The Reformation and England's changing Coronation Oath

The Reformation and England's changing Coronation Oath

Tom Johnstone

For over a thousand years in England at the coronation of a new monarch, a senior archbishop would administer an oath to the new king, who swore to reign justly and protect his people. However, at the enthronement of the third Tudor monarch, Edward VI, after the king had become head of the Church of England, this changed.

The historic religious Coronation Oath originated with Archbishop Egbert by which the newly enthroned king would declare, "[I]t is the duty of a king newly ordained and enthroned to command his subjects to uphold three precepts. That the Church of God and all the Christian people preserve true peace at all times. That the king defends his people from, and forbids, rapacity and iniquities against his subjects whatever their rank or station. That, in all his judgments, the king be equitable and merciful."

When the king had read the oath aloud, a written copy of the declaration was laid on the altar.

Norman conquest

Following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, King William promised with an oath that he would "defend God's holy churches and their rulers"; rule the whole people subject to him with "righteousness and royal providence; and "enact and hold fast right law, and utterly forbid rapine and unrighteous judgments."

A succession of Norman, Plantagenet and Tudor kings continued to take an oath to that effect at their coronations down to King Henry VIII. However, Henry's usurpation of the Pope's supremacy in religious affairs changed the political, religious, and social face of England. For having inherited a united, peaceful and prosperous kingdom, Henry bequeathed to his heir, Edward VI, a bankrupt country in social turmoil.

In the early days of the new reign, Archbishop Cranmer persuaded the boy king Edward VI to change the Coronation Oath. To do so, in Lord Macaulay's words, Cranmer used his position "to overcome the disgust with which an intelligent and virtuous child regarded persecution".

In addition to changing the oath, prior to the coronation Archbishop Cranmer took an oath of obedience to Edward as his Sovereign- Pontiff. While the Coronation Oath sworn by Edward retained mention of St Edward and his laws, acceptance of the king by the people of the realm was taken for granted, for no mention of it was made in the oath proper.

A third modernism was the assertion that Edward's right to rule was derived from God alone, that neither the Bishop of Rome nor any other bishop could impose conditions on him. Edward's duties would be as God's vice-regent, to see "God worshipped and idolatry destroyed" and that the "tyranny of the Bishop of Rome would be banished and images would be removed".

Thus guided by Archbishop Cranmer, Edward VI completed the Protestant Reformation in England.

Queen Mary's counter-reformation failed because of her excessive zeal accompanied by fire; while for suppression of Catholicism her half-sister Elizabeth used a penal code with heavy monetary sanctions imposed on recusants.

Curiously, all Elizabeth's male Stuart successors had Catholic wives, Anne of Denmark, Henrietta of France, Mary of Modena and Catharine of Braganza. However, this had no material effect in lessening the impact of the anti-Catholic penal laws. On the contrary, the political failures of the first two Stuart kings were attributed to the Queen's religion.

At the heart of the political problems faced by successive Stuart monarchs was their claim to be God's regent and attempts to rule and tax their subjects without the advice or consent of parliament.

The stubbornness of Charles I on this point of principle led to civil war, political strife, regicide, and finally an experiment with military dictatorship under Cromwell's Commonwealth

A restoration of the Stuart monarchy following the Declaration of Breda (in which toleration for all religious beliefs was promised), only resulted in a continuation of political strife and civil war. Religion and intolerance were at the heart of the political battle.

One year after the restoration, a Corporation Act was enacted which stated that all Corporate Officers were to take the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper according to the rites of the Church of England within one year of taking office. All who did not follow the act were turned out of their office.

Test Act

This greatly affected many Puritan churchmen, but failed against the real target, Catholic peers in the House of Lords. Therefore the Test Act was enacted in 1673, which largely failed and was followed by another in 1678. Its title was self-explanatory: "An Act for preventing dangers which may happen from Popish Recusants".

Its provisions demanded that all persons taking any office of trust, civil or military, or admitted of the King's or Duke of York's household, were to receive the Sacraments according to the usage of the Church of England and to make and subscribe the following declaration: "I ... do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess, testify and declare that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper there is not any transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever: and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint and the sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous."

By this Act, twenty-one Catholic peers, including some whose lineage dated back to the Conquest, were excluded, including the hereditary Earl Marshal of England. Three peers succumbed to personal pressures and abjured. James, Duke of York, who had had notable successes in the naval war against The Netherlands, was forced from office.

With the overthrow of King James II in what was known as the Glorious Revolution, William and Mary were installed. All parties then agreed upon the necessity of requiring monarchs to swear a Coronation Oath, reverting to the ancient one, that he or she would govern justly and mercifully according to law.

