Break their teeth, O God

Colin Kidd

  • Faction Displayed: Reconsidering the Impeachment of Dr Henry Sacheverell edited by Mark Knights
    Wiley-Blackwell, 132 pp, £19.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 1 4443 6187 2
  • The State Trial of Doctor Henry Sacheverell edited by Brian Cowan
    Wiley-Blackwell, 307 pp, £22.99, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 4443 3223 0

The birth of Prince George obviates the immediate need for the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 which introduced gender equality into the line of succession. Section 2 of the Act addresses, though only in part, another outmoded form of discrimination: ‘A person is not disqualified from succeeding to the crown or from possessing it as a result of marrying a person of the Roman Catholic faith.’ So, while Catholicism is now acceptable in a royal spouse, a future monarch must still avoid the snares of Catholic worship.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, from which the forms of our constitutional monarchy derive, the new Bill of Rights banned Roman Catholics from the throne of England, as ‘inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom’. This was the primary reason King James II was forced out and replaced by reliably Protestant co-rulers, William and Mary. This Revolution brought in its train several other constitutional changes. Within two decades the succession had been diverted through the Act of Settlement (1701) to the Protestant Hanoverian line whose direct descendants have reigned since the death of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, in 1714; and England had been united with Scotland as the Kingdom of Great Britain in the Union of 1707. Notwithstanding various important extensions after 1832, which widened the electoral franchise, and several additional embellishments, the foundations of the modern British state, where Crown-in-Parliament is sovereign, were laid at the Glorious Revolution and in the troubled decades that followed.

The Revolution engendered a climate of uncertainty in politics; for while there was rough agreement between Whigs and Tories about the basic course of events in 1688 – or at least those which occurred outside the royal boudoir – there was no consensus about what the Revolution meant, and about what ‘Revolution principles’, were they to be invoked, might mean in the future. Did the Revolution confer a popular licence to revolt against perceived royal tyranny? The big picture was blurry. Had James been overthrown by his own subjects in 1688? Or had he merely abdicated? In England alone there emerged three rival interpretations, those of Whigs, Tories and Nonjuring Jacobites, with numerous ingenious variants in the interstices. Scotland’s Revolution of 1689 had been bloodier than England’s and was more decisive in its eventual resolution, with the Scots declaring James to have ‘forefaulted’ (forfeited) the crown; as a result partisanship carried different inflections north of the border. The experience of Ireland was more violent still and even further removed from the English template. Civil war on the magnitude Ireland witnessed between 1689 and 1691 could not be squeezed into a pint-pot labelled ‘revolution’. Ironically, the foundational moment of an enduring British state was greeted not with the quiet assurance that comes from universal acclamation, but with the din of disputed narratives. What exactly had happened at the Revolution?

Domestic discord and private misery were the lot of royals long before the era of paparazzi, long-lens photography and phone-tapping. The Revolution was a preposterously involved family saga which would lack plausibility as fiction. But royal dynasties in the early modern era were very different from ordinary families in that political imperatives consistently trumped personal inclination, though not necessarily all inclinations. Charles II, who reigned from 1660 to 1685, had no legitimate offspring by his wife, Catherine of Braganza, though plenty of bastards from his mistresses – as did his brother James. He had married Anne Hyde, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism, and his wife’s defection drew James himself over to Rome. As a precautionary measure to avoid the contagion of Catholicism the couple’s daughters, Mary and Anne, were brought up separately from their parents – as Protestants. James’s wife died in 1671, and in 1673 he married the Catholic princess Mary of Modena. By the mid-1680s there were no surviving children from this second marriage, which meant that James, who succeeded to the throne in 1685 as the Catholic king of a Protestant realm, would be unable to establish a Catholic dynasty in England; his successor would be his elder daughter, Mary, a Protestant. In the interim she had married William of Orange, who was engaged in a series of desperate wars to preserve the independence and Protestantism of the Dutch United Provinces against the might of Europe’s dominant Catholic power, Louis XIV’s France.

