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Time when the Queen prevailed

07 January 2022

John Witheridge recalls a clash between a Victorian Prime Minister and the Crown


Archibald Campbell Tait when he was Bishop of London; engraved by D. J. Pound from a photograph by J. J. E Mayall; from The Drawing Room of Eminent Personages Volume 1, published in 1860

Archibald Campbell Tait when he was Bishop of London; engraved by D. J. Pound from a photograph by J. J. E Mayall; from The Drawing Room of Eminent Pe...

IN OCTOBER 1868, Archibald Tait was staying with his family at Stone-house, their new home in Kent, when he learned that Archbishop Longley had been taken ill. “The tolling bells”, he recorded, “announced to the Thanet part of his diocese that he had gone to his rest.”

A week later, he and [his wife] Catharine attended his funeral in St Mary’s, the parish church close to the Archbishop’s country residence at Addington, near Croydon. “A sad sight, that large family party following his coffin to the little church.”

The mid-Victorian Church of England was an extremely difficult and demanding institution to lead. The religious revival of the first 30 or 40 years of the century had passed, and the Church was at a tipping-point. The threats to its credibility and national influence were many and various.

Rationalism, by which was meant the intellectual challenges from science and critical history, was causing bitter divisions in the Church, and undermining commonly held Christian beliefs. Ritualism was spreading beyond London and meeting widespread hostility from the laity, who continued to reject its practices as popish and repugnant.

There was growing resentment, too, at the Church’s privilege and wealth, its largely upper and upper-middle class patronage, and its failure to minister to the urban masses. New freedoms from discrimination had given Nonconformists greater confidence, and they were gaining ground. A census in 1851 had revealed almost as many people worshipping in chapel on a Sunday as there were in church.

Disraeli had become Prime Minister for the first time in February. He famously boasted at the time that he had climbed to the top of the greasy pole, and greasy it turned out to be. A General Election at the end of the year saw him roundly defeated by Gladstone’s Liberals. But in his ten months in office he had a raft of ecclesiastical appointments to make, including four bishoprics and four deaneries.

Disraeli knew next to nothing about the Church, and was acquainted with very few of the clergy. His ecclesiastical interest was purely political, and his sole aim was to appoint bishops who would further the Conservative cause.

This ruled out both Broad Churchmen like Tait, whom he assumed to be members of the Liberal party, and High Churchmen, because the Ritualists were unpopular in the country.

CHOOSING the right Archbishop of Canterbury was politically crucial, and Disraeli was taken aback to receive a letter from Queen Victoria “to say that she thinks there is no one so fit than the Bishop of London, an excellent, pious, liberal-minded, courageous man, who would be an immense support and strength to the Church in these times. His health, which is not good, would be benefited by the change.”

The Queen was enthusiastic about Tait for a variety of reasons. She felt first that they were united in the experience of tragic death. She was pleased that she had pressed his appointment to London, and admired his achievements there, not least his handling of the cholera epidemic and his opposition to Ritualism, which she despised.

She also shared Prince Albert’s Broad Church sympathies, and approved of the enthusiasm for a comprehensive national Church shown by liberals like Arnold, Stanley, and Tait. Disraeli replied to the Queen, recommending not Tait but Charles Ellicott, the Bishop of Bristol and Gloucester. He had been suggested by Shaftesbury, who was an enthusiastic bishop-maker.

AlamyBenjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister in 1868

Ellicott was not an Evangelical, as might be expected from Shaftesbury, but what had appealed to him was Ellicott’s opposition to Essays and Reviews. What appealed to Disraeli was his support for the Conservative Party and his opposition to Ritualism.

The Queen consulted the Dean of Windsor, Gerald Wellesley, nephew of the Duke of Wellington. His frank advice was to decline the Bishop of Gloucester: “He has a miserably thin, weak voice, and no dignity of manner. He is an amiable, insignificant man, talking constantly and irrelevantly, with some book learning.”

The last comment at least was unfair; Ellicott was a distinguished biblical scholar. Wellesley supported the Queen’s preference for Tait, commending him as a bishop who spoke well and was trusted by the laity and many of the clergy.

He was respected, too, in the House of Lords, and his labours in London were universally acknowledged. The Queen replied to the Prime Minister on 31 October, saying that she would not alter her opinion that the Bishop of London was the only man to succeed the Archbishop.