But the wording of the Act gave rise to much debate before it was decided to enact a law to maintain the Protestant religion as established by law. However, realising nothing then existed in law that would prevent a future Catholic royal from inheriting the throne, the revolutionaries closed the loophole by enacting the Bill of Rights of October 1689.

In this, largely a justification for deposing James, they set out conditions upon the acceptance of William and Mary. William accepted all conditions but later ignored some. The Act also demanded that every English Sovereign should on the first sitting of Parliament, after the coronation, audibly repeat and subscribe to the Declaration against transubstantiation and describe the Mass as idolatrous, as in the Test Act of 1678.

This Coronation Oath was first taken by the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, in 1702; and all her Hanoverian successors followed suit. Upon the accession of King Edward VII on 22 January 1901 it had last been taken by the eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria following her coronation in 1838, nine years after the enactment of Catholic Emancipation.


During the latter years of Queen Victoria's reign, the possibility of controversy concerning the Coronation Oath was foreseen by some in the British Establishment, because as heir apparent, Edward had made it known he was against taking the oath.

What bearing this had upon the rise of republicanism in Britain at that time is now difficult to gauge. That the oath was an insult, not just to Catholics, but to several other branches of Christendom, was widely recognised, not least by the Foreign Office. Those it insulted included most of the crowned heads of Europe, including the Czar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria-Hungry, and the Kings of Spain, Italy and all the Balkan States.

Yet, notwithstanding this, the Lord High Chancellor, Lord Halsbury, had little difficulty stirring anti- Catholic bigotry within the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church and the mainstream Protestant Churches. The King was forced to take the controversial oath.

The oath was taken by King Edward in the House of Lords, in the presence of English Catholic nobility which had suffered much for their beliefs during Penal times. Knowing this, the King read the oath in an inaudible voice. Although it was against the spirit of the Act it was all King Edward could do by way of personal public protest.

Coming as it did when tens of thousands of Catholics from all over the British Empire were then serving in the army in the South African war, the Coronation Oath seemed particularly inopportune if not injudicious. Cardinal Wiseman of Westminster described it as a "national crime".

At the beginning of the 20th century, many felt that the Coronation Oath had long outlived its usefulness to the British Establishment, and its retention had proved exceedingly embarrassing. In due course, and before King Edward's death, the oath was quietly amended to a simple promise to maintain the Established Church by law appointed.

Today it is from within the British section of the Anglican Communion that the wish for disestablishment is most desired; but it is unlikely to happen during the reign of the present monarch. That would contravene the Queen's Coronation Oath.

The Act of Settlement, which forbids the heir to the throne from marrying a Catholic, is Britain's last relic of the Penal Laws although its retention seems to bother no one. Several Catholics have already married into the royal family with the Queen's permission, and junior royals have become Catholics and renounced their right to succession.

Meanwhile, at the time of Federation, the founding fathers of Australia did not want any religious test to restrict access to public office. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution, as interpreted by constitutional experts, was that whilst rejecting the erection and recognition of a state church, or bestowing special advantages to any one church, all Australians were confident it was not the intention of the Federal government to prohibit the free exercise of any religion, or religious worship.


At the time of King Edward's coronation, when news of the substance of his oath of office with its virulent anti-Catholic content reached Australia, it caused outrage in Catholic circles. Undoubtedly support existed within sectarian divided Australia for the Lord High Chancellor's views. However, the mainstream Anglican position was probably best summarised in a letter to Cardinal Moran by the Rector of Strathfield, NSW, the Rev H.J. Rose:

"My Lord Cardinal, I should like your Eminence to know how entirely, in common with the majority of thinking men, I sympathise with the members of your communion in their desire to see removed from the Coronation Oath certain expressions insulting to their Church and to one of its crucial doctrines.

"The day is past when the retention of such expressions can in any way safeguard Protestantism or the Protestant succession, and the mere fact that such retention is a just cause of annoyance to millions of His Majesty's loyal subjects is sufficient for immediate alteration É".

Anti-Catholic bigotry arrived in Australia with the First Fleet and it would take well over a century before the last embers of that bigotry burnt out. Happily those days are now behind us.

Nevertheless, we live in a time when a question raised in the year of Federation by Bernard O'Dowd in his poem Australia is still unanswered: "Shall you be a temple of Mammon or a second Eden?"

Thomas (Tom) Johnstone is a retired British Army officer. Originally from Ireland he spent most of his life in Britain or overseas and now lives in Victoria. He is the author of three major seminal historical works: Orange, Green and Khaki: The story of the Irish Regiments in the Great War, The Cross on the Sword: Catholic Chaplains in the Forces and The Cross of Anzac: Australian Catholic Service Chaplains.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.