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Preacher who triggered a riot

31 May 2024

On the tercentenary of the death of Henry Sacheverell, Fergus Butler-Gallie revisits the clergyman’s life and pulpit polemics


Engraving of Dr Sacheverell, based on a portrait by Thomas Gibson

Engraving of Dr Sacheverell, based on a portrait by Thomas Gibson

IN MY idle moments, I often wonder who would have been on Celebrity Big Brother had it existed in 1710. (The summer evenings are long in Oxfordshire.) One can debate whether Sarah Churchill would take part — a different answer, perhaps, before and after her fall from managing Queen Anne’s household accounts. As for the clergy, I doubt whether any of the bishops, or Dean Swift, would have been tempted. At least one contestant, however, from the ranks of those in Holy Orders, would be absolutely guaranteed: Dr Henry Sacheverell. He had not only the temperament for such a gig, but also the requisite level of fame.

Sacheverell was, in the words of my fellow enthusiast, the writer of CBBC’s Horrible Histories, Greg Jenner, “the first modern celebrity”. In the first decade of the 18th century, you could buy Sacheverell medals, Sacheverell pottery, and Sacheverell playing cards. People flocked to see him wherever he went. Thousands turned out in towns and cities across the country just to get a glimpse of him.

He was even the subject of one of the first recorded General Election slogans, for a Cornish constituency, where two insurgent candidates romped home with the cry: “Trevanion and Granville as sound as a bell, For the Queen, the Church and Sacheverell!”

Notably, these pro-Sacheverell politicians won, despite the fierce opposition of their bishop. Or perhaps because of it: Bishop Trelawney was known as a particularly intractable and impersonal Whig magnate, not well liked in his parishes. Given the current relations between episcopate and laity in Truro diocese, one might observe that some things never change.

What has changed, of course, is that Sacheverell is practically unknown today. Then, his level of fame was perhaps the highest of any Anglican cleric ever; he made the former Vicar of Finedon look like an absolute unknown. Now, very few know his name, and fewer would dare try to pronounce it out loud. As such, he probably needs some introduction.


SACHEVERELL was born the son of a cleric, and the grandson of another, in Marlborough. His grandfather had been a dedicated Low Churchman, ejected in 1662. The resolutely High Henry, however, was in a very different mould. Even as a young man, Sacheverell was pugnacious. When he presented himself to the Bishop of Lichfield not long after ordination, the Bishop queried Sacheverell’s use of Latin. The young deacon responded that “it was better Latin than he or his chaplains could manage.” It seems unlikely that he would have passed an ordination panel today.

Sacheverell made a mark in Oxford where he spent much of his early career: Daniel Defoe referred to him as “the bloody colour sergeant” of the High Church party. So it was that the Archbishop of Canterbury was “much troubled” by his subsequent appointment to St Saviour’s in Southwark. But despite — or, again, more probably as a result of — having earned the opprobrium of the Whig episcopal Establishment, Sacheverell’s popularity among lay people grew and grew. One fan was the new Lord Mayor of London, Sir Samuel Garrard, who, in 1709, asked Sacheverell to preach at one of the first great services of his mayoral year: the commemoration of Gunpowder Treason on 5 November.

AlamyDr Sacheverell speaks at his impeachment trial in March 1710 before a packed House of Commons

Normally, these sermons took the form of crude anti-Catholic polemic, designed to whip up hatred of both recusants and Continental Roman Catholics. They — the argument went — had been terrorists in 1605, and, given half a chance, would be again. Not so Sacheverell. He took as his text on which to preach, 2 Corinthians 11.26, where Paul writes of being “in perils among false brethren”. After spending a brief period talking about the “unheard of malice” of the Gunpowder Plot, Sacheverell turned to the real target of his ire: those who sought to undermine the Church of England from within: the “false brethren” of his day.

Sacheverell’s analysis was clear: the Church had taken into its bosom, or — worse — given positions of power to, people who were totally inimical to the worship, doctrine, and position of the Church of England itself. It had got into bed with a governing class that, in fact, hated it and sought its destruction. A misplaced attempt to broaden the Church’s appeal meant giving place and precedence to those who in their practice were antithetical to how the Church had always acted.

They were now calling the shots, and were dismantling from the inside all that had, “in living memory” — a reference to the horrors of the Civil War — been fought for so painfully. She had taken “into her bowels” those who “neither believe her faith, own her mission, submit to her discipline, or comply with her liturgy”. As he put it, “if the Church can’t be pulled down, it may be blown up.”

What Sacheverell found particularly repugnant was the dishonesty of those who sought to do this. While there was a certain grim integrity to Roman Catholic or Presbyterian attempts to do down the Church of England, Sacheverell viewed the “religious Trojan Horse” that he discerned at the heart of early-18th-century Anglicanism as wicked first and foremost because of its dishonesty: “What they could not do by open violence, they will not fail by secret treachery to accomplish.” Nobody could accuse him of not being plain-speaking, and it was the verbal dissembling of the powers that were which so riled him.

Those powers were not slow in extracting their revenge. In early December, Sacheverell was hauled in front of the bar of the House of Commons as those in government in Church and State decided that he had finally gone too far. He was put on trial for impeachment the following February. The proceedings had, by this point, become the talk of the nation. When Sacheverell was found guilty and suspended from preaching, riots erupted across the land. Oh, that a sermon might result in even a fraction of such interest today!

It became clear that those who were in power in Church and State had overstepped the mark. As unrest grew, Godolphin, Queen Anne’s Whig first minister, was dismissed, and eventually a General Election was called. The Tory Opposition took the cleric’s side, and won by a crushing landslide. Bells were rung and toasts were drunk across the nation to the man of the hour: Dr Sacheverell.

Sacheverell’s first sermon after his restoration was modestly entitled “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. He lived for nearly another decade, but the Tory apocalypse and the triumph of the Whigs at the 1715 election meant that most of it was in relative obscurity in Highgate. In a pleasing circularity for the man who was the first English celebrity, his house was lived in by the supermodel Kate Moss until 2022. Alas! we may never know her views on the Gunpowder Plot or Whiggery.


THE fifth of June this year marks the 300th anniversary of Sacheverell’s death. There will be a sermon and talk in Oxford to mark this later in the year, and perhaps the odd mention of him in academic articles, but it will broadly go past without mention. That is a shame, because Sacheverell’s message and example is, I would argue, more relevant than it has been for centuries.

AlamyParticipants in the Sacheverell Riots destroy Daniel Burgess’s Presbyterian meeting-house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, in 1710. From Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, c.1890

On one level, he is a fascinating object lesson in the crossover of faith and celebrity. The Sacheverell trial and its aftermath remind us that, forasmuch as we might be tempted to think of the cult of celebrity as a modern phenomenon, it is no such thing. It is also a reminder that very rarely do such forays into the public eye last very long or end very happily — especially for the clergy.

Yet Sacheverell ought to be more than a finger-wagging cautionary tale against putting one’s head above the parapet. Rather, if we are to take him seriously as a thinker and preacher — which people of his own day most assuredly did — then there is another sense in which he is important.

The points that Sacheverell made about the purpose of the Church of England remain profoundly relevant. And it is worth noting, when considering the aftermath, that tension between elites and ordinary people are hardly alien to our day and age. Perhaps most critically, plenty fear that, for the Church, problems within are as worrying as those without. One small comfort is, of course, that this is nothing new: it is impossible to read some of Sacheverell’s criticism and not think of our situation now. Perhaps, for all his personal failings, the celebrity doctor has something to teach us after all.


The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is the Vicar of Charlbury with Shorthampton, in the diocese of Oxford.

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