Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Churchill, Charles (1731-1764)
CHURCHILL, CHARLES (1731–1764), poet, was born in Vine Street, Westminster, in February 1731. His father, Charles Churchill, was rector of Rainham, Essex, and from 1733 curate and lecturer of St. John's, Westminster. His mother is said by Cole to have been Scotch. The son was sent to Westminster School in 1739, and elected on the foundation in 1745 (Welch, Alumni Westm. p. 333). He was contemporary with George Colman, Cowper, Cumberland, Warren Hastings, and Elijah Impey. Another school-fellow with whom he formed a close intimacy was Robert Lloyd, his junior by a year, son of Pierson Lloyd, then usher in the school.
Churchill did not proceed either to Christ Church or Trinity College, Cambridge. He was entered at the last in 1749, but never resided. He seems to have been rejected on some occasion at Oxford. According to Tooke, he stood for a fellowship at Merton at the age of eighteen. Want of classical knowledge was reported to be the ground of the rejection. His friends declared in reply that he had been guilty only of impertinence, and had affected ignorance to show his contempt for the 'trifling questions proposed to him' (Genuine Memoirs), The whole story is unintelligible. Churchill was not likely to fail in the tests, if any, likely to be applied. He had been first in his election; he impressed his schoolfellows by his ability, while his masters had alternately to commend and reproach him. The probability is that he was really disqualified for entering Oxford or Cambridge by the discovery that he had made a Fleet marriage at the age of seventeen with a Westminster girl named Scot. His father took the young couple to live with him, and desired his son to prepare for orders. Some family connections probably recommended this career. Churchill is said to have retired for a time to the north of England, and in 1753 he returned to London to take possession (as Tooke says) of a small property inherited by his wife. On reaching the canonical age he was ordained by Bishop Willis of Bath and Wells to the curacy of South Cadbury in Somersetshire, under Bailey, a friend of his father. It was said by his first biographers that he had a curacy in Wales, and there eked out an income of 30l. a year by opening a cider cellar. The speculation, it is added, caused 'a sort of rural bankruptcy.' In the 'Author' he says that he had been condemned to 'pray and starve on 40l. a year.' The whole story is at least doubtful. In 1756 he was ordained priest by Sherlock, and took his father's curacy at Rainham. In 1758 the father died, and the parishioners of St. John showed their respect for him by electing the son as his successor in the curacy and lectureship. Churchill was now the fether of two children. His income was only 100l. a year, and he tried to eke out his means by opening a school (at Westminster or at Rainham), and by teaching in a ladies' school kept by a Mrs. Dennis. At Westminster he renewed his old friendship with Robert Lloyd, who had succeeded his father as usher. The father, Pierson Lloyd, had been promoted to the second mastership of Westminster (1748). He was generous to his son's friend, probably with some view to indirectly helping his son, and not only persuaded Churchill's creditors to accept 5s., in the pound, but lent the necessary funds. Robert Lloyd was now giving up his ushership in order to try a literary career. Churchill had been a clergyman 'through need not choice' (Dedication to Sermons). Conscientious biographers alone have read the published sermons attributed to him, and they pronounce them to be unreadable. Churchill himself says that 'sleep, at his bidding, crept from pew to pew.' His first biographers say that he discharged his duties well, which probably means that he had as yet caused no scandal. His marriage was now coming to the usual end of such alliances. His wife was as 'imprudent' as himself (Biog. Brit.), if nothing worse; and in February 1761 a formal separation took place. Churchill's references to her imply that he was heartily tired of her. Churchill was meanwhile trying the booksellers. He had published some scraps in a periodical called the 'Library,' edited by Kippis. A poem called 'The Bard,' in Hudibrastic verse, was rejected by a bookseller named Waller. Another called 'The Conclave,' a satire upon the dean and chapter of Westminster, would have been accepted but for dread of legal consequences. Churchill perceived the true direction of his powers. His friend Lloyd had just gained some success by the 'Actor,' a didactic performance of the usual kind, and Churchill now composed the 'Rosciad.' He had long been familiar with the theatres, and frequented them closely for two months to prepare his poem. He offered the copyright for twenty guineas to the booksellers, and, on their refusal to give more than five, published the poem at his own risk in March 1761. It won almost immediately a success not equalled by any satire between Pope's 'Dunciad' and Byron's 'English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.' The success was due in part to a genuine vigour, which showed Churchill to be a not unworthy disciple of Dryden, whom he admired and imitated, and partly to the more transitory effect of its personalities. Garrick and the leading actresses, Mrs. Pritchard, Mrs. Gibber, and Mrs. Clive, were warmly eulogised, but all the best-known actors of the day were the subjects of graphic and uncomplimentary portraits, now often their best surviving titles to recollection. The effect produced is vividly described by Davies in his life of Garrick, who was himself, according to Boswell and Johnson (Life of Johnson, 20 March 1778), driven from the stage by the verse,
He mouths a sentence as curs mouth a bone.
