Sunday, 16 September 2012

William King 1650-1729 : Bishop of Derry 1691-1703

William King was born in the town of Antrim on the 1st May 1650, the son of James King who migrated from Aberdeenshire to escape adhering to the Solemn League and Covenant in the period 1639-49. After a somewhat slow start his formal education began at the age of twelve when he attended a Latin school in Dungannon, County Tyrone (now known as the Royal School, Dungannon). At the age of sixteen he entered Trinity College, Dublin and, reflecting the poverty of his background, was admitted as a sizar (a student receiving an allowance from the college). Trinity, as King noted in his autobiography, was to have a powerful effect on him for it was here that the future Bishop of Derry began to receive serious religious instruction. In particular he singled out his tutor, John Christian, as having imparted unto him "a true sense of religion". This influence undoubtedly moulded King into following a career in the Church. He had been chosen to be a servant of Christ and was ordained Deacon by Bishop Robert Mossom of Derry 1671.

After failing to win a fellowship, King fortunately came to the attention of John Parker, Archbishop of Tuam. Under his patronage, the young cleric, after obtaining a prebend, became Provost of Tuam in October 1676. Although he later regretted neglecting his studies in this intellectual backwater., it was not long before he enjoyed a more favourable appointment. It was Parker's translation to the See of Dublin in 1678 that transformed King's career and introduced him to the centre of church government in Ireland. At Dublin, he collated the chancellorship of St. Patrick's with the annexed Parish of St. Werburgh's. It appears that shortly after becoming chancellor he became involved in a curious dispute with Dean Worth over the right of the Dean to visit independently of the chapter. In a controversy that smacks of a personality clash or a difference of opinion on church policy, King,

"Protested against the visitation of the Dean, and asserted that he had no right to hold any such, without the consent of the Chapter"

The Chancellor, however, was to loose in the judgement of the case (1681) and was punished by being required to build a number of stalls in the chapter house.

Controversy was a defining feature of King's career as he proved to be a staunch defender of the Church of Ireland against its critics. In 1687, for example, King was moved to attack the actions of another Dean. Peter Manby, formerly Dean of Derry, had converted to the Roman Church in 1686. In outlining his own decisions for the change, Manby published The Considerations which obliged Peter Manby to embrace the Catholic Religion. The former Dean argued that the Reformation had been imposed on the nation by a handful of people and singled out Archbishop Cranmer for particular criticism. His aim was to "show the unwarrantableness of all the changes that they (the Protestant Reformers) made in religion. This drew a reply from King in his Answer to the Considerations which, by contarst, argued that Manby's desertion was based on more ulterior motives. In King's opinion, his defection had been the result of his failure to procure a bishopric from the Primate. Given the pro-Catholic policies of James II and his Lord Deputy in Ireland, the Earl of Tyrconnell, Manby (so the argument went) had therby sought advancement in the Roman Tradition. In addition, King cited Manby's temporal interest in keeping the profits of the deanery after his desertion and furthermore, he collected the views of those who knew Manby:

"the most conclude, that it was little grain of worldly advantage that turned the scale for your new church" The debate continued and developed into an intense pamphlet war between the contending sides over a wide ranging topics such as the Reformation in England, defining the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and the validity of the Anglican order. As each side maintained its uncompromising position, the end result inevitably proved inconclusive. However the controversy was not solely confined to the two parties. The line of argument adopted by King was also to sour relations with the Presbyterian community, for, in defending his own faith, he was to exclude dissenters from the Catholic church.

The church which King defended did not only come under attack from an isolated and disaffected cleric. Shortly afterwards, the very political and religious settlement which King upheld was to be shaken to its foundations. The political upheavals of the 1680s placed the Church of Ireland in an unenviable position. Catholic resurgence under James II and the Earl of Tyrconnell, were clearly unwelcome by churchman and Protestant layman alike. To support the King and his policies meant the undermining of their own position yet to oppose him meant ignoring the 1660 Restoration Settlement of Divine Kingship with its doctrine of non-resistance. The dilemma of supporting King James was brought into sharper focus when, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he began his fight back in Ireland as the way to reclaim his throne. Undoubtley King shared the same moral apprehension as the rest of his co-religionists. Yet by mid 1689 he appears, after many anxious meditations, to have thrown in his lot with the House of Orange. King pointed to James' Patriot Parliament (the Roman Catholic Assembly which aimed to overturn Protestant hegemony in Ireland, May-July 1689) as the defining moment in transferring his allegiance  to William. In view of his previous support for the doctrine of non-resistance, King gave a scrupulously worded explanation:

"I doubted no longer but that it was lawful for me and others to accept that deliverance, which providence brought by the Prince of Orange, now the acknowledged King of England and Scotland, and to submit myself to him as King and liberator, epically since neither by action, nor writing had I contributed anything to depose King James, or to promote him, Prince of Orange to the crown"

During this turbulent period, King had assumed jurisdiction in the diocese of Dublin following the withdrawal of Archbishop Marsh in February 1688. A year later he became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin (February 1689). His position as leader of the Protestant community in the capital led to his imprisonment at the hands of the Jacobites on two separate occasions. However, he used his incarceration to good effect as it was in prison where he pieced together his best-seller: The state of the Protestants of Ireland under the late King Jame's Government (published in 1691). Although giving a systematic account of the recent past its real purpose was to vindicate the transference of loyalty from James to William by Irish Protestants. The change of allegiance, King argued, was not an act of rebellion as the decision reached had been one based purely on self-preservation: "it is lawful for one Prince to interpose between another Prince and his subjects when he uses them cruelly, or endeavours to enslave or destroy them"

William's victory at the Battle of the Boyne put an end to King's suffering and, as Dean of St. Patrick's, he was given the opportunity to preach at the thanksgiving service 16th November 1690. Using as the text, Psalm 107.2. Let them give thanks whom the Lord hath redeemed, and Delivered from the hand of the enemy, the sermon suggested that a providential role had been played by Irish Protestants in the recent crisis similar in experience to the Israelites escaping from their Babylonian captivity. Thus a European conspiracy aimed at their destruction had been thwarted by the "over-ruling Providence of God"

The Williamite victory not only secured King's liberty, however. His role in maintaining the Protestant influence in Dublin as well as supporting the new political order inevitably led to further ecclesiastical preferment. In December 1690, after some lobbying, he was appointed to the bishopric of Derry and consecrated in the following January. The appointment  provided a challenge to his reforming instincts as the diocese had suffered greatly from the ravages of war.

In the month of March following I went to Derry, and applied myself with the greatest possible industry to regulating the See, then much  disordered and neglected. I found the land almost desolate, country houses and dwellings burnt: on an inquiry being made I ascertained that there were in the Diocese of Derry, before the troubles, about 250,000 head of cattle, there were left after the siege was raised, about 300; out of 460,000 horses 2 horses remained lame and wounded, with 7 sheep, and 2 pigs, but no fowl, whence the miserable state of that province was sufficiently manifest.

King's description was clearly an exaggeration but there was no denying that the region had suffered severe hardship. However it was the standard of his clergy which preoccupied him most. In 1691 for example, he found only ten clergy in the diocese were resident in their benefices and of these nine were pluralists:

But the clergy were badly off; little or nothing was returned by benefices to their possessors; many were non-resident, beneficed elsewhere, who served their parishes by curates; those warned to provide curates replied that the incomes did not suffice to support a curate, and permitted me, if I wished, to sequestrate their benefices for the curate's use.

In an effort to alleviate the problems of non-residency and pluralism the bishop demanded that his clergy should either resign their benefices or else provide for a curate. Such a strict enforcement of ecclesiastical discipline won him few clerical friends: "This business indeed", King was to write "excited no little odium against me amongst the clergy" Many of the reforms called for by King and other reform minded bishops of the period came up against similar opposition. It was not only those clerics guilty of holding pluralities who were against such initiatives, but also those within parliament itself who had a vested interest in maintaining such irregularities as lay impropriations. The predominance of the use of patronage and private interest in the appointment of the church's personnel also hampered the reformers from realizing their ideals. Consequently, King was forced to rely ultimately on his own efforts in seeking to improve spiritual standards within his jurisdiction.

Despite the magnitude of the task, there appeared to be some evidence of progress. In the bishop's visitation of 1693 twenty-eight beneficed clergy were now recorded in his diocese. King also suggested that headway had been made in the reconstruction of churches, helped in part by financial support from the crown:

In ecclesiastical visitations, I exhorted the parishioners not to allow those that were falling into decay to go to utter ruin, as that would be the cause some time of great expense to themselves, which a small expenditure could now prevent; and partly by persuasions, partly by bearing some portion of the expense, I got all the churches repaired and seven which....... I took care should be rebuilt.

Educational matters came within episcopal reach too. For example he endeavoured to ensure, albeit for a limited period, that the school in Londonderry was adequately funded by The Irish Society. Furthermore he promoted the teaching of Irish at Trinity College, Dublin and provided Irish speaking clergymen to a group of Scottish Highlanders who had settled in Donegal.

