Oath of Allegiance of James I of England

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The Oath of Allegiance of 1606 was an oath required of subjects[clarification needed] of James I of England from 1606, the year after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (see Popish Recusants Act 1605); it was also called the Oath of Obedience (Latin: juramentum fidelitatis). Whatever effect it had on the loyalty of his subjects, it caused an international controversy lasting a decade and more.


The oath was proclaimed law on 22 June 1606. It contained seven affirmations,[1] and was targeted on "activist political ideology".[2] The clause against the papal deposing power read:

"I, A.B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge, &c. that our sovereign lord, King James, is lawful and rightful King &c. and that the pope neither of himself nor by any authority of Church or See of Rome, or by any other means with any other, has any power to depose the king &c., or to authorize any foreign prince to invade him &c., or to give licence to any to bear arms, raise tumults, &c. &c. Also I do swear that notwithstanding any sentence of excommunication or deprivation I will bear allegiance and true faith to his Majesty &c. &c. And I do further swear that I do from my heart abhor, detest, and abjure, as impious and heretical this damnable doctrine and position,--that princes which be excommunicated by the pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or by any other whatsoever. And I do believe that the pope has no power to absolve me from this oath. I do swear according to the plain and common sense, and understanding of the same words &c. &c. &c" (3 James I, c. 4).

Papal objections

On 22 September 1606 Pope Paul V condemned the formula:

It cannot be taken, as it contains many things evidently contrary to faith and salvation.[3]

James then asserted that his oath was not meant to encroach upon anyone's conscientious convictions.[citation needed] Hereupon minimizers began to maintain that the words of the oath might be interpreted by the intention of the law-giver, that the oath might therefore be taken.[3]

Catholic views of the time

Some Catholic writers, such as Thomas Preston, wrote in defence of the oath. Some English Catholics, for instance William Bishop, explicitly rejected the deposing power, but refused the oath.[3]

Current views

There is a range of views among contemporary scholars about King James's intention in requiring the oath. These include:

  • (Programmatic) to forward a wider theological and ecumenical project (Patterson);
  • (Persecuting) to give grounds for bearing down on English Catholics who faced the dilemma of swearing or not (Questier);
  • (Anti-papalist) to target supporters of papal temporal authority (Somerville); or
  • (Assertive) to assert his own spiritual authority (Tutino).[4]

It is seen as aimed at resistance theorists as well as traitors; and a move to split "moderates" from "radicals" among English Catholics.[5]

There were unintended consequences. According to Patterson:[6]

James himself did not give up his vision of a peaceful and united Church at home and abroad which he had unfolded to Parliament at its opening session in 1604. But in defending the Oath of Allegiance, he allowed himself to be drawn into a bitter Europe-wide theological controversy.


After a slow start, controversy over the oath ramified. By the beginning of 1609 it had begun to touch on a whole range of European issues: English Catholics, Rhineland Calvinists, Gallicanism in France, the aftermath of the Venetian Interdict, and the uncertain Catholic orthodoxy of the Vienna court of Emperor Rudolph II.[7] It had repercussions for international diplomacy; and in particular the handling of the Premonition had a negative effect on diplomatic relations between Great Britain and Venice, which had been improving during the Interdict.[8]

Attack on Parsons

The oath was strongly supported by Thomas Morton and Matthew Sutcliffe, as a necessary measure in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, and invoking the legal principle rebus sic stantibus. This opinion clashed with that of Robert Parsons in his Treatise tending to Mitigation (1608), and of Catholics who argued that no Mary Queen of Scots was disrupting the dynastic position.[9] No one was more closely identified with the Jesuit role in the English mission than Parsons, and he was already a central figure in the polemics around it. He turned on Morton and Edward Coke, choosing his ground as the use of authorities. William Barlow made mischief by suggesting Parsons in any case was second fiddle to Robert Bellarmine. Parsons blasted Barlow over a side issue, the 12th-century exhumation of Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, with Johannes Cuspinian, Helmoldus, the Chronicon Urspergense of Konrad of Lichtenau, Johannes Nauclerus, Carolus Sigonius, Severin Binius, Baronius and Petrus Diaconus.[10]

The case of Blackwell

The archpriest George Blackwell, then head of the English Catholic secular clergy, had at first disapproved of the oath, then allowed it, then after the pope's Brief disallowed it again, and finally being arrested and thrown into prison, took the oath, relying on James's statement that no encroachment on conscience was intended, and recommended the faithful to do the same. The pope then issued a new Brief (23 August 1607), repeating his prohibition.[3]

