. 9
( 14)


leeway. As John Humfrey asked of the Abjuration Oath, if we swear to
do nothing to alter the government, are we swearing to the king, his office
or his will?28 Bishop Burnet warned that whereas Catholic princes were
bound to their oaths as men, ˜their oaths, being acts of religion, were
subject to the direction of their confessors™. So, when Louis of France
swore in the coronation oath to observe the Edict of Nantes, Protestants
were probably made less not more secure.29 The scope given by awareness
of identity in office would be central during the Engagement controversy
(below, chapter 14). Second, just as the language of office could be used,
albeit with stresses and strains, to defend or attack almost any conduct, so
too any strict typology of oath-taking over-simplifies the slipperiness of
the activity. The Mirror of Justices, for example, had stated baldly that
recognition of fealty provided the principal form of oath-taking. William
Prynne recorded that when old enough to take any office, every man
had to swear such an oath at an annual court leet. In this way oaths of
fealty were much like, and retrospectively could be called ˜state oaths™,
those oaths designed to ensure allegiance to established rule.30 Some
preliminaries aside, I want instead to suggest no more than a heuristic
continuum of oath-taking, the thread of continuity being provided by a
common process of performative utterance, or promissory force in assert-
ive swearing before divine power and evoking relationships of office.
˜State oaths™, among others, do not fit neatly on any one point of such a

Cited in John Spurr, ˜Perjury, Profanity and Politics™, pp. 39“40; Comber, Judicial
Swearing; and Sharp, ˜Against Common Swearing™, in Works, vol. IV, p. 297.
Shakespeare, Henry V 3.7; The Merchant of Venice 5.1; 2Henry IV 2.1.
Coverdale, A Christe exhortacion, fols. 11“12, 23; Sermon, ˜Of Swearing™ (1562?) in
Certain Sermons, pp. 41“3; Butler, ˜A Swearer™, in Characters, pp. 202“3.
John Humfrey, The Free State of the People Maintained (1702), p. 3.
Burnet, text of speech (1713), in History, vol. VI, pp. 157“8.
Andrew Horn (?), Speculum justiciorum (c. 1300), trans. 1642 (New York, 1968 edn),
ch. 3, sect. 37; Prynne, Concordia discors, p. 1; Lawson, Politica (1689), p. 360, marginal
gloss University of New South Wales copy, by Thomas Winter c. 1810, tags them as
state oaths; Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, ch. 2, p. 15.
238 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
vector. The purpose is less to fashion a set of definitional boxes than to
outline just how complex and controversial an oath could be.

At one extreme, one may place what I shall call oaths of passage. Recall a
distinction with respect to the solemnities of assuming office, between
transformative assumption through and affirmative performance in cere-
monial activity (above, chapter 2). Oaths of passage encapsulated this:
one party exercised office in requiring of another an oath to behave
appropriately to a newly assumed social persona.31 Under this rubric
may be placed those rare oaths that stripped the oath-taker of an identity,
as when a subject swore to accept banishment.32 More normally, the oaths
of ˜private persons™ at marriage,33 the midwife before the bishop, the
scavenger before aldermen, were oaths of passage proclaiming an altered
identity, attempts to induct, announce and contain. In laying out the
content of the office, the oath denuded the initiate of excuses for non-
performance. A number of the oaths collected in The Booke of Oathes
(1649 and 1689), such as those required of doctors of divinity, are oaths
of this sort.34 So too, obviously enough, is the oath of a Lord Mayor
to treat fairly all within his authority, and not to be bribed or swayed
by gifts.35 Yet there is sufficient emphasis on the importance of the
mayor™s allegiance to the monarch to give this oath some of the expected
features of a state oath. And if it therefore disrupts neat classification, this
too is not surprising given the state-like significance London at times
Oaths of passage, however, fall into two broad groupings, or rather
could be seen in two ways. There were what might be called directly
performative or transformative oaths, where swearing in the ceremony
itself was taken as the act that formed the new persona. Ipso facto, to
assume an official persona prior to taking an oath of passage could be to
behave without right.36 According to the Churches of Rome and England,

Coverdale, A Christe exhortacion, fol. 8.
Booke of Oathes (1649), pp. 208“9, 296; Shakespeare, King Lear 1.1, where Cordelia is
˜stranger™d with our oath™.
Sermon, ˜Of Swearing™, in Certain Sermons, p. 41.
There are well over 200 oaths in each volume; the additions to the second edition include
not only oaths pertinent to the reigns of James and William and Mary, but also, for
example, the oaths of ale-tasters and leather-searchers. It is all better set out but the
pagination is worse.
Booke of Oathes (1649), p. 374.
Donne, Pseudo-Martyr, ch. 12, p. 348.
An overview of the oath 239
the spinster and bachelor became a married couple through the ceremony
in which the oath was taken. But other oaths could be held to be more
constative and might better be called proclamatory oaths of passage, for
they concluded, or simply announced an already changed persona. It was
the person who had been chosen as a mayor who ceremoniously con-
cluded his transition through an oath. The analytic distinction between
the transformative and proclamatory can help focus important lines of
dispute. The more transformative the oath of passage, the greater the
narrative significance of the ceremonial context. The more proclamatory,
the more issues of its meaning were diffused. These diverging possibilities
are particularly important with respect to coronation oaths to be discussed
in the following chapter.
If seen as proclamatory, oaths of passage shade into what, for want of a
better term, may be called oaths of explication. With these, it was not that
a new persona had been assumed, but that new or specific tasks were
required of the office-holder, effectively enhancing the extant persona.
The oath of a Knight of the Bath on his induction is one thing, the oath
of such a knight taken at a coronation was another; an oath taken by a
soldier and an oath by a captain of Berwick were distinct, the latter
adumbrating specific expectations for one who held a martial office. A
full exploration of these oaths would provide important evidence to test
the argument that the modern state was formed through the augmentation
of office.37
Oaths of explication merge into a second main class: what might be
called diurnal oaths. These were taken by people in acknowledged capaci-
ties in order to re-establish or maintain predictable expectations of con-
duct. From Anglo-Saxon times, there were highly specific oaths of this
sort, and, perhaps to be included with them, the oath of an oath-helper.38
As Miles Coverdale put it, these oaths were mechanisms for ending
controversies among neighbours. The oaths of the Duke of Gloucester
and Bishop of Winchester to end disputes between them, ratified by the
arbitration oath of the Duke of Bedford in 1419 acting as an oath-helper,
are an example of what Coverdale would have had in mind;39 but they
also look a little like state oaths, testing allegiance of those in high office
who carried with them armed retinues. Diurnal oaths were often taken
to give voice at law in order to facilitate a formal judgement. Many

Braddick, State Formation, at length.
Carl Stephenson and Frederick Marcham, Sources of English Constitutional History
(New York, 1937), p. 25.
Coverdale, A Christe exhortacion, fols. 7“8; Booke of Oathes, p. 249; Anon., The Book of
Oaths (1689), pp. 143“4.
240 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
were what James Morice called judicial oaths.40 Among such may be
classed oaths to be taken between party and party, oaths of jurymen, or
women investigating pregnancies.41 As in all the previous cases they were
administered by someone in authority, but unlike oaths of passage they
involved only a continuity of persona and they were largely assertory in
With all of these oaths there were considerable burdens placed on those
requiring them. Oaths might not be regarded as mutually binding con-
tracts, but because all parties had some office, they entailed a heavy ethical
reciprocity.42 To demand oaths trivially or improperly, to impose oaths
requiring the impossible or self-condemnation, were all regarded as ser-
ious abuses of office, a direct affront to God and an injury to souls.
˜Love no false Oath: for this is a thing that I hate, saith the Lord™
(Zechariah 8: 17).43 There was ˜an office of dewtye belonging unto them
under payne of goddes hei displeasure™ to use the oath with probity.44 This
was liberty of office in miniature: the right of office to impose oaths was
itself a duty to do so appropriately, and in unambiguous terms so that
controversies might indeed be ended and the heinous sin of perjury
avoided.45 It was ˜impious™ and ˜execrable™ to impose oaths inconsistent
with extant obligations. A principle of non-contradiction was thus a vital
criterion in deciding whether an oath was licit.46 It is in the context of such
responsibilities that strong objections were made to the ex officio oath of
ecclesiastical courts, demanding a commitment to answer ˜all such Inter-
rogatories as shall be offered unto you and declare your knowledge
therein™.47 For Sir Edward Coke it was a Satanic device for condemning
souls to hell, for others, a necessity for ascertaining loyalty. Nothing good,
Coverdale had remarked, might not be turned to evil ends;48 and if there
were dangers of misuse in all the above kinds of oath, they were most
important in a final broad set.

