HC Deb 04 February 1831 vol 2 cc140-52
Mr. C. W. Wynn

rose to move that the Order of the Day might be read for going into committee on the Oaths of Abjuration Bill. He confessed, he said, that he was so far from being disposed to attempt by this measure any thing like an anticipation of the motion of his hon. and learned friend, on the removal of the civil disabilities of the Jews, fixed for the 15th of March, that he should, for the present, take up but one branch of a subject which naturally, in his mind, divided itself into two distinct branches; namely, the expediency of rendering unnecessary the oaths now taken before the Lord High Steward by Members of Parliament, and next, rendering unnecessary the Oath of Abjuration. To the former class of oaths it was his intention this measure of repeal should be applied, and to that alone, on the present occasion, he should confine himself. He concluded by moving that the Order of the Day be read.

Sir Robert Inglis

expressed his intention to meet, with the most decided opposition, the measure of the right hon. Member, as likely to invade the security of the Protestant State, and the established succession to the Throne. He agreed that it was more than impolitic, nay, even guilty, to maintain by force of legal enactments the taking of unnecessary oaths. Unless, however, the oaths alluded to as comprised within the purview of this repeal were maintained, there would be a chance afforded of having persons coming in to interfere as Members in the election of a Speaker, who were not Members at all; and, unless they believed the mere appearance in Mr. Dorrington's office was sufficient to authenticate a Member's title to take his seat, there would remain no test for ascertaining a Member's qualification to sit in that House, as regarded the right of property. He was aware that they, as Members of Parliament, entered that House free to act on every subject but one. They could repeal or annul any Statute but one—the Act of Settlement of the Crown in the present Royal Family of England. That Act of Settlement was recognized by the Oath of Abjuration, in which the Act of Settlement itself was rivetted. It had been asserted by a very intelligent writer, that the claim of the House of Sardinia to the throne of these realms was shut out alone by the Oath of Abjuration. Whether that were strictly so or not, he would express his firm belief, that the repeal of that oath would in a degree weaken, in some consciences, the right of the House of Hanover. When the Catholic Relief Bill was passed, they were told, too, that the Oath of Abjuration was an effectual security against its affecting the Protestant Succession; and yet, now, they were called on to divest themselves of that very security. He felt the subject one of great importance to the security and tranquility of these realms; and for this reason he felt himself bound to express his decided reluctance to invade that security which our established laws had long since provided as a means of defence to the succession.

Mr. Cutlar Ferguson

dissented from the doctrine quoted by the hon. Baronet, as inapplicable in fairness to the subject of preserving and securing the right of succession. The title of the House of Hanover did not rest on the basis of this oath, but on the Act of Settlement. Indeed, the oath was not imposed at the time of the Revolution, but by an Act passed, for a temporary purpose, at the death of King James 2nd, in order to exclude from the succession the son of that abdicated monarch, in consequence of the then Pretender being recognized as our Sovereign by the reigning king of France. It was a perfect absurdity to say that none of the descendants of James 2nd had any right to the Crown of these realms, when, in fact, no such descendants existed. It was too much, therefore, that Members of that House should be compelled to commit such a preposterous absurdity as to abjure claims which could not by any possibility arise. As to the House of Savoy, he would leave the question as regarded that branch, where the right hon. Gentle- man had left it, and let them bring forward their claims, if they thought they had any, and could wrest the Crown from the reigning family. He earnestly desired that a very obnoxious oath, the Oath of Assurance in Scotland, should be repealed. This amounted, in fact, to a double oath. The Oath of Assurance was exactly the Oath of Abjuration, except that it began by declaring (which he did not know how any but a lawyer could declare) that the King was not only King de jure, but also de facto, and had the right of sovereignty in this kingdom. He hoped there would be no objection to repeal this unnecessary oath. But he would beg to call the attention of the House to an oath still more objectionable than the Oath of Abjuration or the Oath of Assurance; namely, the Oath of Supremacy, which made a subject swear that no dispensation from the Pope of Rome could justify the murder of a Prince. Now it was remarkable that this was administered as a Protestant, and not as a Catholic test—the abjuration of any civil or temporal power of the Pope being reserved for the Catholics. It was well known that no Protestant had ever supposed that he could be absolved from his allegiance, much less released from the guilt of so atrocious a crime as the murder of a Prince, by the dispensation of a Pope; and yet, although the Catholics, who alone had been suspected, and, as he believed, unjustly suspected, of entertaining this doctrine, were released from taking the oath, it was still exacted from Protestants. He hoped that measures would be taken to put an end to this anomaly, and in the mean time the bill for suppressing the Oaths of Abjuration should certainly have his support.

