Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sacheverell, William

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SACHEVERELL, WILLIAM (1638–1691), the ‘ablest parliament man,’ according to Speaker Onslow, of Charles II's reign, was the representative of an ancient family which had fought against Henry VII, and had enjoyed the favour and confidence of Henry VIII. He was born in 1638, and in September 1662 succeeded his father, Henry Sacheverell, at Barton in Nottinghamshire and Morley, Derbyshire. His mother was Joyce, daughter and heir of Francis Mansfield of Hugglescote Grange, Leicestershire. In June 1667 he was present ‘as an eye-witness’ of the Dutch attack upon Chatham, and on 30 Dec. he was admitted at Gray's Inn. Three years later, in November 1670, he came forward at a by-election in Derbyshire, ‘when Esquire Varnon stood against him, besides all the dukes, earles, and lords in the county’ (Derbyshire Arch. Journal, vol. xviii.). He was triumphantly returned to parliament as an opponent of the court policy. On 28 Feb. 1672–3 he opened a debate in supply with a proposal to remove all popish recusants from military office or command; his motion, the origin of the Test Act which overturned the cabal, was enlarged so as to apply to civil employments, and accepted without a division. On the same day he was placed upon the committee of nine members appointed to prepare and bring in a test bill. From this time Sacheverell took part in almost every debate. He constantly expressed himself as opposed to the ‘increase of popery and arbitrary government;’ he was of opinion that the security of the crown ought to rest upon the love of the people and not upon a standing army; and, in foreign policy, he advocated an alliance with the Dutch against the growing power of France. His strength and readiness as a debater, his legal knowledge and acquaintance with parliamentary history and constitutional precedents, brought him rapidly to the front; and in the same year he was the first named of the three members to whom the care of the second and more stringent test bill was recommended by the house. His attacks upon Buckingham, Arlington, and Lauderdale, had already gained him a dangerous notoriety, and, upon the unexpected news of the prorogation of February 1673–4, he was one of those members who fled for security into the city.

Sacheverell's hostility to the court policy was not lessened by the overthrow of the Cabal and by Danby's accession to power. In the session of 1675 he moved or seconded seven or eight debates upon the state of the navy and the granting of supplies, and was persistent in urging that money should not be voted, except it were appropriated to the use of the fleet. He acted as one of the commissioners of the commons in several conferences with the lords upon a quarrel which Shaftesbury had stirred up between the two houses, and showed himself ‘very zealous’ in defending the rights of that to which he belonged. In February 1676–7, after the prorogation of fifteen months, Lords Russell and Cavendish, in the hope of forcing a dissolution, raised the question whether parliament was still legally in existence, and Sacheverell, who saw the unwisdom of such a proceeding, risked his popularity with his party by opposing them. He continued to urge the necessity of a return to the policy of the triple alliance, and, after the surrender of St. Omer and Cambray, an address to that effect was voted at his instance. This attempt to dictate a foreign policy made the king exceedingly angry; parliament was prorogued, and by the royal command the speaker immediately adjourned the house, though Powle, Sacheverell, Cavendish, and others had risen to protest. The incident led, when parliament met again, to a fierce onslaught by Sacheverell upon Sir Edward Seymour, the speaker, whom he accused of ‘making himself bigger than the House of Commons.’ The charge was supported by Cavendish, Garroway, Powle, and a majority of members, but eventually, after several adjournments, was allowed to lapse without a division.

In January 1677–8 the commons were again summoned, and were informed in the king's speech that he had concluded alliances of the nature they desired. Sacheverell, however, had his suspicions, and did not hesitate to say that he feared they were being deceived, and that a secret compact had been negotiated with the French. Upon being assured that the treaties were, in all particulars, as they desired them, Sacheverell, still protesting that war was not intended, moved that such a supply should be granted as would put the king into condition to attack the French should he decide to do so. Ninety ships, thirty-two regiments, and a million of money were voted, but when the treaties which had been so often inquired for were produced at last, it was found that they were intended to make war impossible. From this moment the leaders of the country party abandoned as hopeless their struggle for a protestant foreign policy, and Sacheverell was one of the most resolute in demanding the disbandment of the forces which had been raised, and the refusal of money for military purposes.

