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Sterne in Coxwold

In the Fauconberg (Belasyse) of Newburgh Priory papers held in the North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton are a number of letters written by Richard Chapman which reveal aspects of Laurence Sterne’s life while he held the living of St Michael’s church, Coxwold.

Richard Chapman, a lawyer living in Oulston, North Yorkshire, less than two miles from Coxwold, regularly attended services in St Michael’s Church in the period when Laurence Sterne was the incumbent. Chapman was the land agent for Earl Fauconberg, the local landowner, and he had a great deal to do with Coxwold, which was essentially the estate village. The Earl lived for most of the year at his London residence in George Street, Hanover Square, and during the social season Chapman wrote every week to let him know what was happening on the estate and in the village. Most of the details of the letters are mundane: the weather, repairs to estate buildings, rents and wages, harvesting of crops and gelding of stallions. Chapman earns his place in literary history by virtue of the fact that he also commented on Sterne’s activities as a clergyman and his performance as a preacher.

St Michaels Church Coxwold

St Michael’s Church, Coxwold

Chapman’s letters appear to be one of only two eye-witness accounts of Sterne’s preaching – and they are very revealing. Sterne was presented to the perpetual curacy of Coxwold in March 1760 and as early as 20 July of the same year Chapman was reporting that his ‘Doctrine, (tho Chiefly Extempory) takes So well among the Congregation that the Church can Scarce Contain the number of People that appear every Sunday.’ Fourteen months later there were two successive letters which further attested to Sterne’s pastoral concerns and to his popular appeal. On 20 September 1761 Sterne and his churchwardens bought from Chapman a Scotch ox ‘which is to be roasted whole’ in celebration of the coronation of George III, which took place in Westminster Abbey on 22 September. Furthermore we are told ‘Mr Sterne hath prevailed with me to give e’m [Sterne and the church wardens] a Bushel of wheat for Bread so that all the Poor in the Parish may be Satisfied—there will also be a Collection for a Drink for e’m–.’ At this time a bushel of wheat contained 9 gallons – 72 Troy pounds – and would have made nearly 90 standard one-pound loaves. As his responses to the Archbishop’s Visitation of 1743 also show, Sterne was genuinely concerned for the material as well as spiritual welfare of his flock.

coxwold village looking away from the church

Coxwold Village

The following week Chapman sent a report of the celebrations to the Earl: ‘in the first place a very fine ox with his Hornes gild was laid down whole before the fire in the middle of the Town Street about nine oClock in the Morning, at half past roasting The Bells put in for Church, where an Excelent Sermon was Preached Extempory on the Occation by Mr Sterne, and gave great Content to every Hearer, the Church was quite full, both quire and Isle to the very Door, and the Text &c you will see both in the London and York Papers about 3 oClock the Ox was cut up and distributed amongst those who could not get nearest to e’m, Ringing of Bells Squibs and Crackers Tarr-Barrills and Bonefires &c and a Ball in the Evening concluded the Joyfull Day.’ This clearly was one of the great days in the history of Coxwold.

In both accounts the Earl is told, Sterne preaches ‘Extempory.’ This creates a slight puzzle. The text of the sermon preached for the coronation was indeed recorded in the newspapers: the York Courant reported: ‘At the village of Coxwould that Day was celebrated in the following manner: A large Ox was roasted whole, with his Head on and Horns gilt, and all the Parishioners invited to Dinner after Divine Service, which was perform’d by the Rev. Mr. Sterne; who on that Occasion, preach’d a sermon from 2 Chron. XV, 14,15. And they sware unto the Lord with a loud Voice, and with Shouting, and with Trumpets, and with Cornets. And all Judah rejoiced at the Oath.’ This sermon was published after Sterne’s death as ‘Asa: a Thanksgiving Sermon’ (number XIII in Sermons by the late Rev. Mr. Sterne, 1769). The problem is reconciling Chapman’s description of the occasion as being extempore and the subsequent publication of the text. There are two possible explanations: that Sterne did indeed preach extempore and then wrote down a version of what he had delivered, which was subsequently published; alternatively, he wrote out the sermon first, committed it more or less to memory, and then delivered it as if it were extempore. This would have enabled him to make eye-contact with his congregation and enhance the effectiveness of his delivery.

The latter version is the more likely and accords with the initial advertisements for the first two volumes of his sermons, which appeared in the York press in 1760, and described them as ‘the dramatick sermons of Mr. Yorick.’

Chapman’s letters also provide us with more mundane aspects of Sterne’s life in Coxwold: he needs stabling for his horses, and he is involved with the assessment of rents. A more lasting contribution to the village is to be found in the letters which describe the alterations to St Michael’s Church which, we are told, are to a plan devised by Sterne himself. It is most unfortunate that the plan of the alterations to the church, which Chapman tells the Earl is in Sterne’s own hand, has been separated from the relevant letter and appears to be lost. As it is generally believed that the idiosyncratic garden front on Shandy Hall is to Sterne’s design, it would have been very useful to have had his plan of the new church interior as evidence of his architectural skills both in planning and drawing. A lighter side to village life, and one which suggests the social aspirations of Mrs Sterne, is to be found in the letter discussing her postilion.

The letter which mistakenly reports Sterne’s death will be discussed more fully in the section ‘Sterne’s lives and deaths’ which is in preparation and will appear during the summer.

The Laurence Sterne Trust is indebted to the North Yorkshire County Record Office for permission to reproduce these documents, and particularly to Keith Sweetmore for arranging the photography and permission.


Oil painting of Laurence Sterne (1713 - 1768)

Portrait of Laurence Sterne by Joshua Reynolds, 1760