[From Diocesan History, 1893]


BISHOP WILSON (1698-1755)

WE now approach a period in which the Manx Church was not only to have a ruler of real ability as well as goodness, but was to retain him during more than half a century.

So great was Bishop Wilson's influence on his conternporaries, and so great a part did he play in matters civil as well as ecclesiastical in the Isle of Man, that, during the greater part of his episcopate, his biography is practically the history of the time.

For full particulars about this great and good man, our readers must necessarily be referred to his biographers, as space compels us to make our account of him very brief.

Thomas Wilson was born on the 20th of December, 1663. He was the sixth child of Nathanael Wilson, a farmer, living at Burton in Cheshire, and of Alice his wife. Thomas was educated at a school in Chester, and at the age of eighteen was entered at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took his degree in Arts in due course. He was ordained deacon in 1686 at the cathedral church of Kildare, and was shortly afterwards licensed by the Bishop of Chester to be curate at Winwick, in that diocese, the parish of his uncle, Dr. Sherlock. In 1689, he was ordained priest. In 1692, he became tutor to Earl William's son, James, and, in the following year, the earl offered him the living of Baddesworth in Yorkshire, which he declined, as he determined never to accept a living the duties of which he could not perform owing to non-residence. In November 1697, Lord Derby pressed him to accept the Bishopric of Man, which he at first declined, but, after further persuasion, he gave way, and was consecrated at the Savoy church in London by the Archbishop of York, assisted by the Bishops of Chester and Norwich, on the 16th of the following January, having a few days previously been created a doctor of divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Within a fortnight of his consecration, he was again offered Baddesworth, but he declined it on the same grounds as before. Early in April, he started for his new diocese, being installed in its cathedral on the 11th of that month.

We will now briefly consider the chief characteristics of his episcopate. One of the most important and interesting of these, and the one from which the bishop's troubles were mainly to arise, was the maintenance of ecclesiastical discipline in the Manx Church, at a period when that of the Church of England had practically ceased to be administered, and when the Church itself in that country was in a most unsatisfactory condition. It is this with which Bishop Wilson's name is inseparably connected, though, as will be seen when the account of the discipline has been compared with that administered by his predecessors of the seventeenth century, he did not increase its severity but, on the contrary, endeavoured to mitigate it.

With a view to this administration of discipline, and to the regulation of his Church generally, he laid, in 1704, his famous "Ecclesiastical Constitutions" before the clergy, by whom they were signed, so that, in the words of the preamble, "We may not stand charged with the scandals which wicked men bring upon religion, while they are admitted to and reputed members of Christ's Church; and that we may by all laudable means promote the conversion of sinners, and oblige men to submit to the discipline of the Gospel: And lastly, that we may provide for the instruction of the growing age in Christian learning and good manners." These fourteen constitutions, or canons, contain nothing which had not legal sanction before, and it would seem that there were no grievances against the Church at the time, as they were found by the Legislature, whose authority was required to make "some of the Orders and Constitutions in this Synod . . . effectual to the ends they are designed for," to be "very reasonable, just, and necessary."

The articles which refer more especially to the discipline are the following:

"V. For the more effectual discouragement of vice, if any person shall incur the censures of the Church, and, having done penance, shall afterwards incur the same censures, he shall not be admitted to do penance again (as has been formerly accustomed) until the Church be fully satisfied of his sincere repentance; during which time he shall not presume to come within the church, but be obliged to stand in a decent manner at the church door every Sunday and Holy Day the whole time of morning and evening service, until by his penitent behaviour, and other instances of sober living, he deserve and procure a certificate from the minister, churchwardens, and some of the soberest men of the parish, to the satisfaction of the Ordinary; which if he do not so deserve and procure within three months, the Church shall proceed to excommunication: And that during these proceedings, the governor shall be applied to not to permit him to leave the island; and this being a matter of very great importance, the Minister and Churchwardens shall see it duly performed, under penalty of the severest ecclesiastical censures; and whenever any daring offender shall be and continue so obstinate as to incur excommunication, the Pastor shall affectionately exhort his parishioners not to converse with him, upon peril of being partaker with him in his sin and punishment.

