Throughout much of the nineteenth century, some leading historians who were also members of the Church of Ireland engaged in a complex intellectual and cultural enterprise. At its heart was a fundamental contradiction, somewhat similar to that experienced by other minority groups in other societies. On the one hand, they wished to establish that their church was an authentically indigenous institution rather than an alien import. On the other they sought to stress the distinct and separate identity of the Irish Anglican church.
In nineteenth century Ireland, Anglican identity was not confined to questions of religious doctrine; it also involved political and ethnic allegiance. In the South of Ireland, where Protestants were often in a small minority, there was a certain impulse to become more fully assimilated within the larger Catholic population. But there was also a contrary impulse to maintain what were considered to be essential differences. These conflicting needs were given a further complexity by the distribution of Church of Ireland members across the island. The highest concentration of Irish Anglicans could be found in the North, where, in some counties, Protestants formed a majority of the population.
The Anglican church in Ulster had also been profoundly influenced by a larger reformed denomination: the Presbyterian church in Ireland. This influence may have tended to make Northern Anglicans more overt in their opposition to the tenets, and, to an extent, to the popular culture of the Roman Catholic church. Put simply, Ulster’s Anglicans did not share all of the priorities ‑ or fears – of their Southern brethren.
This background meant that the hierarchy of the Church of Ireland had to strike a delicate balance if it was to represent the views and attitudes of the Irish church as a whole. There were several key sets of relationships that had to be considered. One involved the interaction of the Church of Ireland with the largest Christian denomination on the island, the Roman Catholic church. Another critical question was how the Irish Anglican church should relate to other reformed denominations ‑ in particular the Irish Presbyterian church. Finally, there was the question of how members of the Irish Anglican hierarchy should deal with any regional or doctrinal differences within their own communion, such as the division between its high and low church factions. This background may explain, in turn, why the choice of author for the first comprehensive history of the Irish Anglican church was deemed to be a highly sensitive issue. It may also help to explain why Bishop Richard Mant was entrusted with the task.
Mant was an Englishman ‑ born in Southampton in 1776 – and was already in middle age before he was appointed bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820. He had no known connection with Ireland before that date. Nonetheless, he occupies a very significant role in the historiography of the Anglican church due to the particular importance of his major work ‑ his History of the Church of Ireland.
Mant’s initial attempts to adjust to life in Ireland had not been promising. In 1820, soon after his arrival, he published his primary visitation charge ‑ in which he lambasted the local Anglican clergy for their ineffective attempts to convert Catholics and encouraged the use of Church of Ireland schools “as an instrument of Proselytism”. His “misdirected zeal” was met with horror by John Jebb, a Church of Ireland clergyman and future bishop, who wrote to the Archbishop of Cashel, Charles Broderick, warning him that Mant had breathed “warfare against the Papists”. Jebb believed that Mant could “involve the South of Ireland in flames and, at the same time, stop any quiet progress that has been making towards an unsuspected influence over the minds of our Roman Catholic population”.
The alarm that Jebb expressed at Mant’s religious offensive was paralleled by the animosity with which the local Catholic population reacted to the militant tone of his charge. The new bishop would soon come to realise that an attack on the Roman Catholic church in Ireland was perceived as tantamount to attacking the cultural identity of the majority of the Irish population ‑ and to do this was to risk open hostility. By the winter of 1821 that is precisely what occurred: Mant received a letter from an anonymous “friend” that warned him against “walking in those parts of his garden and demesne which he was used to frequent, as some persons were bound to destroy him, under an obligation they dare not disobey, including the writer”. Terrified by what he read, Mant promptly took his family to Dublin, and then fled with them back to England. It was only at the insistence of William Howley, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Charles James Blomfield, the bishop of London, that he reluctantly agreed to return to his Irish see ‑ leaving his family behind in Bath.
