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Benson, Edward White

BENSON, EDWARD WHITE (1829-1896), archbishop of Canterbury, was born on the 14th of July 1829, at Birmingham. He came of a family of Yorkshire dalesmen, his father, whose name was also Edward White Benson, being a manufacturing chemist of some note. He was educated at King Edward VI.'s school, Birmingham, under James Prince Lee, afterwards bishop of Manchester, and amongst his school-fellows were B.F. Westcott and J.B. Lightfoot, both of whom preceded him to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was elected a sub-sizar in 1848, becoming subsequently sizar and scholar. The death of his widowed mother in 1850 left him almost without resources, with a family of younger brothers and sisters dependent upon him. Relations came to his aid, and presently his anxieties were relieved by Francis Martin, bursar of Trinity, who gave him liberal help. Benson took his degree in 1852 as a senior optime, eighth classic and senior chancellor's medallist, and was elected fellow of Trinity in the following year. He became a master at Rugby, first under E.M. Goulburn, and then (1857) under Frederick Temple, who became his lifelong friend; he was also ordained deacon in 1854 and priest in 1856. From Rugby he went to be first headmaster of Wellington College, which was opened in January 1859; and in the course of the same year he married his cousin, Mary Sidgwick. The school flourished under his management and also developed his administrative abilities, but gradually his thoughts began to turn towards other work. In 1868 he became prebendary of Lincoln and examining chaplain to Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, an office which he also held for a short time in 1870 for Dr Temple, just appointed to the see of Exeter. In 1872 his acceptance of the chancellorship of Lincoln opened a new period of his life. As chancellor, the statutes directed him to study theology, to train others in that study and to oversee the educational work of the diocese. To such work Benson at once devoted himself; and did more perhaps than any other man to reinvigorate cathedral life in England. He started a theological college (the Scholae Cancellarii), founded night schools, delivered courses of lectures on church history, held Bible classes, and was instrumental in founding a society of mission preachers for the diocese, the "Novate Novale." Early in 1877 he was consecrated first bishop of Truro, and threw himself with characteristic vigour into the work of organizing the new diocese. His knowledge, his sympathy, his enthusiasm soon made themselves felt everywhere; the ruridecanal conferences of clergy became a real force, and the church in Cornwall was inspired with a vitality that had never been possible when it was part of the unwieldy diocese of Exeter. A chapter was constituted, the bishop being dean; amongst its members was a canon missioner (the first to be appointed in England), and the Scholae Cancellarii were founded after the Lincoln pattern. Moreover, the bishop at once set to work to build a cathedral. The foundation-stone was laid on the 20th of May 1880, and on the 3rd of November 1887 the building, so far as then completed, was consecrated. On the death of Dr Tait, Benson was nominated to the see of Canterbury and was enthroned on the 29th of March 1883. His primacy was one of almost unprecedented activity.

Frequent communications passed between him and the heads of the Eastern Churches. With their approval a bishop was again consecrated, after six years' interval (1881-1887), for the Anglican congregations in Jerusalem and the East; and the features which had made the plan objectionable to many English churchmen were now abolished. In 1886, after much careful investigation, he founded the "Archbishop's Mission to the Assyrian Christians," having for its object the instruction and the strengthening from within of the "Nestorian" churches of the East (see Nestorians). An interchange of courtesies with the Metropolitan of Kiev on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the conversion of Russia (1888), led to further intercourse, which has tended to a friendlier feeling between the English and Russian churches. On the other hand, with the efforts towards a rapprochement with the Church of Rome, to which the visit of the French Abbé Portal in 1894 gave some stimulus, the archbishop would have nothing to do.