James Morice (?), A Brief Treatise of Oathes (1590), pp. 4“5.
Booke of Oathes, p. 206; Book of Oaths, p. 250.
Sanderson, Reasons of the Present Judgment (1647), pp. 379“80; Anon., Magna veritas,
or John Gadbury not a papist (1680), p. 5.
Coverdale, A Christe exhortacion, fols. 9“10; Sanderson, De juramento, 7.13, p. 267;
Morice, Brief Treatise, p. 6; Charles I, Eikon Basilike, p. 111.
Coverdale, A Christe exhortacion, fol. 8.
Sanderson, Reasons of the Present Judgment, pp. 419“20; Tooke, The Whole Duty of
Man, ch. 11, 9, p. 127; Bohun, The Justice, pp. 167“70.
Prynne, Concordia discors, p. 17; Kennett, Dialogue, p. 38; Palmer, Englishman™s
Allegiance, p. 207b and numerous other writings on oaths.
Cited in Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, p. 57; see also Morice, Brief Treatise, pp. 5,
Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, p. 57; Coverdale, A Christe exhortacion, fols. 7“8.
An overview of the oath 241
These might be called oaths of circumstance, and with them there is
neither an obvious change of persona, nor a simple adumbration of
established responsibilities. The oath is called upon precisely because
waters were sufficiently rough and uncharted to require a public reaf-
firmation, or confession of current obligations.49 The previous authority
may have changed, and so the extraction of an oath was a proclamation of
the continuity of office. It is at this point that we can more confidently
begin to locate most of what have been isolated as state oaths, for these are
clearly tests of continuing loyalty for crucial office-holders.
Clear examples are The Oath to the Succession (1534); The Bishop™s Oath
required by Henry VIII when he assumed the effective office of pope in
England and, more broadly, The Oath of Supremacy (1536). Occasionally
there is no change of authoritative office, but circumstances have made
it sufficiently insecure to require holy reiterations of allegiance. James
VI&I™s Oath of Allegiance (1606) is the clearest example (below, chapter
13). There was, however, precedent for this during the Wars of the
Roses in the oath required of Richard Duke of York and his followers
by Henry VI. Given Charles II™s status in 1660 as both a hereditary
monarch and a new prince, and the fact that the Church of England
was newly re-established after 1662, the Restoration oaths demanding
loyalty to church and king, are partially in this broad tradition of
circumstantial oaths.
Some of these oaths designed to sort sheep from goats (not to be
confused with the oath for sheep numbering)50 were phrased with a fine
mesh of words, to sieve and exclude the dangerous or unwanted. The
oaths required by the Act of Uniformity to re-establish a Church of
England were, according to Burnet, aimed at pushing out ˜the old men
who had taken the covenant™.51 But some did more than this. For irre-
spective of the Covenant, the status of oaths of passage into the priest-
hood lay at the heart of the re-ordination controversies of 1662. At one
Lutheran and proclamatory extreme, the oaths could not significantly
transform a priest, for the church as a whole was a priesthood of belie-
vers. At another, the oaths and ceremonies of ordination were mystic
transfigurations. John Humfrey, ordained by a presbyter during the Com-
monwealth for want of any bishop, was confronted with a demand to go
through the process again at the restoration of episcopacy. Initially he
was prepared to do so as a matter of theological indifference (adiaphora),
but was persuaded that this would entail swallowing more than he

John Donne, Pseudo-Martyr, ch. 12, p. 349.
Booke of Oathes, pp. 344“5.
Burnet, History, vol. I, p. 313.
242 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
could chew, for the oath implied a whole theory of episcopacy as jure
divino and a fundamental inequality among priests.52 The result of the re-
Establishment with its oaths like the eyes of needles, was a high degree
of ecclesiological purity and a running sore for the whole Restoration.
Many clerics found the new oaths for old unacceptable and lost their
livings after what Presbyterians saw as a new St Bartholemew™s Day
Other oaths of circumstance, however, most clearly the new oath of
allegiance sworn to William and Mary after 1689, were altogether more
latitudinarian, being phrased, as we will see, to minimise sticking points.
The problem with accommodating formulations, however, was that they
entered the penumbra of uncertainty clouding the promissory. Just what
was being sworn to and how it might be manipulated could thus be an
inhibition to swearing, as was the case for the proposed Test in Scotland of
1682. The qualification that obedience to authority was absolute all the
time it remained within the bounds of office, could be insufficiently
reassuring, and the Earl of Argyll ended up in prison because the promis-
sory dimension concerning obedience to the status quo seemed to undo the
authority of the legislature.54
An important sub-group of circumstantial oaths deserves a label of its
own; these are what might be called Horatian or associative oaths, taken
in emergency in order to protect, or establish proper authority, despite the
formal lack of imprimatur on the occasion of swearing. These, which may
also be seen as state oaths, have some of the formal features of a Hobbe-
sian contract or agreement among equals to create a sovereign. With
associative oaths, there is no literal state of nature, but there is the
Hobbesian spur of dramatic insecurity, and it is uncertain whether, in
swearing, the oath-takers assume new personae, so making associative
oaths a sub-set of oaths of passage, or whether they are simply oaths of
explication, most commonly adumbration of the soul™s piety and the
patriot™s loyalty. Their status is ambivalent, and they were recognised
potentially to be as subversive as they might be supportive.
The Elizabethan Association (1584) set a wayward precedent for
the following century. It was a ˜vow and promise™ before God to
form ˜one firm and loyal society™, a signal mark of allegiance and devotion
to a beleaguered queen who, flattered, honoured and, nay, overwhelmed

R. A., A Letter to a Friend (1661); John Humfrey, A Second Discourse (1662).
Burnet, History, vol. I, pp. 313, 318; see also Spurr, ˜Perjury™, pp. 35“6; Anon., A Letter
from a Person of Quality, p. 2.
Burnet, History, vol. II, pp. 300“8, 309“10.
An overview of the oath 243
by the love and courage of her subjects, claimed to have known nothing
of it.55
True or not, this joyous surprise furnished added force for Catholic and
exterior consumption. A free expression of loyalty and an oath of deter-
mination to revenge Elizabeth™s murder was an unlikely response to tyr-
anny and would be a decided barrier in trying to overthrow her. At the
same time, Elizabeth™s formal innocence of the Association left no room to
suggest that she was any more bound by it than, say, would be an Hobbes-
ian sovereign to an original contract. Not far removed from the Associ-
ation was the oath of association, which The Booke of Oathes claims was
taken by the Gunpowder conspirators: to bond together in the face of
tyranny, heresy and intolerable persecution and act in the name of the true
religion, to re-establish it and to remain bound to each other until released
from the terms of the oath.56 During the Civil Wars, there were probably
many oaths of association taken, especially by county ˜Clubmen™ banding
together against the forces of either official army. Some saw the Solemn
League and Covenant as a league, or conspiratorial association. And, from
the Civil Wars, associations are increasingly subject to suspicion.57 In 1662
the Catholic Earl of Bristol gathered allies at his home to organise another
such oath, possibly emboldened by his knowledge that Charles II was
already a co-religionist; but this time, it was an oath taken to galvanise
concerted Catholic support for a general toleration to which the monarch
was sympathetic but his parliament hostile.58
The close structural symmetry between conspiratorial and acceptable
acts of bonding can be seen by the proposed Association of 1681. Touched
on in a different context (above, chapter 7), this was to be sworn to stymie
the Catholic Duke of York succeeding to the throne, so overthrowing the
English Reformation Elizabeth had properly established. Despite being
punctiliously modelled on the Association of 1584, its force was very
different from the original. An associative vow, promise or protestation
˜(or whatever else you please)™ had become perceived as conspiratorial.

Elizabeth I, Collected Works, text of the Bond of Association, pp. 183“5; see Alford, The
Early Elizabethan Polity, pp. 196“8; ˜The Queen™s Speech to the Committee of Both
Houses™, 12 November 1586, in Elizabeth I, Collected Works, pp. 184; 189“90.
Book of Oaths, p. 206; see also J. Williams, The History of the Gunpowder Treason (1678), p. 5.
Anon., Plain English, Or a Discourse Concerning the Accommodation, the Armie,
The Association (1643), proposing an association for peace, pp. 27“8; and the
anonymous reply, An Answer to a Seditious Pamphlett intituled Plain English (1643);
see also Anon., Certain Observations upon the New League or Covenant (Bristol, 1643),
p. 10; Anon., Certaine Observations upon the two Contrary Covenants (Oxford, 1643), pp.
5“6. The word ˜league™ had prejudicial connotations from the Catholic League of
sixteenth-century France.
Burnet, History, vol. I, p. 333.
244 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
Those hostile to the Association had aggravated its enormity by calling it
an oath, and to swear to it, as the author of the Remarques had it, was
˜downright Rebellion™.59 In this we have a microcosm of the disputed
rhetorics of the office of the patriot and rebel.
The associative oath comes full circle in 1696, rehabilitated by the
attempted assassination of William III. Members of both Houses of
Parliament formed a protective association for the king much in the
idiom of that originally sworn to Elizabeth.60 In its reach far greater than
the Association of 1584, it also attested to the erratic vertical extension
of office. The danger inherent in associative oaths was that, in the absence
of an uncontentious authority, being initiated by one whose official status
was debatable, or only casuistically justified, they could either support or
challenge established powers. That they all involved affirming allegiance
to some higher authority was neither here nor there; that was merely to
project the demeanour appropriate to any persona in office.