Mr. Blount

said, that he felt it due to a learned and able friend of his, whose work had been alluded to by the hon. member for Oxford, to disclaim his having made use of any language which could be construed to imply that the House of Savoy had any right to the British Crown. Having said so much in justification of his friend, he would beg to say, on his own part, that he entirely concurred in the motion of his right hon. friend below him, but regretted that it did not go further, and expunge from the Statute Book many other oaths equally as obnoxious as those to which it applied. He wished that some hon. Member, who was competent to the task, would take the matter in hand, and leave in the Statute Book only such oaths as, in the present state of things, that Reuse would enact.

Sir Charles Wetherell

said, that not being aware that this subject was to be brought forward this evening, he had not got with him several notes, which he had made on a former occasion, in reference to the question. The Oath of Abjuration renounced the right of any descendants of James the 2nd, of whom, be it observed, there were no lineal descendants existing, but there were several claimants in the collateral line from James the 1st. [An hon. Member said, "No, of Charles the 1st."] Well, he might have mistaken the name, but the principle was the same. If Gentlemen would look to the Act of Settlement, and to the bills by which the oaths had been from time to time modified, they would find that they were framed on the principle of disclaiming the right, not only of the expelled monarch, but also of all who would have had a claim, in a collateral line, if James 2nd had not been expelled. When his hon., or rather, he should now say, his noble and learned friend, Lord Brougham, said, on a former discussion in that House, that it would be a mere waste of breath to repeat a form of words negativing the title of those who did not exist, he agreed with his noble friend, that the words which related to the lineal descendants of James 2nd were unnecessary, and he had no objection to spare the breath of hon. Members by the omission of those words. But he recollected afterwards asking his noble friend, whether he had adverted to so much of the Oath of Abjuration as related, not to the lineal, but to the collateral descendants of the Stuart family; and, although he was not authorised to make any declaration on the part of his noble and learned friend, yet he felt that he should be doing a prejudice to the learning, the knowledge, and the accuracy, of his noble friend, if he supposed that, occupying the high and important station which he did, he could fail to sec the distinction between leaving out of the Oath of Abjuration— when it became necessary to alter it—a renunciation of the rights of lineal descendants who did not exist, and omitting to negative the claims of collateral descendants, of whom there were several in existence. Every lawyer, and every historian, and every loyal man, must know how essential it was in. that House, when any of the guards of the Crown of England were proposed to be altered, to look carefully to the rights and pretensions of collateral claimants. There were many claimants in a collateral line to the throne of England. The House of Sardinia was the first; the present king of France, Louis-Philip, was the second; and there were several others. He had looked into the pedigree of Charles 1st, to see if there were any descendants in a collateral line, and he found that there were several. Then came the question, if, when the Act of Settlement, and the oaths in connection with it, were framed, it was deemed necessary to abjure, not only the lineal, but also the collateral, descendants of the Stuarts, would his right hon. friend tell him why the same necessity did not still exist with regard to collateral descendants, as to whose survivorship there was no doubt? The hon. Gentleman who had last spoken had alluded to what had been said by the hon. member for Oxford, relative to Mr. Butler's work. He had said himself, on a former occasion, and he must now take the liberty of repeating it, that there was a passage in Mr. Butler's book which, without any intention of offending that respectable author, for whom he had a great esteem, he must call an indiscreet and inconsiderate statement. The words were—"The title of the House of Sardinia,"—and then followed, in a parenthesis "(which was excluded by