Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fleetwood, William (1656-1723)

FLEETWOOD, WILLIAM (1656–1723), bishop of Ely, a descendant of the ancient family of Fleetwood of Hesketh, Lancashire, fifth of six children of Captain Geoffrey Fleetwood by Anne, daughter of Mr. Richard Smith, prothonotary to the Poultry Compter, and nephew of James Fleetwood [q. v.], bishop of Worcester, was born on 1 Jan. 1656, in the Tower of London, where his father resided till his death in April 1665. William was on the foundation at Eton, and was elected scholar of King's College, Cambridge, on 27 Nov. 1675, and in due course became a fellow. He graduated B.A. 1679, M.A. 1683, D.D. 1705. On the death of Provost Copleston in 1689, the appointment of his successor being claimed by the crown, Fleetwood and another fellow were deputed to assert the right of the college to elect their own provost, which they succeeded in maintaining (Cole MSS. xvi. 35). In the same year, not long after his admission to holy orders, he gained his earliest celebrity as a preacher by a sermon delivered in King's College Chapel, at the commemoration of the founder, Henry VI, on 25 March, deservedly admired by his contemporaries as ‘a perfect model and pattern of that kind of performance.’ Fleetwood speedily became one of the most celebrated preachers of the day. He was often appointed to preach before the royal family, the houses of parliament, and other public bodies on great occasions. A sweet voice and graceful delivery commended, we are told, the sound sense and fervent piety of his sermons. His sermons were rendered more useful by ‘the fine vein of casuistry which ran through most of them, wherein he displayed a peculiar talent, and gave ease to many weak and honest minds’ (Memoir, p. viii). Fleetwood's reading was wide and his learning accurate. Browne Willis terms him a ‘general scholar,’ and one specially ‘versed in antiquities.’ His first work besides occasional sermons was a collection of pagan and Christian inscriptions, illustrated with notes, chiefly original, entitled ‘Inscriptionum Antiquarum Sylloge’ (1691). In 1707 he published anonymously his ‘Chronicon Pretiosum,’ a book very valuable for its research and general accuracy on the value of money and the price of corn and other commodities for the previous six centuries. The question had occurred whether the statutes of a college making the possession of an estate of 5l. per annum a bar to the retention of a fellowship were to be interpreted literally, or with regard to the altered value of money. Fleetwood clearly makes good the more liberal interpretation (Aubrey, Lives, i. 150). Fleetwood was a generous patron of letters. He encouraged Hickes in the publication of his ‘Thesaurus Septentrionalis.’ Hearne in the preface to his ‘Liber Scaccarii,’ and Browne Willis in the ‘History of the Cathedral of St. Asaph,’ acknowledge his ‘communicativeness’ (Cathedrals, iii. 367). The Boyle lectureship was offered to him, but ill-health prevented him from lecturing. The materials he had prepared were subsequently published by him in 1701, as ‘An Essay on Miracles,’ those, namely, of Moses and of Jesus Christ. Hoadly wrote a reply to this essay, to which Fleetwood, from his extreme aversion to controversy, made no rejoinder.