Additional to the potential disruption of associative oaths was the feared
trivialisation of all oath-taking once it escaped the control of responsible
authority. This amounted to a veritable tradition of lamentation. ˜We
have nothing in our pastime but Gods blood™, hectored Hugh Latimer
before young King Edward VI. Around one hundred and fifty years later
John Sharp concurred. Swearing is ˜the crying sin of the nation™.61 Situ-
ated between the two, Samuel Butler wrote that the swearer ˜stakes
his Soul to nothing™ and becomes ˜the Devil™s Votary™. Some saw what
Sanderson called ˜comminatory oaths™ as an affectation of the nobility, or
of the wayward soldier ˜Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard™.62
Others saw it as ubiquitous, with the lower sort addicted to swearing in the

Anon., Remarques Upon the New Project of Association (1682), p. 5; see also Anon., The
Two Associations; Anon., The Parallel; cf. The Addresses Imputing an Abhorrence of an
Association Pretended to have been seized in the Earl of Shaftsbury™s Closet (1682),
insisting that associations of loyalty were no less important than they had been in
Elizabeth™s day, pp. 3“4.
Burnet, History, vol. III, p. 319; vol. IV, pp. 298“9, 432“3; William Atwood, Reflections
Upon a Treasonable Opinion . . . Against Signing the National Association (1696),
regarded it as implicit in the oath of allegiance, p. 6; M. Percivall (?), The Tragedy Called
the Popish Plot Reviv™d (1696).
Latimer, Fruitful Sermons, fol. 97v; Sharp, ˜All Oaths not Unlawful and Against Perjury™,
in Works, vol. IV, p. 285; de Bohun, The Justice, feared a ˜National Judgement™ for the
widespread sin of perjury, p. 162; John Taylor, Christian Admonitions (1630), col. 2.
Samuel Butler, ˜Swearer™, in Characters, pp. 202“3; Boyle, Free Discourse; Sanderson,
De juramento, 1.9, p. 19; Coverdale, An Christe exhortacion, fol. 23; Cavendish, ˜Of
Affectation, Horae subsecivae™, p. 21; Shakespeare, As You Like It 2.7.
An overview of the oath 245
processes of trade.63 Fears for the trivialisation of swearing had, predict-
ably, an uncertain range. Because all vows and oaths created an obliga-
tion, they were particularly dangerous when rash, driving the swearer to
irresponsible action. ˜No, not an oath™, cried the anguished Brutus to his
fellow conspirators.64 The rash vow is a manifest theme of both Love™s
Labour™s Lost and The Merchant of Venice, in both of which the burdens
of the oath are in tension with the ease with which people swear. It is the
crux of Hamlet, who is forced to swear revenge by the ghost. Much
depends on whether it is indeed the ghost of Hamlet™s kingly father, or
of some demon, which would indeed make Hamlet ˜the Devil™s votary™.65
King Herod was condemned as a tyrant not just because he had the head
of John the Baptist on a plate, but because he did so to keep an irrespon-
sible oath to a young woman.66 But trivialisation could move a long way
from the wildness of the comminatory. It also embraced the more formal
affront to the Third Commandment “ ˜emphatic oaths™, as Aubrey de-
scribes Hobbes™s predilection; these were expletives for emphasis, or
punctuation that wasted into the phatic dimension of language. Here too
there could be discriminations. An expletive reference to God was blas-
phemy and there could be a greater tolerance of some personae blasphem-
ing than others.67 Obscenity, however, while improper, was generally less
disturbing. Both the comminatory and the expletive were strongly associ-
ated with that other national sin of drunkenness which acts of parliament
in the reigns of James and Charles I sought to control, extending the
constable™s tricky office, apparently to little effect.68 We can hardly ask
a question, said John Sharp, without swearing or cursing. As ˜Daredevil™
explains in The Atheist, ˜Rot me, Sir, Confound me, Sir means no more
than So, Sir; And, Sir, or Then Sir, at the worst™.69 Plausible and bland as

Sermon, ˜Of Swearing™, in Certain Sermons, p. 43; Sharp, ˜Arguments against Common
Swearing™, in Works, vol. IV, p. 288; Walter Powell, A Summons for Swearers, and a Law
for the Lips (1645), pp. 28, 46“7, on whom see Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation, pp.
Sanderson, ˜The Case of the Rash Vow™, in Works, vol. V, pp. 60“4; Shakespeare, Julius
Caesar 2. 1.
For discussion of the central mechanism of the oath in Shakespeare™s plays see,
especially on the tragedies, Frances Shirley, Swearing and Perjury in Shakespeare™s Plays
(London, 1979); Elena Glazov-Corrigan, ˜The New Function of Language in
Shakespeare™s Pericles: Oath Versus “Holy Word” ™, in Stanley Wells, ed., Shakespeare
Survey, vol. XLIII (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 131“40, on the declining effectiveness of the
oath within the plot structure of later plays.
Buchanan, Baptistes, Tyrannical Government.
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure 2.2. ˜That in the captain™s but a choleric word/ Which
in the soldier is flat blasphemy.™
Malcolm, Anecdotes, vol. I, pp. 232“7.
Sharp, ˜Arguments against Common Swearing™, p. 288; Thomas Otway, Works, ed. J. C.
Ghosh (Oxford, 1932), vol. II, p. 327, cited in Spurr, ˜Perjury™, p. 46.
246 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
this now seems, it was more likely to be taken, as Otway™s play indicated,
to be a sign of atheism. It was a trivialisation that eroded the status of the
oath in language, at once sinful and foolish.70
Here the significance of the slippery distinctions between public and
private again come into play. A private oath could be illicit, secret or
conspiratorial, but it might also be a licit diurnal oath. A public oath was
one taken for the public good.71 So, as I have cited above, this understand-
ing of public allows a marriage vow to be referred to in a sermon as
between ˜private persons™, that is those not holding a commonwealth
office, or perhaps irrespective of office.72 It may be that the importance
of private, that is, diurnal oaths diminished gradually during the seven-
teenth century, particularly as formal contracts became more common.
Yet one mark of the continuing importance of diurnal oath-taking is to be
found in the statistics of Bible production. There were more than enough
Bibles for every household in England by mid-century, and as literacy
remained patchy, it is a reasonable hypothesis that their pervasive use
was as objects on which to swear oaths. Bibles were artefacts of social
Overall, one may say that oaths were expressions and instruments of
uncertain trust, designed to maintain the fragile world of offices,
modulating the movements of its changing personae. Concomitantly, the
tensions between offices were articulated through extensive discussion
of oaths. Edmund Hickeringill was taken to court in 1681 for abuse of
his clerical office because he had argued that the oaths required of
the clergy contradicted those of secular allegiance, and that the oath
required of churchwardens put them in an impossible position between
clergy and laity. He admitted to adjusting the oath to make the office
easier. This led to the question of whether the specific office of the priest
was itself valid.73 A more famous case is found in the Anonymous Letter
from a Person of Quality, usually attributed to the Earl of Shaftesbury,
possibly in association with John Locke, an inflammatory account of
debates in the House of Lords. It has attracted attention largely as a

Comber, Judicial Swearing, pp. 27“8; Sharp, ˜Arguments Against Common Swearing™,
pp. 297, 517.
Coverdale, An Christe exhortacion, fol. 11; Morice, Brief Treatise, pp. 4, 5, 7.
˜Of Swearing™, in Certain Sermons, p. 41.
Edmund Hickeringill, The Naked Truth, The Second Part (1681), pp. 5“10, 45“6; also
Edmund Hickeringill, The Horrid Sin of Man-Catching Explained in a Sermon (1682),
pp. 2“9, 11; Philip Hickeringill, A Vindication of the Naked Truth, The Second Part
(1681), pp. 12“17; Anon., The Late Famous Tryal of Mr Hickeringill (1681); Anon.,
Scandalum magnatum: or, The Great Tryal of Chelmsford Assizes (1681).
An overview of the oath 247
precursor of the Exclusion crisis and because of its ˜country™ Whig and
quasi-Harringtonian hostility to the tyranny that might arise from stand-
ing armies.74 In fact, a largely overlooked and yet far more prominent
theme is the discussion of oath-taking. Different parts of the attack on the
court and episcopal moves to impose oaths are attributed to different
noble lords fighting a courageous rearguard action. To use oaths out of
fears for security was argued to be foolish and counter-productive; the
promissory requiring swearing and assertory only requiring subscrip-
tion should not be confused; promissory oaths should not, according to
the Bible, be taken; an oath against any change to government was
technically impossible (what of legislation?). These abuses of the oath,
the noble lords agreed, threatened to change the monarchy from a
bounded to an absolute one. Despite earlier misuse by evil men, it was
essential to distinguish swearing allegiance to office and occupant.75 They
found similar difficulties in swearing never to change the church. It
suggested a degree of perfection and infallibility to present arrangements;
it confused the necessary with the indifferent and could place the mitre
above the crown.76 Additionally, qualifying or counter-oaths were pro-
posed to thwart the court: an oath enshrining freedom of parliamentary
speech and one requiring that voting be according to conscience after free
debate.77 With this document we are on the edge of a precipitous slide
into distrust that barely stopped short of civil war; it is a narrative of a
clash of offices and conceptions of office fought by debating oaths. But the
issues of office in conflict and uncertain trust were hardly unique to this
particular concentration of suspicion.