With the other churches of the Anglican Communion the archbishop's relations were cordial in the extreme and grew closer as time went on. Particular questions of importance, the Jerusalem bishopric, the healing of the Colenso schism in the diocese of Natal, the organization of native ministries and the like, occupied much of his time; and he did all in his power to foster the growth of local churches. But it was the work at home which occupied most of his energies. That he in no way slighted diocesan work had been shown at Truro. He complained now that the bishops were "bishops of their dioceses but not bishops of England," and did all he could to make the Church a greater religious force in English life. He sat on the ecclesiastical courts commission (1881-1883) and the sweating commission (1888-1890). He brought bills into parliament to reform Church patronage and Church discipline, and worked unremittingly for years in their behalf. The latter became law in 1892, and the former was merged in the Benefices Bill, which passed in 1898, after his death. He wrote and spoke vigorously against Welsh disestablishment (1893); and in the following year, under his guidance, the existing agencies for Church defence were consolidated. He was largely instrumental in the inauguration of the House of Laymen in the province of Canterbury (1886); he made diligent inquiries as to the internal order of the sisterhoods of which he was visitor; from 1884 onwards he gave regular Bible readings for ladies in Lambeth Palace chapel. But the most important ecclesiastical event of his primacy was the judgment in the case of the bishop of Lincoln (see Lincoln Judgment), in which the law of the prayer-book is investigated, as it had never been before, from the standpoint of the whole history of the English Church. In 1896 the archbishop went to Ireland to see the working of the sister Church. He was received with enthusiasm, but the work which his tour entailed over-fatigued him. On Sunday morning the 11th of October, just after his return, whilst on a visit to Mr Gladstone, he died in Hawarden parish church of heart failure.

Archbishop Benson left numerous writings, including a valuable essay on The Cathedral (London, 1878), and various charges and volumes of sermons and addresses. But his two chief works, posthumously published, are his Cyprian (London, 1897), a work of great learning, which had occupied him at intervals since early manhood; and The Apocalypse, an Introductory Study (London, 1900), interesting and beautiful, but limited by the fact that the method of study is that of a Greek play, not of a Hebrew apocalypse. The archbishop's knowledge of the past was both wide and minute, but it was that of an antiquary rather than of a historian. "I think," writes his son, "he was more interested in modern movements for their resemblance to ancient than vice versa." His sermons are very noble though written in a style which is over-compressed and often obscure. He wrote some good hymns, including "O Throned, O Crowned" and a beautiful version of Urbs Beata. His "grandeur in social function" was unequalled and his interests were very wide. But above all else he was a great ecclesiastic. He paid less attention to secular politics than Archbishop Tait; but if a man is to be judged by the effect of his work, it is Benson and not Tait who should be described as a great statesman. His biography, by his son, reveals him as a man of devout and holy life, impulsive indeed and masterful, but one who learned self-restraint by strenuous endeavour.

His eldest son, Arthur Christopher Benson (b. 1862), was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge. He became fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was a master at Eton College from 1885 to 1903. His literary capacity was early shown in the remarkable fiction of his Memoirs of Arthur Hamilton (1886) under the pseudonym of "Christopher Carr," and his Poems (1893) and Lyrics (1895) established his reputation as a writer of verse. Among his works are Fasti Etonenses (1899); his father's Life (1899); The Schoolmaster (1902), a commentary on the aims and methods of an assistant schoolmaster in a public school; a study of Archbishop Laud (1887); monographs on D.G. Rossetti (1904), Edward FitzGerald (1905) and Walter Pater (1906), in the "English Men of Letters" series; Lord Vyet and other Poems (1897), Peace and other Poems (1905); The Upton Letters (1905), From a College Window (1906), Beside Still Waters (1907). He also collaborated with Lord Esher in editing the Correspondence of Queen Victoria (1907).

The third son, Edward Frederick Benson (b. 1867), was educated at Marlborough College and King's College, Cambridge. He worked at Athens for the British Archaeological Society from 1892 to 1895, and subsequently in Egypt for the Hellenic Society. In 1893 his society novel, Dodo, brought him to the front among the writers of clever fiction; and this was followed by other novels, notably The Vintage (1898) and The Capsina (1899).

The fourth son, Robert Hugh Benson (b. 1871), was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. After reading with Dean Vaughan at Llandaff he took orders, and in 1898 became a member of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. In 1903 he became a Roman Catholic, was ordained priest at Rome in the following year, and returned to Cambridge as assistant priest of the Roman Catholic church there. Among his numerous publications are The Light Invisible, By What Authority?, The King's Achievement, Richard Raynal, Solitary, The Queen's Tragedy, The Sentimentalists, Lord of the World.

See A.C. Benson, Life of Archbishop Benson (2 vols., London, 1899); J.H. Bernard, Archbishop Benson in Ireland (1897); Sir L.T. Dibdin in The Quarterly Review, October 1897.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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