James’s short reign was far from smooth. At its start he saw off the rebellion in the West Country led by his brother’s most prominent bastard, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth. Then, despite his intention of ruling as a ‘church papist’, a king whose private Catholicism would not compromise his political support for the Church of England, he began to dismantle the apparatus of the Anglican regime. This brought him into conflict with his otherwise ultra-loyal episcopate. Then, on 10 June 1688, the unexpected happened: Mary of Modena gave birth to a son, another James, dashing the hopes of Mary, and her husband William, that she would succeed to the throne. In the autumn of 1688 William – secretly invited to England by a group of anxious notables, Tories as well as Whigs – arrived in Torbay with a Dutch army to press his wife’s claim. James’s regime disintegrated under the challenge. His other Protestant daughter, Anne, left the capital and joined the rising against her father at Nottingham. James fled, supposedly dropping the Great Seal in the Thames, but was unfortunately captured at Faversham: unfortunate, that is, for William and the English revolutionaries, because the nightmare that nobody wanted to relive was the execution of James’s father, Charles I. Yet how else to bring closure to the discredited old regime? William contrived his father-in-law’s removal to Rochester in Kent, a convenient location from which James was able to make his final escape to France on 23 December.

Tortured casuistry, outright lies and serendipitous invention filled the political vacuum, at least in England. A regency was rejected; James was held to have abdicated; and the infant James, who should have succeeded his father, was passed over for the crown, on the specious pretence that the baby was a pretender, smuggled into the queen’s apartments in a warming pan. The crown passed instead to William and Mary as co-rulers, an ambiguous title that seemed to blend parliamentary appointment and hereditary succession.

So haunted had Anglicans been by the execution of Charles I that during the Restoration the Church of England became zealously committed to the ideals of non-resistance and passive obedience to the monarch, what we now know as ‘the divine right of kings’. Scripture abounded in passages that spelled out the sinfulness of taking up arms against legitimate monarchs. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, and several of his bishops, notwithstanding the relief they felt at seeing the back of James II’s plans to undermine the Church of England, felt so bound in conscience to uphold their loyalty to James II that they could not bring themselves to swear allegiance to William and Mary. Sancroft and his fellow Nonjurors served as an ultra-Tory-cum-Jacobite Church outside the Establishment. Other Tories, as in the celebrated early 18th-century song about the Vicar of Bray, felt able to square their delicate consciences with raw circumstance:

When William our deliverer came
To heal the nation’s grievance
With this new wind about I steered
And swore to him allegiance:
Old principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive obedience was a joke,
And pish for non-resistance.

These Tories argued that the mysterious intervention of divine providence had brought about the change of government, rather than the armed resistance of a sinful nation. Indeed, some wondered whether the events of 1688 had been an invasion from abroad rather than a domestic uprising. This did not mean rejecting the Revolution, for, happily, the word then held the far from radical meaning of having come full circle.

Whigs had it easier than Tories. Locke’s theory of an ‘original contract’, devised a decade before the Revolution, belonged on the radical fringes of Whig political thought at this stage. Nevertheless Whigs were more relaxed than Tories about resistance, and contended that action had been taken in 1688 to preserve England’s ‘ancient constitution’ of mixed government, whose precious continuity could be traced back as far as the Anglo-Saxons. Ironically, while the political and religious beliefs of Tories and Nonjuring Jacobites were essentially similar, it was Whigs and Jacobites who agreed about the bald facts of what had happened in 1688. Whigs argued that James had been overthrown, which was a good thing. Jacobites agreed that James had been overthrown, but thought this was a bad thing, indeed sinful. Tories equivocated about what had actually happened, and denied that the Revolution had involved resistance. At the time, however, Tories as well as Whigs had been active in resisting James II, most notoriously in the case of Henry Compton, the Tory bishop of London, who had appeared in arms at Nottingham with Princess Anne. Yet even Whigs, who applauded the fact of resistance, were embarrassed when asked to differentiate the failed rebellions of Monmouth and the Scots Covenanters from the glories of the 1688 Revolution. There was also the thorny problem of the failed Rye House Plot of 1683, a Whig plan to assassinate both the crypto-Catholic Charles II and his popish brother. And what about the Civil War against the Royal Martyr, Charles I? Just where did one draw the line between legitimate resistance and unlawful rebellion?