From the Reformation, trust was severely compromised by the percei-
ved need to impose uniformities of religious practice in the face of feared
insincerity of those forced to comply. Along with the conventional
Aristotelian belief that habit helps create virtue, lay the recognition that
people might conform disingenuously before the right habits were in
place. Nicodemism, as such insincerity was called, encouraged authorities

See, for example, Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, pp. 405, 415; Scott, England™s
Troubles, pp. 356“7, 374“5.
Anon., A Letter from a Person of Quality, pp. 10, 14“15, 26, 16, 17“18; but, as I have
evidenced above, n. 10, subscription was not so tightly tied to the assertory.
Ibid., pp. 20“1; the implicitly papal and innovatory implication of this is stressed by
Scott, England™s Troubles, pp. 374“5.
Anon., A Letter from a Person of Quality, pp. 26“9.
248 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
to tread carefully.78 To impose oaths too readily might generate dis-
honesty and contribute to the subversion of the holy institution itself;79
not to impose them at all was to neglect a necessary instrument of rule.
Until the end of the sixteenth century, two forms of insincere swear-
ing were feared; outright perjury and swearing in ways that loosened the
oath by exploiting ambiguities in language. These arose in oath texts
largely through generality and imprecise formulation. Perjury was not
a statute offence until 1563, but its meaning was often wider than it is
now. According to John Selden, it ought to apply only to assertory
oaths.80 Nevertheless, after an oath of passage any failure in office could
be construed as perjury. It was a further variation on argument from
implication and created pressure on those who swore to find ways of
accommodating compliance to their situations. During the Restoration
Slingsby Bethel was given extensive advice on how to take the oaths
necessary for public office, and the result was an interpretation that
was apt to negate the ends of the oaths themselves.81 White Kennett
in brilliantly casuistic form would argue that even the most exacting
Carolinian oath of allegiance could embrace disobedience if the ends of
oaths and offices were considered. ˜Oaths are straws and men™s faiths are
From the end of the sixteenth century, however, equivocation was
added to fears of perjury and hermeneutic dexterity. This was the practice
of reserving a qualification or contradiction to an explicit statement
(see below, chapter 13). ˜Call not Jove to witness™, later wrote the finger-
wagging Browne, ˜with a stone in one hand, and a straw in another; and so
make chaff and stubble of thy vows.™83 For the English Jesuits who
developed it, the theory of equivocation provided an alternative to lying;
for most others, it was lying. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the accu-
sation, equivocation was no more straightforward than lying. Blurred by
ambiguity, it was an anathema publicly abused and piously practised.84

Perez Zagorin, Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution and Conformity in
Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), pp. 10ff; Malcolm, Anecdotes, vol. I,
pp. 171“2 according to whom the Reformation created an age of such perjury.
Boyle, Free Discourse, pp. 1“32; Hutchinson, Memoirs, p. 313 on Sir Arthur Hasilrigg
and the impositions of oaths in Interregnum parliaments.
Spurr, ˜Perjury™, pp. 30“1; John Selden, Table Talk, para. 94, p. 71.
Spurr, ˜Perjury™, p. 38; see also Sharp, ˜All Oaths not Unlawful™, p. 285; Clarendon,
˜Promises™ (1670), in Essays, vol. I, pp. 137“8.
Kennett, Dialogue, pp. 30“5; Shakespeare, Henry V 3.2.
Browne, Christian Morals, p. 337; White, Of Oathes, p. 3
Edward Vallance, ˜Oaths, Casuistry and Equivocation; Anglican Responses to the
Engagement Controversy™, Historical Journal, 44, 1 (2001), pp. 70“7; Spurr, ˜Perjury™,
p. 31.
An overview of the oath 249
Richard Baxter and Jeremy Taylor were among the few brave non-Jesuits
to speak in its favour.85 To complicate matters, oath-imposers might
be suspected of it no less than oath-takers. Intentions were not always
transparent; the ends of an oath might be opaque, giving licence for them
to be variously understood, a point crucial to such documents as
the Engagement and the oath of allegiance to William and Mary (see
chapters 13, 14).86
The imagined erosion of the sanctity of oaths resulted in greatly adum-
brated detail in the content of the oath and the use of an elaborate
vocabulary to the oath-taking act itself. This may evidence a declining
faith in the efficacy of oath-taking, but given the diversity of oath-taking,
generalisations are dangerous.87 Nevertheless, oath texts do confront
the possibility of evasive reaction. Many were not content with one
descriptor for what was demanded. The Sacred Vow and Covenant 1643,
formulated in response to a plot to undermine London™s defences,
required a vow and covenant before God, which was also called an
oath. The members returned for the parliament of 1654 had to ˜freely
promise and engage™, and after the Restoration ˜declare™ could substitute
for, or be added to ˜swear™.88 The new oath of allegiance to William and
Mary insisted on ˜promise and swear™. The Abjuration Oath (1702) can
almost be watched in the act of trying to cover every imaginable base,
yet despite being ˜penned as fully as words can go™, it failed to allay all
fears of mendacity.89
I, A. B. do truly and sincerely acknowledge, profess, testify, and declare in my
conscience, before God . . . And all these things I do plainly and sincerely ack-
nowledge, and according to the plain and common sense . . . understanding of
these same Words, without any Equivocation, mental Evasion, or secret Reserva-
tion whatsoever; and I do make this Recognition, Acknowledgement, Abjuration
. . . willingly, and truly, upon the true Faith of a Christian.90

Fear of equivocation was caught on the horns of a linguistic dilemma.
The opportunities for it might seem curtailed if the language of an oath
were kept plain and simple.91 But as plain English lawyers have later
found out, plain English is often imprecise English, through which horses

Baxter, Christian Directory, ch. 9; Taylor, Ductor dubitantium, pp. 98, 99, 100.
Charles I, Eikon Basilike, p. 114.
Conrad Russell has rather boldly referred to a total faith in oath-taking during the
sixteenth century, in The Crisis of Parliaments (Oxford, 1988 edn), p. 52; cf. Ponet,
Shorte Treatise, who mentions oaths, pp. 138, 139, 143 only to doubt them.
See Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, pp. 279, 280.
Burnet, History, vol. VI, p. 210.
Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, p. 281.
Sanderson, Reasons of the University of Oxford, pp. 419“22.
250 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
and laden carts of meaning can be driven. So anticipated equivocation
was also apt to generate the wordiness found in the Abjuration Oath,
though it must be stressed that where a relevant office afforded much
latitude of action, an initial oath of passage was also likely to be detai-
led.92 Qualification aside, the many oaths cast across the social landscape
of seventeenth-century England were signs of the insecurity that lengthy
formulations might assuage. The Lawes and Ordinances of Warre (1639)
contains the following sacred prolixity, as fearful as it is anticipatory of the
impending terms of dispute between king and parliament.
I, A. B. do sweare before the Almighty and everlasting God, that I will beare all
faithful Allegeance to my true and undoubted Sovereigne Lord King Charles, who
is lawfull King of this land, and all other his Kingdomes and Dominions, both by
Land and Sea, by the Lawes of God and Man, and by lawfull sucession: and that I
will most constantly and cheerfully, even to the utmost of my power, and hazard of
my life; constantly oppose all Seditions, Rebellions, Conspiracies, Covenants,
Conjurations, and Treasons whatsoever, raised up or set up against his Royal
Dignity, Crowne, or Person, under what pretence or colour whatsoever: and if it
shall come veiled under pretence of Religion, I hold it more abominable before
God and Man. And this Oath I take voluntarily in the true faith of a good
Christian and loyall Subject; without any equivocation or mentall reservation
whatsoever; for which I hold no power upon earth can absolve me, in my part.93

By the early eighteenth century, the habit of lengthy oath-making was
used commonly to convey not just the ethics of the relevant office but also
something approaching codes of conduct. The Goldsmith™s oath of pas-
sage made initiates into the liberty of the guild swear to be true to the
monarch, work metals honestly without use of glasses and counterfeit
stones, keep all good ordinances, pay all fees, and inform the wardens of
any deceit. In this is an admixture of general virtues and the specific
requirements for conduct within a trade.
The acute awareness of the functions, dangers and limitations of swear-
ing meant that there were always likely to be two dimensions to contro-
versies over office-holding. There were those dealing with the rights and
wrongs of the offices brought together by the institution of the oath; there
were also disputes about the status of the oath itself, behind which lurked
varying understandings of language and the semiotics of social perform-
ance.94 For the majority, oaths should be sworn, or imposed at peril

