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.
W. G. DAY