Following this incident, Mant appealed to his chief patron, Lord Liverpool, for translation to a safer diocese in England. However, he was merely reminded of his folly at causing such unrest, “so soon after your settlement in the country and before you could have had sufficient local knowledge of the state of it to hazard anything of a doubtful nature”. He was also told, in no uncertain terms, that neither the English bishops nor the British government were impressed by his precipitate flight from Ireland. Chastened and demoralised, Mant returned to his Irish diocese and was forced to spend the Christmas of 1822 there alone, confined to his bishop’s palace, with soldiers patrolling the grounds. It was deemed prudent to continue to post armed guards around his home for the next two years. Finally ‑ in order to save further embarrassment ‑ the British government decided to move him to the see of Down in 1823.
Mant would later recall the advice that an unnamed Irish bishop had given him at that time: “I should recommend extreme delicacy in regard to the Roman Catholics. It would really be wise, I conceive, to abstain from any mention of them, and to promote the interests of our own Church in the most effectual as well as the safest way.” No doubt, Mant hoped that he would not encounter similar difficulties in his Northern diocese ‑ since it contained a very large number of his co-religionists. However, he would continue to display a lack of understanding of the denominational nuances of his new environment.
Mant had been critical of some features of Methodism which he considered unduly irreverent during his clerical career in England. He might have expected that he would encounter something similar in Irish Presbyterianism, but he is unlikely to have anticipated the type of direct challenges that he would meet in the North of Ireland from his fellow Anglicans. Ulster may have held the greatest concentration of Church of Ireland members on the island, but, in the course of several centuries, physical proximity to Presbyterians had affected the character of the Anglican church in Ulster in several critical respects. This was evident in its loyalty to markedly low church practices ‑ such as the lack of display in church ornamentation ‑ and in the staunch resistance to any influence of the “Anglo-Catholic” movements of Tractarianism or Puseyism. This tendency had grown more evident, and more assertive from the 1820s, and the blunt – not to say, abrasive ‑ nature of some forms of Presbyterian discourse may also have influenced Ulster’s Anglicans.
On November 16th, 1838, Mant received a requisition on the apparently innocuous subject of church extension from the clergy and laity of his diocese. He acceded to their request, and appointed Wednesday, December 17th for a meeting. A committee was appointed to make preliminary arrangements. At its first meeting it soon became apparent that “there was no public room in Belfast sufficiently large” to cater for the huge public interest, and Mant agreed that it should be held in the newly founded Christ Church ‑ which was then the largest Anglican church in Belfast.
When Mant arrived in Christ Church, he might well have been surprised to find that it was packed to capacity, with almost two thousand persons of all social classes ‑ “nobility, clergy, and gentry and … a large number of the laity of the diocese”. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to discuss the want of church accommodation, but clearly there was substantially more going on than that. An evangelical clergyman, William McIlwaine, touched upon the underlying themes when he took the opportunity to warn all present of the necessity of constant vigilance against doctrinal errors that threatened the church from within. The implications of his speech would have been clear to all – and Mant was soon accused more directly from the floor of the meeting for his alleged Tractarian sympathies.
The reaction to Tractarianism, or Puseyism as it was more commonly known, in the two united Ulster dioceses ‑ Down, Connor and Dromore, and Derry and Raphoe ‑ was of heightened significance. These dioceses represented the areas of Ireland where Anglicans could be found in their highest concentration, but it was also a region where intolerance of Tractarianism had radically affected the character of the church’s ministry. The vigorous and vocal opposition to high church tendencies in Ulster was the most extreme in Ireland ‑ and the problems it would raise for the prelates of the Anglican church offer crucial insights into the regional differences and hierarchical tensions that existed within the Church of Ireland, during the late 1830s and early 1840s.
It is true that there were some isolated instances of Tractarian practices in Belfast, but they were certainly not on the same scale as in Dublin, where a significant number of high church clergy had maintained a presence for some years in Trinity College and in the two city cathedrals. It was also in Ulster that Anglican evangelicalism – similar to the religious enthusiasm that would later express itself in the great religious revival of 1859 – had its strongest levels of support and where opposition to Puseyism was most combative and intense. The depth of this antagonism is evident in a letter that James Henthorn Todd wrote to his brother in 1843, about a colleague’s curacy: although Todd conceded that the curate would never “do anything extravagant”, he deemed it “impossible” for him to avoid being accused of Puseyism “in a Presbyterian county, however moderate he may be”.
