CDC Armstrong: An Irishman’s Diary on a long-forgotten influential bishop

His works gave Jane Austen the title for her best-known novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’

Jeremy Taylor’s  reputation soared after his death. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jeremy Taylor’s reputation soared after his death. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Few figures have seen their literary and intellectual reputations rise so high or fall so low as Jeremy Taylor, the English-born Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore who died 350 years ago on August 13th, 1667.

Already renowned in his own day, Taylor’s reputation soared after his death. George Berkeley recommended his books. Samuel Johnson placed him at the head of all the divines. William Hazlitt wrote of Taylor’s “inexhaustible display of new and enchanting imagery”. Robert Browning declared him immortal.

Above all others, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was Jeremy Taylor’s devotee, almost to the point of obsession: he wrote hundreds of pages of observations about him. He, too, classed Taylor with Shakespeare and called him “this Spenser of English prose”.

Taylor features at the start of George Eliot’s Middlemarch – Dorothea Brooke is said to have many passages of him by heart. His works gave Jane Austen the title for her best-known novel, Pride and Prejudice. The first Duke of Wellington was said to take Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying with him everywhere. Even in the 20th century Taylor had admirers: TS Eliot and Somerset Maugham. Henry McAdoo, the late Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin, wrote extensively on Taylor. Taylor’s intellectual influence extended to figures as disparate as John Locke, John Wesley and Benjamin Franklin.

He was admired by the Anglican High Churchmen of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as by their Broad Church opponents. Cardinal Newman held him in regard even after his conversion to Catholicism. And yet in more recent decades Taylor has become a figure of relative obscurity.

Ruin

Jeremy Taylor was born in Cambridge in 1613, a barber’s son. Ability gained him a scholarship at Gonville and Caius in that town and then a fellowship of he same college. The patronage of William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury transferred him to Oxford and a fellowship of All Souls before he was 23. He was an honorary Doctor of Divinity of Oxford and a chaplain to Charles I before he was 30.

Adherence to the cause of Charles I brought Taylor ruin. He lost his parish of Uppingham and endured 18 years of dislocation and hardship; he was imprisoned several times. Noble patrons helped him to survive; he enjoyed the friendship as well as the help of the diarist John Evelyn. Such assistance allowed Taylor to write and the years of the Interregnum saw the publication of his best known books: Holy Living and Holy Dying and his life of Christ, The Great Exemplar, among them.

In the time of its greatest peril Taylor kept alive the piety of the disestablished and persecuted Church of England. In 1658 another patron, Lord Conway, brought Taylor to Ireland and helped to settle near Lisburn. He was never to leave. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 changed his fortunes. He became Bishop of Down and Connor (Dromore was added later), being consecrated in January 1661.

Controversial reputation

His time as bishop brought him a controversial reputation which endures. As Charles I’s position had worsened in the later 1640s Taylor had experimented with tolerationist views. But for most of his life he, like his great mentor Laud, espoused a rigid episcopalianism and believed in conformity and uniformity. In the spring of 1661 Taylor ejected 36 of the 61 Presbyterian ministers in Ulster from their parishes. He advocated the repression of the Presbyterian clergy, especially after the discovery in 1663 of an abortive plot to seize Dublin Castle: for Taylor, as for many of his Anglican royalist contemporaries, Presbyterianism was a threat to order in the state as well as the church.

Taylor came close to strangling the nascent Presbyterian Church: throughout the 1660s Presbyterians worshipped clandestinely and kept no records; for a time many of their ministers were expelled from the province. Quakers too were repressed: Taylor imprisoned a number of them.

Taylor died in Lisburn on August 13th, 1667; he is buried in Dromore Cathedral. Within a period of just over six years he rebuilt his three dioceses, restoring one cathedral (at Dromore) and founding another (at Lisburn). He filled his vacant parishes with clergy and was resident bishop.

Today he is little honoured in the parts where he ministered; there are no plans to mark this year’s anniversary. In an ecumenical age Jeremy Taylor, the exponent of Laudian uniformity, is, despite his fame and genius, an uncomfortable figure.

CDC Armstrong is an honorary research associate in history at Queen’s University, Belfast. He will be lecturing on Jeremy Taylor’s Irish career at 1pm,August 9th at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.