Saturday 30 January 2016

The Evolution of a Sermon: Thomas Brett on the Execution of Charles I

On this day in 1649, Charles I was executed by order of the Rump Parliament. In January 1661, shortly after the Stuarts were restored to the monarchy, the 30th of January was established as a national day of fasting and prayer. Until the nineteenth century, observations of this anniversary regularly included sermons that considered the events of the day and the importance of the occasion for the nation. Hundreds of 30 January sermons were published during this period, and many more were preached in British churches, chapels and meetinghouses.

Although sermons were an important part of the observation of the 30th of January for many years, the content of these sermons evolved over time. During the Restoration, preachers routinely called on the nation to repent for the great crime regicide and portrayed Charles I as a virtuous and good king, in fact a martyr, who fell victim to the excesses of evil men.[1] By the early eighteenth century, some preachers began to debate the actions and character of Charles I and to question the importance of observing the anniversary. 30th of January sermons were caught up in the partisan battles between Whigs and Tories, when conflicting interpretations of recent history were used to defend party principles. On this anniversary, staunch Tories extolled the principles of the divine right of kings, the duties of non-resistance and passive obedience to monarchs. In contrast, some Whig preachers suggested that Charles I was not an innocent martyr but was at least partly responsible for his fate. They also were anxious to emphasize the differences between 1649 and the Revolution of 1688/9, so that they could condemn the regicide without suggesting the Revolution was resistance against a legitimate monarch. More radical Whigs took this argument further and, though they did not justify the execution of Charles I, they began to argue for the right of resistance to tyrannical rulers, including Charles I.[2]

Much of the scholarship on 30th of January sermons has focused on printed sermons, but the debate about the significance of this occasion also left its traces on manuscript sermons. One notable example of this is an anniversary sermon by Thomas Brett, which he preached at least five times between 1706 and 1718 (Lambeth Palace Library, MS 2220, fols. 2r-8v). This sermon is particularly interesting because it was edited twice, and the changes reflected evolving interpretations of the anniversary. By the early eighteenth century, Brett was a committed Tory,[3] so it is no surprise that the sermon is staunchly royalist and closely followed traditional interpretations of the occasion. In the original 1706 version of the sermon, Brett emphasized the importance of monarchy for the prosperity and security of the nation and praised both Charles I and Queen Anne. He also condemned the regicides and called for national repentance for the sins of that day. Brett described Charles I as “a great Example of Vertue & piety,” and he portrayed Anne as “a gracious Queen,” “in whose Welfare ye Welfare, Happiness & prosperity of ye Nation consists” (fols. 6v, 3v, 8r). He repeatedly emphasized their kinship, warning: “That should we prove disloyal & disobedient to her, & make such a Defection from her as ye Rebellious Subjects of her Royal Grandfather did from him, we shall bring this Nation, & ourselves as parts of it into ye most miserable confusion imaginable” (fol. 7r). Brett was likely targeting radical Whig principles, such as the right of resistance, when he further urged his auditors: “Let us then, as I said, abhor those detestable Principles & practices of Subjects calling princes to an Account, of Deposing & Murdering them, & such like seditious Doctrines wch incited Wicked Men to shed so much innocent blood in ye Land” (fol. 8r).

The first round of editing, very likely by Brett, added more lavish praise of Charles I and harsher reflections on those who had opposed him. After asserting Charles’s divine right to rule as God’s anointed, Brett described him as “a prince of a most excellent Temper & Strength of Understanding & regularity of Affections, having no Transports for any Vice, but endued with Habits of Knowledge & piety” (fol. 5r). Brett further argued that there was never “a more hearty Lover of or [sic] Constitution both in Church & State than he was” (fol. 6v). In contrast, Brett described the regicides as “cruel & unreasonable Men,” “sacrilegious wretches” and “Bloodthirsty & merciless men” (fols. 5r, 7v, 7r). He emphasized that, during the Commonwealth, “this Nation groaned under ye most miserable & slavish oppression, & each particular person was exposed to ye Rapine & Violence of those who had invaded their prince’s prerogative & Fellow-Subjects Rights & privileges” (fol. 5r). The additions may have reflected a hardening of Brett’s opinions in the wake of the trial of the high-flying Tory preacher Henry Sacheverell in 1710. It was at this time that Brett adopted nonjuring views, refusing to take any oaths to the monarchy on the grounds that the legitimate line of royal succession had been broken when James II was deposed in 1688/9.[4] Just before the trial in 1710, many Tories preached strongly in support of non-resistance on 30th of January. In response, Whig preachers condemned high-flying preachers for abusing the occasion and renewed their attacks on the behaviour of Charles I. In the early 1710s, Dissenters also sought to defend themselves and their predecessors from Tories’ accusations of disloyalty to the crown.[5] The provocative language added to the sermon may have been Brett’s response to the challenges to the traditional interpretation of the day by his political opponents, when he preached the sermon in 1711 at Gray’s Inn Chapel, London or in 1712 at Wye, Kent.

