Sunday, March 12, 2006

Queen Anne: 6 The Sacheverell affair

A key battle ground between Whigs and Tories was the practice of occasional conformity, a practice the Tories constantly but unsuccessfully tried to outlaw. On 5 November 1709, at a time when war-weariness was rising, Dr Henry Sacheverell delivered an inflammatory sermon in St Paul’s cathedral on the text ‘in perils among false brethren’. It was published on 25 November and sold about 100,000 copies. The Commons unwisely decided to impeach him and between 27 February and 20 March 1710 he was tried in Westminster Hall before the Whig-dominated House of Lords, with the young Robert Walpole acting as one of the prosecutors. There were massive popular demonstrations in the country in favour of Sacheverell and on the night of 1-2 March frightening mob violence took place in London and Dissenting meeting-houses were destroyed. It was the worst violence in London until the Gordon riots of 1780.

Sacheverell was found guilty by just 69 votes to 52, suspended from preaching and his sermons ordered to be burned. This made him a popular hero and martyr, and the Whigs suffered politically.