Biography

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Henry Phillpotts (1778-1869)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1895


Henry Phillpotts, bishop of Exeter, second son of John Phillpotts, by his wife Sybella, was born at Bridgwater, Somerset, on 6 May 1778. His father had sold the estate of Sonke, in the parish of Langarren, Herefordshire, which had been in the family for two centuries, and had become the proprietor of a pottery and brick factory at Bridgwater. In September 1782 he removed to Gloucester, where he bought and kept the Bell Inn and became land agent to the dean and chapter. Henry Phillpotts was educated at the Gloucester College school, and matriculated at Oxford, as scholar of Corpus Christi College, on 7 November 1791; he graduated B.A. on 3 June 1795, won the chancellor's prize for an essay ‘On the Influence of Religious Principle,’ and was shortly afterwards (25 July 1795) elected to a fellowship at Magdalen College on the Somerset foundation. He there won the prize offered by the Asiatic Society for a Latin panegyric on Sir William Jones, and graduated M.A. on 28 April 1798.

On 25 July 1800 he was elected prælector of moral philosophy, was appointed in 1802, and again in 1803, one of the examiners for honours, and under the influence of his friends, Routh and Copleston, took deacon's orders on 13 June 1802, and priest's orders on 23 February 1804. On his marriage, on 27 October 1804, with Deborah Maria, daughter of William Surtees, esq., of Bath, and niece of Lady Eldon, he vacated his fellowship. He was select preacher before the university for the first time in November 1804, refused the principalship of Hertford College in 1805, graduated B.D. and D.D. on 28 June 1821, and was elected an honorary fellow of Magdalen on 2 February 1862.

His first preferment, probably due to his wife's connection with Lord Eldon, was to the vicarage of Kilmersdon, near Bath, a small crown living worth a little over £200 a year. He never seems to have resided there. On 24 December 1805 he received the benefice of Stainton-le-Street, Durham, and in 1806, on Dr. Routh's recommendation, became one of the chaplains of Shute Barrington, bishop of Durham. This post he held for twenty years. His first appearance as a controversialist was in 1806, when he issued an answer to an anonymous attack, supposed to have been made by Dr. Lingard, upon one of his bishop's charges, and his defence met with considerable success. Early in 1806 he resigned the living of Kilmersdon, and on 28 June 1806 was presented to the crown living of Bishop Middleham in Durham, where he resided two years, holding it with Stainton. In 1808 he was collated by the bishop of Durham to the valuable living of Gateshead; in 1809 was promoted to the ninth prebendal stall in the cathedral of Durham, and on 28 September 1810 was presented by the dean and chapter to the parish of St. Margaret, Durham, as well. In this parish, where peace did not always dwell among the parishioners, he earned a reputation as a tactful but firm administrator, and a zealous parish priest. His next preferment was to the second prebend, better endowed than the ninth, on 30 December 1815.

He now began to appear as a writer upon public questions. Sturges Bourne raised the question of settlement under the poor law by a motion in the House of Commons on 25 March 1819. Phillpotts, an active justice of the peace for the county of Durham, published a pamphlet in defence of the existing system. A few weeks later he issued, on 30 June, an anonymous pamphlet against Earl Grey's bill for the repeal of the Test Act, temperate in tone, and expressing a certain willingness to relieve Roman catholics, but only upon strong guarantees for the maintenance of the existing arrangements in church and state.

Next he published a pamphlet in vindication of the part played by the government in the collision of the mob on 16 August 1819 with the troops at St. Peter's Fields, Manchester, which was known as the Peterloo massacre, and to a scathing review of his pamphlet in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ No. 64, he issued a rejoinder. His energy, political and professional, won him further preferment. The bishop of Durham collated him, on 20 September 1820, to the rectory of Stanhope-on-the-Wear, one of the best livings in England. He resigned his stall at Durham, spent £12,000 in building a parsonage, and devoted himself to his duties as a priest and a magistrate without ceasing to take part in politics.

He promoted an address to the crown from the clergy of Durham in support of the policy of the ministry towards Queen Caroline, and vigorously attacked Earl Grey's advocacy of her case and of the cause of reform. When John Ambrose Williams was prosecuted for a libel on the cathedral clergy in August 1822, the legal proceedings were currently, but wrongly, attributed to Phillpotts, and he was attacked by name in the November number of the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ His ‘Letter to Francis Jeffrey,’ dated 30 December, was a fierce retort.

In 1825 he began his well-known Roman catholic controversy with Charles Butler (1750-1832) by a series of fifteen letters produced in April upon the tenth letter in Butler's ‘Book of the Roman Catholic Church.’ They were uncompromising in tone, but of such conspicuous learning and logic, and so courteous to Butler personally, that Butler sought out his adversary and made his acquaintance. Nevertheless Phillpotts continued the controversy. He published in 1826 a further letter to Butler, and in 1827 two letters to Canning, dated 23 February and 7 May, on the question of the Roman catholic relief. He suggested a new form of test declaration to be subscribed by Roman catholics, and prepared a draft of an elaborate bill dealing with the tests, which he embodied in a letter to Lord Eldon in 1828.

