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The Duke of Wellington's speeches on the Repeal of the Test and Corporations Act: 1828

This document is taken from: The Speeches of the Duke of Wellington in Parliament, collected and arranged by the late Colonel Gurwood, C.B., K.C.T.S., (London,John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1854)

April 17, 1828

Lord HOLLAND, in moving the second reading of this Bill, dwelt upon the cruelty and folly of attempting to coerce the consciences of men by penal enactments. The Acts in question, after a trial of nearly 200 years, had confessedly failed in their avowed object, of strengthening the Church Establishment, and it was therefore high time that they should be removed from the Statute Book.

The Archbishop of YORK and the Bishop of LINCOLN were friendly to the Bill, as removing a cause of frequent profanation of the ordinances of the Church.

The Earl of ELDON felt bound in conscience to oppose it, as absolutely destructive to the Church. Besides, it was so entirely a party measure, that even the noble Lords who now supported the scheme had formerly declared themselves hostile to it.

THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON spoke in the following terms.

My Lords, I did not wish to trouble your Lordships with my opinions on the present measure in this stage of the proceedings, and it is probable I might have reserved what I intended to offer for a future opportunity had it not been for the observations of the noble and learned Lord who has just sat down, relative to the line of conduct originally adopted by Government when this Bill was first brought forward in the other House of Parliament. My Lords, it is certainly true, as the noble and learned Lord has stated, that my Right Honourable friends in that House did oppose the Bill when it was first introduced to their notice. The principle on which they opposed the measure was, that, although they did not approve entirely of the existing law on the subject in question, yet they had found it to conduce so much to the advantage of Church and State for many years, without impairing the religious peace of the country,— a peace which I may venture to say has been enjoyed by this country in a greater degree than by any other similarly circumstanced with which we are acquainted, that my Right Honourable friends conceived we might risk the loss of our present advantages if the system under which those advantages had been attained and preserved should be inconsiderately abandoned. On that principle they opposed the Bill in the first instance; though, at the same time (as I have already intimated), they did not wholly approve of the law as it now stands. Afterwards, however, finding that a large majority of the House of Commons had agreed to the Bill, and that many who opposed it on grounds not applicable to the measure now before your Lordships, my Right Honourable friends felt indisposed further to oppose it after it had been once adopted by the majority of the House of Commons. When my Right Honourable friends saw this, they thought it was better to adopt the measure, coupled with an amendment which, in their opinion, afforded ample security to the Church; at the same time that the Bill itself, as modified, appeared to them to be calculated, so far from impairing, to improve and continue the religious peace which this country has so long enjoyed. On that principle it was, my Lords, that the measure, which had been originally opposed by my Right Honourable friends connected with Government in the other House, afterwards received their concurrence and support. On the same principle it is now supported by Government in your Lordships' House.

I fully agree with my noble friend, that the security of the Church of England, and the union existing between it and the State, depend neither on the law about to be repealed by the present Bill nor upon the provisions of this measure itself. That union and security, which we must all desire to see continued, depends upon the oath taken by His Majesty, to which we are all, in our respective stations, parties; and not only on that oath, but on the Act of Settlement, and the different Acts of Union from time to time agreed to; all of which provide for the intimate and inseparable union of Church and State, and for the security of both. The question is, what security does the existing system of laws, as they now stand, afford the Church establishment? My Lords, I am very doubtful as to the amount of security afforded through the means of a system of exclusion from office, to be carried into effect by a law which it is necessary to suspend by an annual Act, that admits every man into office whom it was the intention of the original framers of the law to exclude. It is perfectly true it was not the intention of those who brought in that suspension law originally that dissenters from the Church of England should be permitted to enter into corporations under its provisions. The law was intended to relieve those whom time or circumstances had rendered unable to qualify themselves according to the system which Government had devised. However, the Dissenters availed themselves of the relaxation of the law, for the purpose of getting into corporations, and this the law allowed. What security, then, I ask, my Lords, is to be found in the existing system? So far from Dissenters being excluded by the Corporation and Test Acts from all Corporations,—so far is this from being the fact, that, as must be well known to your Lordships, some corporations are absolutely and entirely in the possession of Dissenters.

