HC Deb 19 March 1866 vol 182 cc509-18

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."—(Sir George Grey.)


I feel, Sir, that I ought to crave the indulgence of the House, and to make every apology for again alluding to this subject. But I am anxious to point out that the question now stands in a very different position from that in which it stood on the second reading of the Bill. Had I had the opportunity afforded me, I should have been glad to have submitted the Notice which appears in my name upon the paper to the Committee on the Bill, or else for consideration upon the Report. These opportunities, however, not having been, available to me, I therefore propose to take the following course. Unless I find that hon. Members are inclined to support the re-committal of the Bill with a view to the re-consideration of the oath as it non-stands in the Bill, I shall not make the Motion of which I have given notice-But I desire to call the attention of the House to the fact that this very important Bill, abrogating the oath of supremacy, has been passed without anything like a general discussion. In the course of my experience as a Member of Parliament I have known the question of the oath of supremacy raised more than once in this House; but I have always heard it gravel) and fully discussed, as a question which touches not only the supremacy of the Crown but the supremacy of the law—a supremacy in which this House shares by its legislative capacity as one element of the Imperial Parliament. I wish now particularly to call attention to what occurred in the debate of the 22nd March 1858, when this subject was before the House, On that occasion doubts were ex pressed by some hon. Members of this House, and amongst them by Mr. Stewart, then Member for Cambridge, and by the hon. Member for Sheffield, whether the terms of the oath of supremacy, as taken by the Protestant Members of the House, who form the vast majority of the House, affirming the ecclesiastical and spiritual supremacy of the Crown were truthful; and whether the words contained in the oath taken by Roman Catholic Members, in which they affirm that the temporal and civil authority of Her Majesty shall be maintained as supreme, not only as being supreme, but that this authority should be continued as supreme, might not be so modified as to meet the objections which were at that time stated to the House by some hon. Members On that occasion, Sir, Mr. Stewart, then Member for Cambridge, moved the insertion of the word "rightfully" in the oath, implying that no foreign Prince, Prelate, State, or Potentate rightfully hath or ought to have any jurisdiction within this realm. And I beg to read the words which were used by Lord John Russell on that occasion. Lord John Russell said that— He thought the word 'lawfully' might be intelligible, because it would refer to the state of the law here; but 'rightfully' was a vague word which every one might construe according to his own ideas Well, the discussion continued, and the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer proceeded to express his opinion in the following words:— They (the House) were certainly in a great difficulty, because the hon. Member who proposed the word 'rightfully' gave it one meaning, while his noble Friend (Lord John Russell) gave to the word 'lawfully,' which he seemed disposed to accept, another meaning. He (Mr. Gladstone) confessed he greatly preferred the meaning which he supposed was to be attached to the word 'rightfully,' as proposed by the Mover of the Amendment. But he did strongly feel that it was hardly consistent with the respect in which they held the very nature of an oath, and the fair claims of individuals, to allow the matter to rest without bringing it to some authoritative solution. It was not a matter for private discussion or opinion, but one upon which the views of Parliament ought to be clearly and unmistakably expressed. For his own part, he hoped the House would be disposed to accept the Amendment of his hon. Friend. it is scarcely possible to convey in words a stronger opinion than this, which was expressed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I may say that on another occasion Lord John Russell, who is now Prime Minister, expressed his opinion in favour of the word "lawfully." In the suggestion which I have ventured to make, the House will observe that I have thus placed the words— And I do declare that no Foreign Prince, Prelate, State, or Potentate, hath by law, or ought to have, any rightful jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority within this realm. The only words I have added to those of the present oath are the words "by law" and the word "rightful." As these words stand, the words "by law" govern the word "rightful." Perhaps the House will allow me to mention the interpretation of the word "rightful" given in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. I find that in Committee on the Oaths Bill of 1858, the Chancellor of the Exchequer adopted that which Dr. Johnson considered to be the secondary meaning of the word "rightful," that is, "just." Dr. Johnson defines the word "rightful" to mean "having a right, haying a just claim," and, by way of illustration, he gives this passage from Shakespeare— As in this haughty great attempt, They laboured to supplant the rightful heir, I lost my liberty, and they their lives. In referring to this subject, I wish to show the House that I do not presume to act upon my own conceits, but that, in favour of the additions, which I suggest in the existing words of the oath, I have, as nearly as may be, borrowed the suggestions first of Earl Russell, and of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I may be fairly asked why were those suggestions not adopted when made in 1858? My answer is the answer which was