In view of his change of opinion shortly following, this fact is of importance. Canning spoke of Phillpotts's letters to himself as ‘stinging,’ his friends denounced them as libellous, and his opponents utilised them as an armoury of weapons for hostile use in debate. Lord Kenyon was so much struck with Phillpotts's grasp of the question in dispute that he entrusted to him eleven letters which he had received from George III, when he was consulted between 1795 and 1801, upon the late king's scruples about his coronation oath. Phillpotts published them on 25 May 1827. The wisdom of this step was questioned. The Roman catholics claimed them as facts in their favour. Phillpotts's own friends blamed him for injuring the protestant cause. Accordingly he vindicated his conduct in a ‘Letter to an English Layman’ early in 1828, and at the same time made a fierce onslaught upon the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ which had reviewed the king's letters in June 1827, and had practically said that they were the writings of a madman.

Thus down to 1828 Phillpotts was a tory and anti-catholic controversialist, as militant, perhaps, as befitted a cleric, and undoubtedly a useful supporter of the ministry. He was rewarded with the deanery of Chester when his friend Copleston vacated it for the bishopric of Llandaff, and was instituted on 13 May 1828. Now, however, came a change of view on his part, for which he was very violently attacked. The tory ministry gave way in 1829 to the Roman catholic demands, and passed the Relief Act. The government's conversion was shared by Phillpotts, and he voted for Sir Robert Peel, who was chiefly responsible for the government's change of front, at his election contest at Oxford. Phillpotts was said to have ‘wheeled to the right-about as if by military command’ (Times, 3 Feb. 1829); but he had always been willing to make the concession if accompanied by what he deemed sufficient safeguards, and saw no reason why he should abandon all his political interests and alliances because he could not have his own way on one point. His timely recognition of the necessities of the government was promptly recognised by the Duke of Wellington. In November 1830 he succeeded Bethell in the bishopric of Exeter.

A difficulty at once arose. When first the bishopric of Exeter was offered to him, Phillpotts had replied that he could not afford to take it, with its income of under £3,000, unless he might retain his living of Stanhope and its income of £4,000. Many bishops of Exeter had held parochial preferment along with their sees, and the government granted Phillpotts's request. Although the last three rectors of Stanhope had been also prelates of distant sees, the parishioners were at once set in motion, and petitioned against Phillpotts's retention of the living; they complained that he took £4,000 a year and left all the duties to a ‘hireling.’ The matter was mentioned in parliament, but, pending its discussion, a change of ministry took place, and the whigs came into office under Lord Grey. The new ministry refused to sanction the arrangement, but, after some negotiation, in effect gave way. A canon of Durham was induced to exchange his stall for Stanhope, and Earl Grey presented Phillpotts in January 1831 to the vacant stall. He held it for the rest of his life, regularly taking his turn of residence. Some of the clergy of the diocese of Exeter at the same time petitioned against his appointment, alleging that he had changed his opinions in 1829, and the Earl of Radnor attacked him on the same ground in 1832; but on both occasions the Duke of Wellington stated that the advancement was made in spite of, and not in consequence of, Phillpotts's opinion of the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

His consecration took place at Lambeth on 2 January 1831, and he arrived at Exeter on the 10th. He was installed on the 14th, and took the oaths and his seat in the House of Lords on 7 February. He voted against the Reform Bill, but did not engage in the debates until the Tithes Bill was before the house in October, when he came into violent collision with Earl Grey. Early in the following year he spoke powerfully and at length both on the Irish Education Bill and on the Reform Bill. On the latter occasion Lord Grey, in reply, bade him ‘set his house in order,’ an expression for which he made the minister apologise. His pronounced resistance to the Reform Bill — he signed Wellington's protest — led to an attack by the Exeter mob on his episcopal palace, which his son garrisoned with coastguards. His opposition to the other ministerial measures — the Irish church temporalities bill, the ecclesiastical commission, and the new poor law — was hardly le4 August, 2014 from without he was at all times opposed; least of all would he brook interference from the whigs. He resisted vehemently the act for the registration of marriages in 1836, and accused the whigs in his episcopal charge of having exhibited ‘treachery, aggravated by perjury’. He opposed the Ecclesiastical Discipline Bill in 1838, coming into conflict with Howley, the archbishop of Canterbury, in debate, attacked the conduct of the Irish education board, and to the last, year after year until it passed, he protested on religious grounds against the Irish Corporations Bill. Again, in 1841, he raised unsuccessfully the question of the catholic foundation of St. Sulpice in Canada, and subsequently fought against the commutation of tithes, the proposed foundation of an Anglican bishopric of Jerusalem, the Religious Opinions Bill in 1846, and the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. He offered a strong opposition to Dr. Hampden's appointment to the see of Hereford in 1847, and it was by his efforts, with those of Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, that, after some years of clerical agitation, convocation recovered its former consultative functions in 1853. On questions of politics, other than ecclesiastical, he often took views that were independent of party considerations. He was probably the only leading tory who was opposed, at its inception, to the Crimean war.