Interpreting the Revolution became riskier still as the sad family saga of the later Stuarts unfolded. Mary died in 1694, estranged as a result of court intrigues from her sister Anne, who succeeded her widowed brother-in-law in 1702. Anne had suffered countless – possibly as many as fifteen – failed pregnancies and her last surviving child, William, Duke of Gloucester, had died in 1700. The Act of Settlement formally entailed the crown on the distant, but reliably Protestant, Hanoverian line. However, the possibility still remained – or so Whigs feared – that on Anne’s death the Jacobites, in league with their Tory fellow-travellers, might attempt to restore James II’s son to the throne, to the relief of tormented Tory consciences. A sense that the Revolution, and above all the Toleration Act of 1689, had endangered the standing and discipline of the Church of England further inflamed matters. By the 1700s Tories had lost sight of the pressing – if unwelcome – necessity in 1688 of regime change, and instead fixated on the appalling consequences of the Revolution for the traditional Anglican order. During the reign of Queen Anne Whigs were in a state of high anxiety about the possible unravelling of the Revolution, Tories about the wrecking of the national church.

*

Paranoia, which had taken hold on both sides of the partisan divide, provides the context for the most spectacular show trial in English history, the parliamentary prosecution in 1710 of Henry Sacheverell, a High Tory Oxford divine, for his sermon the previous autumn at St Paul’s before the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London, on the theme ‘In peril among false brethren’. By a delicious irony, Sacheverell, the highest of High Churchmen, came from a family of Puritan ministers on his father’s side, and an uncontradicted rumour circulated that his maternal grandfather was a regicide who had signed Charles I’s death warrant. In The Trial of Dr Sacheverell (1973), which remains the standard account of the cleric’s career, the late Geoffrey Holmes wondered if Sacheverell’s soaring high churchmanship ‘contains in its very extremity more than a hint of revulsion from his own tainted stock’. This twistedness was not so apparent in his earlier years. As a teenager at Magdalen College, Oxford, Sacheverell had enjoyed a warm friendship with Joseph Addison, the future man of letters and champion of the equally un-Sacheverellite causes of Whiggism and politeness. However, those best acquainted with the adult Sacheverell remarked on his angularity and chilly pomposity.

This unattractive character nevertheless became the darling of a Tory public which responded enthusiastically to his audacious preaching and swooned at his pose of willing martyrdom. Sacheverell’s claims as a theologian were modest but he possessed two talents which added propulsion to his ambition and opportunism. First, he had histrionic acting abilities, Lady Clobery describing him as ‘fitter to make a player than a clergyman’. Second, there was the timbre of his voice, much remarked on by contemporaries, which enabled him to entrance a congregation with the deceptively sweet sound of his tirades.

However sonorous the delivery, two of the themes advanced in Sacheverell’s sermon of 5 November 1709 invited prosecution. The suggestion that the Whig government – ‘false brethren’ – could not be trusted with the maintenance of the Established Church was deliberately provocative. Worse still, perhaps, the sermon also appeared to flirt with resistance-denial. To celebrate the Revolution as an act of Whiggish resistance, Sacheverell claimed, was to insult the memory of William III and to disparage the glorious non-event of the Revolution itself. Sacheverell subscribed to a narrow reading of the Revolution as an abdication. As a result, he was impeached by the Commons, and brought to trial in front of the Lords. The prosecution prompted an outpouring of Christian sympathy from fellow high Anglicans. On the first Sunday after his impeachment the 58th psalm was sung at St Margaret’s Westminster and in several other pro-Sacheverell churches: ‘Break their teeth, O God, in their mouths.’

