Test Acts

The Test Act reinforced the religious and political supremacy of the Anglican Church by prohibiting Catholics and Protestant Dissenters from holding offices in the government and military.

Summary of Event

The Anglican Church, or Church of England Church of England , regained its position as the dominant religion in England upon the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 under Charles II. Charles II (king of England)
[p]Charles II (king of England)[Charles 02 (king of England)];Restoration of} The new king, son of the executed Charles I, brought back to England both kingship and the religion that had dominated the country since Henry VIII. Charles II (king of England)
Shaftesbury, First Earl of
James, Duke of York and Albany
Oates, Titus
Louis XIV
Mary II
William III of Orange

Charles, however, was widely viewed as sympathetic toward Catholicism. His brother and presumed successor, James James II (king of England) , duke of York (the future James II), was a Catholic. In 1670, Charles entered into a secret agreement with King Louis XIV of France that involved a promise by Charles to become a Catholic in return for a French subsidy. The bargain may have been more political and military than religious, but it did parallel actions that demonstrated an apparent predilection for Catholicism on the part of the king.

Charles issued Declarations of Indulgence in 1662 and 1672 Declarations of Indulgence (1662 and 1672) , which licensed Dissenting preachers as well as their places of worship. The king’s actions also permitted Catholics to worship in private. Parliament opposed these measures, however, and passed a Test Act in 1673. This act required those who would hold civil or military offices to take Communion in the Church of England, swear allegiance to the Crown, and reject the doctrine of transubstantiation. The latter was a Catholic doctrine asserting that during Mass the Communion bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The doctrine of transubstantiation was seen as a defining character of Catholics, so much so that in 1676, Parliament proposed an oath for future monarchs in which the monarch affirms, “I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.”

These provisions of the Test Act were designed to eliminate both Protestant Dissenters and Catholics from any significant role in government or the military. Catholics believed that Communion entailed transubstantiation, and Puritans refused to take Communion at all. The act would thus consolidate the privileged position of the Church of England while securing the government against groups associated with rebellion and revolution.

The Test Act led to the resignation of the duke of York as lord high admiral of England. In 1677, the duke of York’s eldest daughter, Mary Mary II (queen of England)
[p]Mary II (queen of England)[Mary 02 (queen of England)];marriage of} , married the Protestant William III William III (king of England)
[p]William III (king of England);[William 03 (king of England)];marriage of of Orange, a union that would prove crucial to the success of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The Test Act not only was an important event within the religious struggles among Catholics, Protestant Dissenters, and adherents of the Church of England but also was a watershed regarding the struggle between Crown and Parliament. Charles II had revived the concept of the divine right of kings—the belief that the monarch derives his or her right to rule from God. Parliament, however, while wishing no repetition of the revolutionary zeal that had led to the execution of King Charles I, nevertheless realized that the reigning king had been “made” by citizens of England, who had invited his return to England following the failed tenure of Richard Cromwell. Parliament thus intended to play a major role in the political life of the country, and passage of the Test Act was an example of Parliament’s determination to wield considerable power in relation to the king.

Religious and political action soon coalesced in attempts to exclude the duke of York from the line of succession. With such a measure, Charles, who had no legitimate heirs, would be succeeded by his Catholic brother, a prospect that proved distasteful, even frightening, to many English subjects. Some feared an effort to make England a Catholic nation again. Catholicism;England

Anti-Catholic sentiment was increased in 1678 by an alleged plot to kill the king, replace him with his Catholic brother, and, with the help of the French, return England to the Catholic fold. Titus Oates, Oates, Titus whom history has judged to be a liar, announced this so-called Popish Plot Popish Plot (1678-1681) , giving a deposition to a judge, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, Godfrey, Sir Edmund Berry who was later found murdered. Godfrey’s murder seemed to substantiate the allegations. Contributing further to the apparent credibility of the plot were documents found in the possession of the duke of York’s secretary, Edward Coleman, Coleman, Edward that established a continuing communication between the secretary and the private confessor to King Louis XIV Louis XIV
[p]Louis XIV[Louis 14];Catholicism and , Père La Chaise La Chaise, Père . The plot’s supposed conspirators, including Coleman and Oliver Plunkett, the Catholic archbishop of Armagh, were executed. In addition, a second Test Act was passed in 1678, excluding all Catholics except the duke of York from both Houses of Parliament, and thereby depriving Catholics of representation in the government of England.