In reaction to the accusations levelled against him, Mant declared his steadfast loyalty to “our National Church”. His choice of phrase here is telling ‑ since this was arguably the most authoritative way of describing the Church of Ireland. The term was, of course, also increasingly recognised as being fundamentally inaccurate. Mant was, no doubt, acutely aware of this: in an earlier reply to Archbishop Beresford, he had stated that the open questioning of the legitimacy of tithes paid to the Church of Ireland was “an avowal that the Protestant Episcopal Church is no longer, to a certain extent at least, to be regarded as the Established National Church of Ireland”. At this boisterous public meeting in Belfast in December 1838, Mant felt constrained to pledge himself to continue to oppose conscientiously “every effort, however, innocently or undesignedly made, for introducing amongst my brethren of the Protestant Established Church, any institution which even remotely savours of those false doctrines and teachers, whose evil is now so manifest elsewhere”. Despite this assurance, Mant seems not to have appreciated fully “the depth of hostility that the spectre of Puseyism aroused” in the Northern laity.
Mant, in common with other Anglican bishops, tended to view Tractarianism or Puseyism as a theological issue, rather than as a possible threat to anyone’s political identity. This was not, however, how the issue was viewed by many of his co-religionists in Ulster – who were inclined to interpret it in the most explicit of political terms, as a real and present danger to the future of their community in Ireland. To put it crudely, many Northern Anglicans seemed to believe that any blurring of doctrinal positions between the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic church could lead to a concomitant blurring of political distinctions between unionists and nationalists in Ireland ‑ to the advantage of Irish nationalism. In that sense, they tended to view Puseyism as the religious end of a political wedge.
Shortly before his meeting with his Northern clergy and laity, Mant had been summoned to Dublin, where, on November 28th, 1838, he met the Anglican primate of Ireland, the archbishop of Dublin, and many other senior prelates. Mant’s son, Walter Bishop Mant, later maintained that it was at this meeting that a unique project was first suggested ‑ which was the writing of “an historical work” on the Church of Ireland. In reality, the need for such a history had already been recognised.
In 1837, James Henthorn Todd had written to a former provost, Samuel Kyle, outlining his fear that “there is a serious and radical defect in the education of our clergy. They are not taught to be churchmen. The peculiarities of our own church polity are all studiously kept out of sight and that in a country where they have to contend with Presbyterians on the one and the Papists on the other.” He continued: “How can we hope to have our clergy Episcopalian in their feelings, when we sap the very foundations of Episcopal principles by teaching them Presbyterian Church History?”
Underlying Todd’s comments is a sense that Presbyterianism was the Church of Ireland’s principal rival for the allegiance of Irish Protestants in a way that the Roman Catholic church was not. In fact, the concerns that Todd expressed were not his alone: they appear frequently in the correspondence of other leading high church figures throughout this period. The lack of historical publications was perceived as a significant handicap for Irish Anglican clergy – since it restricted their knowledge of their own church and made it harder for them to defend it from Presbyterian as well as Roman Catholic critiques. Reminiscing about the early 1830s, Archdeacon Edward Stopford of Meath later claimed that “there was scarcely a clergyman in Ireland who [knew] anything of the Church in Ireland. We were required at ordination to know something of the history of the Church in England, but of our own [church] ‑ nothing.” As the 1830s progressed, the need to provide a comprehensive history of the Church of Ireland became one of growing importance ‑ not only for Anglican clergy but also for lay members of their communion.
In this context, the imperative articulated in Todd’s letter becomes understandable. He was also insistent on the specific need for this church history to be written “by an Episcopalian”. In this context, it is clear that he means a high churchman ‑ and not one whose sympathies might incline towards the Presbyterian church. Once again, his emphasis is reflective of a marked tendency among certain Irish high churchmen to regard Presbyterianism in terms of heresy and schism rather than as a denominational difference. An editorial in the Irish Anglican Christian Examiner in 1840 expounded on a similar theme: “We are churchmen; episcopalians on principle and by preference; we shall not be found on the side of anything that militates against church order and episcopal authority.” In contrast, evangelicals within the Church of Ireland were more conscious of the common ground that they shared with Presbyterians. This was apparent in the emphasis that both placed upon Bible study and Sabbath observance, as well as in their shared distrust of any of the “smells and bells” associated with Anglo-Catholicism. Despite these points of contact, there is negligible evidence of any significant transfer of allegiance of Irish Anglicans to the Presbyterian church.
