Colin Podmore welcomes a reassessment of an important Archbishop of Canterbury


James Garrard

Ashgate, 192pp, hbk

978 1472451330, £60

Though hardly a household name, William Howley (pronounced ‘Hooley’) is the subject of more anecdotes than most Archbishops of Canterbury. He was the last ancien-régime archbishop: the last to wear an episcopal wig outside church; the last to be preceded by servants bearing flambeaux when he walked across to ‘Mrs Howley’s Lodgings’; and the last to hold public dinners at Lambeth – with servants in full livery – which any gentleman who had been presented at court and possessed court dress could attend. He led episcopal opposition to the 1832 Reform Act and in consequence was attacked in his carriage, his chaplain being hit in the face by a dead cat; and at Queen Victoria’s coronation he forced the ring made for her little finger onto her fourth. The cat is now judged apocryphal, but the rest is true. Yet the picture created – of a bumbler locked in a vanished world and hostile to all reform – is a travesty.

In 1828 Lambeth Palace was indeed closer in ethos to the middle ages than to modernity. The Church of England had been significantly hesitant in embracing a married episcopate: Mrs Parker, whom Elizabeth I famously refused to receive, died in 1570, and not until 1691, when John Tillotson replaced the Nonjuror William Sancroft, was there another married Archbishop of Canterbury. Tillotson built lodgings for himself and his wife south of the Great Hall, but this enabled the Palace proper to remain the all-male preserve that Howley inherited. It was Howley who ended this tradition within a year, demolishing almost all Lambeth’s post-Reformation buildings, including the Lodgings, and replacing them with a stately home in which state rooms, study and private quarters were all under the same roof. In 1844 he also abolished the public dinners.

James Garrard’s short monograph puts Howley, about whom little has been written, centre-stage at last; and in the appended texts we hear him addressing his clergy and the House of Lords. The book helps us to reassess a man of deceptive modesty and simplicity.

Surveying Howley’s earlier career – at Winchester, New College, and Christ Church, as Regius Professor of Divinity, and as Bishop of London – Garrard offers insights into his character and into the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century church context. Howley’s opposition to the Reform Act, which placed him on the wrong side of history and from which his reputation has never recovered, is described dispassionately.

Howley soon realized that only reform of the Church of England could save it. The Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, a man twenty years his junior (Howley was 70 in 1836), was the driving force; but Garrard argues convincingly that Howley was no mere cypher, as has often been supposed. He committed himself to the work of the reform commission – chairing its meetings and missing only eight out of 103 – and stood firm on reform of the cathedral foundations in the face of great protest, public and private, much of it from personal friends.

Convention dictated that the Archbishop of Canterbury should steer church legislation through the House of Lords: the speeches reprinted here show a parliamentarian fully in command of his subject, able to offer a detailed rebuttal of proposed amendments. Not every subsequent archbishop would have been capable of this. As Garrard puts it, ‘Howley became the most influential apologist for the transformation of the Church’s finances and organization.’

Of greatest interest to readers of NEW DIRECTIONS will be Chapter 5, which surveys Howley’s relations with the Tractarians and puts flesh on the bones of Pusey’s statement that Howley was the only bishop to have understood their aims.

Howley was at the centre of the high-churchmanship that dominated the pre-Tractarian church, his chaplains and confidants all belonging to that school. (His forcing the coronation ring onto the correct finger was the act not of a bumbler but of a high-churchman determined to obey a rubric.) His acceptance of the dedication of the Tractarian Library of the Fathers in 1836 (Keble, whom Garrard considers ‘always more extreme’ than Newman, had resisted inviting him), and his appointment of Pusey’s friend Benjamin Harrison as his chaplain in 1838 were deliberate public gestures of a sympathy that was real but by no means unqualified.

In January 1845 an ailing Howley, distressed by the furore created by the heavy-handed actions of Blomfield and Bishop Henry Philpotts of Exeter in the face of incipient ritualism, addressed a pastoral letter to the clergy and people of his province which is reproduced in this volume. In it he summarized fairly and sympathetically the views both of Tractarians, who wished to be faithful to Prayer Book rubrics that were generally not (and in some cases never had been) obeyed, and of those who wished to continue long-standing customary usage. He called for mutual forbearance and the suspension of disputes in the face of the greater challenges confronting the Church. The letter is a model of pastoral wisdom and broad sympathies.

Howley often appeared diffident, but Garrard points to his influence behind the scenes and the extent to which his advice was sought and followed by bishops and politicians (especially Tories). Dean Burgon called Howley ‘one of the wisest prelates who ever graced the throne of St Augustine’, but Tractarian historians rejected that view. Though by no means blind to Howley’s weaknesses and failings, Garrard presents a more balanced assessment. ND