the Act of Settlement")—to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland." This was the passage to which he referred. If it was to be expected that a lawyer should express himself accurately—and, surely, upon no man was it so incumbent to avoid all doubt or ambiguity in his expressions—he must observe, that it was not accurate to say that the House of Sardinia, although its exclusion was noticed in a parenthesis, had a title to the throne of these realms. The House of Sardinia had no more title than the door-keeper of that House. He therefore objected to the expression as inaccurate, and one which should not have been used by a lawyer. He objected to it because it implied a considerable denial to the principle established at the Revolution, which was, that, when the throne became vacant in the person of James the 2nd, that vacancy carried with it an annulment of the claims of all descendants, lineal or collateral. He had also the authority of Judge Blackstone, that not only all the descendants of James the 2nd, but the whole House of Stuart, claiming from any predecessor of James, were to be excluded from the throne. The words of that learned Judge were—"That the declaration of Parliament at the Revolution, that the throne was vacant, was a declaration affecting not only the person of James the 2nd himself, but also all his heirs; rendering the throne absolutely and completely vacant." Whoever denied that, denied the principle on which the Revolution was founded. That principle had been settled by both sides of that House. Although the event had happened, which rendered it a waste of breath to protest against the lineal descendants of James the 2nd, yet he could not consent to alter the principle of the oath; namely, that the vacancy of the throne in the person of James the 2nd, was a principle in operation upon the collateral as well as the lineal descendants. It was upon that principle that all the oaths had been framed, and if it had been necessary a century since, it was equally necessary still. As he had not been aware of the intention of bringing forward this question to-night, he was not prepared to give it all the consideration, in its different branches, which it required, and should therefore suggest the postponement of the committee. He had heard another argument on this subject, which he would beg leave to notice. Some wise Gentlemen said, it was very ridiculous to continue an oath abjuring the title of the House of Sardinia, and asked, if that power was likely to send an army of 100,000 men to enforce its claims, or if we had reason to apprehend an invasion from France to support the claims of its sovereign upon the Crown of England; and it was urged, that it was superfluous to abjure that which was but the spectre of a right, and existed only in imagination. That was a good argument to a certain extent; but let him remind Gentlemen of what had occurred at the peace of Amiens. There was a time when the king of England claimed the title of king of France, and, until about some thirty years ago, Gentlemen who were attentive in their devotions might recollect a sort of cantilena, in which we prayed for "our Lord George, King of Great Britain, Ireland, and France." He did not suppose that any Frenchman, hearing this prelude to a sermon in our churches, would be alarmed lest the King of England should seize upon the throne of France; but it happened that this spectre, or phantom, of a title had been disclaimed by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in the treaty of Amiens. If these spectres of titles were considered so serious as to be disclaimed in solemn treaties with other States, he owned, that although, perhaps, it might be too great caution on his part, yet he thought that, pro majori cautela, it was right to have regard to the minute defences by which our domestic constitution was surrounded and preserved. He could mention other instances of diplomatic caution superior to this. He agreed with his noble and learned friend Lord Vaux—that it was hardly worth while to waste one's breath in negativing the title of James the 2nd. But to save one's breath in pronouncing three words, he would not abolish an oath which recorded the principle, that on the vacancy of the throne, not only lineal, but also collateral, descendants, and all possible claimants of the House of Stuart, had not, and never could have, a shadow of right to the throne of these realms.