Charles Richard Elrington was Todd’s first choice as the author of the new history. However, it was soon accepted that he was unsuitable for this critical task because of his history of vigorous opposition to certain reforms within Trinity College ‑ which had generated a number of protracted controversies and bitter antagonisms. The commissioning of Mant to write the history, therefore, needs to be set against the factionalism that had become endemic in what might be termed the theological politics of the Church of Ireland. High churchmen, like Todd, frequently commented on the actual, and the perceived upsurge in evangelical activity in the college ‑ which clearly caused them great concern.
It was deemed important that whoever wrote the new History of the Church of Ireland should not be connected with the clerical politics of Trinity – or explicitly linked with any of the factions within the Anglican church. Before long, the leading candidate was held to be Mant. At first sight, he might not have seemed an obvious choice to write an authoritative history. His direct contact with Ireland, after all, had not begun until relatively late in his life. Indeed, he claimed that his own awareness of his limited knowledge ‑ of both Ireland and the Church of Ireland ‑ had made him reluctant to embark on such a demanding scholarly enterprise.
The sensitivity of the work may help to explain why the Irish Anglican hierarchy had chosen a bishop whose origins were English to write a comprehensive history of their church. The nomination of Mant rather than of a member of Dublin University, or the lower clergy ‑ or the laity, for that matter – was, in itself, a highly unusual and significant development. There was an obvious danger in a senior member of the Anglican hierarchy becoming involved in a project which had the capacity to generate controversy and further division with the Irish church. Mant’s appointment gave the work a greater prominence and status ‑ not only to those within the church but also to those outside its communion ‑ including some of its most entrenched opponents. As such, Mant’s History occupies a unique place within Irish Anglican historiography. It marks the first significant attempt that was authorised from within the Church of Ireland in the whole of the nineteenth century to write a distinct and separate history of that church. It may have been intended that the primary readers of this history would be Irish, but it was clear from the beginning that the work had also been conceived with an English audience in mind. That was hardly surprising ‑ given Mant’s personal background and extensive contacts within the Church of England hierarchy – and this was to have important implications.
Both Todd and Elrington had written to London-based publishers throughout the 1830s in efforts to publish works relating to the history of the Church of Ireland, but all of their approaches had been rejected. The selection of Mant as author of the History opened up new and attractive possibilities – since he could call upon a number of useful and influential connections. He was already a published and respected author in England, his annotated Bible of 1814 was frequently reprinted and a bibliography of his publications occupied over five pages in the British Library catalogue. His poetry is chiefly notable for its copiousness. Furthermore, he was friendly with well-connected individuals such as Robert Banks Jenkinson, the earl of Liverpool, as well as the archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Manners Sutton and other members of that group of defenders of Anglican orthodoxy known as the Hackney Phalanx. The reputation that Mant enjoyed in England is evident in the advertisement for the volumes of his History that ran in the British Magazine. When it first arrived in the magazine’s offices, the editor stated that he knew “nothing about it except two facts which will say more to interest the readers in the work than the most elaborate opinion which he could deliver ‑ it is the history of the Irish Church, and it is written by Bishop Mant”.
Such enthusiasm proved well-founded, and, despite the expense of the volume, Mant’s History sold out within a few months of its release in 1839. Indeed, “induced by the reception which had been given” to this volume, Mant felt confident enough to proceed with a second volume, which was published in 1840: this was in turn followed by a second edition of both volumes in 1841.
Mant also arranged to publish lengthy extracts of his History in the British Magazine, a High Church quarterly with strong links to the Tractarians. These excerpts featured specific passages from Mant’s work that dealt with the relationship between the Church of Ireland and the Church of England ‑ with the obvious and understandable objective of increasing the relevance and appeal of Mant’s volumes to English readers. The popularity of this thematic collection is demonstrated by its repeated publication throughout the 1840s. This work can, therefore, be thought to have played a role in continuing to inform English perceptions of the Church of Ireland throughout that decade.