"VI. That the Rubrick before the Communion, concerning unworthy receivers thereof, may be religiously observed, every Rector, Vicar, or Curate shall first privately, and then publickly, admonish such persons as he shall observe to be disorderly livers; that such as will not by this means be reclaimed may be hindered from coming to the Lord's Table, and being presented, may be excommunicated; and if any Minister knowingly admit such persons to the Holy Sacrament, whose lives are blemished with the vices of drunkenness, tippling, swearing, profaning the Lord's Day, quarrelling, fornication, or any other crime by which the Christian religion is dishonoured, before such persons have publickly acknowledged their faults, and solemnly promised amendment, the Minister so offending shall be liable to severe ecclesiastical censures.

"VII. If any moar, serjeant, proctor, or any other person, shall presume on the Lord's Day to receive any rent or sums of money they shall be liable to ecclesiastical censure, and shall always be presented for the same.

]"VIII. That the practice of commutation as has been formerly accustomed; namely, of exempting persons obnoxious to the censures of the Church from penance and other punishment appointed by law, on account of paying a sum of money, or doing some charitable work, shall for the future cease.

"XIII. For the more effectual suppression. of vice, &c., the Minister, and Churchwardens, and Chapter-quest shall, the last Sunday of every month, after evening prayers, set down in writing the names of all such persons as without just cause absent themselves from Church."

As regards the offences which came under the cognizance of the Ecclesiastical Court between 1698 and 1726, when the discipline was most active, a careful comparison has shown that they are similar as regards their total number to those of the previous thirty-eight years, but, as regards their relative numbers, presentments for the non-observance of saints' days became less numerous, though at Convocation in 1708 a special order was made for their observance, while presentments for immorality were as common as ever, and for drunkenness and swearing, against which a proclamation was issued in 1708, perhaps even more common. The punishments for these offences were, as already stated, generally less severe after 1698 than previously, and it may be mentioned with regard to the penalty of being dragged after a boat in the sea, which was inflicted on one wretched woman, that it was strictly in accordance with the law, and also that the use of the bridle was no innovation. In 1710, there occurs, for the first time, a difficulty in getting the churchwardens and chapter-quests to present offenders against the spiritual ordinances, but this seems to have been overcome, and a reference to the Records will show that the discipline was vigorously carried on without opposition till 1713, when it came into collision with the official class, whose cordial support had hitherto been given to it. This collision arose out of the bishop's practice of mitigating the fines which from time to time were laid on offenders by the Spiritual Court, so that, as these fines were levied in usum domini, there would be a reduction of the lord's revenue, which would not be acceptable to Lord Derby, who was already disappointed at the financial results of the Act of Settlement, and dissatisfied with the bargain the commissioners had then made for him. As the bishop had been the chief of the commissioners, and as he now declined to surrender his right of reducing the fines, the earl gradually became alienated from him. The discipline was not, however, as yet interfered with, and so, in 1714, the bishop's charge at Convocation was mainly directed to the necessity of seeing that censures were properly performed, and that the offenders were not to be received "into the peace of the Church without their giving at least outward signs of repentance." On the same occasion, he complained that cases of drunkenness were not presented, and ordered that they were to be particularly enumerated among the offences for presentation.

In connexion with this, attention was called to "the inconveniences and fatal consequences which attend the unlimited number of ale-houses in all parts of this island, whereby many of the people are of late become not only tipplers, but also infamous for sottishness and drunkenness." Representation of this state of things was accordingly made to "the Honourable Governor, that he may confine the privileges of licences for selling ale to a select number."

At last, in 1716, the conflict between Church and State was precipitated by the action of an unfortunate woman, who declined to perform penance, and was consequently excommunicated. She then appealed to the Lord of the Isle, and this appeal was allowed by the governor, though, according to the ordinance of 1636, the appeal in purely spiritual matters was to the metropolitan, the Archbishop of York. It might, however, have been objected that this ordinance was not legally binding as not being a statute, and that, in any case, it did not absolutely forbid appeals to the earl. The bishop, having been summoned to appear before Lord Derby for a hearing of this appeal, declined to do so, and was consequently fined £10, but as he afterwards seems to have succeeded in showing the correctness of his view, the fine was remitted. For some years after this, the bishop was left in peace, and he made use of his opportunity by insisting on the necessity of Church discipline at a time "when," according to him, "not only evil practices, but evil books and evil notions are become very common."