The Order of the Day was read.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

rose to move, that the Speaker then leave the Chair, and observed, that he had not anticipated the probability of the House proceeding with a discussion at the present stage of the Bill, when the motion was merely for going into a Committee. His hon. and learned friend would perhaps have omitted some of his remarks had he been in the House when he stated his intention to move that the Committee be instructed to divide the Bill into two, one relative to the oaths before the Lord Steward, and the other embracing only the Oath of Abjuration. In reply to an objection from the hon. Baronet (Sir Robert Inglis) he might mention, that in the oath taken before the Lord Steward there was not a word about qualification. The de-claration on that subject was filed in the Clerk's-office, and the Member was obliged to swear at the Table of the House that his qualification was a true one. A single fact would best refute the hon. Baronet's notion as to the trifling nature of the inconveniences attendant on the present functions of the Lord Steward. In 1810, the then Lord Steward having resigned in the morning, without the fact having transpired, his deputy accordingly proceeded with the swearing of Members, all of whom thereby unknowingly might have forfeited their seats, and incurred the penalty of the Statute. At present, should any important question be pending, the Lord Steward, by resigning, might incapacitate every Member of the House of Commons, until Ministers should have an opportunity of advising with his Majesty concerning the appointment of a successor. At the same time, there was no difference whatever in the form of the two oaths, except that that which was taken at the Table was repeated with more solemnity of manner than the other, although, perhaps, not with so much as such a ceremony ought in any case to demand. That solemnity, in his opinion, would be materially increased by the curtailment he proposed—namely, the omission of the Oath of Abjuration. It was, however, highly offensive for any individual to assert or argue on the assumption that the King, Lords, and Commons, might not limit the succession to the throne in any way which they might think fit, as it was impossible to anticipate what circumstances might hereafter arise which would call for such an exercise of the prerogative of Parliament. Then, with respect to what had been said touching the opinions expressed in one of Mr. C. Butler's publications, he really could not regard such an argument, if argument it could be called, but as mere words; for how could the opinions of any individual affect the interpretation put by the Legislature on its own Statutes? And was there not a specific and most explicit law, by which the House of Sardinia, as well as the other descendants of the Stuarts, in the most comprehensive sense of the term, were totally excluded from the throne of this realm? Was there not the Act of Settlement, a part, and most important part, of the law of the land, by which the succession to the British throne was established beyond the reach of controversy; and was not that Act decisive and sufficient on the matter? Was there any claimant of the House of Stuart at present in existence to alarm them, to "fright the isle from its propriety?" The representative of that ancient and once royal family was the Duchess of Modena; and he believed even the hon. member for the University of Oxford himself did not suffer much alarm for the safety of the Protestant establishments of the country from the claims of that illustrious lady. The fact was, as the House was well aware, that the Duchess of Modena had never put forward any claim to the throne of England, founded on her descent from the last of our Stuart kings; never assumed any title implying any such claim; and if ever she did, would her folly be worth a thought unsupported by an army or alliances to enforce it? In truth, it was a little too much for common sense to bear with gravity, that at this period of our history, and of the history of the world, hon. Members should seriously express any apprehension that the doing away with an oath—originally imposed for temporary purposes, no longer in existence—would endanger the succession of the House of Brunswick, and open the way to the throne of this great empire of some quasi collateral descendant of the House of Stuart. The supposition was too absurd for him to take up the time of the House by refuting it: in fact, the claims of the descendants of the last Stuart king were as truly obsolete, in an historical point of view, as the rival claims of the red and white roses of York and Lancaster. Then, as to the argument which the hon. member for Boroughbridge had founded on the circumstance of the claim to the throne of France, implied in the ridiculous, and most nugatory, and, in truth, most disgraceful—from the silly obstinacy with which it was retained— assumption of the title of the king of France by the king of England, having been mooted by the Treaty of Amiens, was it not enough to remind the House of the different circumstances of the two cases? Here was a king—a de facto and de jure king—of this powerful empire, putting forward a most silly claim to a throne which was occupied by the rightful heirs, and to which he had no pretensions whatever; thus making a nugatory assumption of a title neither more nor less than an impotent insult to another monarch. But the truth was, the French Court deemed it unworthy of their serious notice, and it was in 1800, when we were effecting the union of the Legislature of Ireland with that of this country, that the title was dropped, and then, not at the request of the French King, but at the instance of the French Republic, which declared, that a king of England's calling himself also king of France, was an insult to the majesty of the Republic. But, said the hon. and learned Gentleman, though there is no dangerous claimant to the possessions once enjoyed by the House of Stuart now in existence, there may be; and therefore you must not remove our only protection—the Oath of Abjuration. His answer was,—when such a possibility assumes a serious aspect, let Parliament, in its wisdom, provide the remedy; but till then let them not be "wasting their breath" combating with chimæras. Suppose the Oath of Abjuration wholly abolished, would any hon. Member venture to assert, that thereby the claims of any descendant of James 2nd to the throne of this realm would be promoted one jot, or that the Brunswick succession would be in the least affected by it? But, said the hon. and learned Gentleman, recollect that King Louis Philip is a collateral descendant of the House of Stuart. This was not the fact in the sense of the hon. and learned Gentleman, for the claim of the Duchess of Orleans, the daughter of Charles 1st, did not descend to the Duke of Orleans, the present king of the French, but to the Duchess of Modena; and she, as he had stated, had no inclination to assert it. It was true that the ex-King, Charles 10th, had married a daughter of the House of Savoy, but he believed that but little apprehension was entertained for the safety of the throne of this kingdom from the heirs of that royal personage. It was in fact combating with artificial shadows to put forward any assertion of danger to our existing line of monarchs from the descendants of the House of Stuart. With respect to the motion before the House, he could not anticipate any objection. It went merely to separate into two bills, the two branches of that which he had introduced in one bill on a former occasion. It was his intention to proceed then only with that branch by which the necessity for Members taking the oaths before the Lord Steward, previously to taking their seats in that House, would be done away with. The other branch—that for abolishing the Oath of Abjuration — he would postpone till after the decision of the House on his hon. friend's Motion for the relief of our Jewish fellow-subjects. The two discussions might jar in degree with each other, therefore he would not invite the attention of the House to the expediency of abolishing the Oath of Abjuration till the measure for the repeal of the civil disabilities affecting the Jews had been disposed of.