Mant began the first volume of his History with a “preliminary survey” ‑ starting with “the Papal Usurpation, in the Twelfth century, to its legal abolition in the sixteenth”. It is the second longest chapter ‑ running at 105 pages ‑ and its inspiration is clearly drawn from an unexpected source. Given Mant’s consistent antipathy to Calvinism, it may seem ironic that he should draw extensively upon James Seaton Reid’s earlier History of the Presbyerian Church in Ireland. Like Reid, Mant argued that his own church could claim legitimate descent from the apparent purity of the Early Irish Church, before devoting considerable time detailing the manner in which papal influence had corrupted the pre-Reformation Church.
Mant’s depiction of pre-Reformation Ireland is most unflattering. He believed that the Irish people had been sunk in superstitious ignorance, and were held in thrall by a corrupt and exploitative papacy. In this interpretation, there was a good deal that was commonplace in the work of earlier Irish Protestant writers. Those writers had continually stressed that “popery” was a vulgar superstition and that Gaelic Irish society was synonymous with “incivility”. Such writers typically represented Irish Catholicism as a force that was built upon the ingrained and stubborn ignorance of the native population. Mant maintained that it was “painful to dwell upon” scenes of “disgraceful outrage”, in which the church “unhappily bore too conspicuous a part”. This did not, however, prevent him from describing a large number of such outrages in highly graphic terms – and these were highlighted for the reader from the main body of text by marginal notes which made them easier to reference. Mant draws our attention to an alarming number of incidents of murder and witchcraft allegedly committed by Catholic bishops. This is integral to his depiction of the violent and unruly nature of the native Irish church before what he presents as the restorative influence of the Reformation. Mant’s focus on the past iniquities of the Catholic church might be interpreted as a conciliatory gesture towards the low church faction within Irish Anglicanism: by stressing his own antipathy to “popery” he was also emphasising an attitude shared by a wide range of Protestants within the Church of Ireland.
Although there are references in his work to the Early Irish church, Mant made little attempt to analyse primary sources in any great depth. He also devoted little space to the theme of continuity between the early Celtic church and contemporary Anglicanism. This is not only surprising in the context of such a significant work: it is also highly unusual in Irish Anglican historiography – where the claims of an ancient spiritual continuity held an obvious appeal to all sections of the Church of Ireland. A later review in The Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette lamented that Mant had “been silent about St. Patrick and his religion as if his name had never been mentioned in either true or fabulous story”.
The theme of apostolic succession ‑ of an uninterrupted ecclesiastic lineage from the foundation of Christianity ‑ held a special attraction for many high church Irish Anglicans. Indeed, the Church of Ireland had historically placed great emphasis on the institutional authority that was associated with such succession. However, it seems evident that the traditional arguments in favour of the Church of Ireland’s historical status were becoming increasingly unpalatable ‑ or incredible ‑ to English Anglicans. One of Mant’s correspondents, Edward Newenham Hoare, dean of Achonry and chaplain to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, also warned Mant that too great an emphasis on the antiquity and original independence of the Irish church would only play into the hands of Ireland’s Roman Catholics: “you hereby sanction the principle of referring to antiquity as a test of truth, thereby confirming him in his attachment to the church of Rome, which he can easily prove to be the more ancient, if he confine the research backwards to a thousand years, with which most antiquarians would be satisfied”.
Although he devoted little time to the Church of Ireland’s claim to apostolic succession, Mant did include ‑ in the appendix at the end of the first volume of his History ‑ a detailed chronological list of succession for each diocese. This approach gave greater weight to his confident assertion that “only two Irish prelates” were deprived of their bishoprics in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Mant’s strategy also helped focus the debate on the church’s legal entitlement along lines which were more readily acceptable and understandable to an English audience than the claim of the Irish church to apostolic succession. At the same time, he had followed a narrative that could also be read, from an Irish perspective, as implicitly reaffirming the Church of Ireland’s legitimate succession – in terms that even the Church of England could not claim.
