Friday, 14 November 2014

Hoadly - the Life & Reputation of a Bad Bishop

The joys of Facebook! Notification of a friend's birthday sent me to my Kalendar and there I saw that Brian shares the day with Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761). Not someone many people have heard about these days, but in his own day one of the most controversial men on the bishops' bench.

At Lincoln Theological College, before the dawn of time, I did a paper for my MA on the bishops of the 18th century. It started off as an exercise in statistics - something it appears no one had done before - but became also a study of class and social change, and the church politics of keeping the peace after the horrors of the previous century, and the schisms of the next one. During all this fact-finding, Hoadly stood out as of interest.

There were 161 men who held office as Bishops of the Church of England (which then included Wales - Ireland was audited separately, and Scotland made quite different arrangements). Of these, Hoadly was one of the 25% who lived to be eighty, but, being a Clare College, Cambridge man, not one of the 14% who went to Christ Church, Oxford; he was the only one to hold four diocesan appointments in succession, and was the only one called Benjamin. He was an unlikely candidate for high office because he came from a smallfry family (his father was a schoolmaster) at a time when the episcopate was becoming more aristocratic; because his wife was, rather scandalously, an artist and a friend of Hogarth; and worst of all, he was "a cripple". We don't use the word now, but the great 18th century historian Norman Sykes (who held the swinging title of Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge) did, as recently as the 1950s. The problem had been childhood smallpox, which meant that he couldn't ride a horse, the best way to get about a parish or diocese - in those days sometimes bishops would perform confirmations from horseback - and he had to preach kneeling down, which must have been quite a sight. But despite these handicaps by the age of forty, in 1716, after a succession of swanky London parishes, he was made bishop of Bangor. He went on to be bishop of Hereford, then Salisbury, and for the last 27 years of his life, bishop of Winchester and prelate of the Order of the Garter.

What interested me at the time was the scornful language used against the little cripple who presumed to accept such high offices - all very political in those days - and with which Professor Sykes colludes. He even contradicts himself, in one book repeating the slur that Hoadly never even visited Bangor or Hereford, and yet in another, noting that he at least tried to reach Bangor by sea, and quoting a letter written on "the eve of his Episcopal Visitation of Hereford". A very good history teacher at school has given me a lasting suspicion of "great" historians. Like most of the bishops, Hoadly spent most of his time in London, and the House of Lords, to which he was appointed because of his skills as a controversialist in the Whig cause. The "Bangorian Controversy" was started by a sermon of his in 1717 about the relationship between Church and State, which staunchly defended the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament over the Church, a situation which pertained until very recently. In 1928 a new version of the Book of Common Prayer was rejected, against the advice of both archbishops, by a House of Commons full of (according to one commentator) "Jews and jobbers". These days it seems, the C of E will pick and choose which of Parliament's laws it wishes to obey.

At the time I was hopeful that I might turn his story into a doctoral thesis, and ideally, a film. Looking at the bibliographies, the former has already been done. Maybe I shall have a crack at the latter some day (film-making is in the family, after all - my distant cousin Paul Haggis got an Oscar a few years ago). If I do, it will end with a long shot of Hoadly in Winchester Cathedral, preaching in full fluent flood of rhetoric, on his knees. He was a man who fought against the odds, and won.

I attach below his portrait by William Hogarth which from time to time hangs in the Tate Britain collection at Pimlico. I think he has something of the look of that other fine-living, modern Latitudinarian, John Mortimer.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2014


  1. If one were to be unkind, which of course one is not, it might be said that to have to preach in a kneeling position was a distinct advantage for a Bishop.
    He does indeed have a look of the great late John Mortimer, who also had some severe disabilities, though they were less appropriate for an author.
    Both great men in their different ways.

  2. He looks as though he should be played by Ian Cuthbertson.