The oaths for a counsellor and a midwife are the longest in The Book of Oaths.
Anon., Lawes & Ordinances (1639), pp. 25“6.
These were hardly issues unique to the seventeenth century, however; Lorenzo Valla
traverses them arguing that oaths, vows and promises are largely redundant in order to
deny the standing of the contemplative life; the vow adds nothing to accepting God™s
An overview of the oath 251
because they were taken as so decisive in structuring legal conduct and
religious faith.95 For a few, such as the anonymous Leveller writer in No
Papist nor Presbyterian, ˜compulsory Oathes™ should be dispensed with.
According to Sanderson, both Anabaptists and Socinians refused oaths.96
Sir Robert Boyle was particularly reluctant to swear. For reasons that
remain obscure, in 1680 he refused the promissory oath required of the
president of the Royal Society although he had taken a similar one that
inducted him onto the Society™s council in 1673. It is possible that the
arduous nature of the position, or the heightened controversies concer-
ning oaths from 1675, deterred him. Either way, he never assumed the
It was the Quakers, however, who would attract most sustained atten-
tion. Standing defiantly on the Sermon on the Mount against the Old
Testament, these ˜obstinate adversaries™ rejected all oaths:98 ˜Again, ye
have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not
foreswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths. But I
say unto you, Swear not at all: neither by heaven: for it is God™s throne;
Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool™ (Matthew 5:33“4). ˜But let your
communication be, Yea, yea: Nay, nay™ (Matthew 5:37). There had been
no need of oaths among the early Christians, and so it should be now,
wrote Samuel Fisher. Drawing a firm distinction between an oath and a
promise, he claimed that which the Quakers promised was proved in
performance, while others swore ˜themselves To and Fro into the Favour
of every Form of Government as it Stands its time upon the Stage™.99 The
Quakers were effectively gathered up with the Jesuits, to form a new proof
of a puritan-Jesuit conspiracy and there was some plausibility as well as
polemical convenience in this. Thomas Comber, for example, associated

authority; the word religion was abused in being co-opted by fear-driven disputatious
philosophical sects. Despite its similarities to a number of Hobbesian positions, it was
not, however, an argument known in post-Reformation England. See Lorenzo Valla,
De professione religiosorum (c. 1442), in Opera omnia, 2 vols. (Turin, 1962), vol. II, pp.
Sanderson, De juramento; Jeremy Lawson, Lawson of Oaths and Witnesses (1681);
Comber, Judicial Swearing; Tooke, The Whole Duty of Man; White, Of Oathes, pp. 1“3.
Anon., No Papist nor Presbyterian (1649), in The Leveller Manifestoes, p. 308;
Sanderson, De juramento, 7.10, pp. 251“2.
Boyle, A Free Discourse, pp. 1“32; ˜The Dayly Reflection™, c. 1646, p. 220; Hunter,
Robert Boyle, pp. 64“8. As the presidential oath specified employment, he may have
baulked at swearing on grounds similar to those that may have informed his requirement
that his servants only promised and engaged to him, namely that to insist on an oath was
trivialising and dangerous. But, then again, it was an oath that stipulated promising, not
Comber, Judicial Swearing, p. 8.
Samuel Fisher, Rusticus ad Academicus or . . . or The Rustick™s Alarm to the Rabbies
(1660), fol. b2v.
252 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
Quaker austerity with popish enthusiasm and indeed Robert Parsons, like
Fisher, had argued that a simple yea or nay had been good enough for the
early Christians. It was only the corruption of the age that required oaths
before anything could be believed.100 The world, Justice Twisden
remarked to a jury, seemed divided between those who would swear to
nothing and those who would swear to anything.101
Once sworn, any oath™s sacred nature could be used as a barrier against
demands from authority. Conversely, the asserted power to impose or
to release from an oath could be a litmus test for the scope of office. In
1686, James II attempted to get the University of Cambridge to offer
honorary degrees to Catholics on the precedent of one having been con-
ferred on the King of Morocco™s ambassador. But the Fellows refused,
arguing that such an honour was a violation of their oaths. James coun-
tered that as king he could release them from such oaths.102 Clearly
recognising that the oath could irritate the rubbing sores of office, some
attempted to dissipate its importance. Oaths were useful, it was held,
but only as ceremonial signs of agreement and markers for anticipated
conduct.103 In this way, oaths of passage were reduced to a proclamatory
dimension. There were those who could take oaths in good conscience
as long as they could arbitrate the sense of the words for themselves. To
ask in whose sense an oath should be taken, Selden remarked, is like
asking on whose legs one can walk.104 Conversely, there were those
adamantine in their insistence upon the authority of authorial intention
in crafting the words.105 There were others who stressed the overall point
of the oath, even despite the specificities of wording, hypothesised inten-
tions and motives of the imposers.106 And there remained that feared and
indeterminate number thought to be unbound to any oath or agreement,

Comber, Judicial Swearing, p. 13; Parsons, Treatise, ch. 7, p. 275; see also Boyle, A Free
Discourse; William Prynne, Quakers Unmasked (1664), calls them the spawn of Jesuitical
frogs, sub-title; Certain Observations upon the New League or Covenant, refers to
dispensing with oaths as Jesuitical, p. 29.
Cited in Spurr, ˜Perjury™, p. 33.
Burnet, History, vol. III, pp. 139“43.
Bell, Regiment of the Church, p. 4; Robert Filmer, Patriarcha (1680), ed. Peter Laslett
(Cambridge, 1949), pp. 21“2; Anon., A Letter of Spiritual Advice (1642), on breach of
promise and prior power, p. 7; Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 14, p. 100; Tooke, The Whole
Duty of Man, ch. 11, 10, p. 127.
Selden, Table Talk, para. 94, p. 71; Sanderson, Reasons, pp. 419“20; Anon., Conscience
Puzzel™d (1650), in Malcolm, ed., The Struggle for Sovereignty, vol. I, pp. 438“43.
Taylor, Ductor dubitantium, p. 358; Sidney, Discourses, 3.17, pp. 408“17; Anon., The
Sheriffs Case (1680), p. 1.
Sanderson, De juramento, pp. 54“5; Tooke, The Whole Duty of Man, p. 127; Kennett,
Dialogue, at length.
An overview of the oath 253
who by destabilising known meanings through the doctrine of equivoca-
tion, would make chaff of all social bonds.
Just as oath-taking was central to contested office, so it is tantalisingly
suggestive of contemporary controversies over the interpretation of texts
and the social functions of language. Adherence to a sort of reader
response, or textual autonomy theory of the oath, was offset not only by
a clear insistence on the authority of authorial intention, but also by the
attribution of a sort of post-modernist deconstructive mischief in the
Jesuitical doctrine of equivocation. Concern over equivocation was like
a fear of differance, at once an alarming feature of language, an opportun-
ity for a policy of deception and deferral of responsibility for what is said
and what the oath text demanded. Something of this indeterminacy is
expressed metaphorically by the Porter in Macbeth, ˜much drink may be
said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it
sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him and it disheartens him;
makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a
sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him.™107 This was the sleep that
Macbeth had murdered in his quest to be crowned a king.

Shakespeare, Macbeth 2.3.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _Coronation_________________________________ _ _oaths______________ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

O, let thy vow
First made to heaven, first to heaven be performed. . .
(Shakespeare, King John 3.1)

The five coronation oaths sworn during the seventeenth century were part
of a remarkable semantic and ceremonial continuity dating from Anglo-
Saxon times, when the hegemonic kings (bretwaldas) swore to uphold
religion, peace and the folcricht, of those who gave fealty. For these duties
the kings asserted their necessary prerogatives, cynerytha. William I™s oath
reassuringly echoed earlier ones, replacing folcricht with the custom of
the English, consuetudo Angliae, but maintaining an expectation of recip-
rocal responsibilities.1 How far this formal translation of office qualified
the disruption of conquest would become contentious; yet coronation
oaths seem to have departed little from each other in the principles they
enunciated; in some fashion all new monarchs swore to act justly, and
maintain law, custom, religion and the office itself.
This continuity was made possible only because of the skiagraphic, or
amphibolous open-endedness of the language used. It is symptomatic of
the slipperiness of oath-taking that, despite appearances, the meaning of
coronation oaths was debatable whenever a monarch was in trouble. The
contrast with France is striking. There too, the king swore an oath at his
coronation but the hereditary principle was dramatically more secure
and the meaning of the oath symptomatically more straightforward.
Between the accession of Hugh Capet (987) and 1789, no king was de-
posed and none assumed the throne devoid of accepted right.2 For the first
200 years of the Capetian dynasty, each was able to crown his successor in

M. R. L. L. Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, Ph.D. thesis Macquarie University (1996), vol. I,
pp. 55“61.
J. H. Shennon, Government and Society in France, 1461“1661 (London, 1969), p. 15.