Anti-Catholic and Parliamentarian zeal combined to foster three exclusion bills from 1679 to 1681, which proposed to replace the duke of York with James, duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s eldest illegitimate son and a Protestant. Political maneuvering by the king—including moving Parliament to Oxford, where Royalist sentiment was traditionally strong, and dissolving Parliament—prevented any of the bills from becoming law. The poet John Dryden Dryden, John entered the political battle on the side of Charles II and the antiexclusion forces with his poems Absalom and Achitophel, Part I
Absalom and Achitophel, Part I (Dryden) (1681) and The Medall: A Satyre Against Sedition
Medall, The (Dryden) (1682). The leader of the exclusionary effort, the earl of Shaftesbury, Shaftesbury, first earl of finally was arrested, charged with treason, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Shaftesbury eventually was acquitted by a friendly London jury, but the effort to exclude the duke of York from the throne was brought to an end.

Further Reading

  • Ashley, Maurice. England in the Seventeenth Century. 3d ed. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1967. Ashley’s book, first published in 1952, remains a succinct, informative, and readable overview for those not very familiar with the century.
  • Condren, Conal. The Language of Politics in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. As this book illustrates, political rhetoric in the century often was as important as political action, and many times they were inseparable.
  • Edwards, David L. Christian England. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1984. Part of a three-volume set, this volume examines the impact of, and the relationships among, Catholics, Dissenters, and Anglicans in England from the Reformation to the eighteenth century.
  • Greaves, Richard L. Secrets of the Kingdom: British Radicals from the Popish Plot to the Revolution of 1688-1689. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. The third in a series of books about British radicalism explores political and religious radicalism in the late seventeenth century.
  • Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 1991. Written by one of the greatest historians of this period, the volume explores political, religious, economic, and intellectual currents.
  • Keeble, N. H. The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth-Century England. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Keeble’s book examines the philosophy of nonconformity within the context of seventeenth century literature.
  • Ogg, David. England in the Reign of Charles II. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1955. One of the greatest historians of the period offers what remains a classic study of the latter part of the seventeenth century.
  • Pollock, John. The Popish Plot: A Study in the History of the Reign of Charles II. Rev. ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1944. This book explores the reign of Charles II by focusing on religious-political issues.


Despite Charles II’s efforts to promote greater religious freedom for the Dissenters, many of them supported Shaftesbury and became part of the political party that later came to be called the Whigs Whigs , in opposition to the Royalist party that would later be known as the Tories Tories . A new alignment was occurring, with Dissenters, who often were small businessmen and shopkeepers, participating in an alliance of the city and middle-class citizens against the country and gentry, which tended to be Royalist. As these factions developed into the Whigs and the Tories, they formally institutionalized, for the first time, a two-party system within Parliament, fundamentally changing the nature of British politics.

The remaining years of Charles’s reign saw the king abandon any efforts to aid the Dissenters, instead enforcing the penal statutes aimed at the Dissenters. Further widening the gulf between the king and the Dissenters was the Rye House Plot Rye House Plot (1682-1683) in 1683, an attempt by several Dissenters to kill both Charles and James as they returned from the Newmarket races. The king’s Catholic inclinations, however, continued to thrive, as Charles, ruling without Parliamentary support, relied on French subsidies. Near the end of his life, Charles formally became a Catholic. He died on February 6, 1685, and was succeeded by his brother, James II, whose fate would be closely bound up with the religious struggles of his brother’s reign.

English Civil Wars

Restoration of Charles II

Clarendon Code

England’s Act of Uniformity

The Popish Plot

Rye House Plot

Declaration of Liberty of Conscience

Reign of William and Mary

The Glorious Revolution

Toleration Act

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Charles II (of England); John Dryden; James II; Louis XIV; Mary II; Duke of Monmouth; Titus Oates; First Earl of Shaftesbury; William III. Test Acts (1673-1678)