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Seven Bishops' Trial

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

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

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

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

At trial both sides argued over the issue of SEDITION. The Crown maintained that the bishops should have taken their grievances to the king's courts or appealed to Parliament for action. Their failure to do so amounted to an attempt to incite popular hostility against the king. Lawyers for the bishops argued that they had simply exercised the same rights available to all English subjects. Anyone, they asserted, was free to petition the king when legal rights were infringed. Four judges presided at the trial. In giving their opinion on the law to the jury, they divided equally over whether the bishops had

A depiction of the June 1688 release of the Seven Bishops following their acquittal on charges of seditious libel against King James II, one of the first major decisions against an executive branch of government.
BETTMANN/CORBIS

committed seditious libel. Boldly, the jury ruled against the Crown.

The acquittal of the bishops had immediate and lasting implications. The verdict of not guilty was received with great popular acclaim and contributed to exactly what the king had feared—rebellion. During James's dispute with the bishops, his second wife had given birth to a son. Hitherto James's heir apparent had been Mary, his Protestant daughter from his first marriage, who was married to William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands. Now the birth of a son aroused fear that James would be succeeded by a Catholic. Accordingly, a coalition of nobles, encouraged by the popular response to the bishops' acquittal, invited the Protestant William of Orange and Mary to assume the throne. The so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw King James II flee to France, while William and his wife Mary became king and queen. Their appointment by Parliament underscored that institution's supremacy as the maker of law in England; in a short time, the nation had not only new sovereigns but also a new Bill of Rights.

The significance of the Seven Bishops' Trial reached beyond England. Historically, it marked one of the first major decisions against an EXECUTIVE BRANCH of government. A jury had nullified what it considered an unjust law. Thus, historians see the case as marking the emancipation of the judiciary from executive control. This lesson was not lost on the American colonists. They viewed the case as an exercise of popular political will against a tyrannical monarch; as such, it inspired early American republicans (and ultimately revolutionaries) who believed in the decentralization of power.

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