The 'Critical Review ' (xi. 209-12), then in Smollett's hands, criticised the poem, and, though paying it some compliments, attributed it to Lloyd, jointly inspired by Colman and Bonnell Thornton, the three being regarded as a mutual admiration society. Both Lloyd and Colman publicly contradicted the report, and Churchill then claimed the authorship, at the same time announcing the speedy appearance of an 'Apology addressed to the Critical Reviewers.' The 'Apology' contains a savage attack upon Smollett, and a rough warning to Garrick. Garrick had rashly suggested that he had been praised in the 'Rosciad' because its author desired the freedom of his theatre. He professed to be so delighted with the 'Apology' as to forget in reading it that he ought to be alarmed. But he took the warning, wrote a polite letter to Lloyd (printed in the Aldine edition from a copy belonging to Pickering) anxiously deprecating Churchill's displeasure, and for the future cultivated Churchill's acquaintance with scrupulous civility. Churchill carefully guarded himself, according to Davies, from accepting any obligations. Other victims attempted retaliation, and Churchill became the terror of the theatre. The expression of his face was anxiously watched both by Davies and Garrick. Churchill gained 750l. or 1,000l. (according to various reports) for the two poems. He now paid his debts in full (Kippis in Biog. Brit. from his own knowledge), and he made an allowance to his wife. He appeared in a 'blue coat with metal buttons,' and gold lace on his hat and waistcoat. Pearce, then dean of Westminster, remonstrated against his improprieties, but it was not till January 1763 that the protests of his parishioners drove him to resign his lectureship.
Churchill now became famous in all literary circles. He wrote little until the end of 1762, but during the rest of his life he poured out a rapid series of satires with extraordinary rapidity, often poor and clumsy enough, but with occasional passages of remarkable power. His next (very common-place) production, 'Night; an Epistle to Robert Lloyd,' contains an attack upon the 'Day' of John Armstrong. Armstrong's poem (written before Churchill had published a line) contains no reference to him, and therefore gave no intentional provocation [see Armstrong, John, 1709-1779]. Wilkes had published the poem during Armstrong's absence abroad, and in the summer of 1763 quarrelled with the author, whom he had complimented, in common with Churchill, in his dedication of 'Mortimer' (North Briton, 16 March 1763). The statement that he formed an acquaintance with Churchill by apologising for Armstrong's attack must be inaccurate. But in any case Churchill became an enthusiastic friend and admirer of Wilkes, who was just about to become a popular hero. Churchill took a share in his political warfare. Wilkes was publishing the 'North Briton,' directed against the 'Briton,' started by the common enemy, Smollett, under Bute's patronage. Churchill helped Wilkes regularly, as appears by the correspondence now in the British Museum. It was stated by Kearsley the printer that the profits were given to Churchill. Churchill turned a paper, originally written for the 'North Briton,' into his next poem, 'The Prophecy of Famine.' It was published in January 1763. Boswell and Thomas Campbell have condoned its extravagant ridicule of the Scotch in consideration of its unmistakable vigour. It fell in with the popular sentiment, and had a great success. Churchill dressed his little boy in highland costume, the child explaining to inquirers, 'My father hates the Scotch, and does it to plague them.' The famous No. 45 of the 'North Briton' appeared on 23 April. Wilkes was arrested under the general warrant. Churchill accidentally entered Wilkes's room while the king's messenger was with him. 'Good morrow, Mr. Thomson,' said Wilkes. 'How does Mrs. Thomson to-day? Does she dine in the country?' Churchill took the hint, secured his papers at once, and retired for the time (Collection of Papers … on the Case of Wilkes (1767), p. 174). He was present, however, at the hearing of the case before Pratt in the following week. Hogarth was also present, drawing a caricature of Wilkes. He had been known both to Wilkes and Churchill. In September 1762 he had caricatured Pitt and Temple in a print called 'The Times.' Hogarth was attacked for it in the 'North Briton,' and Churchill already contemplated an 'epistle' (see letter in Forster's Essays, ii. 262). His 'Epistle to Hogarth' appeared in answer to Hogarth's new provocation in July 1763. Hogarth retaliated by a caricature of Churchill as a bear in clerical bands, and with a pot of porter and a club marked 'Lies and North Britons.' Churchill's abuse is vigorous enough, but it is needless to refute the statement insinuated by his friends that it shortened Hogarth's days.