Coronation oaths 255
a pre-coronation ceremony.3 In England only the sequence from Henry
VIII to Charles I came close to emulating such seamless transitions. The
meanings of the oaths so ritually taken were concomitantly less easy to

Coronation oaths took place in the context of wider symbolic action, most
crucially the anointing. The oath of passage that usually followed this
completed and proclaimed the sacred transformation of a new persona.
So much was generally accepted, but because the ceremonies themselves
were ritualised annunciations, they were as multivalent as metaphors and
could be fashioned into widely diverging patterns of meaning and im-
perative. The ceremony in which the oath was embedded was encrusted
with religious import, held within a church and presided over by the
clergy. Robert Parsons, deliberately undermining any hereditary principle,
read the oath as an ˜agreement a bargayne and contract™ to uphold true
religion which thus stood as a criterion for continued obedience. The chief
end of government was upholding cultus Dei.4 He stood firmly on the laws
of Edward the Confessor and the notion that he was no king who did
not maintain religion. It was an exposed line of argument in a post-
Reformation world. Again, formally there seemed to be an act of consent
involved, a residue from Germanic understandings of kingship as elect-
ive.5 But whether this was just an alien trace, an instance of differance, or a
narrative principle was another matter.
The oath and anointing ceremony as a whole could be taken as directly
transformative: the process by which the new persona was mystically
created. The Earl of Argyll went to his execution for treason in 1685
maintaining that he owed no allegiance to James II until the coronation
oath had been sworn.6 Conversely, it could be considered as assertory,
proclaiming what had come to pass. This had been Archbishop Cranmer™s
position at the coronation of Edward VI, and as anointing could be taken
to signify the authority of the officiating priest, this specific implication of
the whole event could be countered by adding that ˜the oil, if added, is but
a ceremony™.7 In this diminishing idiom the coronation would later be
Muir, Ritual, p. 249.
Robert Parsons, A Conference About the Next Succession (Antwerp, 1594/5), pp. 119, 207.
Bertie Wilkinson, The Coronation in History (London, 1951), p. 8; Kelly, ˜King and
Crown™, vol. I, pp. 27“52.
Burnet, History, vol. III, p. 28.
Thomas Cranmer, cited in Richards, ˜English Allegiance in a British Context™, p. 108; see
also James VI&I, God and King (1615), pp. 42“3; cf. Shakespeare™s Richard II, whose own
tears alone could remove the sacred oil.
256 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
called a solemn declaration of the monarch™s ˜antecedent vocation™.8 If the
oath were merely assertory, consent dwindled into acknowledgement,
but if it was taken to be directly transformative, the people™s proclaimed
assent could become a ritualised re-enactment amounting to a culmination
of considered choice. Thus what it meant to acclaim a monarch was itself
subject to redescription depending on what the monarch was doing in
swearing. Each description of so symbolic an event effectively redefined
the nature of the polity.
An appeal to precedent did not necessarily clarify matters. Henry II and
John, for example, had been abroad when their respective predecessors
died, and in their absence rule was maintained by the Chief Justiciar.9
Royal arrival and coronation in spritely order could give crowning the
appearance of a rite of passage like that of the marriage ceremony, or of
the priest who was transfigured through ordination. From the succession
of Edward I (1272), however, the new reign was usually dated from the day
following the death of the previous monarch and so the coronation and
its oath could be taken as ratification and proclamation. There was,
therefore, a case for seeing the oath either as expressive of a hereditary
principle, or of contract, consent and election. As an oath of passage, it
could be an annunciation or transfiguration.
In practice, the result was an aggregated appeal to potentially conflict-
ing principles that might have differing prominence on different occasions.
Richard II was deposed and Henry Bolingbroke assumed the throne
claiming right of hereditary succession. This he buttressed with a ceremo-
nial device by which, after due prayer, the parliament petitioned Henry
to settle the succession; it was a performance suggestive of communal
participation in the creation of a new line.10 The coronial recognition of
Richard III, whatever its role in 1483, referred to him as ˜rightful and
undoughted enheritor . . . to the corone . . . [and] elected chosen and
required of all of the iij estates of this same lande to take upon him the
saide crowne™.11
Because it was sworn within a frame of ritualised obeisance, the oath
was also a little like a state oath, acting out the truisms of nominal
definition “ there can be no king without subjects. This could be applied
in two ways. It could be held that the persona of the monarch was created

Edward Gee, A Plea for Non-Subscribers to the Engagement (1650), p. 48.
William Stubbs, ed., Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional
History (Oxford, 1957 edn), pp. 438“9.
Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, vol. I, pp. 93“4.
Ibid., pp. 74, 104; Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond, eds., The Coronation of Richard
III (Gloucester, 1983), p. 213.
Coronation oaths 257
only with reciprocal affirmations of fealty or subjection; or, that the
reciprocities were simply a symbolic acceptance of a fact of language.
Moreover, as the language of the coronation oath was itself so formulaic,
it could be sworn without entailing impossible restraints. This was a
necessary feature of the oaths because the monarch had to judge what
was appropriate and possible within the bounds of the office. The terms
of each oath thus provided a rhetoric of justification for the exercise of
office as much as a set of substantive obligations. This could be under-
stood to mean that the oath itself added nothing to the requirements of
an already familiar office. Promulgated by an Accession Council, it was
sworn after the monarch had begun to rule. As a peacetime event, any
coronation oath presupposed a social stability that might be invoked to
qualify allegiance to the monarch.12
Nevertheless, however formulaic, coronation oaths were adjusted by the
monarchs who were to swear them and at the Accession Council seemed to
have accepted the responsibilities of rule. This at once indicated the
exceptional status of the office and that the words were important in
binding the office-holder.13 If the oath added nothing substantial to
the office, its content did not much matter. Given the divergence of
symbolic possibilities, rather than debating now whether coronation
oaths were binding contracts, whether they ceased to be so under the
Tudors, or Stuarts, we might get further by seeing them as encapsulating
the language of office, thereby necessarily offering opportunity for
unleashing its vocabulary in both its defensive and accusatory registers.
Endeavouring to keep the peace and exercising judgement were essential
to the crown™s endurance but provided avenues for dispute. The scope
each oath offered the monarch through prerogative and judgement to
maintain the protective office allowed critics to counter that enough
had not been done, that judgement was wrong, that the prerogative
had become arbitrary rule; they might conclude that, because of the
oath, the office needed protecting from the office-holder. The prerogative
was a Greek gift to all monarchs who embraced its necessity for the
exercise of office.
Thus, for example, Edward III was asked to swear to keep and confirm
laws and customs of the people, those granted to the clergy by Edward the
Confessor, to keep peace and justice according to his power, and again
according to his power have law, justice and discretion in mercy and
truth in all judgements, to keep the rightful laws and customs of the

See, for example, Hunton, Treatise, pp. 23“4; this theme will re-surface in the discussion
of Ascham and Locke, chapters 14 and 15, respectively.
Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, vol. I, pp. 227“81; Hunton, Treatise, pp. 24“5, 37.
258 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
kingdom as much as ˜in you lieth™.14 Henry VIII amended the coronation
oath. He had sworn to do nothing prejudicial to the crown according to
conscience and judgement, which was to swear to be judge in his
own cause.15 He swore to keep the laws that the nobles and people had
chosen with his consent, to keep his power in those things required by
honour and equity.16 According to The Booke of Oathes, the promise to
keep the laws that the people have chosen was changed for James VI&I
to a promise to protect what they had. It was some reassurance that there
would be no invasion of Scottish civil law. The situation with respect to
Charles I is predictably rather confused and it will be discussed at greater
length below. What is clear is that he swore to keep law and custom, to
rule according to the laws of God and the Gospel and in agreement with
previous prerogative and custom.
In 1655 a draft oath as part of a new constitution was prepared for
Oliver Cromwell who, as an elected officer, was to swear in the presence of
God to do the uttermost in his power to maintain the purity of the
Protestant reformed religion, according to Holy Scripture and encour-
age its profession; to call parliaments, not to infringe on parliamentary
privilege, and to the best of his understanding govern according to law,
custom and the liberties of the people. He had also to seek their peace
and welfare according to those laws and customs and to uphold and
administer justice. The Humble Petition and Advice (1657), reasserting a
potentially hereditary principle, offered a similar but simplified variation
in its addendum.17 Parliament ceased to be present in the oath the Pro-
tector swore. Verbally, the Commonwealth formulations provide the
greatest departure from the norm with their religious specificity. In the
first of these, reference to Cromwell as an elected officer would imply that
the oath was not being seen as transformative, but the lineaments remain
at one with what had been sworn before. Like all the rest, Cromwell would
be asked to swear to do his best according to his understanding of his
office; the word was not there, but the latitude of action remained a
prerogative power.
Charles II reverted to his father™s oath, itself a symbol of restoration.
His brother James confirmed the laws and customs granted by his lawful

Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, vol. II, p. 588, document quoted in full.
English Coronation Records, ed. L. G. W. Legg (London, 1901), p. 249; a variation is
printed in The Booke of Oathes (1649); the word ˜conscience™ is missing from this clause in
the Legg version.
Booke of Oathes, p. 3; Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, vol. II, p. 619; Kelly™s invaluable sources
are compiled and adapted from L. G. W Legg, A History of the English Coronation, trans.
P. Schramm (Oxford, 1937).
Gardiner, Constitutional Documents, pp. 428“9, 448“9, 42.
Coronation oaths 259
predecessors, a phrase that could be taken as erasing any residual rele-
vance of the Commonwealth. He swore to uphold the clergy according to
the laws granted by St Edward, the Gospel and true profession as agree-
able to the prerogative; to keep peace according to his power; to keep law,
justice and discretion in mercy, to maintain the laws and rightful customs
of the commonalty, and to defend and uphold the laws of God.18 It was
all unarguably sedimented in tradition and leaving room for a less than
Protestant reading of the laws of God. When erected on the precedent
of the oaths of previous godly princes, and upon the reliquial incantation
of St Edward the Confessor, this was an ominous sign of innovation
for his Protestant subjects.
So William and Mary swore differently. Edward the Confessor™s regalia
retained a ceremonial presence, but his disputed laws disappeared.19 The
oath itself was the first coronation oath to be finalised by parliament,
providing an echo of the Commonwealth and carrying a contractarian
undercurrent.20 It required the monarchs to rule according to the statutes,
laws and customs, maintaining the spiritual and civil rights and properties
of the people, to execute justice in mercy, to do their utmost to maintain
the laws of God, the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant
reformed church established by laws and all such rights and privileges of
the bishops and clergy. Despite reference to statutes, and to civil and
spiritual rights and properties, no changes removed what had always
been significant room for monarchical manoeuvre. Everyone, above all
William, accepted that the arcana imperii could not be reduced to a set of
specific instructions. Monarchs were crowned as rulers and discretion
was a defining feature of rule.
The enduring language of the coronation oath joined people in affir-
mative generalities about office; they were rent asunder when meanings
were cashed into the specific and when patterns of perceived implication
diverged. One hallowed implication was that as the monarch swore to
fulfil the office, the obedience of the people was to this rather than the
person.21 Another was that the monarch was bound to the limits of office,
a restriction, as Fortescue put it, that helped make England a dominium
regale et politicum.22 Such common views of the significance of the oath,
together with the insecurity of royal tenure, probably had much to do

The Book of Oaths, pp. 260“1.
Greenberg, The Radical Face, pp. 51, 279.
Kelly, ˜King and Crown,™ vol. I, pp. 375“6.
˜The Declaration of the Magnates™ (1307), see Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, p. 20.
Sir John Fortescue, De laudibus legum Angliae, ed. S. B. Chrimes (Cambridge, 1949),
p. 79; for later endorsement, see, for example, Hunton, Treatise, p. 37.
260 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
with the alterations that, until the oath taken by William and Mary,
apparently augmented royal power, at least by diminishing, as Jones
suggests, reference to the people™s consent. At the end of the seventeenth
century also, swearing to keep the laws of God and true religion become
exclusively Protestant. James II could not in good faith have sworn to the
coronation oath of William and Mary, in which the reformed religion,
its bishops and clergy loom large. Just as, indeed, he did not take the
Scottish oath which required extirpation of all enemies of the Kirk.
In William and Mary™s oath no doubt was the hand of those who had
helped bring William to England. It was a small unsung victory for the
Commonwealth; after a fashion William and Mary were being inducted
into the Protector™s office.

There was a more specific problem with the coronation oath apparent
from 1642 when the relationship between the king and parliament became
so fraught. It was perhaps a red herring, as the crux of dispute seems
to have arisen not from Charles™s own oath but a medieval antecedent
of the oaths associated with Edwards II and III.23 This carried ominous
precedent, as Edward II was deposed for breaking it. Parliament had
it printed as Charles™s oath and William Prynne made it central to debate
about the king™s conduct. The Edward oath-text was claimed to be the
model for, or assimilated to what Charles should have sworn at his
coronation (Prynne is evasive on the matter), and a crucial part of the
oath was the monarch swearing corroborare justas leges et consuetudines
quas vulgus eligerit.24 Assuming, as people did, that what survives is the
oath actually sworn by either Edward (although The Booke of Oathes
only gives a French version), this was probably a clause insisted upon
by his suspicious barony in 1307.25 There was no problem with the
monarch™s assent to the just laws and customs. The difficulty in the
1640s lay with vulgus (people), stretched to mean parliament, and with
whether the verb eligere (to choose) was in a past or future tense. If in
a past tense, the oath sanctioned a status quo. If, as Prynne argued, eligerit
should be translated as shall be chosen, the oath became a promise to

See Weston and Greenberg, Subjects and Sovereigns, pp. 78ff, who seem not to have
noticed that the oath discussed was never sworn by Charles.
William Prynne, The Soveraign Power of Parliaments (1643), pp. 25“30; cf. Edward Hyde,
Lord Clarendon, History of the Great Rebellion, ed. W. D. Macray, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1958
edn), vol. II, p. 123, bk. 5, paras. 225“6.
Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, p. 19; The Booke of Oathes, p. 291.
Coronation oaths 261
comply with the legislative activity of parliament.26 This was decidedly
confrontational. Despite the glib enthusiasm for Lawson™s extreme radi-
cality on such matters, he developed a more accommodating argument
possibly from Prynne™s case.27 Like Prynne he took vulgus to refer to
parliament as a representative of the people, but he argued that corrobor-
are meant to guard the just laws, for when there was no sitting parliament,
there was still the executive monarch with the sword of justice. Elegerit is
not picked out as troublesome, but on Lawson™s reading of corroborare
there is clearly no need to decide between past and future tenses, and
monarchical power is not necessarily diminished as it had been for Prynne.
Legislative power, Lawson insisted, is with the unity of king, lords and
As Matthew Hale later admitted, surveying the controversies and com-
paring French and Latin versions of the Edward oath-text, the perfect
tense was grammatically correct.29 It was also historically plausible, as
coronation oaths had never been made in the context of parliamentary
insistence on legislative power, either as a matter of shared sovereignty
or conciliar responsibility. Notwithstanding, Archbishop Laud was ac-
cused by Prynne of changing the oath for Charles to subvert the role of
parliament. He was said to have inserted the qualification to corrobor-
are, and he later believed it would help cost him his life.30 As Kelly
patiently points out, and both versions of The Book of Oaths in fact
recorded, Charles I swore in English to assent, or corroborate, insofar
as was consistent with the prerogatives of the kings who preceded him.
This was a qualification that may have had precedent beyond the Edward
oath-text, and was a formally innocent abridgement of the require-
ments to protect the office itself.31 Yet, in a context of debate in which
sovereignty was becoming an issue, it could only generate suspicion. Was

Prynne, The Soveraigne Power, p. 29; see also, more straightforwardly, Henry Ireton,
˜Putney Debates™, 1 November 1647, in A. S. P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty
(London, 1938), p. 111.
See, most recently, Greenberg, The Radical Face. Lawson was one of a ˜radical quartet if
ever there was one™, p. 231, on the curious grounds that he cites John Sadler to confirm
the validity of a combined hereditary and elective principle in monarchy: being elective
˜in a certain line™ was desirable, especially where the heirs are truly virtuous, Politica,
ch. 8.11, pp. 100“1. You cannot get more radical than that.
Lawson, Politica, pp. 109“10.
Weston and Greenberg, Subjects and Sovereigns, p. 215; Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, vol. I,
p. 362, who does make clear the dubious status of the Edward oath-text; Sir Matthew
Hale, The Prerogatives of the King (c. 1645, London, 1976), p. 85.
Jones, Conscience and Allegiance, p. 26.
Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, vol. I, pp. 284“5; Booke of Oathes, p. 272; Book of Oaths,
p. 154; Legg, English Coronation Records, pp. xxix, 251.
262 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
the alleged emphasis on prerogatives code for unlimited sway, the exercise
of arbitrary power and the means of introducing a foreign absolutism?
Historically and grammatically strained it might be, but there was some
plausibility to Prynne™s putting elegerit in the future tense. It drew atten-
tion to the scope of the whole text, which was concerned less with the
assertory than the promissory force of the oath and in a way that recog-
nised the possibility of change. Henry Parker had already hit the nail on
the head with the customary waft of his casuistic hammer: the tenses of
elegerit did not matter; what counted was the end of the king™s office to
protect, and therein lay his dignity and the force of his oath.32 Kelly
maintains that the oath taken by Edward VI was the first we have that
makes an explicit distinction between established and future law. As
she interestingly argues, it also had a little-noticed precedent in a manu-
script of the ˜Device™ for the coronation of Richard III. This was an aid
for the service and may not have been sworn, but it did require the king
to grant and promise to defend those laws that ˜as to the worship of
God shalbe chosyn by your people (in parlement)™. She also suggests that
this was consistent with Richard™s intention to involve parliament in
policies of reform.33
By the seventeenth century, however, Richard III™s name was not one
to venerate, and Prynne™s point, when he had side-lined the notorious
tyrant, was to find a long-standing precedent for a greatly enhanced and
creative role for the vulgus, alias parliament, whose own responsibility
would be to choose just laws, to which the monarch assented.34 ˜I really
do believe this was the agreement that the people of England made with
their Kings™, urged Ireton; it was ˜most apparent by the oath itself, and by
all the practice since™.35 Parliamentary, or popular consent, then, was a
matter of choosing; anything else was contrary to the letter and spirit
of the oath. At once this argument made legislation decidedly important,
and a sharing in rule a sacred obligation of monarchy. This could be
seen as worryingly innovative. Making legislation central to rule raised
the spectre of European civil law. Making it central to parliamentary
activity threatened also to turn parliament into the sovereign, the king
into the shadow of the Doge. As we have seen with respect to the office of
counsel, Prynne had referred to parliament as the companion to the
monarch, so moving between tactical evocations of counsel and sovereign