Can you suppose, my Lords, that the repeal of laws so inoperative as these can afford any serious obstacle to the perfect security of the Church, and the permanent union of that establishment with the State? The fact is, the existing laws have not only failed completely in answering their intended purpose, but are anomalous and absurd; anomalous in their origin, absurd in their operation. If a man were asked the question, at his election to any corporate office, whether he had received the sacrament of the Church of England, and if he said 'No,' he lost every vote that had been tendered on his behalf, and there was an end of his election; but if, on the contrary, by accident or design, he got in without the question relative to the sacrament being put to him, then the votes tendered for him were held good, and his election valid, so that no power could remove him from the office which he held. I ask the noble and learned Lord, is there any security in that? My noble friend says that the original intention of the framers of these Acts was, that the sacrament should not be taken by Dissenters; but the law requires that a man, on entering into any corporation, shall receive the sacrament without regard to his religious belief. Thus, my Lords, an individual, whose object is to get into a particular office, may feel disposed, naturally enough, to take the sacrament before his election merely as a matter of form, and thus a sacred rite of our Church is profaned and prostituted to a shameful and scandalous purpose. I confess, my Lords, I should have willing to preserve the system which had given us this peace for forty years, for during that time the name and the claims of the Dissenters had not been heard of. But now they have come forward, and their claims are approved of by a great majority of the House of Commons, and the Bill has come up to this House. If it be opposed by the majority of this House, it is to be feared, now that the claims are made, that such an opposition will carry hostility throughout the country, and introduce a degree of rancour into every parish of the kingdom, which I should not wish to be responsible for.

My Lords, I consider the opposition offered in the first instance by my Right Honourable friends in the other House of Parliament to this measure, as having arisen out of a desire to preserve the religious peace of the country, at the same time that they secured the integrity of the Establishment. My Right Honourable friends at first contemplated the existing system as having given religious peace to this country for forty years. I repeat, that during forty years that peace has never been disturbed, nor has the question which is now under consideration been agitated. But, my Lords, the subject of security, and of religious liberty and peace, was fully discussed in the other House, through which the Bill was carried by a large majority, and it now comes before your Lordships, and is opposed by a small minority here.

My Lords, under these circumstances, I conceive that the present measure comes before us with no trifling recommendations. You have had petitions from many parishes in this Kingdom, and from various societies of professing Christians, all tending to show that religious rancour and animosity alone can be generated by a perseverance in the present system, and that the contrary may be expected to arise out of a wise departure from it. Such are the sentiments contained in the petitions presented, not only to your Lordships, but to the other House of Parliament, and in these sentiments I think it is our duty to concur, taking the chance for religious peace, which the majority of the House of Commons consider as likely to arise, and to be continued, by means of the present measure, conjoined with some degree of security, perhaps all the security necessary, offered to the Church.

My Lords, on these grounds I think it advisable to entertain the proposition submitted to you by the noble Lord opposite. By agreeing to it, you will attain the advantages to which I have alluded, at the same time that you will ensure a security fully equivalent to the security, if security I may call it, which your Lordships are about to repeal, by agreeing to the Bill now before you. I have nothing further to add, except to request your Lordships' pardon for having addressed to you these few words, which appeared to me necessary, in consequence of what fell from my noble and learned friend, and in order to explain the view taken of the subject by His Majesty's Government.

April 21, 1828.

In Committee on the Corporation and Test Acts, The Earl of ELDON maintained that these Acts were a part of the constitution of the country as it was established at the Revolution. That constitution he did not wish to see altered.