In 1720, however, the governor again renewed his opposition to the discipline by refusing a soldier to take offenders who had been committed by the Ecclesiastical Court to prison; his next step, in June 1721, was to imprison and fine the Rev. John Woods, episcopal registrar, for not reading a precept in church because it had not been seen by the bishop; and, finally, he summoned the bishop and his vicars-general to answer the following charges : "First, that the Ecclesiastical Court assume to themselves a power of hearing and determining causes in their Court contrary to the rules that the Statute Law of this isle directs. . . . Secondly, that the Lord Bishop of this Isle calls a convocation, . . . at times and for causes that are not comprehended in the law for calling a convocation. . . . Thirdly, that the said Court have taken upon them to summon persons not within their jurisdiction, contrary to the known laws of this isle."

The bishop and his vicars-general declined to answer the above summons until it was "determined by the 2 Deemsters and 24 keys (the proper judges of such causes) whether it was legal and practicable for the attorney-general to bring such a charge against a whole Court, where no appeal had been made." The governor and Council had, in the meantime, condemned them, on all the above counts, in their absence, and required them "to retract and cancel" their late proceedings. They also refused their appeal to the House of Keys, stating that the attorney-general had acted "pursuant to his oath and office, and that "a complaint of this nature is not cognisable before the 24 keys, but properly before the Right Honourable the Lord of this Isle, who is also Metropolitan and Chief of the Holy Church of this Island." The case was then dropped for a time. The storm was, however, soon to arise again, being originated by the governor's determination to prevent any of his household or the soldiers of the garrison submitting themselves to ecclesiastical authority. It would seem that a soldier had sinned in a way which would subject him to penance, and, though his misdeed had not been discovered, he submitted himself to this penalty voluntarily. For this he was tried by the comptroller and "the Jury of the house within the garrison of Castle Rushen," by whom it was recommended that he should "receive such condign punishment . . . as his crime demerits." He was consequently imprisoned by the governor, and, after being kept in prison for fourteen days, was drummed out of the garrison.

Another case involving this question of jurisdiction, that of Archdeacon Horrobin, had arisen a little before this time. The archdeacon, who was also the governor's chaplain, had, in October 1721, expelled one of his congregation, a widow, from the sacrament because of some slanderous remarks made by the governor's wife against her. The widow appealed to the bishop, and demanded an investigation. This was granted, and, as the governor's wife could not prove her statements, the widow, having cleared herself of the charge upon oath with sufficient compurgators, according to Manx spiritual law, was permitted to take the sacrament, while the governor's wife was required to make an apology and ask forgiveness before being admitted to it. This she declined to do, but came, notwithstanding, to the sacrament, and was admitted by the archdeacon. For this, and for some unorthodox doctrines in his sermons, he was called to account by the bishop, and, as he failed to defend himself satisfactorily, he was suspended at Convocation in 1722. The archdeacon, instead of appealing to the Archbishop of York, threw himself into the hands of the governor, who now took up the case against the bishop and vicars-general with renewed vigour. His first step was to send them a copy of the decision in Bishop Phillips's time, to the effect that the lord's or governor's household, officials, and soldiers were exempt from ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

The governor next required them to "retract and cancel" their late proceedings against the archdeacon and Bridson; and, finally, he closed the chapel at Castletown without any pretext whatever. The bishop and his coadjutors replied to this attack by delivering a public protest to the governor at Tinwald. In this protest they denied his jurisdiction over them, and again demanded "to have the Deemsters and 24 keys called to deem the law truly."