Irish Anglicans may have held positive views of the European Reformation, but they had far more ambivalent feelings about its execution in Ireland. Indeed, Alan Ford has maintained that the Reformation was, in many ways, “an embarrassment” for Irish Protestant historians. The practical difficulty in dealing with the Reformation – both in terms of attitude and tone, as well as of analysis ‑ was especially pronounced within the Church of Ireland. Other reformed churches could present the Reformation in straightforward triumphal terms – with the shining light of the plain and unadorned Gospel banishing superstition and anti-Christian darkness. However, for many high churchmen in the Irish church such triumphalism was not merely crass and inappropriate; it was also viewed as dangerous and inadvisable. Given that high churchmen tended to live in areas of Southern Ireland where Anglicans were often in a very small minority there was an understandable concern that expressing enthusiasm for the Reformation in public would be seen by the surrounding population as provocative, and even as an incitement to violence.
In dealing with the Reformation in Ireland, the first volume of Mant’s History was not only of scholarly interest: it was also addressing issues of central importance to the Church of Ireland’s sense of its own historical identity. For Mant, the Irish Reformation had, from its inception, mirrored the English, and in his work he sought to demonstrate how the early Reformation legislation in Ireland had echoed that passed by Henry VIII’s English Reformation parliament. The longest chapter of the first volume of his book is Chapter VII, which deals with the reign of Charles I from 1625 to1649. It runs to 136 pages, and is subdivided into nine sections. Chapter VII, in turn, is followed by the shortest chapter ‑ which is simply titled “The Usurpation 1647-1660”, and is merely nineteen pages. The dramatic difference in the amount of attention paid to these two periods strongly suggests that his priority was to make a case in which the 1615 Irish Articles could be portrayed as a form of aberration, and a short-lived attempt to graft the doctrines of Calvin and the Lambeth Articles onto the Profession of Faith of the Irish Anglican church. Mant explicitly criticised the Articles for their sabbatarianism and ‑ above all – for their adoption of strict Calvinist doctrines of predestination.
Mant’s aversion to any form of Calvinism can be detected in his attempts to expunge any association with Presbyterianism from the Church of Ireland’s history. In 1838, Dr Henry Cooke – a leading northern Presbyterian ‑ wrote to Mant, complaining about his support for an anti-Presbyterian sermon delivered by an unnamed clergyman in Mant’s diocese. Cooke warned Mant that “our common enemies the Romanists & Radicals are able to employ it against our common cause”. It is evident, however, that Cooke’s plea for friendly co-operation made little impression upon Mant. He consistently opposed Cooke’s calls for pan-Protestant unity between Anglicans and Presbyterians in defence of the union and the Protestant character of the British state. His impulse, in common with those of other high churchmen, was to identify the Presbyterian church not as a potential ally but as a threat to the primacy of the Anglican church in Ireland. Like Todd and Elrington, Mant grew progressively alarmed that evangelicals within the Church of Ireland were identifying with the Calvinist Irish Reformation of the early seventeenth century. Some evangelical Anglicans interpreted this as the basis for an accommodation with Presbyterians ‑ against the common Catholic threat ‑ but this held little appeal for high churchmen.
In fact, Mant was vigorously opposed to any such accommodation, and he dismissed out of hand some of the claims made by James Seaton Reid in his History of the Presbyterian Church. Indeed, he characterised Reid’s account of Archbishop Ussher’s role in accommodating Calvinist ministers within the Church of Ireland as a “perfect delusion”. Reid had related how Robert Blair, a leading Calvinist minister, was allowed by Ussher to serve in the Irish Anglican church. For Presbyterians like Reid, Ussher was a model of episcopalian discretion and tact. Mant, on the other hand, unequivocally rejected Reid’s interpretation of Ussher’s role.