In October 1678 Oates's discovery of a pretended popish plot furnished the opponents of the court with a new cry and a new policy. Sacheverell, like Lord Russell, was honestly convinced of the reality of the plot, and from the very commencement of the parliamentary inquiry he took a prominent part in investigating it. He served upon the committees to provide for the king's safety, to inquire into the murder of Godfrey and the particulars of the conspiracy, to translate Coleman's letters, to prepare a bill to exclude papists from sitting in either house of parliament, and to draw up articles of impeachment against Lord Arundel of Wardour and the five popish lords. He was elected chairman of committees to examine Coleman, to examine Mr. Atkins in Newgate, to present a humble address that Coleman's letters might be printed and published, to prepare and draw up the matter to be presented at a conference between the two houses, and of several others. He was one of the commissioners of the commons in several conferences, one of the managers of the impeachment of the five popish lords, and the first named of the two members to whom the duty was assigned of acting as counsel for the prosecution of Lord Arundel. He apparently presided also for some time over the most important committee of all, that of secrecy, making four or five reports from it to the house, including the results of the examinations of Dugdale, Bedloe, and Reading.

Sacheverell, though he believed that ‘the Duke of York had not been the sole cause of the insolence of the papists,’ was ready and eager to attack the duke, and the compromising facts announced in his report of Coleman's examination furnished his party with the desired opportunity. A week later, on 4 Nov. 1678, Lord Russell moved to address the king that James might be removed from the royal presence and counsels, and in the debate that followed—‘the greatest,’ as was said at the time, ‘that ever was in parliament’—Sacheverell suggested the exclusion of the duke from the succession to the throne. This proposal he continued vigorously to advocate, though Cavendish, Russell, and the other leaders of the country party were not yet prepared even to consider so desperate a remedy. Sacheverell was one of those who pressed for the impeachment of Danby, and he served upon the committee which drew up the articles. At the general election of February 1678–9 he and his colleague, Lord Cavendish, were returned again for Derbyshire ‘without spending a penny’ upon the freeholders. A day or two afterwards Sacheverell dined with Shaftesbury in Aldersgate Street, and expressed his high regard for Russell.

The new parliament opened with a contest between the commons and the king over the election of Seymour as speaker. In this Sacheverell took the lead, and did not give way until a short prorogation had removed the danger that a new precedent would be created to the disadvantage of the house. On 30 April the lord chancellor laid before both houses a carefully considered scheme to limit the powers of a catholic king, and Sacheverell greatly influenced the debate in the commons by his arguments that the proposed safeguards amounted to nothing at all, and that no securities could be of any value unless they came into operation in the lifetime of Charles. On 11 May the debate was resumed, and, in spite of the opposition of Cavendish, Littleton, Coventry, and Powle, and the disapproval of Lord Russell, it was decided to bring in a bill to exclude the Duke of York from the imperial crown of the realm. It is probable that Sacheverell had the chief hand in drawing up the bill; and he advocated the withholding of supplies until the bill became law. He was one of the managers of the impeachment of Danby, and of the several conferences with the lords concerning it; and in May he was elected chairman of a committee to draw up reasons ‘why the house cannot proceed to trial of the lords before judgment given upon the Earl of Danby's plea of pardon.’ This able state paper, written chiefly, if not entirely, by Sacheverell, was published in several forms as a pamphlet or broadside, and had a large circulation in the country. Sacheverell continued to lead the attack upon Danby, and opened six other debates on the subject, expressing a belief that, if the house confirmed the pardon, they made the king absolute, and surrendered their lives, liberties, and all. He drew attention also to the fact, discovered by the committee of secrecy, that enormous sums of public money had been paid by ministers to various members of parliament; and, being determined to unmask the offenders, at last compelled the cofferer, Sir Stephen Fox, to disclose their names. A list of these pensioners was printed, and proved of special advantage to the whigs in later elections.

On 27 May, before the Exclusion Bill could be read a third time, Charles prorogued and dissolved parliament; and the newly elected House of Commons was not allowed to meet until 21 Oct. 1680. On the 27th Sacheverell brought forward a motion affirming the subject's right to petition, and in the same month he spoke in favour of impeaching Chief-justice North. He warmly urged the punishment of the judges who had foiled the intended presentment of the Duke of York as a popish recusant, and acted on behalf of the commons as a manager of Lord Stafford's trial in Westminster Hall. After the trial, Sacheverell ceased for a long time to take an active part in public affairs. His belief in the plot may perhaps have been shaken by Stafford's defence, or it may be that he was one of those of whom Ferguson speaks, who proposed to abandon the Exclusion Bill until they had secured themselves against the power of the court by impeaching several of the judges. At the election of February 1680–1 he and Lord Cavendish were not required even to put in an appearance at the show of hands at Derby, though ‘the popish party’ had been ‘very industrious’ in sending emissaries to that place ‘to disparage and scandalise the late House of Commons.’ In the autumn of 1682 Sacheverell led the opposition to the new charter at Nottingham, and for his share in this popular movement, which was described by the crown lawyers as ‘not so much a riot as an insurrection,’ he was tried at the king's bench and fined five hundred marks by Chief-justice Jeffreys. At the election of 1685 the court interest proved too strong for him, and he seems to have retired into private life until the revolution of 1688. He was returned to the Convention parliament for the borough of Heytesbury, and was the second person named to serve upon the committee which drew up the new constitution in the form of a declaration of right. He was appointed also a manager for the commons in the conference concerning the vacancy of the throne; and in the first administration of King William was persuaded to accept office as a lord of the admiralty.