What makes this sermon even more interesting is that there was a second round of editing in pencil, when Brett, or more likely someone else, crossed out phrases and whole passages of the sermon that revered Charles I and condemned supporters of the Commonwealth. This editor crossed out a reference to Charles having died as a martyr for the nation (fol. 6v). He also struck out a paragraph condemning the “Mock Trial before a pretended High Court of Justice” and describing the reported horrors of the Commonwealth, when “for many years Hypocrisy, Murder, Sacrilege, Cruelty, Rapine & Tyranny overspread ye Land” (fol. 7v-r). It is possible that Brett regretted some of his more excessive praise of Charles I after the party conflict of the 1710s began to cool, or he may have thought it prudent to moderate his language. It is unlikely that Brett’s views of the anniversary changed because he was strongly committed to the Stuart line. In 1716, Brett was consecrated as a nonjuring bishop, and he remained active in the movement until his death in 1744.[6] It seems probable that someone else modified the sermon. A reader may have crossed out offending passages, or a more mainstream preacher may have tried to adapt Brett’s sermon to the changing political climate later in the eighteenth century, when party heats had waned and auditors wanted a more temperate view of the events of 1649.[7]

The modifications made to Brett’s sermon almost certainly reflect changes in the political climate in the early eighteenth century, as the debate over the interpretation of the anniversary of the execution of Charles I reached a peak. This manuscript sermon also demonstrates, in a way that printed sermons rarely do, how preachers revised their sermons to suit different contexts of delivery, changing expectations of auditors or their own evolving views. It also may illustrate how preachers adapted others’ sermons for their own purposes. Even on the topic of 30th of January sermons, which has been extensively examined by scholars of printed sermons, new insights on preachers’ evolving perspectives on the day can be gleaned from manuscript sermons.


[1] For 30 January sermons before 1689, see Andrew Lacey, The Cult of King Charles the Martyr (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2003), chs. 4-5; Helen W. Randall, “The Rise and Fall of a Martyrology: Sermons on Charles I,” Huntington Library Quarterly 10, (1946-7): pp. 135-52; Kevin M. Sharpe, “‘So Hard a Text’?: Images of Charles I, 1612-1700.” The Historical Journal 43, no. 2 (2000): pp. 394-400; Howard Tomlinson, “Commemorating Charles I - King or Martyr?” History Today 45, (1995): pp. 13-17.

[2] On 30 January sermons in the early eighteenth century, see Jennifer Farooq, Preaching in Eighteenth-Century London (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2013), pp. 125-31, 228-30; J. P. Kenyon, Revolution Principles: The Politics of Party 1689-1720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Reprint, 1990), pp. 72-82; Lacey, Cult of King Charles, pp. 191-207; Randall, “Rise and Fall of Martyrology,” pp. 156-57; Howard D. Weinbrot, “The Thirtieth of January Sermon: Swift, Johnson, Sterne, and the Evolution of Culture,” Eighteenth-Century Life 34, no. 1 (2010): pp. 31-38.

[3] Robert D. Cornwall, “Brett, Thomas (1667–1744),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [, accessed 26 Jan 2016]

[4] Cornwall, “Brett, Thomas.”

[5] Farooq, Preaching, pp. 137, 229-30; Lacey, Cult of King Charles, pp. 198-207; Tomlinson, “Commemorating Charles I,” p. 16.

[6] Cornwall, “Brett, Thomas.”

[7] James Caudle, “Measures of Allegiance: Sermon Culture and the Creation of a Public Discourse of Obedience and Resistance in Georgian Britain, 1714-1760” (PhD, Yale University, 1996), pp. 243-47; Randall, “Rise and Fall of Martyrology,” pp. 157-67; Weinbrot, “Thirtieth of January Sermon,” pp. 38-47.

Jennifer Farooq