On Monday, the Church of England voted to allow women bishops for the first time. This prompted Matthew Kilburn, research assistant in the Lords 1660-1715 section, to consider those appointed to bishoprics in that period…
‘Nobody actually wants to be a bishop! They all just have their arms twisted until they have no choice.’ So said an Anglican clergywoman friend on Monday 14 July 2014 on being congratulated on the Church of England’s decision that day to allow women to become bishops. It’s a historical myth that a churchman, when offered a bishopric, would decline the office twice with the words ‘nolo episcopari’, and only if he communicated the phrase a third time was the refusal taken literally. In the period 1660 to 1715 however, where the History of Parliament’s first accounts of the careers of bishops who sat in the House of Lords are nearing completion, there were several cases where bishops seem genuinely to have accepted office reluctantly, and a few where they were among the last to hear of their appointments.
Communications in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had obvious limitations. Before the telegraph, railway and telephone, let alone the internet, the monarch and their ministers in Westminster had to rely on fast post-horses and their ability to negotiate indifferent roads. Decisions at court could reach printed newspapers or handwritten newsletters before official notification was despatched to a potential office-holder. In April 1691 it was decided that the new bishop of Peterborough should be Richard Cumberland. According to a biography written by his son-in-law Squire Payne, published in 1720, the first Cumberland heard of it was when he read about his appointment in a newspaper he picked up in a coffee house in Stamford, where at the time he was vicar of the parish of All Saints.
Stamford, on the Great North Road, was not especially remote from London, but Carlisle, next to the border with Scotland, was the northernmost episcopal seat in England. In April 1702 the archdeacon of Carlisle, William Nicolson, wrote of his support for the promotion to the bishopric of the dean of Carlisle Cathedral, William Grahme. When Grahme refused the bishopric Nicolson mourned the disappearance of his chance of becoming dean of Carlisle himself. On 4 May 1702 he wrote to William Grahme’s brother, James, saying that he had just heard that John Robinson was to be the new bishop of Carlisle. However, the next day Queen Anne issued the formal direction to the clergy of Carlisle to elect Nicolson himself as their bishop. Nicolson’s name had been aired as a possible bishop of Carlisle the previous year, so though he seemed to have no intimations of advancement, perhaps he was deferring to James Grahme’s bias towards his brother’s prior claim.
The influence or reputation of a predecessor was a plausible deterrent to candidates for bishoprics, particularly if that predecessor was still living and had been removed for political reasons. It’s possible that Richard Cumberland was deliberately surprised by his appointment to Peterborough in 1691 as his predecessor, Thomas White, was still living but had been deprived for refusing to acknowledge William III and Mary II as sovereigns and break his oath to the deposed James II. This was definitely the case with Richard Kidder, who also in 1691 refused the bishopric of Bath and Wells because he did not want to challenge the popularity or authority of the deprived bishop, Thomas Ken. In the end he was ‘plainly bullied’ into accepting the bishopric when his refusals were ignored and his appointment was announced.
There were other reasons to refuse advancement. In 1681 John Tillotson, then dean of Canterbury, was offered the wealthy bishopric of Meath in Ireland by the lord-lieutenant, the duke of Ormond, but he declined to exchange his deanery of Canterbury and involvement in religious and political controversy in London for a ‘settled and easy station’ in a country of which he knew nothing. Making one’s desire for advancement known could make it impossible to turn a bishopric down. After years of feeling that he had unjustly been passed over for preferment, Laurence Womock was finally made a bishop in September 1683. Unfortunately the see, St David’s, incurred more costs than it brought him income and was remote and rugged compared to his comfortable old life as a canon of Ely. More expressions of grievance followed. The stress of dealing with a diocese where he did not speak the Welsh language of many of the inhabitants and which was remote from the centre of secular and church politics, London, did not prolong the already septuagenarian Womock’s life. He died in London in 1686. John Tillotson, though a devoted manager of the Church for William III and Mary II, postponed his acceptance of the role of archbishop of Canterbury for months in 1691 and it was accepted that the stress of the position led to his death in 1694. Even if no senior churchman in this period shared the fate of their pre-Civil War exemplar, the beheaded archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, it was apprehended that the work of being a bishop in this period could drastically shorten one’s life.