On 15 Nov. 1763 parliament met, and Wilkes was assailed in the House of Lords for the 'Essay on Woman.' On the 16th he was wounded in the duel with Samuel Martin. Churchill took his friend's part by publishing the 'Duellist' (for which he received 450l.), containing satire of excessive bitterness upon Sandwich, Warburton, and Mansfield, the most conspicuous assailants of Wilkes in the upper house. This poem and the 'Ghost,' in which Johnson is ridiculed on occasion of the Cock Lane story, are in octo-syllabic metre. Churchill when following Butler is less happy than when following Dryden. His rhetoric is cramped by the shorter measure. But the satire upon Warburton at least is pungent, though too indiscriminate for the highest efficiency. Johnson had pronounced Churchill to be a 'shallow fellow,' and the knowledge of this prompted the portrait of 'Don Pomposo.'
Churchill had meanwhile published other poems. The 'Conference' had appeared in November 1763, and the 'Author'—which was met with critical approval at the time—in the following month. Both of them are spirited treatments of the old theme of satirists, their own independence and love of virtue. The 'Conference,' however, contains a remarkable confession of remorse for a private sin. Churchill had seduced the daughter of a tradesman (a 'stone-cutter' according to Horace Walpole). She had repented, but the reproaches of an elder sister drove her back to Churchill, who protected her till his death. He was with her in Wales during the summer of 1763, and was also present at the Oxford commemoration of that year (Nichols, Anecd. viii. 236). Churchill's immorality was not incompatible with much generosity and manliness. A story is told in 'Chrysal' (by Charles Johnson) of his generous rescue of a girl in distress and her family, which seems to rest upon some foundation of fact (Chrysal, vol. iv. bk. i. ch. xzi. and following), and which at any rate gives the contemporary view of his character. Robert Lloyd fell into difficulties in the autumn of 1763. Churchill allowed a guinea a week to support Lloyd in the Fleet prison, and promoted a subscription for his permanent release. Wilkes was driven to Paris by the prosecutions. Churchill's fame had reached France. Horace Walpole tells us (letter to Mann, 16 Nov. 1764) that a Frenchman asked Churchill (husband of Lady Maria, Walpole's half-sister) whether he was 'Le fameux poete.—Non.—Ma foi, monsieur, tant pis pour vous.' Churchill, however, stayed in England for the present. He resided for a time at Richmond, and afterwards took a house on Acton Common, furnished (according to the Genuine Memoirs with elegance and provided with horses and carriages. In 1764 he published 'Gotham,' his most carefully elaborated performance, and greatly admired by Cowper. It is an exposition of his political philosophy, compared by Forster to Bolingbroke's 'Idea of a Patriot King.' The absence of personal satire prevented its attaining popularity, or having much permanent value; for Churchill is at his best in satire. In the 'Candidate' he again attacked Sandwich, who was now standing for the high-stewardship of Cambridge, and presenting an irresistibly tempting mark for a satirist. Grey tried his hand at satire on the same occasion in the 'Candidate, or the Cambridge Courtship.' 'The Farewell,' 'The Times' (upon a revolting subject), and 'Independence' (remarkable for a vivid portrait of his own appearance, recalling Hogarth's caricature) followed rapidly. Two other poems, the unfinished 'Journey,' which contains a curious anticipation of his approaching end, and a satirical dedication of his sermons to Warburton, appeared posthumously. The last seems to suggest some private cause of quarrel, though Churchill's antipathy may be sufficiently explained by Warburton's attack upon Wilkes. Churchill, it may be added, had, as appears in his letters to Wilkes, a special antipathy to Warburton's friend. Pope, partly perhaps because he was Warburton's friend. Churchill went to meet Wilkes at Boulogne in October. He was seized by a fever on the 29th. He dictated a note, leaving annuities of 60l. to his wife, and of 50l. to his mistress. It seems, however, that he left no property to supply these annuities, a fact which he may have been too ill to remember. Cole gives a rumour, obviously exaggerated, that his copyrights were worth 3,000l. He left all his property to his two boys, subject to these annuities; his executors were John Churchill, his brother, and Humphrey Cotes; and his papers were left to Wilkes. He died 4 Nov. 1764, Wilkes having some trouble in preventing a disturbance of his last moments by officious priests. His property was sold by auction and fetched extravagant prices. Robert Lloyd heard the news when sitting down to dinner. He sent away his plate, saying, 'I shall follow Churchill,' and took to bed, from which he never rose. Davies says that Lloyd died of dissipation. Probably the causes were various. Churchill's sister, Patty, who was betrothed to Lloyd, died soon afterwards. It is said that Wilkes destroyed a partly finished satire among Churchill's papers, directed against Colman and Thornton. An apology for such a satire against two old friends may be suggested by the charge made against them, that they had neglected Lloyd in his distress.
