Interesting Vicars of Penn

 

Rev. Benjamin Robertshaw – Part 2

Benjamin Robertshaw was Vicar of Penn from 1716-28 and Rector of Amersham from 1728-44. We heard in Part 1 the extremely unflattering assessment of Robertshaw’s performance as Vicar of Penn from Daniel Baker, who was High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire when he wrote a memorandum to the Bishop of Lincoln around autumn 1721.

Daniel Baker’s memorandum clearly had an effect because by March 1722, the Penn Parish Register shows that a curate, John Page, later to be the Vicar, was established in Penn, and by 1724 was improving the Vicarage and churchyard. The Penn register records Robertshaw, from 1703 onwards, periodically signing the affidavits (required by law since 1678 to be signed by a priest or a Justice) that the deceased had been buried in a woollen shroud. Before he became Vicar, he was described in the Register either as Curate of Amersham or Curate of Chalfont St Giles. The paucity of marriages, only 12 in the six years of his incumbency before John Page arrived as Curate, and the absence of the usual notes of any alterations or additions to the church or vicarage, support the charges against him of absence and neglect. Pluralism of this kind, holding several benefices in order to increase income and using poorly paid curates to do the work, was typical of the period and led to some scandalous abuses.

One might have expected to find a robust denial in Robertshaw’s memoir of all the apparently damning accusations against him, but not a bit of it. His own account entirely confirms Daniel Baker’s and makes it clear that Protestant Dissenters and Whigs, or ‘Whigs and infidels’ as described by Robertshaw, were absolutely abhorrent to him and that he was indeed a Jacobite sympathiser. He was a vehement High Church Tory, greatly resenting the Hanoverian George I who had succeeded Anne, the last Stuart sovereign, in 1714. Not only had Robertshaw preached publicly in favour of James Stuart, the Pretender, the Catholic son of James 11, in 1715, he was also chaplain to the Earl of Scarsdale who was arrested as a Jacobite supporter the same year.

His views sound dangerously violent to modern ears, but they were entirely typical of the time and were shared by the majority of country gentry and clergy. High Churchmen identified the Church with the state, regarding dissent from one as like treachery to the other. lan Gilmour maintains that half the nation was probably Jacobite in 1714-15 when even Marlborough and Queen Anne’s former Lord Treasurer took the precaution of sending James a large sum of money. England was there for the taking, despite the widespread fear of the return of Popery, but for Jacobite ineptitude.1  Robertshaw’s sermon in 1715, according to Daniel Baker, was preached ‘before a great many persons of Quality by whom I hear he was well rewarded’. It was the MP for Amersham, Sir Samuel Garrard, a High Tory, who as Mayor of London, in 1709, invited Dr Henry Sacheverell to preach the sermon in St Paul’s, a violent, incoherent harangue, which raised the cry of ‘The Church in Danger’ and led to his impeachment and the worst riots of the century in London until the Gordon riots of 1780. Robertshaw twice refers approvingly in his memoir to Sacheverell’s trial at which he was virtually acquitted, and his own sermons reflected the same extreme views.

© Miles Green, August 2004

1 Ian Gilmour, Riot, Risings and Revolution, Governance and Violence in Eighteenth-Century England, Pimlico (1993), Ch. 1-3, provided good background for this period.