Bellarmine wrote a letter (18 September 1607) to Blackwell, an acquaintance from Flanders many years previously, reproaching him for having taken the oath in apparent disregard of his duty to the pope. Blackwell had survived the archpriest controversy of a few years before; and he had also navigated the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot as leader of the English Catholics, but at the cost of a complex explanation of why they could take the oath in good conscience. His position satisfied neither the Pope, who condemned it within days of Bellarmine's letter and replaced Blackwell by George Birkhead (February 1608), nor the English government, who imprisoned him. The matter moved into the public sphere, with Bellarmine's letter being thrown back as material to the pretensions of the papal deposing power.[11] Blackwell was informed that his canonical faculties would be taken away if he did not retract in two months. This, however, he refused to do, and he continued to defend his opinion for three years before he was finally suspended.[3]

Bellarmine drawn in

James attacked Bellarmine early in 1608 in a treatise Triplici nodo, triplex cuneus, the title of which identified it in a learned fashion as an answer to the missives sent to Blackwell.[12] It was published anonymously in English around February 1608, and was then translated into Latin and French. It was the work of James, supported by advice from Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Bancroft and James Montague.[13] The cardinal answered with a Responsio,[14] using the pseudonym Matthaeus Tortus (i.e. Matteo Torti or Torto, his chaplain); he portrayed James as smooth in past correspondence with the papacy, but delivering little in practical terms.[15] This accusation raked up a matter from before James's accession to the English throne; James Elphinstone, 1st Lord Balmerino was disgraced and sentenced to death, having related the story of a 1599 letter he had sent to the Vatican as being his responsibility, James as king of Scotland not having read it. The sentence was not carried out, however.[16]

Andrewes replied to Bellarmine in Tortura Torti (1609); James politicised the whole debate with his Premonition[17] in the same year, dedicated to the Emperor Rudolph II and all the monarchs of Christendom.[18] In it James now dropped his anonymity, and posed as the defender of primitive and true Christianity.[3]


James insisted that Andrewes included in Tortura Torti references to the idea that if a Pope meddled with the temporal allegiances of Catholics, this was with indication of an identification of the Antichrist of the Book of Revelation.[19] In the Premonition James had shifted to a more equivocal position.[20] His view was that the identification could not be required as a matter of faith. He spoke of it as conjectural; but as a belief to which he was committed, at least as long as the interference in temporal matters persisted. He balanced these statements with concessions on the Pope's spiritual status.[21] Half of the book dwelled on this topic, expressed in terms offensive to Catholics. James's approach seemed to be a bargaining chip, or feeler for negotiations, to the diplomat Antoine le Fèvre de la Boderie.[22]

Gallicanism involved

After this, Bellarmine published, now also using his own name, his Apologia pro responsione ad librum Jacobi I (1609). James opposed to this a treatise by a learned Scottish Catholic, William Barclay, De potestate papae (1609). Barclay's views were on the Gallican side, and Bellarmine's answer, Tractatus de potestate summi pontificis in rebus temporalibus (1610), gave offence to French Gallicans; it was publicly burnt in Paris by a Decree of 26 November 1610.

In reply to a posthumous treatise of Barclay, Bellarmine wrote a Tractatus de potestate summi pontificis in rebus temporalibus. It reiterated his assertions on the subject of papal power, and was prohibited in France. Another prominent rejection of Bellarmine's claim of papal superior authority was made by philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the third and fourth book of his Leviathan.

The Salamanca School

Francisco Suárez's answer to James was the Defensio fidei (1613), a major statement of the Catholic position, and also an important landmark in political thought.[23] It suffered the same fate as Bellarmine's Tractatus, through an arrêt of 26 June 1614; but this decree was eventually withdrawn at the request of the Pope.[3] It was burned in London, too, in 1613.[24]

Ramifying contributions

Many secondary writers joined the fray. On the Catholic side were:

On the other side were:

The main years of the controversy were 1608 to 1614, but publications directly connected with it appeared until 1620.[25] Subsequently it remained a topic of polemics, but Charles I was little interested in continuing his father's patronage of writers who addressed it. By the 1630s authors such as Du Moulin and David Blondel on these topics could expect no reward.[26]

