The arrest and trial of the Anglican clergyman Dr Henry Sacheverell was to prompt the first great outpouring of printed graphic satire in early eighteenth-century London. This incomplete sheet of uncut playing cards was just one item among over 600 pamphlets, broadsides and prints known to have been published on the affair, with many of the images of Sacheverell also being transferred for decorative use on buttons, fans and snuff boxes.
Sacheverell was chaplain of St Saviour’s church in Southwark and on 5th November 1709 he was invited to deliver a sermon from the pulpit of St Paul’s. 5th November was Gunpowder Day, a semi-official holiday given over to remembrance of the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and Anglican sermons were typically devoted to the vilification of the nation’s Catholic enemies at home and abroad. On this day however, Sacheverell had other ideas. He began his sermon in the usual fashion but proceeded to skim over the evils of Catholicism with almost indecent haste, devoting just a few minutes to Popery and the remaining ninety minutes of his speech to a lengthy and heated attack on the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Exploiting a mood of popular disillusion with the Whig junta which had seemingly ruled in perpetuity since the Revolution of 1688, and with Britain’s continued involvement in the bloody quagmire that characterised the middle phase of the War of Spanish Succession, Sacheverell warned the congregation that they were the victims of a vast conspiracy to deprive them of their faith and freedom. The government was deliberately flooding London with foreign immigrants, he claimed, in order to increase the number of Whig-supporting Protestant dissenters and thereby establish an absolutist Whig government which would finally overturn the Church of England.
Sacheverell’s savage attack touched a nerve among a public that had grown heartily sick of the Whigs and copies of the sermon were soon being printed and sold in considerable quantities all over London. The government responded with equal ferocity, arresting the renegade chaplain, throwing him in jail and impeaching him on a charge of high crimes and misdemeanors against the state. The trial which commenced in Westminster Hall on 27th February 1710, generated enormous public interest and Sacheverell’s coach was mobbed by cheering crowds as he was transported back and forth from his jail cell each day. Printed images of the Reverend Doctor were sold to countless Londoners who saw his arrest as further confirmation of the existence of a political conspiracy aimed at stamping out liberty and the established church. Although Sacheverell was eventually found guilty the relative leniency of the sentence – a three year ban on preaching and a public burning of his sermon – was judged to be a tacit endorsement of his words and thus a moral victory by his supporters among the mob. The conclusion of the trial on 21st March 1710 was marked by several days of severe unrest, in which Tory mobs rampaged through London and sacked and burned several dissenting chapels. Although the military was called in and calm eventually restored to the city’s streets, the incident evaporated what little credibility the government had left and an election later in the year finally swept the Whigs from office.
London’s engravers rushed to meet the demand for Sacheverell memorabilia, with Philip Overton, George Bickham the Elder and George Virtue all producing high quality mezzotint copies of Thomas Gibson’s oil on canvas portrait of this latter-day martyr of high Toryism. These expensive high-end prints were accompanied by a slew of cheap copies which proved to be so popular that many printsellers felt the need to take out advertisements pleading with potential customers to resist the temptation to purchase lesser versions which were “imperfect copies, and not taken from the [original] painting”. Even Continental printmakers got in on the act, with Dutch engravers such as Peter Schnek producing copies after Gibson for export to the British market. By the winter of 1710 Sacheverell’s image was thought to be virtually ubiquitous amongst ordinary Londoners, with the writer William Bisset noting that “nine parts in ten of the public houses, whether taverns, ale-houses or bawdy shops, are staunch conformists; and most of them have the Doctor’s picture in their chief dining rooms and some, I have seen, his sign at their doors”.
This sheet of cards illustrated with scenes from Sacheverell’s life was published anonymously sometime during 1711. The complete deck must originally have been issued in two parts, with surviving examples of the black suits being much rarer than the red cards shown here. Indeed, it took the British Museum over 30 years to acquire a copy of the sheet carrying the clubs and spades and as such they are not listed in the original published version of the Museum’s catalogue. Each card carries an engraved image, a suit and value marking and a set of rhyming couplets. The British Museum catalogue describes them as follows:
Ace – Queen Anne receives the address of the newly-elected House of Commons in November 1710
Two – Sacheverell in a coach cheered by the crowd
Four – He is entertained at a formal dinner
Five – A gentleman (probably Robert Harley) compares High and Low Churches
Six – Sacheverell is acclaimed by the poor in Wales; goats climb a mountain
Seven – The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Samuel Garrard, delivers a copy of Sacheverell’s sermon of 5 November to Henry Clements, the printer
Eight – Sacheverell approaches Oxford in a coach
Nine – He is received outside a college, presumably Magdalen where he was educated
Ten – He is instituted to the living of Selattyn by William Fleetwood, Bishop of St Asaph
King – The hustings outside Guildhall with new City of London Tory members of parliament elected in 1710, Sir William Withers, Sir Richard Hoare, Sir John Cass and Sir George Newland
Queen – The figure Envy holding flaming torches is restrained by Truth from burning the Church (represented by the interior of St Paul’s)
Knave – An unpopular member of parliament escapes on horseback from an angry mob
Ace – Sacheverell approaches the pulpit to give his famous sermon
Two – The Sheriff of Derby asks Sacheverell to publish the sermon that he preached in Derby on 15 August 1709
Three – Sacheverell consults his lawyers (Sir Simon Harcourt, (Sir) Samuel Dodd, (Sir) Constantine Phipps, Duncan Dee, Humphrey Henchman) before his trial
Four – Sacheverell and a gentleman described in the verse as “the Sheriff” approach a church
Five – The Mayor of Banbury receives Sacheverell at the town’s gates
Six – Queen Anne receives the Duchess of Somerset as Mistress of the Robes, having dismissed the Duchess of Marlborough
Seven – The Queen appoints Robert Harley as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the new government
Eight – She directs the Earl of Rochester to take the chair as President of the Council; he was to die in May 1711 and be replaced the Duke of Buckingham
Nine – Sacheverell address an audience from a platform
Ten – The Queen appoints and dismisses ladies in waiting
King – A female personification of the Church of England sits on a rock attended by bishops with Sacheverell kneeling in front of her; winged boys hold a church above
Queen – The Queen addresses parliament
Knave – John Dolben presents the Articles of Impeachment against Sacheverell to the House of Lords
Early English satires such as this are rare and illustrated cards will also appeal to a secondary market of gaming memorabilia collectors, meaning their market value tends to be quite high. These cards sold at auction in London earlier this week for an impressive £1,400, a complete deck in its original uncut state would therefore presumably fetch somewhere in the region of £3,000 – £4,000.