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A Bishop Who Worked In Chaos


thumb A classical historian of high repute who was buried in Westminster Abbey after serving half a life-time as Bishop of St. Davids died a century ago, blind and half paralysed. He was Connop Thirlwall.

Newell Connop Thirlwall, to give his full name, was born in London on 11 February 1797, being the third son of the Rev. Thomas Thirlwall, who had married a Welsh woman with Radnorshire antecedents, Mrs. Connop of Mile End, the widow of an apothecary. The family claimed descent from the barons of Thirlwall Castle in Northumberland. The father, who had held benefices in London, became rector of Bowers Gifford in Essex in 1814 and remained there until his death in 1827. A pious man, he was a scholar who had written a number of published books.

Sired by a learned father and nurtured in a world of books, Connop, not surprisingly, was a precocious child, whose early compositions were published by an admiring father under the title Primitiae. Connop was only eleven years old, but in later life he grew so displeased with the memory of these 'first fruits' that he destroyed every copy of the book he could lay his hands on. Despite this predatory exercise, copies still survived to inform us through the preface that 'at a very early period he read English so well that he was taught Latin at three years of age, and at four read Greek with an ease and fluency which astonished all who heard him'. We are further told that his 'talent for composition appeared at the age of seven'.

In 1814 Thirwall entered Trinity College, Cambridge as a pensioner, having studied privately for a year after attending Charterhouse as a day boy from 1810 to 1813. While an undergraduate he distinguished himself as a speaker at the union, of which he became secretary, and on one occasion in March 1817, during his period of office, the proctors, at the behest of the vice-chancellor, interrupted the debate and ordered the members to leave. That Thirlwall was a capable orator was testified years later by no less a person than John Stuart Mill, who witnessed him in a debate in London and judged him to be the best speaker he had ever heard. Thirlwall graduated B.A. in 1818, winning the chancellor's medal for proficiency in classics and in October of the same year he was elected a fellow of his college.

After graduating, Thirlwall realised his dream of foreign travel and passed several months in Europe, spending the winter in Rome. By the time he returned he no longer felt the urge to enter the Church and instead decided on a career in the law. He therefore entered Lincoln's Inn in February 1820 and was called to the bar in 1825. But it was not long before he discovered that he had made a mistake after all and finding that the work had no appeal for him he abandoned the legal profession to return to Cambridge in October 1827.

Champion of Dissenters
By the end of the year he had been ordained deacon and in 1828 he was admitted priest. During his years at Trinity he became junior bursar, junior dean and head lecturer and examined for the classical tripos. But his academic career was a short one, being brought to a sudden end in 1834 as a result of his unacceptable views on the admission of dissenters to university degrees. The bill in favour of dissenters which had been passed by the House of Commons that year caused much debate in the academic world, the majority faction fearing imagined evils that would follow the mixing of students holding different religious views. Thirlwall took a contrary view in his 'Letter on the Admission of Dissenters to Academic Degrees', arguing that the Cambridge colleges were not theological seminaries, and in developing his argument he came out against the divinity lectures and compulsory attendance at chapel involving the repetition of 'a heartless mechanical service'. The Master called for his resignation from the post of assistant tutor and Thirlwall promptly complied.

But the expression of such views did not prevent Lord Brougham from offering Thirlwall the living of Kirby Underdale in Yorkshire before the year was out. He had no hesitation in accepting and although he had small experience of pastoral work he had been vicar of Over near Gloucester for a short time in 1829 he discharged his new duties with energy that was attended by eminent success. His worth was soon recognised further, for in 1840 he was given the see of St. Davids by Lord Melbourne, who had been impressed by his learning. Thirlwall might even have been Bishop of Norwich as early as 1837 had Melbourne been able to have his way.

His proficiency in languages besides Latin and Greek, he had French, German, Italian and Spanish enabled him to read prayers and even to preach in Welsh within a year of settling in the diocese, though there is reason to believe that because of his accent he was not always readily understood. He found life at Abergwili congenial and when he could tear himself away from his library he called it Chaos - he enjoyed the country. Here it is appropriate to recall two stories that have been related. The first tells how he refused the offer of a friend (Miss Elizabeth Johnes of Dolaucothi, later Lady Hills-Johnes, the recipient of many letters from the Bishop which were published under the title of Letters to a Friend) to restore order to his library with the excuse that it would only he buried again within a few days under 'fresh paper showers' and he would never then be able to find anything. The other story concerns advice given him by his doctor, John Hughes of Carmarthen, who recommended that the Bishop should drive out for two hours each day if he wished to preserve his health. This was irksome advice, but Thirlwall solved the matter by ordering a large carriage fitted with a bookcase so that he could ride and read at the same time. Otherwise the Bishop safeguarded his health with an ice-cold plunge-bath each day, which treatment he believed warded off colds.

He travelled to all parts of his very large diocese, inspected churches and schools, and even augmented small livings from his own resources. It has been computed that he gave 40,000 to various charities while he was bishop. During his term of office a large number of churches were restored, many parsonages provided and educational facilities greatly increased. But although he did his best to be hospitable, he never became popular among his clergy, for his superior learning, although it won him high esteem, made him appear remote and cold. Yet he took a lively interest in the community and the affairs of the diocese, and in the larger scene he was never afraid to express radical views or champion the unpopular cause, both in the House of Lords and outside. Always he strove to be free of bias.

