Monday 14 September 2020

A Commemorative Royalist Fast Sermon for Archbishop Laud: Celebrating GEMMS Sermon #20000

 GEMMS’s 20,000th sermon record is a remarkable manuscript, an anonymous Royalist fast day sermon allegedly delivered before the court of Charles I at St. Mary’s Church, Oxford, in commemoration of Archbishop William Laud’s execution which took place on 10 January 1645.[1] Modern scholarship has tended to focus on the overwhelming number of Parliamentary fast sermons in print and manuscript, as records relating to Royalist fast sermons in this era are scarce by comparison.[2] No printed Royalist fast sermons from the first two months of 1645 are extant; however, to date, GEMMS has uncovered manuscripts of three Royalist fast sermons, all of which were delivered in February 1645.

Figure 1: Image of Lauds execution in John Vicars, A Sight of ye Trans=actions of these latter yeares, &c. (London, 1646), p. 25.

Two of these Royalist fast sermons can be attributed to Jeffery Sharpe (c. 1612–1675).[3] The status of these two sermons is debatable, owing to the inconsistencies in Sharpe’s ecclesiastical career and personal life during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. Although he was ejected from several posts during the 1640s, he became rector of Colmworth, Bedfordshire and private chaplain to the newly converted Parliamentarian William Cecil (1591–1668), second earl of Salisbury, in 1650. Furthermore, he was married to the daughter of John Whincopp (d. 1647), one of the Assembly of Divines. Nonetheless, other sermons by Sharpe within this manuscript, on the subject of the proscribed Christmas and Easter feasts, testify to his Royalist allegiances during the 1640s. Choosing Amos 4.12 as his text for these two fast sermons (‘Therefore thus will I do unto thee, O Israel: and because I will do this unto thee, prepare to meet thy God, O Israel’), Sharpe expounded on the providential nature of God’s punishments, with the intention to promote both personal and national reform. These two sermons by Sharpe present many of the typical characteristics of fast day sermons in both the Parliamentary and Royalist traditions.[4]

Figure 2: A Fast daies Sermon preached upon the Fast day in February 1644 by Jeffery Sharpe, Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. E. 157, pp. 13536.

The 20,000th sermon within the GEMMS database, on the other hand, is a fascinating piece of prose contained within its original limp vellum gilt-tooled binding. This manuscript (MS 261) is housed at St John’s College, Oxford, which also holds Archbishop Laud’s diary and correspondence. Written in a single seventeenth-century cursive hand, it is a witty and sustained attack on foes within and without the Church of England, peppered with vivid bestial imagery which relates to these enemies and the nation as a whole. Most significantly, it is a sermon preached ‘to the deare Memory’ of Laud, who is described as the ‘only Martyr wch ever the Protestant was Formally guilty of’ (f. 2r). As a rare survival of a Royalist perspective upon the execution of Laud and the keeping of fasts more generally, this sermon is a crucial archival discovery which has not, thus far, featured in the current historiography of this critical event in the English Civil Wars.

Figure 3: A sermon preach’d in St Maries Oxon. Feb 10. 1644,
St John’s College Library, Oxford, MS 261, f. 1r.

Why has this valuable document been ignored by scholars? This sermon is not included in the most recent published catalogue of St John’s College manuscripts.[5] The manuscript’s provenance remains a mystery, and the specified date of the sermon on the title page appears to contradict its occasion. The sermon was apparently preached on ‘Feb: 10: 1644 [old-style dating]: being the Monethly ffast Day’; however, 10 February 1645 was a Monday, which was neither a regular preaching day nor a fast day. Further clues are offered within the sermon itself, with the preacher’s mention of the Treaty of Uxbridge which had been ongoing for twenty-one days. From this, it is possible to attach a tentative date of Thursday 19 February to the sermon, which still conflicts with the specified occasion as fast days did not tend to fall on Thursdays either. Moreover, the preacher’s chosen text of 1 Corinthians 15:32 seems curiously at odds with an event which advocated abstinence (‘If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die’).

Figure 4: A sermon preach’d in St Maries Oxon. Feb 10. 1644,
St John’s College Library, Oxford, MS 261, f. 2r.

Further contradictions occur within the body of the sermon itself. Pointing towards the builders of idols in his congregation, the preacher condemns the worshipping of the golden calf in the King’s chapel in a criticism of Laudian ceremonial, which would appear to counter the memorial purpose of the occasion (f. 30v). According to the preacher, such ‘Intestine Vipers’ (f. 31v) hinder any chances of peace being restored to the Church. It is clear, however, that the preacher is ultimately arguing that the act of idolatry constitutes inappropriate behaviour for a fast day. Earlier in the sermon, the preacher had lamented the destruction of this ‘faire Living temple’, expressing the following sentiments: 

What hopes can the Branches have when the Axe is layd to the Root of the Tree? The Axe wch struck off his Head, had long before been Cutting downe ye Carved works of Gods House […] (f. 14r).

Throughout the sermon, emphasis is placed upon similarly damning accounts of the ‘beasts’ which posed a danger to the fate of the nation. Laud is likened to the figure of Paul, as it is described that, just as Paul fought beasts in Ephesus, so Laud had battled with ‘Unreasonable and yett Humane Beasts’ (f. 4v). Rebellion itself, collectively represented by all of the competing Reformed factions, is styled the ‘Reformed Antichrist’ (f. 10v). There is even a reference to ‘Satyres’ (f. 11v), a pun on the flurry of printed graphic satires which heralded the downfall of the archbishop.[6] Accordingly, the preacher does not shy away from graphic imagery. After having offered the three ‘heads’ of the sermon, the preacher completes his introduction by stating that it is fitting to ‘mourne and lament the 4th’ (f. 6v); that is, the lost head of Laud. The preacher’s considerable rhetorical skill is also worthy of mention. Which auditor could remain neutral after hearing the plosive alliteration of ‘Satan’s black & Bloody Banner shatter’d to pieces and torne to shivers’ (f. 30r)?

