Clergy Act 1640

The Clergy Act 1640 (also known as the Bishops Exclusion Act or the Clerical Disabilities Act) (16 Car. I, c.27) was an Act of Parliament of the Parliament of England passed in 1642[1] by the Long Parliament.


As the 1630s progressed, there was increasing dissatisfaction with Charles I's attempts at personal rule, and at the perceived connivance of the bishops. The mood in the country was for the Anglican episcopal system of church government to be replaced with local government by presbyters, either on the Scottish or the English model. Charles raised the temperature when he raised his standard in the Bishops' Wars, which attempted to impose an episcopacy in Scotland. The result in England was the Root and Branch petition, and in the House of Commons, a series of Constitutional reforms to stem the power of the monarch, once and for all:

Though there had been general support for these measures in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords the Bishops opposed the Acts.

Imprisonment of the Twelve Bishops

The Bishops Exclusion Bill, which intended the expulsion of the Bishops from the House of Lords, was a direct response to the Bishops’ opposition to the Constitutional reforms that had been passed by the lower house. While awaiting the Royal Assent, some MPs, led by John Pym, encouraged the London mob to prevent the Bishops attending on 27–29 December 1641. There were riots in Westminster against bishops, and papists too. On 30 December, John Williams, Archbishop of York, drew up a protest complaining about the legality of laws passed in the House of Lords while they were thus excluded from attending. As well as Williams, eleven other bishops signed the protest. The Commons demanded the arrest and imprisonment of all twelve, who were sent to the Tower as traitors.[2]

Bishops Exclusion Bill

The Bishops Exclusion Bill had been passed in the House of Commons in March 1641, but was rejected in the House of Lords. Charles I had been sympathetic to the bishops' plight, but the polarised atmosphere of pre-civil war politics, only encouraged a majority of both Houses to pass the Bishops Exclusion Act in February 1642. According to John Rushworth (Historical Collections) the word Roundhead was first used on 27 December 1641 by a disbanded officer named David Hide, who during a riot is reported to have drawn his sword and said he would "cut the throat of those round-headed dogs that bawled against bishops."[3]

Effect of Act

The Act prevented those in holy orders from exercising any temporal jurisdiction or authority after the 5 February 1641 O.S.; this extended to taking a seat in Parliament or the Privy Council. Any acts carried out with such authority after that date by a member of the clergy were to be considered void.[4] The Act was later repealed by the Clergy Act 1661.[5] According to McKechnie, the eighteen-year period of clerical disability form the only time when the House of Lords was exclusively hereditary.[6]


  1. 1641 in the old style date, 1642 in the new style date
  2. C. V. Wedgwood; The King's peace, 1637-1641; London, Collins, 1955.
  3. White, William (1862). Notes and Queries: A Medium of Inter-communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc. Third Series. Volume Second. Oxford University Press. p. 450.
  4. Text of the Act at British History Online
  5. Chronological table of the statutes; HMSO, London. 1993.
  6. McKechnie, The reform of the House of Lords etc.
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