recognizances. The bishops' claim may have been a bit audacious in that the exemption probably did not extend to such serious offenses. In any event James...

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