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Book review: Edward Vernon-Harcourt: The last aristocratic Archbishop of York by Tony Vernon-Harcourt

22 March 2024

David Wilbourne looks again at a 19th-century Archbishop of York

THE archbishopric of York is a long-running series: 98 lead actors all give their take on the same role, in a sort of ecclesiastical Doctor Who. Edward Vernon-Harcourt, with a record 40-year tenure (1807-47), smiles benignly in his portrait in the Great Hall of Bishopthorpe Palace, keeping in check the scoundrels who hang beside him — and include a pirate, a traitor, a felon, and a philanderer.

“In Vernon-Harcourt we have years of episcopal stagnation, remembered for his ease and affluence. . .” (A. M. G. Stephenson, Studies in Church History, 1967). A great-great-great-grandson, Lord Vernon, counters this low assessment with a fond but objective biography, celebrating his ancestor’s tenderness and breadth.

His meticulously researched detail speaks for itself: “June 1801 was a busy month. Having completed the fourth day of his visitation/confirmations at Penrith for his own diocese (Vernon-Harcourt was Bishop of Carlisle from 1791-1807) he travelled swiftly to Yorkshire to start eight days of confirmations . . . in Stokesley, Whitby, Scarborough, Bridlington, Beverley, Hull, Malton and Thirsk. Over 3000 candidates were confirmed at Whitby and Beverley and over 4000 in Hull, including 17 children of a farmer from Holderness.” All by stagecoach.

Lord Vernon portrays an aristocrat among aristocrats, beholden to political grandees for preferring him, yet often incurring their wrath by voting against them in the House of Lords. Having preached at George IV’s coronation, the Archbishop was later shunned by the new monarch for criticising his lax moral standards. “Accidentally” voting against the Reform Bill in 1832 led to the burning of his effigy outside his palace gates: the York militia was called out. Yet, 14 years later, when he financed the boys’ school in Bishopthorpe, grateful villagers unharnessed the horses of his carriage and pulled it into the village.

Lord Vernon movingly describes Edward Vernon-Harcourt’s devotion to his 16 children. The latter personally tutored his sons, grieving deeply when one died after contracting scarlet fever on the long carriage trip to Oxford. He appointed five of them to diocesan posts (most notably those of Archdeacon of Cleveland, Registrar, and Chancellor) — arguing that such employment was efficient: no one knew the father like the son — and was criticised for netting £35,000 p.a. from those family emoluments.

Non-churchy vignettes include bracing accounts of an undergraduate Edward organising race meetings, sensibly demanding that the steeplechase at Lichfield be conducted during daylight hours rather than in pitch darkness. As Bishop of Carlisle, he unwisely endorsed Mr Chang’s Lozenges for effecting a miraculous cure of his eldest son — who survived scarlet fever; unfortunately the pills contained 25 per cent mercury, causing fatalities. Having musical abilities, the Archbishop organised concerts and royal music festivals, boldly instructing even famous tenors how to sing.

From the bookEdward Vernon-Harcourt, c.1821, portrait by Sir George Hayter

Highly detailed tables of visitations, confirmations, consecrations, and parochial appointments contain place-names evocative of Flanders and Swann’s “The Slow Train”. As the north’s population expanded, Vernon-Harcourt spearheaded a vigorous programme of church-building, consecrating 111 in sprawling urban centres, and pioneering training courses to enable non-graduate clergy to staff them. His no-nonsense approach was unfettered by ecclesiastical convention: “I think it will save both you and me some trouble if I shoot through both barrels, so I will ordain you both deacon and priest this afternoon.”

Lord Vernon gives the last word to Queen Victoria, who reigned for the Archbishop’s ninth and final decade: “The Archbishop is an extraordinary person for his age. . . he has all his teeth, has a very powerful voice and his mind is as perfect as any young man’s.” Put that in your pipe, Dr Stephenson.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in York diocese.


Edward Vernon-Harcourt: The last aristocratic Archbishop of York
Tony Vernon-Harcourt
Sacristy Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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