His lack of bigotry, which he maintained throughout his life, is illustrated by a personal triumph in his last years, when he persuaded the House of Lords to change its mind. This volte-face he brought about in February 1871, after he had been relieved from attendance at the meetings of the Old Testament Revision Company, to which he had been appointed the previous year. In the same month a resolution moved by the Bishop of Winchester was carried by a large majority of the House of Lords, who agreed 'that it is not expedient that any person who denies the Godhead of our Lord Jesus Christ should be invited to join either Company [one for the Old Testament and one for the New Testament] to which is committed the revision of the Authorised Version of Holy Scripture' and 'that any such person now in either Company shall cease to act therewith'. The following day Thirlwall introduced a motion that 'this House does not intend to give the slightest sanction or countenance to the opinion that the members of the Revision Companies ought to be guided by any other principle than the desire to bring the translation as near as they can to the sense of the original texts; but on the contrary, regards it as their duty to keep themselves as much as possible on their guard against any bias of preconceived opinions or theological tenets in the work of Revision'. He won the unanimous support of the House and when the resolution was referred to the Commons they not only concurred but made a proposal which had the effect of rescinding the first resolution, a proposal to which the Lords acceded unanimously. Now entirely vindicated, Thirlwall complied with requests to resume his work as a member of the Revision Company, a task to which he devoted a great deal of his time even though he knew that he would never live to see its completion.

Increasing deafness troubled his later years and when this was accompanied by failing sight, which ended in blindness, and partial paralysis, he was compelled to resign the bishopric in May 1874, without seeing the fulfilment of his speculation in 1868, when Irish Disestablishment seemed imminent, that he might 'turn out to be the last Bishop of St. David's who sat in Parliament'. He retired to Bath, where he died, unmarried, on 27 July 1875. But even in his last days he filled the 'vacant hours' by dictating translations in the seven languages at his command.

Chief of Illustrious Group
One of the scholars of his time, Connop Thirlwall wrote books and pamphlets and produced translations of a number of important works, but his output never really matched the vast dimensions of his scholarship. Even so, he was 'the chief of that illustrious group of English scholars who first revealed to this country the treasures of German research, and the insight which that research had opened into the mysterious origin of the races, institutions, and religions of mankind', and his knowledge of the ancient Grecian world made him responsible for 'the first history which brought all the stores of modern learning to bear on that glorious country and its glorious pcople'.1

But Thirlwall did not devote his attentions to academic texts to the exclusion of all else; he was a student of the novel, English and European, and possessed one of the largest contemporary collections representing this area of literature. He had a high regard for the work of Mrs. Gaskell and mourned the 'irreparable loss' suffered by 'all intelligent novel readers' as a result of her death. Another of his 'special favourites' was Jean Ingelow (1820-97), a poet and novelist who enjoyed remarkable success in her time, but unlike Mrs. Gaskell (why not Elizabeth Gaskell?), who is still read, she is barely remembered now. Of George Eliot's Middlemarch, which appeared in 1872, he pronounced that 'it stands quite alone', the depth of its humour never having been surpassed in English literature. Such freely acknowledged admiration for the talents of the female sex is an indication of his lack of prejudice in an age of male dominance and it is not without signifigance that for many years he exchanged letters with Miss Johnes of Dolaucothi, an accomplished correspondent worthy of his intellect.

His magum opus, the History of Greece is a massive work in eight volumes, the first of which appeared in 1835. The task was finished at Abergwili and the last volume published in 1844. Parts of this work were translated into French and German. A coincidence relating to this work is the fact that, unknown to each other, he and his friend, George Grote, had embarked on similar intellectual ventures, although the result of Grote's labours appeared later, the first two volumes in 1846 and the fourth and final volume in 1847. Thirlwall was generous in his praise of Grote's work, which he judged to be superior to his own, and Grote acknowledged Thirlwall's scholarship in the preface to his history. It is not amiss therefore that both should share the same grave in Westminster Abbey where Thirlwall was buried on 3 August 1875. On the stone are inscribed the words 'Gwyn ei Fyd' and he is further commemorated there with a bust by the Carmarthenshire sculptor Edward Davis, who, for this purpose, made a copy of the original which he had produced in 1848.2

Other Carmarthenshire anniversaries in 1975 are:

Sir Rhys ap Thomas (1449-1525), hero of many battles, including Bosworth, where he fought for Henry Tudor and was knighted on the field. Henry VII bestowed upon him many offices which made him a powerful figure in south Wales, and in 1505 he was made a Knight of the Garter. His tomb is in St. Peter's, Carmarthen.

Humphrey Toy (d. 1575), wealthy Carmarthen merchant and tanner, who owned much property in and around the town. Although he was a benefactor who was interested in the Welsh language and culture, it is not likely that he was the Humphrey Toy who paid for the printing of William Salesbury's Welsh translation of the New Testament and Bishop Richard Davies's translation of the Book of Common Prayer. It is much more probable that it was his nephew, also Humphrey Toy, a London printer, who bore these expenses.

James Augustus St. John (1801-75), Carmarthenshire author and traveller, who went to London when sixteen years old and worked as a radical journalist. Later he lived in France and Switzerland, and in 1832 set out for Egypt and Nubia, a journey he accomplished mostly on foot. He was the author of several books, some of which described his travels.
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