If in the long run the trial did not turn out as the Whigs had hoped, the sermon could not safely be ignored. Its printed version is estimated to have sold as many as a hundred thousand copies, and the volumes commissioned by the Parliamentary History Yearbook Trust to commemorate the tercentenary of the Sacheverell trial best supplement Holmes’s classic in their treatment of this media sensation. The essays in Faction Displayed trace the ways in which the controversy was spun, and the interplay of developments in London and beyond. In a richly documented vignette David Hayton shows how Irish Tories indulged in Sacheverellism by proxy, championing the cause of their own ‘red-faced, roaring’ militant High Churchman, Francis Higgins. Later they delighted in the fortunes of the Tory lawyer Constantine Phipps, whose eventual reward for his role as one of Sacheverell’s defence counsel was the Lord Chancellorship of Ireland. In England, the focus of public attention shifted during the impeachment and trial, perhaps inevitably, from political theory to personality, from the nature of the Revolution to the martyrdom of a seemingly meek and unworldly clergyman. Tellingly, Brian Cowan’s rich collection of primary texts and visual sources, The State Trial of Doctor Henry Sacheverell, includes an engraved portrait of Sacheverell holding a picture of the Royal Martyr, Charles I.

The accounts of the trial that Cowan has gathered show the prosecutors differing widely in their own interpretations of the Revolution they held Sacheverell to have traduced. With the queen herself in attendance at the trial, a torpid caution inhibited several counsel. Sir John Hawles seemed to divorce Whiggery from resistance altogether, arguing that there was indeed a supreme power in the state which required absolute obedience: not the monarch, but the Crown-in-Parliament. More conventionally, Sir John Holland disowned any notion of a ‘licentious resistance’, and Sir Joseph Jekyll ‘confin’d the Justice of Resistance to the single Instance of that used at the Revolution’. Others ventured a little further from shore; though even Robert Walpole, who offended Tories with his outspoken condemnation of non-resistance as a tool of despotism, nevertheless ‘had the Modesty to own, that Resistance was allowable only in the extreamest Necessities and upon a Fear of the total Subversion of the Constitution’. But others waded out too confidently into treacherous depths. Tories reckoned that Nicholas Lechmere, who invoked an original contract and an ‘undoubted Duty’ of resistance, had ventured well beyond the limits of the constitution and Anglican doctrine; while John Dolben, another manager of the prosecution who strayed too far off-message, was forced to make an abject apology to the Lords. On the other side Sacheverell’s defence compelled the seemingly penitent preacher to smudge the stark clarity of his sermon and to profess an undying loyalty to Queen Anne.

The deliberations of the Lords produced their own embarrassments. Elderly Tories such as the Duke of Leeds and the Bishop of London, who had taken up arms in 1688, now needed to reconcile their partisan acceptance of Sacheverell’s innocence with the glorious, or perhaps it now seemed not so glorious events of 1688. The Earl of Wharton, an uncompromising Whig, unhelpfully raised the stakes for jellied equivocators in the Tory ranks and beyond: ‘if the Revolution is not lawful, many in this House … are guilty of blood, murder, rapine and injustice: and the queen herself is no lawful queen.’ The House of Lords ruled against Sacheverell by a narrow margin of 69 to 52. However, Queen Anne, whose instincts were for Toryism, albeit of a moderate sort, let it be known that she favoured leniency. After the rumpus of a state trial, accompanied by Sacheverellite rioting and anti-Dissenting vandalism which convulsed London, the penalty was exiguous. Sacheverell found himself banned from preaching for three years, and his sermon was burned by the public hangman. Resistance was now public orthodoxy, but – as even the prosecution had demonstrated – still darkly circumscribed.

Following this near exoneration, Sacheverell went on tour, completing a deliberately slow triumphal progress through the Tory heartlands of the west Midlands to take up the living of a parish in Shropshire. In the wake of the trial, the mild verdict and Sacheverell’s victory tour the Tories won a resounding victory in the general election of 1710. However, the Tories’ moderate and pragmatic leader Robert Harley despaired of the Sacheverellite infusion of ideologues into the party. Infighting resulted, and as the end neared for the Queen, the crypto-Jacobite high-flyers of the Tory party were easily out-manoeuvred by the Whigs, who successfully brought to harbour the long-projected Hanoverian succession. Sacheverellism was finished, except as a recipe for symbolic protest. On the very day of George I’s coronation in the autumn of 1714 – and as an oblique snub to the new regime – Oxford University conferred an honorary doctorate of civil laws on Sacheverell’s lawyer Phipps.