The Earl of FALMOUTH expressed his entire concurrence in the views of the noble and learned Earl. The only ground for the Bill was, that the measure had found favour with the other House of Parliament.


My Lords, It is not my wish to prolong this incidental discussion. I rise merely to state to your Lordships that the noble Lord who has just sat down does not appear perfectly to understand the ground on which I have recommended this measure to the House. I have not gone the length which the noble Lord has attributed to me. I have not called on your Lordships to agree to this Bill because it has been passed by the House of Commons; I merely assigned that as one of the reasons which induced me to recommend the measure to your Lordships. I certainly did allude to the feeling in favour of the Bill which has for some time been growing up in the House of Commons, as a good reason for entertaining it in your Lordships' House, but other reasons also operated on my mind. Many individuals of high eminence in the Church, and who are as much interested as any other persons in the Kingdom in the preservation of the Constitution, have expressed themselves as being favourable to an alteration of the law. The religious feelings of those venerable persons disposed them to entertain this measure, because they felt strong objections to the sacramental test. Under these circumstances, wishing to advance and to preserve the blessings of religious peace and tranquility, conceiving the present to be a good opportunity for securing to the country so inestimable an advantage, I felt it to be my duty to recommend this measure to your Lordships. It is, my Lords, on all these grounds that I support the Bill, and not on the single ground, the circumstance of its having been carried in the House of Commons, as the noble Lord has stated. I am not one of those who consider that the best means of preserving the constitution of this country is by rigidly adhering to measures which were called for by particular circumstances, because those measures have been in existence for two hundred years; for the lapse of time might render it proper to modify, if not to remove them altogether.

I admit, my Lords, that, for about two hundred years, the religious peace of the country has been preserved under these Bills; but, when Parliament is discussing the best means of preserving the constitution of the country, it surely is worth while to inquire whether any and what changes, in what have been deemed the securities of the Church, can safely be made, so as to conciliate all parties. The noble Lord has stated that he has strong objections to this Bill. If the noble Lord will suffer the Bill to go into a Committee, and will there state his propositions, every attention will, of course, be paid to them. All I hope is, that your Lordships will not unnecessarily make any alterations in the measure that would be likely to give dissatisfaction; that your Lordships will not do anything which may be calculated to remove that conciliatory spirit which is now growing up; a spirit that will redound to the benefit of the country, and which, so far from opposing, we ought, on the contrary, to do everything to foster and promote.

April 24, 1828.

In Committee on the Corporation and Test Acts Repeal Bill, The Earl of ELDON proposed an amendment, declaring that all the Acts of Parliament for the establishment and preservation of the Churches of England and Ireland in force at the time of the Union with Scotland, should be in full force for ever.

The Earl of CLARENDON complained that this amendment, if passed, would make it impossible to alter any of the existing statutes respecting the Roman Catholics.


It does appear to me, my Lords, undoubtedly, that if the proposition of my noble and learned friend does not refer to the Catholics, it will be of no use whatever. If my noble and learned friend intends also to propose a corresponding alteration in the declaration, I must oppose it. I stated that it was not my intention, in giving my support to this Bill, to pledge myself to any step, either on one side or the other, as to the Catholic question. My opinions on that subject remain exactly as they were before. My object in giving my assent to this measure is simply to do away with what I consider detrimental to the religion of the country, the imposing of the sacramental test as a qualification for office. I go no further. The proposed amendment will not make the smallest alteration in the Bill for any good purpose, and therefore I cannot agree to it.

The Earl of ELDON meant only to require, as part of a declaration, that persons who became members of Corporations should state that they were Protestants.


My noble and learned friend seems anxious to introduce this clause into the Report this day; but I beg him to consider that this declaration will include officers of the army and navy, many of whom, in this country, must be Roman Catholics. This is the reason why I object to the introduction of the word 'Protestant,' which will preclude them from holding their commissions. I admit, that it certainly was not the intention of the other House, or of the framers of the Bill, that Roman Catholics should be admitted, under this Bill, into Corporations.

