Hello Postaliers. This article was due to be titled “A Postcard From The Peak District”, hopefully on a par with those tremendous journals of Puffins’ travel shenanigans. Last month we dragged the shed for a long weekend to the Peak District, visiting relatives of Ms b-bob and taking in old haunts of our own childhoods: Dovedale, Stepping Stones, Matlock Bath (ooh the motorbikes!!), Monsal Head, “original” Bakewell Puddings, Ladybower Reservoir etc etc. As wonderful as the weekend was, visiting all the places we had hoped, we were sideswiped when we came upon the story and the life of a certain Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury 1883-1896. Contrary to the present incumbent, this particular Archbishop had a real human story, with a few interesting tangents thrown in for good measure. So, to vary the theme, I offer this mini biography for your perusal.
Early Life and Education:
Edward White Benson was born in Highgate, Birmingham on 14th July 1829 to chemical manufacturer Edward White Benson Snr and his wife Harriet. He was baptised at St Martins in the Bull Ring, now a popular visitor attraction. The church that is. From 1840 he was educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where his deeply religious tone of mind manifested under the tutelage of James Prince Lee (later to become the first Bishop of Manchester). From King Edward‘s, he went on to study Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA (8th in the Classical Tripos).
Whilst studying at Cambridge, Benson and Brooke Foss Westcott (a future Bishop of Durham) founded The Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry, known informally as the Cambridge Ghost Society and often described as a predecessor of the Society for Psychical Research.
Benson began his working career in 1852 as schoolmaster at Rugby School. He was ordained deacon that year and ordained priest in 1857. In 1859, he was chosen by Prince Albert to become the first Master (headmaster) of the newly built Wellington College, Berkshire, built as a memorial to the Duke of Wellington. Benson was responsible for establishing Wellington as a leading public school, closely modelled on Rugby School, rather than the military academy that was originally planned.
From 1872 -1877 Benson occupied the role of Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, setting up Lincoln Theological College in 1874.
On the 25th April 1877 at St Paul’s Cathedral he was appointed the first Bishop of Truro by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait. Construction of a new Truro Cathedral commenced in 1880 and would be consecrated by Benson himself 7 years later. He also founded Truro High School for Girls in 1880. He served as Bishop of Truro until 1882.
The Big Job:
Edward White Benson was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883. His most notable achievement was probably devising the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, first used on Christmas Eve 1880 in the temporary Truro Cathedral . Though now revised, this Christmas service is still followed worldwide to this day.
Archbishop Benson was the founder of the Church Of England Purity Society, an organisation which later merged with the White Cross Army to form the White Cross League. Their underlying pledge was “to show a chivalrous respect for women”. Married men were expected to honour their pledge of purity by showing sexual restraint. Single men pledged to pursue chastity and refrain from masturbation.
In 1888, Archbishop Benson heard the case against Edward King, the Bishop of Lincoln, in his own archiepiscopal court, (inactive since 1699). The Bishop was being charged with committing improper ritualism offences during his Eucharist service. Archbishop Benson concluded the case with what became known as the “Lincoln Judgement”, a code of acceptable liturgical practise. Based on historical practises, the Lincoln Judgement decreed that certain forms of observance, altar lights and the singing of Agnus Dei for example, were legitimate. Manual acts made by the clergy that were not visible to the congregation and making the sign of the cross during the blessing were made illegal. This ruling helped resolve the Church of England’s century old dispute over proper forms of worship.
Archbishop Edward White Benson died suddenly on 11th October 1896 whilst attending a Sunday service at St Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden, Wales, during a visit to former Prime Minister William Gladstone. He was buried at Canterbury Cathedral in a tomb at the western end of the nave, the self chosen epitaph reads: “Have mercy on me O Christ our God, Through Thy Cross and Passion, deliver thou me”.
His study of Cyprian, a 3rd century martyred Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian: His Life, His Times, His Work, was published posthumously in 1897.
The hymn “God Is Working His Purpose Out” was written by A C Ainger as a tribute to Benson.
The Henry James classic ghost story “The Turn Of The Screw“, evolved from a simple story relating to evil servants luring children to their deaths, told to him by Archbishop Benson .
Wellington College named a boarding house after Benson in 1914. (Any Puffins educated there?)
Benson proposed to his second cousin Mary (Minnie) when he was 24, she was 12. They married six years later and their marriage produced six children:
Martin Benson (1860-1878) – died at age 18 from meningitis
Arthur Christopher (AC) Benson (1862-1925) – Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Poet and author. He wrote the lyrics to Elgar’s Land of Hope And Glory.
Margaret Benson (1865-1916) – Artist, author and Egyptologist.
Edward Frederic (EF) Benson (1867-1940) – Novelist. Author of the Mapp and Lucia novels. Confidante of Queen Victoria.
Mary Eleanor (Nellie) Benson (1863-1890) – died aged 27 from diphtheria.
Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) – Novelist, Church of England priest. He later converted to Catholicism and became a Monsigneur.
None of the children married or had children of their own, thus ending this Benson family lineage.
The Naughty Bits:
Minnie Benson had many lesbian lovers. These relationships were tolerated by her husband who, allegedly, also had to fight his own homosexual tendencies.
One of Minnie’s lovers, composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth, was also at the same time a lover of her daughter Nellie. A triangle ting….
The daughter of the previous Archbishop, Lucy Tait, was a long term lover of Minnie and lived at Lambeth Palace with the couple during Benson‘s tenure.
Margaret Benson also had a lesbian lover, fellow Egyptologist Janet Gourlay.
Upon the death of Edward, Minnie had to move out of Lambeth Palace. She and Lucy moved to Sussex along with Margaret and Janet. When Minnie died in 1924, Lucy was in bed with her.
Both Arthur and Edward Benson were reported as preferring companions of their own sex.
My little knowledge of the history of the Archbishops of Canterbury is limited to those in post during my lifetime and of course the murder of Thomas A’ Becket. This particular Archbishop at least appeared to follow a religious mandate and did his bit in producing a somewhat interesting family. Watching the Last Night of The Proms had a little side interest this year.
The weekend we enjoyed in the Peak District will be committed to parchment for later delectation…….
Daily Mail 1 July 2011
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