The bishop came as a high churchman to a diocese long known for its evangelical temper, and as a disciplinarian to one not characterised by ecclesiastical strictness. He was, further, a man publicly accused of having changed his opinions to win preferment, and of having scandalously accumulated benefices in order to fill his pockets. Hence his clergy were in many cases ill-disposed towards him. It was in connection with protracted ecclesiastical litigation that during the major part of his episcopate he was best known. Sometimes these disputes related to patronage, sometimes to discipline; but the most notable were in effect trials for heresy or schism. In 1843 he began a suit in the court of arches against the Rev. John Shore, a clergyman in his diocese, who, in defiance of his warning and in consequence of personal disputes, was holding church services in an unlicensed building at Bridgetown, near Totnes. From that court to the privy council and to the queen's bench Mr. Shore took the case under various forms, always unsuccessfully. In the end, being unable to pay his costs, he went to prison, until he was released, on the bishop's foregoing part of his costs and the rest being paid by public subscription. With the Rev. H. E. Head, rector of Feniton, a low-church clergyman, the bishop also had a successful lawsuit. The Gorham case, originally a suit of duplex querela in the arches court, is of all the bishop's lawsuits the most famous, and arose in connection with Phillpotts's refusal to institute the Rev. G. C. Gorham to the living of Brampford Speke, to which he had been duly presented in 1847, on the ground that the presentee had failed to satisfy him as to his orthodoxy on the doctrine of baptism. The ultimate judgment, on appeal to the privy council, was adverse to the bishop, and Gorham was instituted (8 March 1850). Archbishop Sumner was stated to approve the decision. Phillpotts wrote to him in terms of great severity, protesting that the archbishop was supporting heresies, and threatening to hold no communion with him. He assembled a diocesan synod at Exeter to reaffirm the doctrine, which the privy council had held not to be obligatory on Gorham, and repeated his censure of the archbishop in his visitation in 1851. But he bore Gorham no personal ill-will, and liberally subscribed to the restoration of Gorham's church at Brampford Speke.

Phillpotts's episcopal activity was incessant and well directed, and in later life he became an open-handed giver. The £20,000 to £30,000 which his son publicly stated he had spent upon law during his lifetime ought to be balanced by the £10,000 which he gave to found a theological college at Exeter, and the large sums which he devoted to the restoration of his cathedral and to the building of churches. He ardently supported one of the earliest sisterhoods, Miss Sellon's at Devonport , and presented his valuable library to the clergy of Cornwall. After reaching the age of eighty Phillpotts ceased to participate in public or diocesan affairs. In 1862 he delivered his last episcopal charge, and made his last triennial diocesan tour. By means of correspondence until his sight failed, and with the help of Dr. Trower, ex-bishop of Gibraltar, he administered his diocese thereafter. He last addressed the House of Lords in July 1863, but was compelled from feebleness to speak sitting. In the same year the death of his wife, who had borne him fourteen children, further depressed him; yet in 1867 Bishop Wilberforce wrote that he ‘is still in full force intellectually.’ His last act was formally to execute the resignation of his see on 9 September 1869, but the resignation did not take effect, for on 18 September 1869 he died at his residence, Bishopstowe, Torquay; he was buried at St. Mary's, Torquay.

Phillpotts was a high churchman of the school which preceded the Oxford movement, and though often ranked on the Anglo-catholic side, he never identified himself with that party, despite his pronounced hostility to its opponents. His charge of 1843 vigorously attacked both Tract No. XC. and Brougham's judgment in the privy council on lay baptism in the case of Escott v. Mastin. Partisan though Phillpotts often appeared to be, no party could in fact depend upon his support, nor had he the gifts of a party leader, the diplomacy, the discretion, or the attractiveness such as characterised Wilberforce, Tait, or Newman. By nature he was not a teacher; for his disposition was too little sympathetic to make him a guide of younger men, or a moulder of weaker minds. His pugnacity gave him his chief reputation. A born controversialist and a matchless debater, he was master of every polemical art. At the same time he was a genuine student, and was copiously informed on every subject he took up. His mind was formed in an age which thought that a political parson no more discredited his cloth than a political lawyer discredited his profession; but it may be doubted if his controversial heat did not rather injure than aid the cause of that religion which it was employed to defend. Neither in intellectual power and force of will nor in physical courage has he often been surpassed by churchmen of modern times. Greville, hostile as he was, could only compare him with Becket or Gardiner (Memoirs). The charge of excessive nepotism brought against him was ill-justified. He was a strict disciplinarian. His knowledge of ecclesiastical law enabled him effectively to compel his clergy to rubrical strictness, and his diocese stood in need of a strong hand.


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14 July, 2014