This elicited a very long letter from Disraeli, setting out in considerable detail why Tait should not be appointed, but careful, too, to soften his disagreement with Her Majesty with a trowel full of flattery (“Mr. Disraeli wishes not to conceal the infinite pain with which he thus seems to differ, on so great a question, from a Sovereign to whom he is not only bound by every tie of personal devotion, but whose large, and peculiarly experienced, intelligence he acknowledges and appreciates”).

Disraeli’s letter is confused and biased. It points to what he calls the inveterate and traditional rivalry between Romanists and free thinkers, both of whom, he says, are viewed with aversion and alarm. The one safe church policy to pursue at this dangerous crisis is to unite the High Church and Evangelical parties in common action against Ritualists and what he calls “neologians”.

“Is the Bishop of London a fit coadjutor for your Majesty’s Minister in this difficult state of affairs?” Disraeli then sets out what he dislikes about Tait. He is “obscure in purpose, fitful and inconsistent in action, and evidently, though earnest and conscientious, a prey to conflicting convictions”.

He also points to “a strange fund of enthusiasm” (by which he means religious earnestness), and, in a swipe at Gladstone, he says it is a quality which ought never to be possessed by either an Archbishop of Canterbury, or a Prime Minister of England.

“Is this the Prelate who can lead the Church? The Church must be led: gently, but firmly and consistently. It will not do any longer merely to balance opposing and conflicting elements.” Disraeli had wasted his time.

The Queen replied briefly the following day:

She has read with the most careful attention all the objections made by him to the promotion of the Bishop of London; but is still of opinion that he would be the proper person, indeed the only proper person, to succeed the late Archbishop. The Queen herself would feel much more confidence in his dealing wisely and prudently with the existing difficulties of the Church, and at the same time with more firmness and decision, than any other bishop on the Bench.

Disraeli had no choice but to carry out the Queen’s wishes.

TWENTY years later, she told Randall Davidson (Tait’s son-in-law and biographer, then himself Dean of Windsor) that Dizzy had often thanked her in later years for having taken the line she did. Tait, meanwhile, was enjoying the calm and rest that Stonehouse provided, and even wrote in his journal that he was having a new honeymoon after 25 years of married life.

He was almost certain that the Archbishop of York, William Thomson, would be appointed to Canterbury, and succeeded in turn by Wilberforce. Then, on 6 November, he received a highly confidential letter from Wellesley containing a message from the Queen that he was about to be offered the archbishopric, and that it was her wish that he should not refuse it.

AlamyQueen Victoria, a portrait from the mid-1860s

A week later he received a gracious letter from Disraeli: “It is my desire, if it meet your own wishes, to recommend to Her Majesty to elevate you to the Primacy . . . I believe that I am taking a course which will be the most serviceable to the Church, especially at this critical moment in its history.”

Tait spent almost no time considering the matter and despatched his chaplain to London in the afternoon, bearing his letter of acceptance. The alacrity with which Tait agreed to become Primate of All England is extraordinary. It was the same when he was offered London, but it is surprising that he did not take longer to consider such a massive responsibility as Canterbury.

Whatever the reasons for his confidence, Tait was certain that he was answering God’s call, and, despite all the difficulties that lay ahead, it was a decision he never seems to have doubted. The London newspapers were enthusiastic, and letters of congratulation poured into London House. Stanley wrote that Tait was in “the place which of all others has most need of you in this most critical juncture”.

Connop Thirlwall, Bishop of St Davids, was “persuaded that the helm could not have been placed in hands better able to steer our vessel through the straits in which she is now entangled”. Walter Hook, Dean of Chichester, author of a ten-volume Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, foretold that a future historian will “have to place the name of Tait among the most distinguished of the many eminent men who have sat in the throne of Augustine”.

Hook’s prediction has proved true. Tait has been described by one contemporary historian as “the most powerful archbishop since the seventeenth century”, and by another as “the most distinguished of Queen Victoria’s Archbishops of Canterbury”.

This is an edited extract from
In the Shadow of Death: A life of Archibald Campbell Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury by John Witheridge, published by The Lutterworth Press at £75; 978-0-22717-743-3.

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