given by Lord Westbury. The words were not in 1858 adopted, because, as Lord Westbury, who was then a Member of this House, explained, so long as the oaths stood in the form given them by the 1st of Elizabeth and by the Relief Act of 1829, the construction of them was perfectly clear; in other words, taking the preamble and the context of the Act of Elizabeth in which the supremacy was first declared, and taking the circumstances under which the Relief Act of 1829 was passed, and considering the fact that the supremacy is affirmed under the provisions of that Act by Roman Catholics so far only as the temporal and civil supremacy of the law is concerned, it is evident that the interpretation was clear in the sense of my notice; therefore, there was at that time no need for any additional words. This question as to the propriety of inserting either the words "by law" or "of right," or the word "rightfully," before the words jurisdiction, pre-eminence, power, or authority, in denial of the claim by any foreign Prince, Prelate, &c., arose in the House of Lords on the 27th of April, 1858, subsequently to the debate, and in which they were suggested in this House. On that occasion the Earl of Wicklow moved that, because these words had not been inserted with reference to the supremacy, the existing oath taken by Protestants, which stands— And I do declare that no Foreign Prince, Person, Prelate, State, or Potentate, hath or ought to hare any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm, should be abrogated. Lord Lyndhurst spoke upon this Motion for the last time on the subject of the oaths. I will not quote his speech. It is such a condensed argument in favour of the view held by Lord Westbury, that I should only waste the time of the House and impair the force of the argument by reading only part of it. But I wish particularly to call the attention of the House to this fact, that Lord Lyndhurst was supported in the view which he took by the late Lord Campbell, who urged that as the law stood the meaning of the oaths was perfectly clear, and that he was also supported by Earl Granville; and such was the effect produced, that the Motion for expunging this declaration of the supremacy from the oath was negatived by the House of Lords without a division. But now the circumstances are changed, and so far as the decision of this House, the oath of supremacy, under the Act of Elizabeth, which is still taken by the Protestant Members of the House, modified as it stands by the exclusion of the affirmation of the supremacy, but retaining the negative portion of that oath against any foreign usurpation, has been condemned and expunged, whilst the oath taken by the Roman Catholic Members under the Act of 1829, which excludes the words "ecclesiastical or spiritual," and yet affirms the temporal and civil supremacy, has also been condemned. So that the present position of the Bill is this—that the House of Commons has condemned the assertion of the supremacy in matters ecclesiastical and spiritual as it stands in the oath taken by Protestant Members, and has likewise condemned the recognition of the supremacy of the Crown in matters temporal and civil as it stands in the Roman Catholic oath. This completely changes the circumstances; they are, so far as this Bill evinces the decision of this House, no longer those under which Lord Westbury, Lord Lyndhurst, and the late Lord Campbell besought Parliament not to interfere with the oath of supremacy; and it seems to me that the occasion has now arisen when it will be well that the House should consider whether the alteration suggested by Earl Russell when he was a Member of this House, and the alteration suggested by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, may not enable the House to adopt a uniform oath, which shall include some declaration of supremacy, that may be acceptable by all the Members of the House. I admit that I may be told my Amendment does not meet the real difficulty, because the real difficulty is that the existing terms of the oath of supremacy, which I suggest that you should retain, imply the ecclesiastical and spiritual supremacy that the Roman Catholics will not admit, and which in the year 1820 led to the adoption of a different oath for the Roman Catholics from that which the Members of the House had uniformly, for 300 years, up to that period accepted. Yet if it should be the pleasure of the House to adopt the purport of the notice which I have given, so far as re-committing the Bill, I think that in Committee terms might be devised for a uniform oath, by which the supremacy of the law might still be recognized. I cannot help feeling that the position is a very serious one. For the first time for more than 300 years the Legislature, so far as the decision of this House is concerned, is about to abandon the recognition of the fact that the Crown, as the exponent of the law, is and ought to be supreme, and solely supreme, within this realm, and this not in matters ecclesiastical and spiritual only, but also in matters temporal and civil. I must say, Sir, that it appears to me that we are in a fair way to renew the old strife, which was the result of the existence of two supremacies, and to verify the old adage as to two kings of Brentford, and that the county- is not likely to escape the confusion, which such a state of things has heretofore occasioned and proverbially creates, because the present state of things is not as though there were no assertion of another supremacy than that of the Crown in this country. Why, only last year, at, thirteen different meetings of Roman Catholics, at which Dr. Manning or some other distinguished Roman Catholic ecclesiastic either presided or were present, the recognition of Her Majesty, the recognition of the Crown, the recognition of the authority of the