Reid recorded in detail the replacement of the Irish Articles by the Thirty-Nine English articles, and the writing of new and stricter disciplinary canons in the 1634 Convocation, which were followed, in turn, by the expulsion of Calvinist clergy from the Church of Ireland ministry. It is not surprising that Mant took a radically different view of the Ulster-Scots clergy and their relationship to the Church of Ireland. One aspect of the Plantation which he felt was “deeply to be lamented”, was the influx of ministers from Scotland who, following Calvin and Knox, preferred a “studied affectation of a bare … abstract and frigid simplicity in the service of God” in contrast to “the apostolical form of church government by bishops and the liturgical mode of worship both of which had been transmitted from earliest Christianity”.
By the seventh chapter of the first volume, a marked shift in Mant’s writing becomes noticeable: up to this point, his style is highly discursive, and lacking in syntactic clarity. He does not favour economy, or succinct expression: single sentences can run on for pages, and his extensive and lengthy footnotes frequently have only a loose connection with the main body of his text. He also incorporates vast tracts of primary texts, and there is protracted discussion of statutes, royal prerogatives and the manner in which they were executed. To say the least, this does not make for easily digestible or enjoyable reading.
However, in the second section of the chapter dealing with Charles I’s reign, he chooses to construct his narrative around a biographical account of a “distinguished ornament” of the Church of Ireland: the former primate and provost of Trinity College, William Bedell. The special appeal of Archbishop Bedell to Irish Anglicans had been long established: indeed, it would be hard to argue with Desmond Bowen’s assertion that “generation after generation of Protestant scholars have produced studies of him”. Bedell was an inclusive religious figure, whose spiritual legacy was also claimed by Irish evangelicals and Presbyterians. Mant clearly had profound reservations about Bedell’s character, and his actions when he exercised episcopal governance of the Anglican Church. However, he was prompted by a series of letters from Todd ‑ which advised him of the high regard in which Bedell continued to be held in Irish Anglican circles ‑ and was eventually convinced to adapt his representation of Bedell to accommodate that factor.
In his History, Mant chose to emphasise what he appeared to regard as Bedell’s orthodox high church credentials. Bedell’s education in Emmanuel College – a centre of Puritanism in Cambridge when he attended in the late sixteenth century ‑ was dealt with in just two lines. Mant’s treatment of Bedell’s career as provost of Trinity was similarly vague and ambiguous ‑ with Mant merely praising the “reformation that he had wrought in the University”. In short, Mant used Bedell to illustrate what he considered were the best aspects of English attempts to introduce the Reformation to Ireland, praising his attempts to “furnish his converts with a means of instructing others”, his efforts to instruct the laity in Irish and his translation of the Old Testament. Sadly, Bedell’s “great design” was, according to Mant, interrupted by the outbreak of the 1641 Rebellion ‑ otherwise, it was suggested, his reforming zeal might have succeeded. Mant lamented that “it should be noticed that this plan for religious Reformation appears not to have been approved by the Government, certainly it was not countenanced by Lord Wentworth.” This may seem like a relatively minor acknowledgement of English mis-governance, but it fed into previous Irish Anglican explanations for the failure of the Irish Reformation, and was well received.
Another individual chosen by Mant for special attention in his History was a predecessor in his northern see, Bishop Jeremy Taylor, who had been appointed as an Irish bishop soon after the Stuart restoration. Taylor was firmly established within the Irish Caroline tradition, and his writings continued to be popular with some Church of Ireland members. Taylor may have been admired by southern Irish Anglicans, but his legacy in his former northern diocese was much more problematic. The remains of the first church of Ballinderry was known locally as Jeremy Taylor’s church, and does not seem to have been venerated. In 1823, the local congregation decided to demolish the church and build a new one on its site. One of Mant’s first acts as bishop was to prevent the church’s destruction ‑ and to refurbish it.
Mant was clearly attracted to the robust and adroit way in which Taylor dealt with Northern Presbyterians. In the History, he points out that, of the seventy-odd Calvinist ministers claiming rights as incumbents at the start of 1660, at least half of them were in Taylor’s diocese. However, a meeting of Presbyterian ministers serving in the Church of Ireland took place at Newtown in early December 1660, where they resolved to preach against episcopacy and the Book of Common Prayer. Within two months of his consecration, Taylor held a diocesan synod, to which only two Presbyterian ministers came. This allowed him to declare thirty-six livings vacant and ready to be filled by clergy who had been validly ordained by bishops of the established church. Just five Presbyterian ministers were eventually prepared to submit to ordination by Taylor, and the mutual hostility between him and the ejected Presbyterian ministers remained unabated. For Mant and the readers of his book, the implications were fairly obvious: a distinguished and revered bishop, such as Taylor, was one who was able and willing to stand up to Northern Presbyterians – and would not countenance any accommodation with them outside the Irish church.
