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The Three Questions: King James 11, the Penal Laws and Test Acts, and the landed classes, 1687-88

By Peter (Samuel Peter) Walker


The purpose of this thesis is to look afresh at James 11's canvassing of the gentry in the winter of 1687-8 on the repeal of the Test Acts and the penal laws. The Tests prevented non-Anglicans in general, but Catholics in particular, from participating fully in public life. The penal laws punished those who did not conform to the Established Church. As a Catholic, James was anxious to ease the lot of his co-religionists and by the third year of his reign he had shown himself willing to extend toleration to Protestant Dissenters. The canvass was part of the campaign to find a Parliament willing to repeal these laws. Historians have viewed the canvass as a failure: certainly it did not bring the results the King hoped for and helped to create a united opposition to the Stuart regime. But on closer inspection the returns reveal a more confused picture. More members of the gentry supported repeal than was originally believed and with these supporters the King was able to begin to fashion alternative local political administrations that might in time have challenged the entrenched political interests in the shires. However, this new power base was still too narrow by the time William of Orange intervened in English politics, mainly because the King, by his ruthless purging of local office-holders, missed the opportunity to win over gentlemen who, given the right encouragement, might have come to support repeal. But it is in the answers to the third question, in which an overwhelming majority of gentlemen endorsed the general concept of religious toleration, that a sea change in attitudes among the political classes is revealed, something the King might have been able to build on if he had had the time or inclination to nurture the 'green shoots' of religious pluralism

Publisher: University of Leicester
Year: 2008
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