When Charles II was restored in 1660, it was widely assumed that it would be on the condition of a new regime of (relative) religious tolerance. Charles himself had promised as much in his ‘Declaration of Breda’, a list of (vague) promises to his soon-to-be subjects made as a prelude to his reclaiming the throne. Given that the Presbyterians (one of the major Puritan sects that had caused his father so much trouble in the 1640s) were, by 1660, willing to acquiesce in his Restoration, this was hardly surprising. Certainly the Presbyterians themselves saw it as a quid pro quo: we’ll support your return if you give us freedom of worship. ‘Dissenters’ – that is, Protestant Christians who disagreed with the doctrines and rites of the Church of England, usually on the grounds that the latter was not Protestant enough – were to be allowed to exist in some reasonable degree of freedom.
This was not how things turned out. Charles’s promises came with two caveats. Firstly, “liberty to tender consciences” was promised on the condition that the religious views tolerated did not “disturb the peace of the kingdom”. Secondly, it was all conditional on the consent of parliament.
The parliament elected in 1661 was dominated by high-flying Anglican cavaliers. They had suffered themselves from religious persecution at the hands of the Presbyterians and then the Commonwealth regime in the 1640s and 1650s, and were in no mood to compromise or show ‘indulgence’ on matters spiritual. In their minds, Protestant Dissent was, by definition, incompatible with “the peace of the kingdom”. They passed a series of laws which, cumulatively, effectively made Protestant Dissent illegal. All members of the realm were legally obliged, in theory, to be members of the Church of England: to attend their parish church on a Sunday, pay tithes, and be baptised according to the rite of the Book of Common Prayer. ‘Conventicles’, i.e., Dissenting religious meetings, were banned, on pain of imprisonment or even transportation. Holding municipal office was made conditional on taking communion within the Church of England. These laws became known (rather unfairly) as the Clarendon Code (Clarendon, Charles’s chief minister, actually did not support most of it).
In practice, these laws were applied very unevenly. Charles II vacillated between patchy and ineffective enforcement of the code, more active attempts to live up to the promises of Breda and impose toleration by royal fiat (in reality, more because he wanted toleration for Roman Catholics than Dissenters), and furious reversions to persecution by means of rigid enforcement of the penal laws. At various points one policy or the other was more politically convenient for him. In the 1670s, the Test Act was passed, which actually tightened these restrictions further: it made Anglicanism compulsory for anyone holding any public office of any kind.
By the end of his regime, he had adopted a policy of whole-heartedly throwing his lot in with the Anglican establishment and the strict enforcement of the Clarendon Code (largely because they were the safest bulwarks of his regime in face of the threat from the Whigs, who were attempting to exclude his brother and heir, James, from the throne). When James acceded and became James II, he attempted to reverse this policy by giving indulgence to both Dissenters and Roman Catholics. He paid for the attempt with his crown.
James had been far more interested in toleration for his Roman Catholic co-religionists than for Dissenters, and this was incendiary in a country in which Protestant fear and hatred for ‘Popery’ united both Dissenters and Anglicans. The triumph of the revolution of 1688 in the face of (in the view of most contemporaries) the threat of rampant Popish rapine, murder and tyranny led to something of a pan-Protestant reapprochement: the common enemy of James II’s papism and the fact that the Dissenters had, in general, spurned James II’s offer of toleration made it hard for the Church of England to maintain the hardline position it had taken before 1688. The result was what is usually called the Toleration Act of 1689, which finally made Dissent legal (sort of).
The Toleration Act was not what it might appear, however. There is a widespread assumption that after the Glorious Revolution, toleration reigned and England suddenly gained complete freedom of worship and religion. This is one of those comforting fictions held by many with a superficial grasp of English history: it isn’t remotely true.
The Toleration Act was a very limited legal provision. It wasn’t even called ‘The Toleration Act’ – its actual title was ‘An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes’. It did not repeal the penal laws against Dissent: it merely exempted from their penalties some of those who were prepared to take certain oaths pledging allegiance to the regime. It specifically excluded from its terms Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters who did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Dissenters still had to register their conventicles with the authorities. And as for non-Christians – well, they gained precisely nothing from the Act. It allowed people to recuse themselves from Anglican services only if they went to a Dissenting one instead.
Perhaps most significantly, it did not give non-Anglicans full civil or political rights. The Test and Corporation Acts, which made it illegal for anyone other than Anglicans to hold any public office, ranging from being a member of a municipal corporation (effectively a local councillor) or a lord lieutenant through to being a judge or a minister of the crown, were not repealed. They were to remain the law of the land for another 139 years. By the late 1820s, the laws against Dissenters and even Roman Catholics had been repealed, and over the next few decades the vestigial elements of the Anglican monopoly (e.g. in the universities) were also dropped. It’s true that the Church of England is still the established church, but the practical political implications of this are now limited to, essentially, some ritual and ceremonial role and a few Bishops in the Lords. The confessional state ceased to be in the mid-19th Century.
It’s true that in practice elements of the 1689-1828 legal and political settlement were softened and bent over the years. Walpole ensured that the Corporation Act didn’t apply to newly founded corporations. ‘Occasional Conformity’ – where Dissenters took Communion in Anglican Churches in order to qualify for public office, while still predominantly worshipping as Dissenters – was practised by some to evade the Test Act. But the basics of what we call the ‘confessional state’ held. The state had an official religion that it actively encouraged. It discriminated against those who did not adhere to it and membership of the state apparatus at all levels (including the universities, which were a particularly pronounced example of total Anglican monopoly) was conditional on at least pretending to conform to it. But, in a modification to the older idea of Church-State relations, where being a subject of the realm and a member of the Church were merely two different ways of looking at the same thing, it was prepared to recognise and tolerate the existence of (at least some – in practice the majority of) non-adherents and give them some basic rights and freedoms.
Whatever else one might say about this, it was fairly clear. The beliefs that were officially sanctioned and those that attracted civil and political penalties were openly stated and precisely defined. Adherence to the doctrines, morals and rites of the Church of England, as expounded in the 39 articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Church’s other official formularies and practically expressed by baptism and taking Communion a certain number of times per year was the condition of being a full member of the state and many state-aligned institutions. A hierarchy of beliefs outside of that was maintained and outlined in law: in effect, being a non-Anglican Trinitarian Protestant gave you second-class membership, being a Roman Catholic or non-Trinitarian Protestant gave you third-class membership, and anyone else was effectively in the fourth class (although that was generally practically irrelevant).