Crown was postponed to that of His Holiness the Pope, or else the Pope was recognized as the ruler of the Roman Catholics alone, and no mention whatever was made of the Crown or of its authority. I may be told that this is a mere matter of courtesy; but, at the same time, it is an indication of a feeling which is known to exist among these Roman Catholic ecclesiastics; and I cannot think it prudent that the House should leave the existence of that feeling uncontrolled by any declaration in the oaths, taken by Members of Parliament, as is now proposed by the Government, and that Members of the Legislature known to entertain a difference of opinion as to the supremacy should take an oath in common, from which all declaration of the supremacy is omitted. I beg the House to consider that the effect of that omission and of the abrogation of the terms of the oaths, recognizing the supremacy of the Crown in matters ecclesiastical and spiritual, and even in matters temporal and civil, comes to this; that Parliament will no longer declare collectively that it will resist any attempt to intercept or usurp the supremacy of the Crown and of the law in this country; and further, that it will become competent to any Member of the House to propose in this House to discuss and to debate measures impugning the authority of the; Crown and the law; and this, not in respect of one particular only, but in every matter, whether ecclesiastical or temporal, to which the authority of the Crown and the law extends. I know it will be said that the object of the adoption of this uniform oath is to get rid of invidious religious distinctions, and put an end to the expression of religious differences; but I ask the House and the Government whether, by opening for the first time after 300 years, to debate these questions of ecclesiastical and temporal supremacy, and inviting discussions upon them in Parliament, knowing the feelings which exist upon this subject out of doors, feelings which have been expressed by Roman Catholic ecclesiastics on the part of the Papal See and their Church on the one side, and the feelings, which have found expression in the numerous petitions which have been presented against this Bill in behalf of Protestants on the other side—I ask whether there is any prospect of future peace from thus opening the door to the discussion of those elements of controversy which in years now long past have torn this country, and which have been quieted only by the decision of the Legislature that there shall be but one authority supreme in this country, and that shall be the authority of the law, the authority of the Crown, the authority of the decrees of Parliament in its legislative capacity, the authority of the Crown in its Executive capacity as the fountain and exponent of justice and of the law? It is evident to me that we are opening the door for a renewal of those discussions which formerly led to divisions and strifes which have been witnessed in later times on very rare occasions, and then in a very mitigated form. It is for these reasons that I venture to suggest to the House, as a means of obviating the difficulty that seems to interpose in the construction of an oath of supremacy which may be accepted by all the Members of the House, that this is an occasion on which the House has a right to the advice and assistance of the Law Officers and Ministers of the Crown, and we independent Members of the House may fairly expect that the ominous silence which has hitherto been observed by the leading Members of the Opposition will be broken. It is not fair or right that we should be required to abandon this important declaration without some further effort being made to arrive at a solution of the difficulty in this House. I do not wish to intrude for any length of time on the attention of the House, and I shall not speak one word that is calculated to cause irritation, which it is my object, both now and for the future, to avoid. I have stated fairly the object with which I have made this suggestion; and if it is deemed worthy the consideration of the House, and hon. Members think fit to support it, I will move as I have given notice. But in deference to the House, I at present content myself with pointing to the suggestion I have made. If that suggestion is refused, I can only regret that my objections on principle to this Bill will remain unabated, although I am still actuated by the hope that, as the House has thought fit to listen to the prayers of the petitioners, so far as continuing in our future oaths to recognize the succession to the Throne, it may yet be thought fit to consider whether the supremacy of the Crown and of the law is not a matter so important that an effort should be made to retain the declaration of Parliament in favour of its existence and continuance. I trust, Sir, that this subject may not be allowed to pass from the House without some practical solution being given to it; because I am certain of this, that if you wish to promote discord upon this subject in this country, with the existing agencies that are engaged in promoting hostile feelings upon it amongst Roman Catholics, aye, and even forcing many Roman Catholics, that the House cannot do worse than to leave questions touching the supremacy to be fought out, first in public meetings, and then in the Courts of Law; and to the encouragement of such mischievous proceedings the House is at present committed, nor can they be avoided, unless we continue in this House to declare, as the representatives of the people of this country, that it is their will that in all matters the law as it exists in principle—the law as it shall hereafter be framed by Parliament—the law as it is intrusted for execution to the servants of the Crown, shall be supreme universally, and solely supreme within this realm.