The House divided on the amendment : Contents, 31 ; Non-contents, 71. Majority against the amendment, 40.

The Earl of ELDON then moved the insertion of the words, 'I am a Protestant,' in the declaration to be made by persons taking office in any Corporation. He resolved, even if he should stand alone, to divide the House upon the amendment.


I certainly entertained the impression, that it was the intention of my noble friend to move these amendments merely for the purpose of having his protest entered upon the Journals of the House. I confess, that I am doubtful whether the word 'Protestant' ought to be introduced into the Bill, though, at the same time, I certainly never intended, nor was it intended by my Right Honourable friend in another place, that this Bill should affect that particular question one way or the other. I would suggest to my noble friend the propriety of postponing the discussion of the amendment to another stage of the Bill ; though I admit, if he wishes to divide the House upon it now, he has the right to do so. Time ought to be given, however, for the consideration of this last amendment; and I therefore think it better that the further consideration of the Report should be postponed.

April 28, 1828.

On the motion of Lord HOLLAND, the Test and Corporation Acts Repeal Bill was read a third time. On the question 'That this Bill do pass,'

Lord HOLLAND proposed, as an amendment, that the words in the declaration, 'on the true faith of a Christian, in the presence of God,' which might affect some Dissenters and the Jews, be omitted.

The Bishop of DURHAM expressed his hope that this measure was not intended to be followed by further concessions and changes.

THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON spoke in the following terms

I rise, my Lords, to discuss the only question before us, namely, whether the words, 'on the true faith of a Christian,' shall be omitted; but before I do so, I will assure the Right Reverend Prelate who sits behind me (the Bishop of Durham), that if he supposes this is only an incipient measure, and that an intention exists to follow this measure by others on the same subject, and of a similar nature, I am no party to any such plan. I have supported the measure on the same ground as the Right Reverend Prelate; not because I wish to destroy the system of law which existed before, neither, I must say, do I approve of it; but because I considered that, under all the circumstances of the case, it was necessary to pass this Bill, in order to preserve the peace of the Established Church, and the religious peace of the country. I think we should not come to the consideration of this subject with the same advantage in a future year, and therefore I resolved to give it all the support in my power in this present Session of Parliament.

I now return to the question before the House, which is, whether, on the motion made by the noble Baron (Holland), the words, on the true faith of a Christian,' in the declaration, should be omitted, in order to admit the Jews to office in this country. I do not believe it ever was the intention of the law in this country that the Jews should be so admitted. This Bill was not introduced with that intention certainly. Its object is expressly that the Dissenters shall be admitted to corporate and public offices. For eighty years we have gone on suspending the laws which exclude them; but, under this system of suspension, it is notorious that the Dissenters have been, by connivance, admitted into Corporations contrary to the design of these Acts. It appears, likewise, by the Statute Book, that the Legislature was aware of the fact; for there are laws to prevent mayors, and other chief officers, from taking the ensigns of their office, and the regalia of the Corporation, to any other place of worship than the Cathedral, or some other Church or Chapel of the Establishment. Did not Parliament then know that Dissenters were admitted into Corporations when this Act passed? But this is not the case with respect to the Jews. I have never known an instance in which such persons have been admitted to any corporate or public office. Under these circumstances I shall oppose the omission of the words.

There is another reason why this House should refuse to allow them to be expunged. It is, that, whatever may be said in favour of this new principle, the admission of the Jews would be disliked by the country. Besides, if the principle is to be recognised, let us have the question fairly before Parliament. Let it not be introduced into a Bill for another purpose, but fully and openly discussed on its own substantial merits.

I cannot conclude without remarking, that, if we discuss the different parts of this Bill, at the same length, on every question that may arise, we shall have much more debate this evening than we expect.

The amendment of Lord HOLLAND was put and negatived.

