When is a degree, not a degree?

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley, senior research fellow for the Lords 1715-90 section, considers the topical issue of university degrees and the need for appropriate qualifications in the early eighteenth century.

University degrees are the preoccupation of many students at this time of year. They are a passport to employment. It was ever thus, with the tenure of certain positions in the Church of England requiring a higher degree as a necessary qualification. This seemingly straightforward matter could become fraught with difficulty if political considerations intruded into the appointment process, or if the procedure by which the degree was acquired was open to question.

Thus, when Walter Offley was appointed dean of Chester in March 1718, he was worried that it might be blocked by the bishop, Francis Gastrell, as the statutes of the cathedral expressly required the incumbent to be either a Doctor or Bachelor of Divinity or a Doctor of Laws, while Offley was only a Master of Arts. His fears were unfounded and he seems to have exercised his official duties without question until his death three years later. Offley had powerful backers, having been suggested by the earl of Cholmondeley, one of Cheshire’s pre-eminent political figures. Also, his appointment perhaps generated little controversy because Bishop Gastrell was more determined to block the advancement of Samuel Peploe.

On 1 January 1718, Dr. Richard “Silver-tongued” Wroe, the Warden of the Collegiate Church in Manchester had died. The wardenship had long been in Gastrell’s sights, who wished to see it annexed to the bishopric in order to augment its meagre revenues.  Gastrell had been allowed to hold his canonry of Christ Church, Oxford, in commendam with his bishopric in order to supplement his income; his predecessor, the independently wealthy, Sir William Dawes, Bt., had kept his living of Bocking, in Essex, and previously to that, both Bishops Pearson and Stratford had also been the rectors of Wigan.

The Whigs had other ideas, however, securing the appointment of Samuel Peploe, vicar of Preston (since 1700), and a man who had distinguished himself in the pulpit against the Jacobite rebels when they occupied the town during the 1715 rebellion. However, for the Tory Gastrell, Peploe lacked the requisite theological qualifications for such an important post as the wardenship – he could not block Peploe’s appointment, but he could refuse to institute him in the post on the grounds that he did not possess an appropriate degree, claiming as his authority the statutes of the Manchester Church, which insisted upon a higher degree, than the BA possessed by Peploe. Peploe’s alma mater of Oxford, Tory dominated as it was, could expect to give Peploe trouble, if he applied for a higher degree.

In order to circumvent this requirement, Peploe sought to use his good standing with both the ministry and the Church hierarchy by asking the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake, to use his power to grant such a “Lambeth” degree. Archbishop Wake duly obliged and in March 1718 Peploe was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Divinity.

Rather than give up the fight, Bishop Gastrell decided to contest the Archbishop’s right to grant such degrees, and when Peploe attended the Bishop in May 1718 in order to be instituted to the wardenship, Gastrell refused on the grounds that he did not possess a legal degree. Faced with this direct challenge to his authority, and what he considered to be the rights of his archiepiscopal office, Archbishop Wake determined to back Peploe and force his institution.

Legal proceedings were begun, with Bishop Gastrell using the full complexity of the law to retard Peploe’s progress. In June 1720 he challenged the legality of a summons to appear at Lancaster Assizes on the grounds of lack of the requisite notice.  In March 1721 Gastrell went into print, publishing The Bishop of Chester’s Case, with relation to the Wardenship of Manchester, in which it is shewn that no other Degrees but such as are taken in the University, can be deemed Legal Qualifications for Ecclesiastical Preferments in England. When Peploe obtained a verdict in 1722, Gastrell appealed, and at the time of his death on 14 November 1725, the Bishop was still intent upon a further appeal.

Peploe was instituted warden [dean] of Manchester on 26 February 1726 by the Archbishop of York, Lancelot Blackburne, as the bishopric of Chester was vacant. The Whigs then decided to reinforce their victory by suggesting that the new bishop should be none other than Peploe himself, which was seen by Tories, like Thomas Hearne as ‘to insult the ashes of Dr. Gastrell’. Peploe was consecrated as bishop in April 1726 and retained the wardenship of Manchester, thereby (ironically) bringing to fruition Gastrell’s plan to unite the two offices.


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