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June 5 The Sermon that inspired the Riot Act


Rev Henry Sacheverell had become famous in England for preaching an incendiary sermon on the 5 November. In his impeachment trial by the House of Commons he was found guilty and he was suspended for three years and the sermons that he was on trial for was burnt at the Royal Exchange.


His trial and impeachment lead to rioting and the downfall of the government later that year and the passing of the Riot Act in 1714.






Henry came from a complicated family in a turbulent time, and Joshua's death in 1684. His maternal grandfather, Henry Smith, after whom he was possibly named, is recorded as a signatory of Charles I's death warrant. (See pod of Jan 30) The country was still traumatised by this act of regicide, and Henry’s relations included what he labelled his "fanatic kindred"; his great-grandfather John was a rector, three of whose sons were Presbyterians. His grandfather had been ejected from his vicarage at the Restoration of the Monarchy and died in prison after being convicted for preaching at a Dissenting meeting. He was more proud of his distant relatives who were Midlands landed gentry that had supported the Royalist cause during the Civil War. In this traumatic political time, the young man was formed and in July 1701 he was elected Fellow of Magdalen College but his overbearing, disrespectful self-confidence and arrogance won him few friends. He soon achieved notability as a High Church preacher in May 1702 when he gave a sermon entitled The Political Union, on the necessity of the union between church and state and denigrating Dissenters and their Whig supporters. His peroration included an appeal to Anglicans not to "strike sail to a party which is an open and avowed enemy to our communion" but instead to "hang out the bloody flag and banner of defiance". Gaining a small London readership, Daniel Defoe labelled Sacheverell "the bloody flag officer"


The Whigs were a political party who between the 1680s and 1850s, contested power with their rivals, the Tories. Their origin lay in opposition to absolute monarchy, supporting a parliamentary system and they were the standing enemies of the Stuart kings and pretenders, who were Roman Catholic The Whigs took full control of the government in 1715 and remained totally dominant until King George III, coming to the throne in 1760, allowed Tories back in. The Whig supremacy was enabled by the failed Jacobite rising of 1715 by Tory rebels (see pod of April 14). The Whigs thoroughly purged the Tories from all major positions in government, the army, the Church, the legal profession and local offices. The party's hold on power was so strong and durable that historians call the period from roughly 1714 to 1783 the age of the Whig oligarchy. The first great leader of the Whigs was Robert Walpole, who is widely considered to be the first de facto prime minister of the United Kingdome and maintained control of the government for twenty years.


The 5 November was an important day in the Whig calendar, being both the day of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605 and William of Orange's landing at Torbay on 5 November 1688. Whigs claimed both these days as a double deliverance from "popery". Sacheverell's audience for his incendiary sermon included thirty clergymen and a large number of Jacobites and Nonjurors.Prior to the sermon, prayers and hymns were delivered. A witness saw Sacheverell, sitting with the clergy, working himself up into an angry mood, describing "the fiery red that overspread his face...and the goggling wildness of his eyes...he came into the pulpit like a Sybil to the mouth of her cave". The title of his sermon, The Perils of False Brethren, in Church, and State, derived from 2 Corinthians 11:26. The threat to the Church from Catholics was dealt with in three minutes; the rest of the one-and-a-half-hour sermon was an attack on Dissenters and the "false brethren" who aided them in menacing church and state. Sacheverell ended the sermon by exhorting Anglicans to close ranks, to present "an army of banners to our enemies" After his trial, his light punishment was seen as a vindication and he became a popular figure in the country, contributing to the Tories' landslide victory at the general election of 1710