They were, however, unable to persuade any of the Council to record their protest, and the governor expressly denied the Archbishop of York's authority, declaring not only that the Earl of Derby was and should be metropolitan, but also that he, the said governor, would punish any person that should in any case presume to appeal to the archbishop. The Keys having then departed from the Tinwald without having been consulted, the governor and the Council proceeded to fine the bishop £50 and the vicars-general £20 each "for their contempt." This being without the sanction of the House of Keys, was, of course, absolutely illegal. They refused to pay the fines, and were consequently imprisoned in Castle Rushen, in June 1722. This action all but caused a popular tumult, for the people "considered the bishop, and that very justly, not only as their faithful pastor and unwearied benefactor, but as the champion likewise of their political rights and liberties.'' The prisoners determined, by the advice of the Archbishop of York and others, to bring their case before the Privy Council. In doing so they prayed for the king's order for their release, "they being ready to give security for the payment of the fines if the same shall be legal." They asked also that their accusers should return their answer in writing, and that they should have free recourse to the insular records to prepare their case. Their prayer was, after some delay, granted, and, the order for their release having arrived, they were discharged after nine weeks' imprisonment. It would appear that during the greater part of this time their letters and friends were kept from them, and they were treated generally with considerable harshness. The day of the bishop's release "was a day of general jubilee throughout the island. . . . Never were there more sincere congratulations than were expressed on this occasion. Old and young, rich and poor, broke forth into acclamations of joy, and formed such a procession as had never before been witnessed."


1 Cruttwell, Stowell, and Keble. From the two volumes written by the latter, and published by the Parker Society, much of the information given in this chapter is derived, and is frequently quoted without reference. The writer has, however, also referred to the insular ecclesiastical records during this period, but has found very little that Keble does not mention.

2 See ch. v, pp. 120-123, and 148-150, and ch. vi, pp. 171-4. The truth of this statement can, however, be only fully appreciated by any one who has carefully studied the ecclesiastical records.

3 According to Waldron (Manx Soc., vol. 11 p.26), "long and uninterrupted custom has made the spiritual court of such an arbitrary authority, that should he (the bishop) derogate from it, he would be in great danger of public opposition as well as private hatred from the whole body of the inferior clergy; he may therefore be said rather to comply with it than approve of it."

4 Statutes, pp. 155-9.

5 Statutes, p. 155.

6 Lord Chancellor King was so pleased with these constitutions, that he said, "If the ancient discipline of the Church were lost it might be found in all purity in the Isle of Man."

7 Statutes, pp.159, 160.

8 This had already been prohibited by the Act of 1691 (see p. 171).

9 See pp.108-9.

10 As proof of this, we may note that all appeals from the Church Courts to the Staff of Government had been dismissed, and that a receiver-general who had been accused of embezzlement and perjury was handed over to the Church to be tried for the latter offence.

11 The governor based his opinion upon the letter of Edward Fletcher in 1627, and the agreement of the vicars-general with it, while the bishop relied on the Act of 1542, Earl James's letter of 1628, and the ordinance of 1636. See ch. v., pp. 99, 123-6.

12 The principal case alleged was that of Bridson, Vicar of Marown, who had been suspended by the vicars-general for calumny against the bishop.

13 The last Convocation had been in August instead of at Whitsuntide.

14 This refers to the question of the jurisdiction over the garrison, and especially to Horrobin's case. See p. 196.

15 Note by Bishop Wilson in episcopal register.

16 This seems to have been a sort of standing court-martial.

17 He appears to have said that "great and good actions, wherever found, were sufficient to obtain the rewards of another life," and that "a man may be saved in any religion if he live well " (see Keble, pp. 425-6).

18 See p. 123.

19 It would seem that the recent practice, if not the ecclesiastical law, as regards exemption from Church censures, was in accordance with the governor's view, though the general practice, during the seventeenth century at least, told in the bishop's favour.

20 The window of his cell, from which he is said to have given his blessing to the people who flocked from all parts of the island to receive it, is shown to this day. It was usual, as noted by Bishop Hildesley, for the people "upon meeting their diocesan to kneel down on one knee and ask his blessing." (Memoirs, p. 98).

21 Keble, p. 519.

22 Stowell, Life of Bishop Wilson, p. 177.


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