While the bishop obviously placed a high priority on internally reforming the established church, he was concious that it faced external problems as well. During his episcopate, King was confronted by a large nonconformist population in his diocese. Their sheer numbers and the confident assertion of their faith
provided a direct challenge to the established church. To a reform minded bishop such as king this nonconformity could not be ignored. In the beginning he had urged his clergy to hold discourses with Presbyterians in an effort to win them over. In practise, however, such persuasive action appears to have been mainly carried out by King himself during parish visitations.

By 1693 the bishop's views on the subject seem to have been sufficiently distilled to adopt another approach. IN that year King was moved to write a pamphlet entitled A Discourse concerning the inventions of Men in the Worship of God in which he argued "that only the Anglican mode of worshipping God was conformable to Scripture, but theirs (Presbyterian) not only was to the contrary thereto".  What the bishop was aiming for was to show Presbyterians the error of their ways and in the process hoped his reasoning would pave the way to their eventual conformity. Its main effect was to unleash a polemical debate between himself and Joseph Boyse on behalf of the Presbyterians. Boyse, who had written Some Impartial Reflections on D.Manby's Considerations, and Mr. King's Answer in 1687, replied in his Remarks on the Discourse following up with a Vindication of his Remarks. A Robert Craghead, Presbyterian minister in Londonderry also contributed to the nonconformist cause. In return, King was to continue with two Admonitions to the Dissenting Inhabitants of Derry. The debate centred predictably over differences between the two denominations in the use of music during services, forms of prayer, bodily worship, use of scripture, and the place of communion in the service. King believed that by forcing Presbyterians to defend the validity of their faith, he had undermined their confidence in debate and had successfully driven some to doubt their previously held convictions. Joseph Boyse, on the other hand, though differently: "Tis rare to find these publick debates so manag'd, as not to widen differences rather then compose'em and heighten rather than allay the animosities of the contending parties.

Bishop King also came into conflict with the Presbyterian dominated Londonderry Corporation who were to support the Irish Society's claim over certain lands and fishing rights which the bishop contented. This lengthy legal dispute, the origin of which went back to the episcopates of Bishop Montgomery and Bishop Bramhall, brought into focus the question of were the right of appeal actually rested. In 1697 the Irish House of Lords had found in favour of King, but in the following year the Irish Society appealed to the English Lords who declared that their Irish counterparts had not been entitled to make a judgement on the case. A compromise was later found in 1704, but the implications of the English ruling were not to be lost on those Irish Patriots who supported parliamentary independence, least of all King. Thereafter he continued to espouse colonial nationalist sentiment by leading the agitation against other cases involving similar questions of jurisdiction. For example, the constitutional dispute provoked by another land case, Sherlock v Annesley as well the controversy over "Wood's Halfpence". In March 1703 King became Archbishop of Dublin where he also campaigned with characteristic gusto to improve the material and spiritual well-being of the Church. He continued to keep a close interest in the internal affairs of his former diocese by comparing his successors' activities with the high standards that he had set. King, like Swift, opposed the practice of giving English clerics benefices within the Irish church. His claim to the primacy on two occasions, 1713 and 1724, was ignored in favour of English appointees. He gained a European reputation as a philosopher with his Die Origine Mali in 1702 which was to centre on the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the presence of a benign God. He died, unmarried, on the 8th of May 1729 and left his property to charity. 


  1. Hello
    I m actually doing research on William King, do you by chance know who pained his portraits or the bust of him at the Cathedral in Belfast, any responce would be greatly appreciated

    1. How do you do?

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. If I am correct, the bust of William King, in the Cathedral Church of St. Anne, is actually what is termed a corbel. (

      Now as to the chap who sculpted it, I believe his name was Frederick Morris Harding (1874 - 1964).

      Here are some links that may help.

      Now as to the portraits, I am sorry to say I have not got a clue. However, I do know, three ports of call that could be fruitful in your quest.

      1. The Cathedral Church of St. Columb, Derry, has a very interesting archive, I am not sure who you would contact,perhaps the cathedral office ?

      2. The Cathedral Church of St. Anne, Belfast, has recently opened a library, one of the chaps in charge is a Mr Paul Gilmore, he has a wealth of information and may be able to help.

      3. The RCB Library, Bremor Park, Dublin (The Library of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute) has a portrait of Archbishop King (I know because I have seen it myself).

      Here is a link-

  2. Ps I know Kings College very well, do pass on my regards to the Rev. Dr. Duncan Heddle.

  3. Hello
    thanks again for the response, I actually left a response thanking you already but it does not seem to have saved, oh well, I ve looked into what you have told me and it has bore fruit, I have had some response from people in the libraries. just have to keep plugging away at it ,
    Thanks again

  4. You are very welcome. Glad I could help.