In addition, the preacher takes this opportunity, in the midst of his censure of an array of figures, to provide an appraisal of the negotiations at the Treaty of Uxbridge. He advises the negotiators to proceed peacefully, using their ‘skill to string and Tune a Commonwealth to a right key’ (f. 15v) as the sweet singers of Israel. On the other hand, if the likes of the ‘Caledonian Boare’ (i.e. the Scottish Covenanters, f. 15r) will not listen to these harmonious instruments, then the negotiators must show no mercy in their fight for righteousness. After all, ‘[t]he English Breed have been good hunters of the Boar’ (f. 15v). In a trope commonly used within both Parliamentarian and Royalist fast sermons, Israel and England are thus aligned as counterparts.[7] Such rhetorical parallels, along with Paul and Ephesus/Laud and London, are sustained through to the sermon’s application, which in its culmination of a litany of cutting gibes against both nation and state would certainly have stirred up an emotional response. Whether the effect would have been a positive one is another question.

There are a number of manuscripts in the GEMMS database which never made their way to the printing press, most likely because they were too radical and provocative in their condemnation of the religious politics of the day.[8] Standing apart from the more conventional Royalist productions, which commonly argued for the necessity and lawfulness of kings and bishops, or in favour of tithes and subsidies for their support, this memorial sermon for Archbishop Laud falls into this incendiary category. Owing to its dubious dating, and the fact that no contemporary commentary or reception history seems to survive even for such a controversial sermon based at a significant pulpit in the centre of Oxford, it is quite possible that this text was a ‘phantom sermon’ that was never actually delivered.[9] During a time in which such a figure of authority as Laud could be abandoned by the King, there was no guarantee that this anonymous preacher would be protected by Royalist forces, a fact which was underscored bitterly within the sermon itself.[10] This manuscript, which may therefore only have circulated amongst a very restricted readership, stands as a legacy to the religious writing culture of the Royalist underground. This discovery paves the way for further research into the uncensored voices which may have never materialised in the pulpit.



[1] St John’s College Library, Oxford, MS 261 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001324), is discussed in more detail in Anne James and Jeanne Shami, Remembering the Dead: The Role of Manuscript Sermons & Sermon Notes in Researching Early Modern Memorial Practice (London: The Congregational Memorial Hall Trust, 2019).

[2] A highly selective list of scholars’ contributions would include Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Fast Sermons of the Long Parliament’, in Hugh Trevor-Roper, Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (London: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 294–344; Tom Webster, ‘Preaching and Parliament, 1640–1659’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 404–20; Ann Hughes, ‘Preachers and Hearers in Revolutionary London: Contextualising Parliamentary Fast Sermons’, Transactions of the RHS, 24 (2014), 57–77; Ann Hughes, ‘Preaching the “Long Reformation” in the English Revolution’, Reformation, 24.2 (2019), 151–64.

[3] Bodleian Library, MS Rawl. E. 157 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-000138). See James and Shami, Remembering the Dead, pp. 16–17.

[4] Alec Ryrie, ‘The Fall and Rise of Fasting in the British Reformations’, in Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain, ed. by Natalie Mears and Alec Ryrie (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 89–108.

[5] Ralph Hanna, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Medieval Manuscripts of St John’s College Oxford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Thanks to Debora Shuger for alerting Jeanne to the existence of this manuscript sermon related to the death of William Laud.

[6] Helen Pierce, ‘Anti-Episcopacy and Graphic Satire in England, 1640–1645’, The Historical Journal, 47.4 (2004), 809–48; Rachel Willie, ‘Sensing the Visual (Mis)representation of William Laud’, in What is an Image in Medieval and Early Modern England?, ed. by Antoinina Bevan Zlatar and Olga Timofeeva (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto, 2017), pp. 183–210.

[7] Achsah Guibbory, ‘Israel and English Protestant Nationalism: ‘Fast Sermons’ during the English Revolution’, in Early Modern Nationalism and Milton’s England, ed. by David Loewenstein and Paul Stevens (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 115–38.

[8] A much later example is an autograph anti-Catholic manuscript sermon on the Hanoverian succession, preached at Horninghold Church, Leicestershire, by the ardent Tory Humfrey Michel (c. 1650–1722) (The National Archives, SP 35/2/45 (GEMMS-MANUSCRIPT-001034)). This sermon may have been seized at the time of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion.

[9] Anne James and Jeanne Shami, Remembering the Dead: The Role of Manuscript Sermons & Sermon Notes in Researching Early Modern Memorial Practice’, International Congregational Journal, 18.2 (forthcoming, 2020) [reprinted with some additions and revisions]. For the term ‘phantom sermon’, see Keith A. Francis, ‘Sermon Studies: Major Issues and Future Directions’, in The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689–1901, ed. by Keith A. Francis and William Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 611–30 (pp. 620–21). See also Rosemary Dixon, ‘Sermons in Print, 1660–1700’, in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, ed. by Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington and Emma Rhatigan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 460–79 (p. 461); Hannah Yip, ‘Silent Preaching: Laypeoples Manuscript Sermons, c. 1530  c. 1700’, <> [accessed 30 August 2020].

[10] St John’s College Library, Oxford, MS 261, f. 9v.

~ Jeanne Shami and Hannah Yip