Parker, Observations (1642), p. 3.
Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, vol. I, pp. 275“6; 232“5; see also Sutton and Hammond, The
Coronation of Richard III, p. 220.
Prynne, Soveraigne Power, p. 29.
Henry Ireton, ˜Putney Debates™, in Woodhouse, Puritanism, p. 111.
Coronation oaths 263
co-ordination. Either way, Charles I certainly regarded such arguments
as an over-extension of the parliament™s proper care at the expense of
his own.36 Of course, to accept any principle of co-ordination in rule was
not much of a clarifying ideology; it left most touchy issues about sover-
eignty still open to debate, and merged with the traditionally unstable
relationship between rule and counsel. In all this, the conflation of the
Edward oath-text, however its clauses might be read, with what Charles I
actually swore was the secondary issue; in the archaic grammar of a
medieval oath lay a clash of more immediate offices.37 But in this we are
taken little further in determining whether an aggressive conciliar bridling
was code for a new theory of sovereignty or whether that was an outcome.
In sum, however ritualised, coronation oaths outlined a series of re-
sponsibilities of office and it was consequent upon these that subjects
cheered their acceptance of the monarch; the form they took, empty or
otherwise, was of a reciprocal, almost contractual agreement with those
swearing allegiance. It was typical of the accession to any office that in
emphasising responsibilities that sanctioned status, it armed others with
criteria to judge performance. The difficulty was just how far such con-
ventional phrases of swearing carried a residually dangerous content
for the office-holder. Grappling with this problem led, on the one hand,
to the unbending insistence on oaths being taken as their words must
have been intended; upon describing the oath as an expression of a
contingent contractual agreement and so down-playing the solemnities
of the occasion. Instead it was seen as what I have called a transformative
oath of passage by men as otherwise doctrinally different as Robert
Parsons and Algernon Sidney.38 As Janelle Greenberg has argued, re-
ference to the pre-conquest laws of Edward the Confessor was sometimes
a means to this end.39 On the other, the oath within the rituals of crowning
supported the argument that it was only a ceremonial proclamation of
an already established relationship in rule.40 One extrapolation would
mew up the office-holder, much like a constable, the other promised
elevation to the status of an earthly God, sweeping aside the use of any
aspect of the oath as a means of criticising the office-holder. There is
a certain irony of positioning here: those who would make the monarch
in office almost impregnably divine, were apt to see as superficial a deeply

Clarendon, History, vol. II, p. 155, bk. 5, paras. 292“307.
Legg, History of the English Coronation, pp. 251“2; Kelly, ˜King and Crown™, vol. II,
pp. 630, 634“5, 362“3.
Parsons, A Conference, ch. 1.5; Sidney, Discourses, 3.17.
Greenberg, The Radical Face, at length.
Samuel Eaton, ˜An Answer to a Paper™, in The Oath of Allegiance and the National
Covenant Proved to be Non-Obligatory (1650), pp. 9“10.
264 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
religious ceremony; those Protestants who, like Algernon Sidney, would
use the oath as ammunition to be fired at ill-performing royal targets
were most insistent upon the oath™s character as a sort of transubstanti-
ation. There is little doubt that each general position on the nature of
oaths per se was driven by the argumentative fecundity of the coronation
oath in particular. It always teetered on the edge of office and its abuse and
it symbolised the inherent tensions of the world as an interaction
of offices. Its necessarily formulaic nature threatened to undermine
its credibility but at the same time was the condition of its hallowed

The tendentious nature of coronation oaths casts some light on seven-
teenth-century social contract theory. A contract, or sometimes a com-
pact, was a specific and bounded agreement between personae for
mutually agreed reciprocal ends, and it was typically cemented with an
oath. Depending on circumstances, the oath might be one of passage, as
in a marriage contract, or of a diurnal nature, as in a contract between
merchants. Within England, there was an increasing reliance on formal
contracts during the seventeenth century;41 and travel to the Americas,
after a symbolically cleansing sea passage, had given a certain literality to
the notion of a contract between peoples to form a new society. Contract-
ual verisimilitude was also enhanced by a civil war followed by a formal
restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the abnormalities around the
convention parliament of 1689. Something like a contract could be seen
in all such show-pieces of political re-settlement.
For all this, the so-called great age of social contract theory is an
exaggeration of later theoretical enthusiasms. An integrity and independ-
ent theoretical identity has been given to something that was certainly
common but often little more than a casual way of expressing the moral
importance of consent in governmental relations and of approaching the
question of what could be done in the face of office-abuse.42 No explicit
theory of contract was needed to explore such issues. Lawson accepted a
contract theory of society in his Examination of Mr Hobbs, but three years

Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation, pp. 123“5, 315“28.
See, for example, Anon., A Discourse upon the Questions in Debate Between the King and
Parliament, p. 5, where it is but a garnish to the distinction between tyranny of origin and
exercise; for a valuable survey, Harro Hopfl and Martyn P. Thompson, ˜The History of
Contract as a Motif in Political Thought™, American Historical Review, 4, 84 (1979),
pp. 919“44; see also below, chapter 15.
Coronation oaths 265
later in Politica he retained a vocabulary redolent of contract without
developing any specific theory.43 Variable notions of trust and its breach
could subsume, replace or refine reference to contract. Writers generally
given scant attention in the contract tradition, most notably Milton,
Rutherford and Sidney and, uncomfortably for them, the Jesuit Robert
Parsons, and uncomfortably for him Presbyterian George Buchanan, are
more typical of the contract motif than those bywords of contractarian-
ism, Hobbes and Locke. Certainly the doctrinal diversity of the smaller
fish of contract makes it difficult to assimilate them to liberal ideology
latterly housed in the abstraction ˜contract theory™.
Broadly one can say that from the late sixteenth century the coronation
oath became an obvious proof-text to justify talk of governmental con-
tract.44 This in turn meant that what might be argued through a contract
motif could just as well and was probably more commonly formulated
as oath-breaking.45 If this effective synonymity is ignored, as it routinely
is, in discussions of ˜contract theory™, what is presented as coming from
the seventeenth century will remain an implausible distance from it.
Rhetorics of contract and oath-breaking could be bound so tightly be-
cause each could be expressed through the cliches of nominal identity:
governor and governed are ˜relatives™, wrote Anthony Ascham (?) and if
one ceased, the obligation of the other is automatically destroyed.46 For
writers like Buchanan and Parsons, in breaching a coronial contract
(or oath) a monarch conceptually ceased to be; therefore, by definition,
no monarch had an absolute power“ all standard fare in dealing with
the personae of office. Parsons, citing the authority of Plato and Aristotle,
insisted that the monarch™s end was in making the commonwealth happy,
the tyrant™s was the reverse. As the end of government lies in religion,
manifest injustice requires acts of defence.47 The unequivocal point of
such propositions was to pinpoint the heretical nature of Protestant rulers
who broke their oaths by abandoning true religion.
These patterns of proposition carried a very different force when re-
deployed by parliamentarians during the Civil War period. Rutherford
reiterates a Parsonian insistence on the reciprocity involved in the oath,

Conal Condren, ˜Confronting the Monster: George Lawson™s Reactions to Hobbes™s
Leviathan™, Political Science, 40 (1988), pp. 67“83.
Parsons, A Conference, pp. 73“4, citing the authority of Cicero, De officiis; Rutherford,
Lex, Rex, Q.14.
See, for example, Eaton, The Oath of Allegiance, p. 1; ˜An Answer to a Paper™, in The
Oath, p. 7.
Anthony Ascham (?), ˜E. P.™, An Answer to the Vindication of Doctor Hammond (1650),
p. 5.
Parsons, A Conference, pp. 78, 207“8, 20.
266 Argument and Authority in Early Modern England
citing the crowning of David as exemplary.48 A pre-social state of systemic
insecurity (hardly a monopoly of Hobbesian theory) was also easily used
to underline the desperate need for government. The coronation oath
was thus taken as a ritual re-enactment of the contractual nature of
government: the office of rule was for a purpose, the oath made this clear,
and by it rulers could be judged. The office-bounded reading of the oath
functioned, then, as a way of associating the sanctity of oath-taking with
arguments from self-defence and for deposition and tyrannicide. Although
anti-royalist, in the hands of writers like Rutherford, Prynne and Parker


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