The Test Acts of 1673 and 1678, penal laws enacted by Parliament during the reign of Charles II of England, served the purpose of preventing Roman Catholics and political rivals from ascending to any civil or military office. The 1673 Act achieved this goal by making anyone filling an office take the Oath of Supremacy, which swore allegiance to the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and within three months of admittance into office receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper from the Church of England. The 1678 Act perpetuated this antagonism towards Roman Catholicism by requiring all members of the House of Commons to reject transubstantiation, invocation of saints, and the sacrifice of the mass ("Test Act," Wikipedia).

The Test Acts stemmed from a political crisis following the death of Oliver Cromwell, the predecessor to Charles II. Parliament favored the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II and the reestablishment of the Church of England ("Cavalier Parliament," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia), and thus sought to secure their authority and the new status quo by preventing political rivals and opponents of the Anglican Church, but more specifically Catholics, from taking office. Even though Charles II held religiously tolerant views and promised King Louis XIV of France that he would convert to Catholicism at some point in the future, Parliament was able to overpower him ("Charles I of England," Wikipedia).

Objection to the Test Acts grew over the next fifty years, as many started to see the injustices they caused. The laws discriminated against Catholics and Protestants of other denominatiins, preventing the Irish and members of the Church of Scotland from working in England. The Acts also restricted too wide an array of offices, many of which wouldn't pose a threat to the King anyway. Some also argued that a true threat wouldn't be stymied by the mandatory sacrament, since traitors would receive it anyway to achieve their greater political purpose (Winters, 14). Catholic Emancipation eventually became a prominent issue during the reign of George IV in the early 1800s, supported by the Whigs, liberal Tories and the King himself. Fearing civil strife and revolution in Ireland, Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which repealed the Test Acts and the rest of the Penal Laws ("George IV of the United Kingdom," Wikipedia).

Carlyle's reference to the repeal of the Test Acts serves to epitomize how society in England changed dramatically. England had long been an independent State with deep rooted cultural practices, like religious intolerance, and institutions, like the Anglican Church, that many thought were "immovable" -- that England was a "slumbering leviathan" whose status quo would remain relatively unchanged. Carlyle makes the point that England, like the rest of the world, has experienced great social and political upheaval, which many alreay saw as a disaster: "The 'State in Danger' is a condition of things, which we have witnessed a hundred times."

Bibliography

"Cavalier Parliament." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 18 March 2009

"Charles II of England." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 30 March 2009

"George IV of the United Kingdom." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 31 March 2009

"Test Act." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 10 March 2009 http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Test_Acts

Winter, Robert. Statement of the case of the Protestant dissenters under the Corporation & Test Acts, published for the United Committee appointed to conduct their application for relief. Knowsley Pamphlet Collection, 1827.


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Last modified 30 March 2009