Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

"Those Times Can Tell the Story": The Anglican Reformation, Henry VIII's Succession Statutes, and England's Exclusion Crisis, 1679-1681

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

"Those Times Can Tell the Story": The Anglican Reformation, Henry VIII's Succession Statutes, and England's Exclusion Crisis, 1679-1681

Article excerpt

T he arrest and prosecution of Richard Thompson reveals the importance of English Reformation history to the political and religious dynamics central to the Exclusion Crisis, a period in En- glish history that witnessed the attempted exclusion of the king's brother, James duke of York, because of his Catholic beliefs. Thompson was a relatively obscure Church of England cleric from Bristol, a rising and increasingly urban port city in the late seventeenth century with a sizable Protestant dissenting population.1 On 30 January 1679, Thompson gave an incendiary sermon at the height of the mounting crisis over the succession of the duke of York and the debate over dissent. Thompson was "a most admiral preacher," but on that day he not only decried Protestant nonconformity but also condemned the last two Parliaments for debating the royal succession, an issue that he considered well outside the purview of its authority. He was stridently anti- exclusionist and asserted Charles II's right to "arbitrary power." What particularly caught the ear of Thompson's detractors-and brought the charges against him-was that he "defamed and cried down the Reformation." Queen Elizabeth was, according to Thompson, "the worst and most lewd and infamous woman." Her father, Henry VIII, was little more than "a church robber." Thompson's speech was so provocative that several parishioners spoke out against him, and he was brought before a special parliamentary committee, which eventually impeached him. Thompson's case went before Parliament at a time when anti-Catholic tensions ran high. The Popish Plot had recently dominated the English political scene when Titus Oates alleged before a royal committee that there was a Catholic conspiracy afoot that sought to assassinate the king, place the openly Roman Catholic duke of York on the throne, and forcibly return the English Church to Roman Catholicism. In fact, Thompson's court hearing fell hard upon the sentencing of the earl of Strafford, who had been sentenced to execution the same day as Thompson's hearing for conspiring with the duke against the king's life. Francis Winning- ton, a leading opposition figure and member of the House committee was appointed to examine the charges against Thompson. Winnington persecuted the case against Thompson as zealously as he did Strafford's. He declared that Thompson's impeachment was "national business." He also advocated that he "ride through the city with his face to the horse's tail." Seijeant Maynard, another Whig member of Parliament suggested something worse, a punishment "much more terrible."2 Slandering the Tudors was a "crime" in Member of Parliament Colonel Titus' words for which any "punishment cannot be too great."3 The charges against Thompson and the response his statements elicited from parishioners and members of Parliament suggest the centrality of English Reformation history to English politics in the late seventeenth century. In the context of the Exclusion Crisis, to slander the memory of the Reformation was to call into question one's religious affilia- tion and thereby one's loyalty to the state. Despite Winnington's and Maynard's rhetoric, Thompson's punishment was much more lenient. Thompson was only found guilty of speaking scandalous words rather than plotting to assassinate the king, a charge initially leveled against him for his slanders against the Tudor monarchy. Thompson languished in prison for over eighteen months while Parliament prosecuted him, but finally, in 1681, he was released. Although some MP's thought no punishment too harsh, after the dust settled in 1685, Charles II's brother, King James II, pardoned him and promoted him to the deanery of Bristol and Chaplain in Ordinary to the king.4

This article investigates divergent historical memories of England's Reformation past and how late seventeenth-century parliamentarians and polemicists brought that memory to bear on contemporary politics. Historians of print culture have recently begun to explore the relationship between historical memory and political behavior. …

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