Churchill's body was brought to Dover and buried in the old churchyard of St. Martin. It is marked by a slab and the line taken from the 'Candidate'—
Life to the last enjoyed, here Churchill lies.
A monument is also erected to him in the church. Byron visited the grave when leaving England for the last time, and has recorded his impression in lines dated Diodati, 1816.
Wilkes made many professions of a desire to do honour to his friend's memory. He did nothing beyond scribbling some worthless notes to his poems (printed in his volume of correspondence of 1769, also, with omissions, by Almon, and in 'New Foundling Hospital for Wit,' 1786, iii. 89-107), giving some scanty information to Kippis for the 'Biographia,' and erecting a monument, with a Latin inscription ('Carolo Churchill, amico jucundo, poetæ acri, civi optime de patria merito, P. Johannes Wilkes, 1765'), on an urn presented to him by Winckelmann, and upon a pillar in the grounds of his cottage at Sandown in the Isle of Wight. Their intimacy, as may be too certainly inferred from the correspondence now in the British Museum, was in some respects little creditable to the morality of either.
Churchill's mother survived till 1770. His brother John was a physician, who attended Wilkes, and published some editions of his brother's works. Another brother, William, was rector of Orton-on-the-Hill, and died in 1804. Churchill left two sons, Charles and John, who were educated by Sir Richard Jebb. John married imprudently, and died in France, leaving a widow and daughter, for whose support an appeal was made in 1813. Charles became an itinerant lecturer, and got into trouble. Begging letters addressed by him to Wilkes at intervals down to 1786 are in the Add. MSS. 30871-3, 30875.
A portrait of Churchill, by Schaak, is engraved as a frontispiece to his works in various editions. Another is mentioned by Mr. Forster as presented to Lord Northampton's Hospital at Greenwich in 1837 by Mr. Tatham, the warden.
Johnson told Boswell (1 July 1763) that he had always thought Churchill 'a blockhead,' and thought so still. Churchill, however, had shown more fertility than was to be expected, and a tree which produced many crabs was better than a tree which only produced a few. Cowper gives a fine criticism of his old schoolfellow in 'Table Talk,' and speaks of him enthusiastically, calling him 'the great Churchill' in a letter to Unwin in 1781 (Southey, Cowper, vi. 9-11).
His works are:
- 'The Rosciad,' March 1761 (9th edition in 1765).
- 'The Apology; addressed to the Critical Reviewers,' April 1761.
- 'Night; an Epistle to Robert Lloyd,' January 1762.
- 'The Ghost,' first two books March 1762, third September 1762, fourth November 1763.
- 'The Prophecy of Famine; a Scots Pastoral, inscribed to John Wilkes, Esq.,' Januarv 1763.
- 'An Epistle to W. Hogarth,' July 1763.
- 'The Conference,' November 1763.
- 'The Duellist,' in three books, November 1763.
- 'The Author,' December 1763.
- 'Gotham,' three books, bks. i. and ii. February 1764, bk. iii. September 1764.
- 'The Candidate,' June 1764.
- 'The Times,' September 1764.
- 'Independence,' September 1764.
- 'The Farewell,' 1764.
- 'The Journey' (in posthumous collections).
- Sermons, with dedication to Warburton, 1766.
It is suggested that the sermons were probably found in his father's desk. A collective edition of Churchill's poems appeared in a handsome quarto volume in 1763. The poems published in 1764 form a second volume. A 'third' edition, in two volumes, 8vo (printed for John Churchill, executor), inducing all the poems, appeared in 1766, and a 'fifth' edition, in four volumes, the last including the sermons and dedication to Warburton, in 1774. Churchill's poems are included in Anderson's, Chalmers's, and other collections.