The Earl of ELDON moved that, after the words 'on the true faith of a Christian,' there be inserted the words 'that I am a Protestant.'

The LORD CHANCELLOR considered this amendment altogether unnecessary, as persons taking office in a Corporation, even after the passing of this Bill, would be obliged to subscribe the declaration against transubstantiation; Roman Catholics, therefore, could not gain admission.

THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON spoke in the following terms

I am, my Lords, desirous of saying one word on this subject. The noble and learned Lord has just told us, that Parliament has frequently decided that the oath of supremacy is not a sufficient security against the introduction of Roman Catholics into Corporations. But, my Lords, the noble and learned Lord has not stated to your Lordships that the oath of supremacy was altered by the Act of King William; and I know of no declaration, since the statute of William, which does not go to prove that the Act was considered as fully sufficient for the object which its framers had in view. But it is not on this ground alone that the question stands. The noble and learned Lord on the woolsack [i.e. the Lord Chancellor] has stated most clearly his opinion (and it is scarcely necessary for me to repeat it to your Lordships), that the declaration against transubstantiation must still be subscribed by persons taking office in any Corporation. And I must say, that the noble and learned Lord opposite, and other noble Lords who voted with him, have advanced no answer to that statement. I therefore feel, my Lords, that I have every reason to give the fullest credit to the arguments of my noble and learned friend on the woolsack. His argument was most clear, and it remains unanswered. Additional strength, too, the House will remember, was given to that position, by the proviso in the Test Act; but there is another part of the question to which I beg your Lordships to attend, which is this, that the oath of supremacy does, at the present moment, prevent Roman Catholics from voting at elections. Now, if it be sufficient to prevent them from voting at elections, will it not be sufficient (and here I would appeal to the noble and learned Lord himself) to prevent them from taking governing offices in Corporations? I am very sorry to be obliged again to apply myself to this question, but I am most anxious to explain myself fully with reference to it. It has been asked, if the existing oaths are, by some, thought not sufficient, why not adopt the words of the noble and learned Lord? If there be even the shadow of a doubt on the subject, why not take the safest course? In the first place I contend that the existing laws are sufficient. The oath of supremacy I feel to be amply sufficient. There are good and reasonable grounds for considering it to be sufficient. And, in the second place, your Lordships, I am sure, would not admit, in a law brought in for one specific purpose, the introduction of a declaration evidently intended for another object. The present Bill is meant to enlarge, not to contract, the privileges of Dissenters; and certainly it would not be reasonable or fair to introduce into such a measure a clause that would militate against Roman Catholics. There is no person in this House whose feelings and sentiments, after long consideration, are more decided than mine are with respect to the subject of the Roman Catholic claims; and I must say, that until I see a very great change in that question I certainly shall continue to oppose it ; but no man, on the other hand, is more determined than I am to give my vote against any proposition which, like the present, appears to have for its object a fresh enactment against the Roman Catholics.

The amendment was negatived.

The Bishop of LLANDAFF thought it was needless to require the declaration contained in the Bill, of members of the Church of England, and moved a clause to exempt them from the necessity of making it.


My Lords, it appears to me that the Reverend Prelate has quite forgotten the objections which have been urged by some of his Right Reverend brethren to an amendment similar to this, when proposed by the noble and learned Lord (Eldon). Those Reverend Prelates condemned the former law because it rendered the use of the sacramental test necessary as a qualification for the admission to corporate offices. Now this clause appears to me to be in direct contradiction to their own principle. I think it would be going too far to admit any person upon a simple declaration that he was a member of the Church of England. I do not well know what the noble Lord on the cross-bench would say to that would not the adoption of such a clause render Roman Catholics admissible to corporate and other offices, from which they are now excluded? For my own part, I do not see what should prevent a Roman Catholic from merely saying that he was a member of the Church of England. Under these circumstances, I shall vote against the amendment.

Clause withdrawn; Bill passed.

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