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1709: How a Climate Crisis Almost Drove England to Religious Civil War

1709: How a Climate Crisis Almost Drove England to Religious Civil War November 19, 2021

Last time, I talked about the overwhelming climate shock that befell Europe in the year 1709. Extreme cold and crushing rainfall caused famine, plague, and general misery across the continent, conditions that endured well into the next decade. Millions perished. In the circumstances of the time, people inevitably turned to religious explanations of the crisis: God was evidently angry, and was intervening to punish his straying subjects. Such a crisis could not fail to bring religious scapegoating, and the best example occurs in England. The whole story gets fundamentally to the issue of how we take account of climate as a factor in political and religious history.

Some background is required. Since the 1660s, English Protestants had been split between members of the Church of England, who accepted episcopacy and the Prayer Book, and the several sects who rejected those things. Depending on their particular traditions, those dissident groups included Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Quakers, and collectively they were known as Nonconformists or Dissenters. They suffered from extreme civil disabilities, although they were not generally persecuted, and they worshiped fairly openly. One of England’s two great parties, the Whigs, favored extending toleration for Dissenters, as they were faithful allies against Catholicism, and against France. The other party, the Tories, was militantly High Church, in a political rather than liturgical sense, and they favored strong privileges and power for the established church.They raged especially against Nonconformists who engaged in Occasional Conformity – that is, deigning to take the Anglican Communion sporadically, solely in order to qualify for establishment status. Such hypocrisy was denounced as “playing bo-peep with God Almighty.” What made this situation deadly dangerous was that the Queen, Anne, had no male heir. When she died, the legitimate successor according to struct principles of descent would properly be the exiled James Stuart, but he was militantly Catholic and tied to the French court. (His son would become a Catholic Cardinal). In response, Parliament had decided that the actual successor must be a Protestant from the Hanoverian line. But by 1709 or so, matters were wide open, with rebellion and civil war very much on the cards. The country’s very existence as a Protestant nation was at stake.

The Whigs won the 1708 elections handsomely, but they came under bitter Tory attack. Making matters worse, the government needed to drag every penny they could out of the population through high taxation to pay for the war against France.  As the economy collapsed during 1709, and people became ever more miserable, more endangered by hunger and unprecedented bitter cold, they were ready to listen to any demagogue, the wilder and more outrageous the better.

Fear and rage found a face in an Anglican clergyman called Henry Sacheverell, who in November 1709 preached his incendiary sermon The Perils of False Brethren. The date is critical. In November 1605, Catholic plotters had tried to destroy the English ruling elite by a huge explosive attack in Parliament, and ever since, November 5 had been commemorated as an anti-Catholic festival, complete with symbolic burnings of the Pope. As the nursery rhyme says,

Please to remember / The fifth of November / Gunpowder, treason, and plot

I see no reason / Why gunpowder treason / Should ever be forgot.

Modern Bonfire Night festivities involve ritual burnings of “Guys,” who represent the lead plotter, Guy Fawkes. Sacheverell’s sermon for the day nodded to the Catholic menace, but devoted virtually all its time to an extremist attack against the government, the Whigs, and the Dissenters. He directly attacked any notions of toleration or liberty of conscience, and implied that the Queen’s government endangered the Church by its excessive gentleness towards those Dissenters and Occasional Conformists. They were the ones really threatening treason and plot – and who knows, gunpowder too.

Only in the strictest legal terms did the sermon fall short of outright sedition. The government foolishly tried to suppress the sermon by publicly condemning it and trying Sacheverell before Parliament – technically, by impeaching him. He was convicted, but the event made him a national hero, and his travels across the country became something like a royal progress. Extreme High Church radicalism now became the order of the day. Even among faithful Anglicans, a sizable minority moved to supporting the candidacy of the Catholic James as successor – hence the name Jacobites, from the Latin form of James. This was very dangerous indeed, threatening treason and insurrection.

Protests in support of Sacheverell turned into national rioting against Dissenters and Whigs, as urban mobs targeted their houses and institutions. As commonly occurred in Early Modern times, popular unrest reached its height at the end of Winter (late February into early March), when people had been held inside so long by the atrocious cold, and were eking out their food supplies through the very last remains of their preserved meat. They were hungry and desperate, and needed to find out who in the society had so infuriated God that they must be discovered and snuffed out. At various times through history, the culprits might have been Jews or Catholics, but on this occasion, it was the Dissenters – the Presbyterians, Baptists and others.

I quote Wikipedia:

Rioting broke out in London. On the evening of March 1, protestors attacked an elegant Presbyterian meeting-house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, built only five years earlier. They smashed the windows, stripped the tiles from the roof and ripped out its interior wooden fittings, which they made into a bonfire. The crowd then marauded through much of the West End of London chanting “High Church and Sacheverell.”  It spread across the country, notably in Wrexham, Barnstaple and Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, where Presbyterian meeting-houses were attacked, with many being burnt to the ground.

When new elections were held that Autumn, the Tories won a massive victory on the strength of the “Sacheverell Wave”, and the polarization between the parties grew acutely.

One intriguing sidelight. I have spent a lot of time reading the family papers of various aristocratic and gentry families in this era, especially their personal and political correspondence. If you catalogue the letters by year, then in a great many cases, the numbers fall off precipitously around 1712-15. Either lots of people developed sudden writers’ cramp, or else they were being doubly careful to burn anything that might seem remotely seditious. In fact, we know that a great many elite figures were corresponding with the exiled Jacobite court in France, however openly treasonous that might be. At the least, they were trying to keep their options open. On the other side, we know that elite Whigs were seriously discussing their own plans for violent action if the Tories did try restoring the Stuart dynasty.

It is a near miracle that when Queen Anne died in 1714, she was succeeded peacefully by her German Protestant heir George I, and thus by the Hanoverian dynasty. But civil war and state failure remained a lively possibility. Widespread demonstrations called once more for “Sacheverell and High Church.” Some militants overtly cried Jacobite slogans, praising “High Church and Ormonde” – Ormonde referring to the Duke who was seen as the Jacobite leader. Some mobs urged the death of the new King George. In 1715, the Jacobites launched a potent but unsuccessful insurrection.

In the long term, the blustering savagery of the Sacheverell movement made it inconceivable that even the most sympathetic government would consider relaxing the restrictions on Nonconformists, which remained in place for another century, at least in Britain. Conditions were of course far more attractive in the American colonies.

I do not say that the party crises of these years could have altogether been avoided if the climate situation had been different. But without that climate element, it is impossible to understand the amazing depth and sheer toxicity of religious/political hatred in these exact years, or their political consequences.


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