The Vestment Scandal of 1714

“And it was a most Masterly stroke of Art

To give Fizle a Room to Act his part;

For a Fizle Restrain’d will bounce like a F---t, 

But when it Escapes from Canonical Hose

And fly’s in your Face, as it’s odds it does,

That a Man should be hang’d for stopping his Nose, 

Long Kept under Hatches, ‘twill force a Vent

In the Shape of a Turd, with it’s Size and Scent,

And perhaps in its way may be**** a Vestment…”

The preceding ditty comes from the dedication of the first play printed in America, Androboros: A Bographical [sic] Farce in Three Acts, Viz. The Senate, The Consistory, and The Apotheosis. Printed on August 1, 1714, it’s a gross—and funny—satire of colonial politics and power struggles, written by Robert Hunter, the royal governor of New York. And, fascinatingly, it’s all tied up in Trinity Church. The “Fizle” of the dedication refers to the Rev. William Vesey, the parish’s first rector.

Androboros (which means “man-eater” in corrupted Greek) takes aim at Hunter’s enemies in colonial New York: his lieutenant governor, Francis Nicholson, known in the play as Androborus; the Rev. Vesey, called Fizle; and members of the colonial assembly, given names like Doodlesack and Mulligrub.

To understand the play, we must travel back in time to New York City, 1710. The city was essentially a frontier town of about 6,000, a mix of Dutch, English, and enslaved Africans living south of Maiden Lane.

In June of that year, Scottish-born Hunter, then in his mid-40s, arrived in New York, never before having set foot in the New World. Hunter was an educated former soldier who had seen action in the War of Spanish Succession and a good friend of Jonathan Swift and other members of England’s literary set. Hunter convinced the Crown to grant him governorship of New York in return for helping resettle 3,000 Protestant refugees from the Rhine region in what is now Germany to the Hudson Valley. Colonists did not take it well when a new governor showed up with thousands of ill asylum-seekers. 

If Hunter had any romantic notions about governing the colony, they quickly disappeared. During the previous 45 years, New York had been governed first by the Dutch, then the English, then the Dutch again, then the English with a Catholic monarch, then a rebellious leader named Jacob Leisler, and finally the English under a Protestant monarch. There were continual power struggles between the royal governors and colonial assemblies, often over matters of taxation. Assemblies refused to vote to raise funds for public works or to pay government salaries, arguing the funds were being misspent.

Hunter’s exasperation with governing the colony drips from every line in Androboros. It’s easy to imagine him sitting in the governor’s house inside Fort George, near the Battery, gleefully pouring out his frustration in a play meant to amuse and educate his friends in England.

The play opens at a meeting of the Senate. At the urging of Androborus (Lt. Governor Nicholson), the pompous group of colonial officials argues over whether or not to be ruled by “this Plaguey Keeper,” Hunter. The conflict between England and the colonies that would erupt into Revolutionary War 60 years later is apparent. Hunter parodies the argument for colonial independence in a speech delivered by Mulligrub:

“Since it appears plainly, that we of this Tenement, who are Tenants thereof, are in danger of Being, by the Foundations laid, made Tenants therein, let us not lie Crying thereat, but be Valiant Therefore, and Vindicate our Rights There-from, Our Birth-Right Parliamentary Rights, settled upon us by the Ten Commandments.”

Senators sympathetic to the Keeper report the assembly’s activities to him. The Keeper always has the upper hand with the bumbling colonial fools.

In the next act, Fizle (Vesey) leads a conversation about how to get rid of the Keeper. “I have a Plot in my head,” Fizle says. “I’ll instantly have my long Coat Beskirted and Besh-t, and give out That it is He, or some of his People, who has don’t.”

While this may sound fictional—the governor accusing a powerful clergyman of befouling his own vestments in a plot to frame him—it’s based on actual events.

The Hunter-Vesey animosity began early in Hunter’s tenure as governor. A long-simmering conflict between a Presbyterian congregation and the Anglican authorities over possession of a rectory in Jamaica, now Queens, erupted. Mr. Poyers, the appointed Anglican minister, had arrived to take over the parish but was denied the rectory and salary by the congregation, who were paying a “dissenting” minister. Hunter advised Poyers to sue in court, offering to pay the cost of the suit. Poyers instead took his complaints to Vesey, who wrote, and circulated to other clergy, letters to the Bishop of London and Earl of Clarendon about the matter and complaining, politely, about Governor Hunter’s approach.

Hunter felt betrayed and undermined by Vesey’s actions. He wrote a rebuttal to the Bishop of London. “Where we hoped a Father & Directour of the Clergy we may find the head of a faction,” he writes of Vesey.

The incident that inspired the vestment-befouling plot happened on Shrove Tuesday, February 10, 1714. Someone broke into Trinity Church through the “north window of the steeple and the window of the vestryroom” and vandalized and “grossly defiled” vestments and Prayer Books. Vesey, along with the vestry, approached the council with a request for help locating the offender, saying, “There are some Busey mockers & scoffers of Religion, who Ridicule both sacred things … vilifying the Ministers of Christ, & Exposing them & their Holy Function to Reproach & Contempt.”

Hunter, complying with Vesey’s request, issued “A Proclamation for the Discovery of Those Who Desecrated Trinity Church.” The proclamation has prompted scholarly suggestions that Hunter was openly accusing Vesey himself of having committed the crime, calling the crime “the hellish devices of those who may have endeavored to lead the innocent with their own guilt.” This must have been the final inspiration for Hunter, as Androboros was published just five months after the proclamation.

In Androboros, Fizle carries out his plot, then runs into the senate yelling, “O Horror! O Abomination … That Vestment, so Reverenc’d by the Ancient and Modern World, beskirted and Bedaub’d with what I must not name!”

The Keeper and his faction triumph in the end, trapping Androboros and Fizle in the trap they themselves built for the Keeper.

There’s no record of Androboros ever being publicly performed or of Vesey ever reading it. Interestingly, William Bradford, the printer of Androboros, was a parishioner and former vestryman of Trinity Church. Bradford was a champion of freedom of the press; he had a long history of printing without regard to his personal views on the subject. He was also the official royal printer at the time.

Hunter left the post of royal governor in 1719 to take a job as comptroller of customs in England. Vesey served as rector of Trinity Church until his death in 1746. The befouler of his vestments was never caught.