As regular readers of 852 RARE know, the HLS Library’s Historical & Special Collections houses a great collection of historical trial accounts from many jurisdictions, especially England and the United States. Our popular digital collection Studies in Scarlet: Marriage and Sexuality in the US and UK, 1815-1914, gathers together some, but by no means all, of our trials.
Researchers read accounts of trials to learn about particular cases, of course. But trials are interesting for many other reasons, some scholarly and some just plain fun. In trial accounts we can learn about class distinctions, the intersection of law and medicine, the treatment of women and people of color, and the rise of the popular press, which produced trial literature to feed a voracious reading public.
How, then, could we resist adding The Trial of Henry Sacheverell to our collection? Dating from around 1710, this item is an uncut sheet of playing cards that tells the story of the trial of Rev. Sacheverell with a series of illustrations and satirical verse. Our sheet features 26 images of playing cards (hearts and diamonds), each with an image of a conventional playing card at the top, a mock-heroic couplet at the bottom, and an image of the event described in the center.
Dr. Sacheverell was impeached by the Whig-dominated Parliament in 1710 for preaching two sermons that advocated the Tory doctrines of non-resistance and passive obedience. As punishment, Sacheverell was forbidden to preach for three years and his two sermons were ordered to be burned. Many viewed him as a martyr. “Sacheverell Riots” erupted in London and other parts of the country, which led to the downfall of the Whig ministry in 1710 and the passing of the Riot Act in 1714.
Henry Sacheverell is well-represented in Harvard’s library collections, and many conventional accounts of his trial may be found in HOLLIS, the Harvard Library catalog.