The year brought little but disasters and disappointments, and in December 1689 Sacheverell resigned his post owing to the impending removal of his chief, Lord Torrington. This action seems, however, to have increased rather than diminished the ‘great authority’ he possessed with his party. It was just at this moment that the whigs, who had greatly offended the king by their backwardness in granting supplies for the war, found themselves compelled to face the possibility of a dissolution. The Corporation Bill had not yet passed. No change had been made in the electoral bodies since Charles and James had remodelled them in the court interest; and though, in the first heat of the revolution, they had returned a whig majority, it was certain that they would revert to their old allegiance. Three or four days after his resignation Sacheverell proposed to add a new clause to the bill, which was intended to shut out from the franchise a great number of those who had been concerned in the surrender of charters, and thus to secure the lasting ascendency of his party. The great debate which ensued, and ended in the discomfiture of the whigs, has been admirably described by Lord Macaulay. Sacheverell and his friends, though defeated and discouraged, did not abandon the design of excluding their opponents from power. It was resolved to graft a bill of pains and penalties upon the bill of indemnity, and soon afterwards a number of exceptions from the latter were carried, among which Sacheverell's famous clause appeared in another form. At last the king's mind was made up. He desired to unite the nation, and was weary of these continual attempts to divide it. Four days later he prorogued parliament, and the dissolution which followed resulted in a large tory majority. Sacheverell was returned for Nottinghamshire; but his health had begun to fail, and in October 1691, just as parliament was about to meet for the opening of the new session, he died at Barton. His body was carried to Morley, and buried there on the 12th, and an altar-tomb was afterwards erected to his memory, which records with truth that he had ‘served his king and country with great honour and fidelity in several parliaments.’

He was twice married: first, to Mary, daughter of William Staunton of Staunton; and secondly (before 1677), to Jane, daughter of Sir John Newton of Barr's Court, and had issue by both wives. Dr. Henry Sacheverell [q. v.] was not related to the family of the politician.

Sacheverell appears in Barillon's list of those who accepted presents of money from Louis XIV towards the end of 1680; but the evidence against him has been rejected by Hallam as untrustworthy, and the charge seems to be hardly consonant either with his character or with his circumstances. It is more difficult to defend his share in the events of the ‘popish plot,’ except at the expense of his judgment; but the excuse may be urged that he was a zealous protestant, and therefore more prone than Shaftesbury to be imposed upon by the perjured testimony of Oates. In the parliamentary struggles over the Test Act, the impeachment of Danby, the ‘popish plot,’ and the attempt to exclude James from the throne, he effectively influenced the policy of his party and the course of events; but the whole of his life, with the exception of a single year, was passed in opposition, and (unless it were in the constitutional settlement of the revolution) he had never the opportunity of showing that he possessed the higher qualities of statesmanship. It was as an orator and a party tactician that he shone, and he was perhaps the earliest, certainly one of the earliest, of our great parliamentary orators. Many years after his death his speeches were still, writes Macaulay, ‘a favourite theme of old men who lived to see the conflicts of Walpole and Pulteney.’

A fine portrait of William Sacheverell, ‘æt. 18’ (the property of the present writer), is at Renishaw; an engraving from it forms the frontispiece to ‘The First Whig.’

[Sacheverell is not mentioned in any biographical dictionary, but many of his speeches are preserved in Grey's Debates. See the present writer's ‘The First Whig: with 49 illustrations from cuts, engravings, and caricatures, being an Account of the Political Career of William Sacheverell, the Origin of the two great political Parties, and the Events which led up to the Revolution of 1688,’ 1894. Of this book fifty-two copies were privately printed.]

G. R. S.