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An unpopular archbishop

13 November 2015

John Witheridge on Archbishop Howley, who feared the Reform Bill

Archbishop Howley, 1828-1848
James Garrard
Ashgate £60
Church Times Bookshop £54


WILLIAM HOWLEY was a man with the misfortune to be shaped by one age but called to lead in a very different era. Born in 1766 in the reign of George III, he was Archbishop of Canterbury when Queen Victoria came to the throne.

Unusually for his time, Howley owed his rise more to merit than to patronage: his cleverness was rewarded at Oxford with a fellowship at New College, a canonry at Christ Church, and the Regius chair of divinity. None the less, he was and remained a high-church Tory of the 18th-century variety, who had to spend most of his years as Primate in the uncomfortable vortex of political and ecclesiastical reform.

Howley’s leadership was at best thoughtful and prudent, but more often timid, cautious, and fearful of change, and not helped by his being a deplorable public speaker. Though in favour of a measure of gradual parliamentary reform, he, with 20 bishops, voted against the Reform Bill, unleashing anger and violence from the mob (Howley was quick to retreat from Lambeth to Addington), and contempt from the Whig Prime Minister, Earl Grey, who called him “such a poor, miserable creature”.

Even the passing of the Bill in 1832 did little to appease the Bishops’ enemies. The Archbishop’s carriage was pelted, and his footmen were attacked, though, disappointingly, we are told that the story that his chaplain had a dead cat flung at him appears apocryphal.

Much the same conservatism can be seen in Howley’s handling of the Oxford Movement. As a high-churchman he was sympathetic, but from the start he was impatient with the Tractarians’ enthusiasms, and too quick to fear its Romanising tendencies.

“I wish’”, John Henry Newman wrote, “the Archbishop had somewhat of the boldness of the old Catholic Prelates; no one can doubt he is a man of the highest principle, and would willingly die a Martyr; but if he had but the little finger of Athanasius, he would do us all the good in the world.”

Dr Garrard’s account of Howley’s archbishopric sets out the main themes, but lacks evaluation. In many ways, this is an unsatisfactory book. It is not a biography, though it appears to be. Howley’s first 47 years are covered in just eight pages, and we learn very little about his character or domestic life. Though Garrard is fond of giving financial details, he never tells us what their modern equivalents might be. Howley’s income in his first year as archbishop was £28,434, but what is interesting, indeed staggering, is that this would be in the region of £2 million today.

The problem with Archbishop Howley is that it started life as a doctoral thesis and seems to have been transformed into a book by reducing it in length, obscuring the author’s judgements, and adding some inelegant sentences that would surely not have passed the scrutiny of the examiners (“Hampden was the High Churchmen’s liberal bogeyman”; “[Howley] had sometimes been cast as caught hopelessly between the rock of the need to please Queen Victoria and the hard place of making the scheme palatable.”).

There is certainly no shortage of primary material here, but there is only one way to turn a thesis into a book, let alone a biography, and that is to lock it in a drawer and start again.


The Revd John Witheridge is the author of Excellent Dr Stanley: The life of Dean Stanley of Westminster, and is writing a biography of Archbishop Tait.


In defence of Howley and the new biographyColin Podmore's letter to the editor

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