Out of respect to the hon. Member I propose to offer a few words on the notice of Motion placed on the Paper, although the hon. Member has not moved it. The speech of the hon. Member involves the old fallacy that the supremacy of the Crown depends on the oath taken. I think the more the hon. Member's propositions are considered the more entirely the House will be confirmed in the opinion that we had much better get rid of the form which he supports altogether. The hon. Member seems to desire that we should at this table swear obedience to one particular law, but we are not required to swear that we will obey any other, though equally binding. The forms which are superseded by this Bill, as the hon. Member says, merely go to establish the supremacy of the law. But the law rests upon its own authority, not upon the oath taken here. With reference to the Amendment the hon. Member has upon the Paper, I think it is the worst of all suggestions that have been made in reference to the matter under discussion. In truth, it would be going back to the old form before the time of Roman Catholic Emancipation. As far as the proposed wording of the oath declares that no foreign Prince, Prelate, State, or Potentate hath by law any rightful jurisdiction or authority in this realm—it affirms a mere truism which nobody would seek to deny; but it goes on further to affirm that no such Prince or Prelate ought to have any jurisdiction or authority within this realm, whereas Roman Catholics, in a certain sense, think such jurisdiction ought to exist. By putting such words into the oath you would, therefore, be making them deliberately, and according to their convictions falsely, 6ay that this jurisdiction was not a rightful one and ought not to exist. Or, on the other hand, this consequence would follow—that the meaning of the words was not to be taken according to their true and natural interpretation, but merely as relating to the legal, external, and temporal jurisdiction. Questions such as these and the possibility of suspicions being cast upon the honour and honesty of a respectable body of Members of this House were the very things we desired to avoid when devising a liberal form of oath for Roman Catholics, obliging them only to disclaim the temporal jurisdiction. If the words proposed to be introduced by the hon. Member are adopted, the whole force and efficacy of that concession will be lost. It is our desire to abandon idle and useless, and worse than idle and useless, declarations. The law is able to vindicate itself. I hope, therefore, the Bill will pass this House and become law in the course of the present Session. If it does, I venture to say we shall never again hear of those painful discussions in which Members of one religious persuasion threw out taunts against the Members of another persuasion, the sole foundation for these taunts being the oath which it is now sought, to abolish, and about which, when once it is abolished, I believe we shall never hear anything again.


said, he must protest against the obvious fallacy involved in attributing to his hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) the opinion that the supremacy depended upon the oath. The hon. and learned Gentleman must know well that it was the recognition of the supremacy, and not the supremacy itself, which depended upon the oath. This his hon. Friend sought, and rightly sought, to keep upon the statute-book as a protest against assumptions made in times long gone by, and never yet openly abandoned. He (Mr. Long) most unwillingly accepted the conclusion to which the House had arrived, and thought the oath should stand so long as the pretensions of Rome remained.


said, that unless the oath of supremacy as well as that of allegiance were retained there might at some future period be a difficulty in defining the meaning of the words "being Protestant," by which the succession to the Crown was limited. If, therefore, the hon. Member (Mr. Newdegate) had moved his Amendment, he should have supported him.

Motion put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.

Forward to