A declaration being an 'explicit, formal announcement' and an indulgence being the grant of a 'favour or privilege', the phrase 'Declaration of Indulgence' refers to the attempts by the two later Stuart kings of England, Charles II and James II, to use their presumed royal powers to suspend the operation of legislation directed against those who did not worship in accordance with the rites of the Church of England.

The background

The Stuart kings of England were great believers in the divine right of kings; the doctrine that kings were appointed by divine providence and were to be obeyed irrespective of the morality of their commands. (Whether a nation received a good king or a bad king was simply evidence of God's judgement on the behaviour of the population.)

As far as the post-Restoration kings, Charles II and his brother James II were concerned one of the practical manifestations of this doctrine was their belief that they possessed a dispensing power; namely the ability to dispense with or suspend the operation of whatever legislation suited their royal will. Parliament naturally, objected; having gone to the trouble of enacting legislation in the first place they were not best pleased if the king then tried to cast it aside. (A power which, irrespective of its legality at the time, was finally abolished by the Bill of Rights 1689.)

Both these kings were also pro-Catholic in their outlook; Charles II was sympathetic to Catholicism, but largely secretive regarding his opinions and only became a Roman Catholic on his deathbed in 1685, whilst his brother and successor James II was rather more openly Catholic from the very beginning of his reign.

Whereas the largely Anglican Parliaments sought to eliminate both Puritans (who were regarded as dangerous revolutionaries) and Catholics (potential traitors) from positions of both secular and religious authority, as a matter of policy both kings favoured religious toleration. On a number of occasions both Charles and James sought to exercise their presumed dispensing power by issuing what were known as 'Declarations of Indulgence' that attempted to suspend the operation of legislation passed by parliament directed against religious dissent.

The Declarations of Indulgence

There are generally regarded to be five such royal declarations of indulgence, three of which were issued by Charles II and two by his brother James II.

However some might argue for the inclusion of the Declaration of Breda, being the document issued by the exiled Charles II from Breda in the Netherlands, in which he made certain statements regarding the basis of his restoration to the English throne, and which included the statement that "no man shall be disquieted or called in question for differences of opinion in matter of religion".

The Declaration of Indulgence of 1660
The First Declaration of Indulgence of King Charles II

This first declaration issued in October 1660 was somewhat limited in scope and limited itself to offering exemption from prosecution for minor ceremonial matters. It was largely concerned with the announcement of the Savoy Conference where it was intended to reach a compromise regarding the organisation of the Church of England that would satisfy both the Puritan and Episcopal factions within it. The conference proved a failure and the declaration rapidly died.

The Declaration of Indulgence of 1662
The Second Declaration of Indulgence of King Charles II

The Convention Parliament of 1660 fostered a spirit of reconciliation after the divisions of the period of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, but the subsequent Cavalier Parliament of 1661 was far more royalist in nature. With the failure of the Savoy Conference the new parliament proceeded to enact the series of statutes known as the Clarendon Code, designed to establish religious conformity with the precepts of the Church of England.

Charles sought to suspend the operation of Clarendon Code by issuing a Declaration of Indulgence but opposition from parliament meant that he was forced to withdraw it in the following year.

The Declaration of Indulgence of 1672
The Third Declaration of Indulgence of King Charles II

In 1670 Charles and the French king Louis XIV signed the Treaty of Dover. The existence and substance of this treaty were kept secret from Parliament as under this treaty king Charles promised to declare his Catholic faith and declare war on the Dutch in return for financial and military assistance from France.

On the 15th March 1672 issued yet another Declaration of Indulgence. This second declaration was similarly withdrawn in the face of widespread opposition. Indeed such was the scale of opposition that Charles was forced to approve the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678 that introduced further restrictions on the ability of Roman Catholics to hold public office.

This Declaration of Indulgence remains the best known and is sometimes referred to as 'The Declaration of Indulgence' to the exclusion of the others.

The Declaration of Indulgence of 1687
The First Declaration of Indulgence of King James II

Although Charles favoured Catholicism he generally kept his views hidden in the face of public opinion. His brother James who succeeded him as James II in 1685 was openly Roman Catholic and firmly of the opinion that his subjects should be as well. On the 4 April 1687 issued a proclamation stating that;

We do likewise declare, that it is our royal will and pleasure, that from henceforth the execution of all and all manner of penal laws in matters ecclesiastical ... is hereby suspended.

To all practical intents and purposes this suspension of the "penal laws in matters ecclesiastical" was ignored by all.

The Declaration of Indulgence of 1688
The Second Declaration of Indulgence of King James II

On the basis that no one took very much notice of his first declaration, James issued yet another Declaration of Indulgence on the 27th April 1688 in which he rather petulantly complained that "Our conduct has been such in all times as ought to have persuaded the world that we are firm and constant to our resolutions" before re-iterating the requirement "that conscience ought not to be constrained nor people forced in matters of mere religion".

In order to ensure that the country was informed of the king's wishes in this matter it was ordered to be read out in Church on two consecutive Sundays. Most of the clergy refused to comply and on the 18th May 1688 Seven Bishops issued a formal petition protesting against James' attempt to change the law without parliamentary approval. The Seven Bishops were subsequently placed on trial charged with seditious libel; their acquittal lit the fuse that exploded the Glorious Revolution.


  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • The entries for Charles II and James II from the The Columbia Encyclopedia (Sixth Edition, 2001) at www.bartleby.com/
  • History of the Monarchy at http://www.royal.gov.uk/
  • Documents Illustrating Jacobite History http://www.jacobite.ca/documents/