Sacheverell Riots

The Sacheverell riots -- the most serious London riots of the eighteenth century before 1780 -- erupted on the night of March 1, 1710, as a protest against Protestant dissenters and their Whig allies.  The hero of the hour, Henry Sacheverell, was a high Anglican clergyman known for his violent sermons against religious non-conformists and the moderate bishops and politicians who sheltered them.  Like many high Anglicans he saw the Church as endangered not only by attacks from without by its ancient enemies, puritan Dissent, but latitudinarians and free thinkers who had infiltrated its ranks and subverted its principles from within. He blamed Whig politicians for promoting these traitors.  Despite his attachment to the old Anglican principles of divine right monarchy, episcopacy and the duty of obedience, he was a firey demagogue, who excoriated moderate bishops and royal ministers in vitriolic tirades delivered from the pulpit. 

On Guy Fawkes Day, the anniversary of the famous Gun Powder Plot (1607), Sacheverell preached one of his violent sermons in St Pauls Cathedral, with the Lord Mayor and Aldermen in attendance.  Among other provocative remarks, he referred to the current Lord Treasurer as a Volpone.  He then compounded his offense by publishing the sermon, which became a run away best seller, with a probable print run of at least 100,000. Sensing an opportunity to discredit Anglican extremists, the Whig ministry accused Sacheverell of preaching against the Revolution of 1688 and impeached him in Parliament.  But the maneuver backfired as Tory politicans skilfully managed managed Sacheverell's defense before the House of Lords, turning him into an Anglican martyr.  His case became a lightening rod for pent up frustrations, not only with the state of religion but high wartime taxation, the perceived growth of the "monied interest" of government debt holders and other grievances against the Whig ministry.     

As the impeachment proceedings neared their climax, crowds of Sacheverell supporters began demonstrating in the streets near Westminster, stopping coaches of peers and MPs on their way to Parliament with demands that the passengers buy rounds of drinks with which to toast Sacheverell.  On the evening of March 1 protestors attacked an elegant Presbyterian meeting house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, constructed only five years before, smashing the buildings' windows, prying the tiles from the roof and stripping it of its interior wooden furnishings and paneling, from which they made a bonfire.  The crowd then marauded through much of the West End, chanting "High Church and Sacheverell" and confronting citizens with threatening shouts of "God damn you, are you for the Doctor [Sacheverell]?"  They attacked and partly demolished five additional meeting houses in this fashionable district, making bonfires of their contents in Drury Lane, Blackfriars and Clerkenwell.  A builder of one of the meeting houses unfortunate enough to fall into the crowd's hands was threatened with being thrown into a bonfire.  The rioters then threatened to move on to more secular targets.  Papers handed out to the crowd bore the slogan: "Down with the Bank of England and the Meeting Houses; and God Damn the Presbyterians and all that support them," indicating how closely religious dissent had become associated with London's financial elite.  Prominent Whig politicians were also threatened.  On the other hand the crowds were careful not to damage ordinary shops and houses, going so far as to carry wooden furnishings some distance before igniting them, so as not to risk damaging near by buildings with fire.  Although food prices had been high the previous winter, no violence was directed against bakers or merchants of basic commodities. 

Information on the identity of the rioters is scarce but what there is suggests that many were men of middling income or at least servants and apprentices of fairly prosperous tradesmen. There were even reports of men in elegant coats with swords at their sides who joined the crowds in Lincoln's Inn Fields The crowd seems to have been a disciplined body rather than a violent rabble and it targeted its victims with some precision.  Discipline probably did deteriorate as the riots progressed, however, and it is possible that if they had continued much longer looting and more indiscriminate violence might have occurred.

By the early morning hours troops had been summoned to suppress the riots.  They succeeded in doing so around 3 in the morning.  But the political ramifications of the Sacheverell affair continued, contributing to a Tory landslide in parliamentary elections later in the year.  When the Whigs returned to power in 1715 they passed the Riot Act, which thereafter gave magistrates greatly enlarged powers to break up crowds before they became dangerous.  The worst riot of the period had been in support of authoritarian Anglican values, while the repressive legislation it provoked was crafted by a Whig goivernment, suggesting just how thoroughly the political world had altered since the 1680s.  

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