Subsequent history

The oath was used against Catholics during the rest of the 17th century, for example in the cases of Robert Drury, Thomas Atkinson, John Almond, John Thulis, Edmund Arrowsmith, Richard Herst, George Gervase, Thomas Garnet, John Gavan, and Henry Heath; the last two left writings against it. George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, a Catholic, found his attempt to settle in Virginia, where the oath had been introduced in 1609, was defeated by it. His son Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, on the other hand, ordered his adventurers to take the oath, but whether he insisted on this is uncertain.[3][27]

Charles I of England generally recognized that Catholics could not conscientiously take the Oath of Supremacy, and frequently exerted his prerogative to help them to avoid it. On the other hand his theory of the divine right of kings induced him to favour the Oath of Allegiance, and he was irritated with the Catholics who refused it or argued against it. Pope Urban VIII is said to have condemned the oath again in 1626,[28] and the controversy continued. Preston still wrote in its defence; so also, at King Charles's order, did Sir William Howard (1634); this was probably the future William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford. Their most important opponent was Father Edward Courtney,[29] who was therefore imprisoned by Charles. The matter is frequently mentioned in the dispatches and the "Relatione" of Panzani, the papal agent to Queen Henrietta Maria.[30]

The Sorbonne, on 30 June 1681, shortly before approving the Gallican articles, censored the English oath, and found in it very little to object to.[3]


  • W. B. Patterson (1997), James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom


  1. Patterson, p. 79; Google Books.
  2. Patterson, p. 80; Google Books.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). [https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikisource.org%2Fwiki%2FCatholic_Encyclopedia_%281913%29%2FEnglish_Post-Reformation_Oaths "English Post-Reformation Oaths" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Stefania Tutino, Empire of Souls: Robert Bellarmine and the Christian commonwealth (2010), p. 128; Google Books.
  5. Rebecca Lemon, Treason by Words: Literature, law, and rebellion in Shakespeare's England (2008), p. 110; Google Books.
  6. Patterson, pp. 76-7.
  7. Patterson, pp. 97–8; Google Books.
  8. David Wootton, Paolo Sarpi (1983), p. 92.
  9. Michael L. Carrafiello, Robert Parsons and English Catholicism, 1580-1610 (1998), pp. 124–5; Google Books.
  10. Victor Houliston, Catholic Resistance in Elizabethan England: Robert Persons's Jesuit polemic, 1580-1610 (2007), p. 173; Google Books.
  11. Arblaster, Paul. "Blackwell, George". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2541.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. Triplici nodo, triplex cuneus. Or An Apologie for the Oath of Allegiance. In translation from Latin "A triple wedge for a triple knot", i.e., for two papal briefs and the Bellarmine's letter).
  13. Patterson p. 84.
  14. Responsio ad librum: Triplici nodo, triplex cuneus (1608).
  15. Patterson pp. 86–87.
  16.  [https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikisource.org%2Fwiki%2FElphinstone%2C_James_%28DNB00%29 "Elphinstone, James" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. A Premonition to Christian Princes, and an appendix on his adversaries' supposed mistakes (January, 1609).
  18. Patterson pp. 89–97.
  19. McCullough, P. E. "Andrewes, Lancelot". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/520.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  20. Kevin Sharpe, Faction and Parliament: essays on early Stuart history (1978), p. 48; Google Books.
  21. Stefania Tutino, Law and Conscience: Catholicism in early modern England, 1570-1625 (2007), p. 136; Google Books.
  22. Patterson, pp. 95–6; Google Books.
  23. André Azevedo Alves, Jose Moreira, John Meadowcroft, The Salamanca School (2009), p. 22; Google Books.
  24. John P. Doyle, M. W. F. Stone, Collected Studies on Francisco Suarez SJ (2010), p. 261; Google Books.
  25. James Doelman, King James I and the Religious Culture of England (2000), p. 105; Google Books.
  26. Anthony Milton, Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600-1640 (2002), pp. 399–400; Google Books.
  27. Hughes, "Soc. of Jesus in N. America", pp. 260-1, 451 and passim.
  28. Reusch, 327.
  29. vere Leedes; cf. Gillow, "Bibl. Dict.", s. v. Leedes, Edward.
  30. Maziere Brady, "Catholic Hierarchy", Rome, 1883, p.88.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). [https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikisource.org%2Fwiki%2FCatholic_Encyclopedia_%281913%29%2FEnglish_Post-Reformation_Oaths "English Post-Reformation Oaths" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>