Loss of favour

Loss of favour

Was Queen Anne's celebrity preacher a traitor?

Queen Anne’s alleged lesbian affairs take centre stage in the award-winning film The Favourite, while the politics that wove through her reign is merely a back drop. Even the War of the Spanish Succession, in which Britain won Gibraltar, has little more than a walk-on part. The religious rifts that still threatened to shatter the country – a century after the Catholic Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Protestant James I/VI of Scotland and his Parliament – are all but ignored.

So too is the man who would become the star of the sectarian disputes, a preacher known across the length and breadth of the country for his fiery rhetoric, a scourge of the establishment and an ecclesiastical celebrity – in terms of name recognition, he was the Olivia Coleman of his day – Dr Henry Sacheverell.

The Queen was not present at the newly built St Paul’s Cathedral in London for the traditional thanksgiving service on the morning of 5 November 1709 – two-years after the Act of Union joined England and Scotland – and her absence could be felt. The usual crowd of eminent Londoners had gone to the service in St James that she was expected to attend. The congregation at St Paul’s, therefore, was sparse when an obscure young preacher climbed to the pulpit. Most of those who came to hear Sacheverell on that autumnal Saturday would have expected the usual attacks on Catholics and the obligatory praise for Protestantism. Few could have predicted that the preacher was about to become the most famous man in the country.

Queen Anne: 17 pregnancies but no child lived to adulthood

The doctor’s face was a ‘fiery red’, said William Bisset in The Modern Fanatick a few months later, and there was a ‘goggling wildness of the eyes’ when he began ‘working himself up into a frenzied anger’ thundering away ‘against the whole battery of his favourite targets’. These included not just Catholics, but atheists and dissenting Protestants such as the Quakers and Presbyterians as well as those members of the ruling Church of England that Sacheverell thought were their allies. ‘He was,’ wrote Bisset, ‘transported with an (sic) hellish fury.’

The denunciations escalated. Sacheverell even attacked the chief minister of the day, Sydney Godolphin, by alluding to his nickname, ‘Volpone’, (‘sly fox’ in Latin). ‘Godly Godolphin’, as the Lord High Treasurer was also known due to his virtue, was a keen chess player and a compulsive gambler, particularly on horses. He bred, raced, and even ate them. He was at the centre of all the big political battles of the age, chief among them his government’s prosecution of the war, known in the United States as Queen Anne’s war.

The last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne was fat, gouty, frequently ill, and addicted to brandy. She had 17 pregnancies, but none of her children lived beyond childhood.

Her government was run by the Whigs, a party that believed in an interventionist foreign policy, rights for religious dissenters, and limits on the power of the monarchy. Tories like Sacheverell supported the Church of England, a strong Crown, and isolationism. The Tories drew their support largely from the country gentry, while the Whigs were more popular among the urban merchant class.