Mr. Goulburn

observed, that the objects of the Bill were twofold. To the first part, which related to the abolition of the oaths taken before the Lord Steward, he had no objection; but to the repeal of the Oath of Abjuration, notwithstanding all the arguments which had been urged by his right hon. friend, he would give a most decided negative. Was the right hon. Gentleman prepared to go to the legitimate length of his own argument? If so, he ought to be prepared at the same time to abolish the Oath of Allegiance; for if they might repeal the Oath of Abjuration because the law otherwise provided for the integrity of the existing dynasty, on the same grounds they might repeal the Oath of Allegiance, the law also compelling their fealty to the line of monarchs who had sat on the throne since the Act of Settlement.

Mr. Perceval

thought, that one most important point had been nearly forgotten, or overlooked in the course of this discussion. The oath was not only directed against certain persons, but against certain opinions, considered to be unfit to be admitted into the government of the kingdom; and it went to the support of a great principle—he meant the principle of Protestantism in our government; for, although the succession was limited to the heirs of the Princess Sophia, it was only so limited while they continued Protestants: the words were, "the heirs of her body being Protestants." He thought that the House ought to attend to this principle, and, in consideration of its importance, they should pause before they adopted the measure proposed by the right hon. Gentleman.

Lord Althorp

felt himself called upon to remind the House, that it was then indulging in a most needless and unexpected discussion, on subjects which, in the very terms of his right hon. friend's motion, would come substantively and separately before the House on other occasions. Hon. Members were discussing the expediency of abolishing the Oath of Abjuration, though his right hon. friend had declared, that he would for the present postpone that branch of his measure, and would confine himself to a bill for doing away with the necessity of Members taking the oaths before the Lord Steward. Hon. Members would see, that, on the present occasion, their opposition and remarks were, to say the least, premature.

Sir C. Wetherell

had no objection to the mere matter of form being gone through, but in every other respect he objected to the motion of the right hon. Gentleman. He contended, that the same principle which would go to the repeal of the Oath of Abjuration, namely—that the law implied the obligation which the words of that oath embodied—would, in like manner, go to the repeal of the Oath of Allegiance itself; for the law implied, on the part of every subject, the duty of faithful allegiance to the Crown. His objection to the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman was, that it was not for the repeal of mere words, but for the repeal of that which seemed to him to be the very principle of the Revolution of 1688. Feeling that very strongly, he should take the sense of the House on the question, whether the principle of the Revolution was not embodied in that oath, and whether the abolition of the oath would not, in effect, be a denying of that principle? The man who could bring himself to doubt upon that subject must have brought his mind into a state which he by no means envied. He should certainly oppose the measure.

Sir R. Inglis

would also press his opposition to the Motion to the vote, if the right hon. Gentleman should take the assent of the House to it as an argument in favour of his bringing in a bill for abolishing the Oath of Abjuration.

General Gascoyne

would vote with his hon. friend who had spoken last, should he divide the House on the right hon. Gentleman's motion; for he had not heard any thing from the right hon. Gentleman which in his mind, amounted to a justification of it.

Mr. Sadler

thought, that the House ought to proceed circumspectly on a matter of this importance. He conjured the hon. Mover of this Bill to pause before he pressed it to a decision, in order that those who entertained doubts as to its propriety might have time given them for the removal of those doubts.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

observed, that the House had not pledged itself to this Bill before the vacation; on the contrary, it was expressly stated, that the discussion upon it should be better taken in the Committee. If the House allowed him to divide his measure into two bills (a plan that would be of great convenience in the discussion), he should propose to proceed with one of the Bills without delay, while he should postpone the consideration of the other to a future day.

Sir E. Knatchbull

hoped, that an opportunity would be given for discussing the principle of these two Bills separately, and that hon. Members, by assenting to the Speaker's now leaving the Chair, would not be considered as pledged to the support of either of them.

Mr. C. W. Wynn.

—Certainly not.

The Speaker

then left the Chair. The bill went into the Committee, where it was divided into two bills to be called the Oaths before the Lord Steward's Bill and the Abjuration Oath Repeal Bill. The report on each was brought up and read. The report on the Lord Steward's Oaths Bill was ordered to be taken into consideration on this day se'nnight, and the report on the Oath of Abjuration Bill on the 20th of February.

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