It would be naive to believe that, in referencing Taylor’s works, Mant was merely demonstrating his awareness of Irish Anglican historical identity. Despite his apparent self-effacement ‑ and the frequent emphasis he placed upon his own “unworthiness” ‑ he consistently suggested certain connections between himself and Taylor: they were, after all, both Englishmen called to serve as bishops in Ireland. It seems clear that Mant identified strongly with Taylor, and his notebooks and correspondence throughout his life are full of extracts and quotations from Taylor’s work.
Mant’s History not only made a considerable impact when it first appeared, it also generated a significant degree of controversy. Its most favourable reception came from the English ecclesiastical press, and in the years that immediately followed its first release large sections were republished in a wide variety of English periodicals, including the Gentleman’s Magazine, The British Magazine, The Saturday Review and the Christian Remembrancer. Indeed, the popularity of Mant’s work in England appears to have been greater than in Ireland ‑ where extracts of the History were much less frequently reproduced.
Mant’s History had, for the most part, been well received on its first appearance by Irish Anglicans. However, it may not be surprising ‑ given the breadth of issues dealt with ‑ that some aspects of its treatment proved unpalatable to some Irish Anglicans. Two editions of the work were soon published in Dublin ‑ indicating a reasonable level of local interest. Nonetheless, less than a decade after its initial release, it was already viewed by some Irish Anglicans as being seriously flawed. One unkind reviewer accused Mant of merely constructing “an abridged and continued edition of the history of the Irish bishops by [James] Ware and [Walter] Harris”. The Dublin University Magazine would later dismiss a reissue of Mant’s volumes by declaring that “a general history of Ireland is not what we at present require”. The Magazine maintained that such a work ‑ even when of a high standard ‑ would “probably lead to feelings of regret and despondency”. This was not only a dismissal of the work’s lasting value but also a remarkable admission of the low morale of the contemporary Church of Ireland.
The reality was that, from the outset, the selection of Mant to write this much awaited History had not been approved by everyone within the Church of Ireland. One clergyman, writing under the pseudonym “presbyter Hibernicus”, was clearly dismayed at the choice. He wrote to the Christian Examiner expressing his “fear that you will lead many of your readers to ascribe an authority to Mant’s History of the Irish Church, which it is by no means entitled to claim”. Despite such overt hostility, the influence of Mant’s work was to prove long-lasting – particularly to those of a high church persuasion, who showed themselves ready to apply the lessons they drew from his History to contemporary events within the Anglican church. JAF Spence has argued that Mant’s work offered those Irish Anglicans whose political instincts were Tory a coherent narrative: one of close alliance with England and the Church of England.
Ulster’s Presbyterian scholars, on the other hand, remained deeply offended by Mant’s History. William Dool Killen would later declare that Mant was “assuredly a bigot of the purest water”, and a “miserable partisan of the narrowest order”. Throughout both of Mant’s volumes there are no references to either Reid or to his work. Yet references to Reid’s work – and to the work of other Presbyterian historians ‑ appear frequently in his notebooks. It is clear that he was not prepared to acknowledge a debt to any Presbyterian historian. There is another small but revealing instance of his prejudice in this regard. In his correspondence to Todd and Elrington, he only refers to Reid’s volumes as ‘The History of Presbyterians in Ireland’: the consistent – and, perhaps, unconscious – suppression of the word “Church” may be taken to indicate his underlying feelings. It echoed Archbishop William Magee, who had arrogantly and offensively dismissed the Roman Catholic church as “a Church without a religion”, and Presbyterianism as “a religion without a church”. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that political crises in Ireland compelled Ulster’s Anglicans and Presbyterians into a closer union – and by then Mant’s magnum opus was viewed as simply out of date.