Laurence Sterne's holy orders


The first volumes of Tristram Shandy were printed anonymously in York in 1759, but it soon emerged that the writer of this bawdy, witty book was a Christian cleric. Many readers were shocked that Laurence Sterne, as a clergyman, had the gall to write a novel which opens with the narrator discussing his own conception.

These creased vellum documents with large hanging seals are records of Sterne’s long career in the Church. They certify that he was fit to hold a range of holy orders – first in Huntingdonshire, then in Yorkshire. The dates show when Sterne received each one, and when he exhibited them to prove his religious credentials.

Which documents are shown here?

  • Add Ch 16158: Sterne is made deacon of Buckden, Huntingdonshire, 6 March 1737.[1]
  • Add Ch 16159: granted the vicarage of Sutton-on-the-Forest, Yorkshire, 24‒25 August 1738. 
  • Add Ch 16164: granted the vicarage of Stillington, Yorkshire, 13 March 1743. 
  • Add Ch 16166: made curate of Coxwold, Yorkshire, 29 March 1760. 

Sterne’s admirers

The last document is dated only a few months after Tristram Shandy was first published, and it shows that some significant locals were untroubled by Sterne’s risqué work. The document is signed by John Gilbert, Archbishop of York, who supposedly loved Tristram so much that he read the first part every six weeks.[2] Here, the archbishop affirms that he is ‘satisfied of the Soundness of your Doctrine, and the Integrity of your Morals’.

Sterne’s critics

Not everyone approved of the novel, however. An ironic letter in Volume 3 of the Grand Magazine (April 1760) exclaimed ‘Tristy’s a clergyman of the church of England – smoke the parson! … What do you think of his introducing a sermon in the midst of a smutty tale, and making the preacher [Yorick] curse and swear…?’

Sterne and Parson Yorick

Sterne deliberately blurred the boundaries between himself and his character, Parson Yorick. Capitalising on the success of his controversial novel, he published (by subscription) three volumes of his own sermons, entitled The Sermons of Mr. Yorick (1760; 1766). They express conventional Anglican views about human fallibility and the need for religion, but they also show Sterne’s linguistic flair. They sold even better than Tristram Shandy.

[1] Although the document is dated 1736, scholars agree it was actually 1737. The discrepancy is probably due to the fact that until 1752 the Julian calendar was used in England, and the legal New Year did not begin until 25 March.

[2] Alas! Poor Yorick! or, A Funeral Discourse occasioned by the … Death of Mr. Yorick (London, 1761), p. 20.

Full title:
Letters of admission into holy orders and induction into various benefices of Laurence Sterne, the author; 1736–1760. With seals.
1736–1760, Yorkshire
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Add Ch 16158-16166

Full catalogue details

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