A High Church caricature on the Sacheverell prosecution, 1710
A High Church caricature on the Sacheverell prosecution, 1710

Ever since Blenheim the power of the Whigs at home had been steadily increasing. The party was controlled by a group known as the Junto, consisting of Lord Somers, Charles Montague, who had become Lord Halifax, and must not be confused with the "Trimmer" Halifax of the Revolution, Sunderland, Wharton, and Lord Orford - that Admiral Russell who had won the battle of La Hogue. It was the completeness of their agreement with Marlborough and Godolphin with regard to the war which bound these two chiefs to the Whig party, of which they were not pro­fessedly members.

The Tories, Harley and St. John, endeavoured to undermine the Whig influence through Abigail Hill (Mrs Masham), a kinswoman both of Harley and of the Duchess of Marlborough. The Intrigue was detected at the beginning of 1708, Harley was removed, and the ministry became exclusively Whig, though Mrs. Masham still retained the ear of the queen in spite of the Duchess. A general election in the summer, confirmed the Whig ascendency, all the more because the majority of the Scots in both Houses for practical purposes increased the majority of the Whigs. Their victory in Parliament was capped by the successful campaigns of the year and the apparent prostration of France.

Peace Proposed ...
So complete was this prostration that Louis was ready to accept almost any terms for peace. He was willing to withdraw even from active support of his grandson's claim to the Spanish throne, and to surrender to the Dutch sundry fortresses in the Netherlands which would serve as a barrier against French aggression. But the Emperor was not satisfied with the terms; and neither the Whigs nor Marlborough wanted peace, Marlborough for obvious reasons, and the Whigs because they were afraid that peace would be followed by a Tory reaction. The war party were afraid that Holland might be tempted by the offers of Louis to make a separate treaty on her own account; against this they secured themselves by the Barrier Treaty with Holland engaging to secure her still more favourable terms. The demands finally formulated for the acceptance of the French king were in plain terms intolerable; for he was required not only to withdraw his support from Philip but to employ French troops in ejecting him from Spain, on which Louis very pertinently observed that if he must fight some one he would fight not his friends but his enemies.

... and Rejected
A wave of fiery enthusiasm ensued. A new army was drawn together, ill-fed and ill-clad but burning with patriotic ardour. Under the command of Villars, the best of the French marshals, it met Marlborough and Eugene at Malplaquet. The formal victory fell to the allies, but at the cost of terrific carnage, and losses heavier than those of the French, who were able to beat an orderly and secure retreat. It was Pyrrhic victory; though it enabled the victors to capture some more fortresses in the course of the next twelve months, they had been punished too severely to strike any decisive blow. And when the twelve months were past, the war party was no longer in the ascendant in England.

Again, in Spain renewed campaigning went on the whole favourably to the allies through the first half of 1710, but the Spaniards remained obstinately loyal to Philip. In the autumn they received more reinforcements from France, and at the end of the year the small British contingent under Stanhope forming the rearguard of the allied army was surprised and compelled to surrender at Brihuega. The other successes of the allies had little effect beyond hardening their hearts to the persistent rejection of peace proposals.

Sacheverell's attack on Godolphin
In the meanwhile matters had been going ill with the ministry in England. In 1709 the Duchess of Marlborough's influence with the queen was waning, and all Anne's personal sympathies were with the Tories. Moreover, there was serious friction between the Junto on one hand and Godolphin and Marlborough on the other. In the winter both Marlborough and the Junto committed serious blunders. Marlborough, anxious to secure his own position above party, applied to the queen to be made Captain-General for life. The fact sufficed by itself to destroy his popularity and to arouse ominous suspicions that he was scheming for a military dictator-ship. The Whigs found their own pitfall in an outbreak of High Church fanaticism. An egregious divine, Dr Henry Sacheverell, had long made himself notorious by his attacks upon dissenters and upon the latitudinarian bishops. On November 5th he preached in St. Paul's an egregious sermon denouncing toleration and comprehension, directed against prominent politicians and more particularly against Godolphin, to whom he referred by the popular nickname of Volpone, taken from Ben Jonson's play.

The thing itself was of no serious consequence, but it was typical of the attitude of the High Clerical Tories who represented Whig ascendency as a danger to the Church. The Whig leaders, urged on by the vindictiveness of Godolphin, resolved to silence the political extravagances of the pulpit instead of leaving them alone. Sacheverell was impeached, and was forthwith prematurely glorified as a martyr; his trial caused as much excitement as that of the seven bishops. The real object of the Whigs in the prosecution, apart from Godolphin's personal feeling of vindictiveness, was to procure the condemnation of the prevalent Tory doctrines as subversive of the principles of the Revolution and as being in fact veiled Jacobitlsm. There was not much difficulty, however, in representing their action as mere persecution of a political opponent. The Doctor was a fashionable preacher, and the fashionable audience who attended his trial were moved to sympathetic tears by his eloquent defence. The Peers, by a small majority, found him guilty of the charges, but they had taken alarm at the popular excitement; the queen was known to be favourable to the culprit; and the sentence merely suspended him from preaching for three years, and ordered the obnoxious sermon to be publicly burnt. The Whigs had only succeeded in making themselves look foolish.

The Fall of the Whigs
Through the early months of 1710 Harley was secretly intriguing to sow dissensions among the Whig chiefs and to foster the queen's increasing determination to escape from the yoke of Duchess Sarah. He brought into play the erratic Shrewsbury, who had secluded himself from politics for many years past. Before midsummer the queen had broken finally with her ancient but too domineering confidante. The disappearance of the Duchess of Marlborough from her intimate society was followed by the dismissal first of Sunderland and then of Godolphin. Harley reappeared in the ministry. His own object was in all probability to form a. ministry made up of the moderates of both parties. But there was no real coalescence. By September all Harley's colleagues were Tories while the House of Commons was the same which had been returned as triumphantly Whig some two years before. A general election was inevitable, and resulted in the return of a strong Tory majority.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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