King James II (1685–1688) attempted to introduce Catholicism back into England during his reign. He wanted to extend to Roman Catholics a dispensation of the religious laws to provide Dissenters and other sects outside the Church of England the ability to carry out their religious practices. James created a new Declaration of Indulgence in April 1687, but later ordered the clergy to read the declaration in the London churches in mid-May 1688 and then outside London on two Sundays in June.
William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, along with other bishops and leaders of the London clergy decided on May 15 to petition the king, which they did (Sancroft absent) on May 18, 1688. The seven signers to the petition were William Sancroft, Thomas Ken of Bath and Wells, John Lake of Chichester, Jonathan Trelawny of Bristol, William Lloyd of St. Asaph, Francis Turner of Ely, and Thomas White of Peterborough. James was highly offended by the petition and held them for trial for publishing a false, malicious, and seditious libel. The trial took place on June 29 and 30, 1688.
The trial lasted just two days. The two main issues in the trial were critical of the king’s dispensing and suspending power and the publication of the petition as a libel. The bishops denied the king had power to dispense or suspend legislative acts without consent of Parliament based on Parliament’s condemnation of Charles II using the dispensing and suspending power in his declarations issued in 1662 and 1672. At first, counsel had to prove that the petition was actually written and handed by the bishops to the king (which it eventually was). The King’s Counsel argued the bishops could only present a petition in Parliament, but defense counsel countered that claim using historical records of redress to the kings. Although the petition was shown to be presented by the bishops to the king (and under English law considered libelous), the defense argued it was neither malicious because the bishops did not cause the events that led to their petitioning, nor libelous because they had the right to petition the king to redress grievances outside of parliament. It was not seditious because it was presented in private to the king. None of the justices supported the king’s power to suspend the laws.
The Lord Chief Justice Wright and Judge Allibone supported the king’s position that it was a libelous petition, while Justices Powell and Holloway sided with the defense. Disobeying the judicial instructions, the jury found the bishops not guilty. The jury’s rejection was recognized as a great victory for a rejection of the king’s suspending authority and an Englishman’s right to petition the government, which was upheld in the 1689 parliamentary act of the Bill of Rights (1 W. & M. sess. 2 cap. 2). The Bishops’ Case was cited as precedent in the important John Peter Zenger trial (1735) and later for the First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
References and Further Reading
See also Seditious Libel