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A declaration by King of England James II in 1688 that Anglican ministers feared would encourage conversions to Catholicism led to the the imprisonment of seven bishops. The bishops had sent a petition to the king saying they thought the declaration suspending some laws regarding Catholics violated legislation adopted by Parliament. A judgement in favor of the bishops solidified opposition to the king and lay the groundwork for the right to petition government, which was included in the First Amendment in the United States. (Portrait of James II, public domain)

The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is one of the less litigated provisions of the First Amendment, but it remains important.

The right has roots in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was adopted after William and Mary ascended to the throne after James II had left England. This provision, in turn, may largely be traced to the Seven Bishops Case, 12 Howell, St. Tr. 183 (1688).

James II, who had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1669 and served as King of England from 1685-1688, had issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1688.

It suspended laws providing disabilities that Protestant monarchs had imposed on Catholics and other nonconformists within the realm. Many Anglicans feared the declaration was intended to encourage conversions to Catholicism.

 As head of the Anglican Church, James II further ordered Anglican ministers to read the declaration from their pulpits. 

King James II imprisons seven bishops after their petition

After many of them refused to do so, seven bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, sent a petition to the king explaining that they thought the king’s order violated legislation adopted by Parliament. The king, in turn, imprisoned the bishops for a time in the Tower of London and indicted them for seditious libel that he believed was implicit in their assertions that what he had demanded of them violated the law.  The information (indictment filed without a grand jury), thus charged that the bishops:

falsely, unlawful, maliciously, seditiously, and scandalously did frame, compose and write, and cause to be framed, composed and written, a certain false, feigned, malicious, pernicious and seditious libel in writing, concerning our said lord the king and his royal Declaration and Order aforesaid, (under pretence of a  petition), and the same false, feigned, malicious, pernicious and seditious libel . . . did publish and cause to be published (Schnapper 1989, 315-316)

King argues only petitions directed at Parliament were valid

The king further argued that the only valid petitions were those directed to Parliament, which was conveniently out of session.  Moreover, the king observed that he was not specifically prosecuting the bishops for their disobedience but for “giving reasons for the disobedience in a libelious petition” (Schnapper 1989, 324). 

The bishops, in turn, pointed out that they had not violated laws that then limited the number of individuals who were permitted to sign such petitions and that the information they supplied to the king could prove useful in explaining their actions. They further argued that they had not petitioned as private men, with no interest in government, but as individuals with official governmental responsibilities, church and state not being separated in England as it would later be in the United States.

Judges ruled in favor of seven bishops

Two of four judges (whom the King subsequently replaced) favored the defendants, and two sided with the King. Jurors, who were deprived of food, drink, and light as they deliberated throughout the night, ruled in favor of the bishops. This judgment was generally well received and helped crystalize opposition to James II, opening the way for the accession of William and Mary (Sowerby 2021).

John R. Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University.

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