Fleetwood was a zealous whig, an ardent friend of the revolution and of the Hanoverian succession. Soon after the accession of William and Mary he was appointed chaplain to the king, but no other mark of royal favour followed till just before William's death, when he was nominated to a canonry at Windsor. The letters of nomination had not received the royal seal when the king died, and the House of Commons endeavoured to set them aside in favour of one of their own chaplains. Queen Anne, however, replied to their petition that ‘if the king had given the canonry to Dr. Fleetwood, Dr. Fleetwood should have it.’ He was installed on 2 June 1702. By the interest of Dr. Henry Godolphin [q. v.], provost of Eton and canon of St. Paul's, he was appointed to a fellowship at Eton and to the chapter rectory of St. Augustine and St. Faith's on 26 Nov. 1689, to which was speedily added the lectureship of St. Dunstan's-in-the-West, Fleet Street, where he usually preached three times a week to admiring crowds. But his love of retirement and his attachment to Eton and Windsor induced him in 1705 to exchange his London preferments for the living of Wexham, Buckinghamshire, worth only 60l. per annum, where he devoted much of his time to his favourite historical and antiquarian studies. In 1708 Queen Anne, of her own personal act and without his knowledge, appointed him to the see of St. Asaph, vacant by the death of Beveridge, to which he was consecrated on 8 June of that year. Anne called Fleetwood ‘my bishop,’ attended his sermons, and favoured him till her death, in spite of the outspoken whiggism which made him specially offensive to her favourite party. His fulfilment of the duties of the episcopate rose much above the standard of the age, and overcame the prejudice with which he was at first regarded by his clergy. His conciliatory manners, unblemished life, and high reputation secured respect in a diocese where party animosities were unusually strong (Biograph. Brit.). His first charge, issued in 1710, which covers nineteen closely printed folio pages of small type, will still repay reading. It is in the form of a series of remarks on the ‘Articles of Enquiry’ issued to his diocese, and throws much light on the condition of the church at the time. It closes with an impassioned defence of his own party against the charge of disloyalty to the church. He gives some sensible advice to his clergy upon the use of Welsh (‘British,’ he calls it) in their sermons. This charge exhibits Fleetwood as one who aimed sensibly and sincerely at promoting the good of his diocese. He paved the greater part of the cathedral at his own cost, and laid out above 100l. in the decoration of the choir (Cole MSS. xvi. 35). On the fall of the whigs Fleetwood absented himself from court, and openly expressed his indignation at the peace of Utrecht. Being selected to preach before the House of Lords on the general fast day, 16 Jan. 1711–1712, he chose for his subject ‘the people that delight in war’ (Ps. lxviii. 30), and defended the necessity of the war, of which the advantages were to be thrown away. The tory ministry adjourned the house beyond the day fixed for the sermon, so that it was not delivered; but it was at once printed, and though his name was concealed the authorship was no secret. His courageous attack upon the Jacobite tendencies of the government was quickly punished. Fleetwood at this time published four sermons preached by him on the deaths of Queen Mary, the Duke of Gloucester, William III, and the accession of Anne to the throne, and in an outspoken preface assailed the principle of non-resistance, and eloquently repudiated the doctrine that Christianity was favourable to political slavery. The tory ministry at first proposed to impeach Fleetwood for the publication. Eventually the House of Commons resolved, by a vote of 119 to 54, that the preface was malicious and factious, and sentenced it to be burnt by the common hangman. It was at once issued as No. 384 (21 May) of the ‘Spectator,’ and thus, as Fleetwood says to Burnet in answer to a sympathetic letter, conveyed ‘above fourteen thousand copies into people's hands who would otherwise never have seen or heard of it.’ Swift attacked it bitterly in a couple of papers (Works, 1814, iv. 276–93). Fleetwood took little part in public affairs during the brief remainder of Anne's reign, and could ‘hardly endure to think of them,’ and was especially indignant at the Schism Act of 1714. Soon after the accession of George I several bishoprics became vacant. Of these Ely was the first filled up, and Fleetwood was chosen for it. He was elected on 19 Nov. 1714, three months after the king's accession. Though advanced in years he was still assiduous in discharging his duties, and as the cathedral of Ely was too spacious for his voice, his sermons were commonly delivered in the chapel of Ely House in London, usually every Sunday.

As bishop of Ely he delivered two charges to his clergy in 1716 and 1722. Both enforce the solemnity of the ministerial office, and warmly eulogise George I. The case between Bentley and his fellows had been heard out before Fleetwood's predecessor, Dr. Moore [q. v.], whose death had put a stop to a definitive sentence of deprivation against Bentley. Application was at once made to the new bishop to carry on the case. Fleetwood declared that if he visited the college at all he would hold a general visitation, and take cognisance of all delinquencies reported to him of the fellows as well as of the master. Such a prospect frightened several of Bentley's opponents, whose moral character was not of the highest, into a mutual compact of forbearance. When the quarrel again broke out Fleetwood adhered to his refusal (Monk, Life of Bentley, i. 367–70, ii. 88, 247). He died at Tottenham, near London, to which place he had removed for the amendment of his health, from Ely House, Holborn, where he had chiefly resided, on 4 Aug. 1723, aged 67, and was buried in the north choir aisle of Ely Cathedral, 10 Aug. A monument bears an epitaph, laudatory, but not beyond his deserts. He left a widow and one son, James, on whom his father had conferred the archdeaconry of Ely.

In both his dioceses Fleetwood secured the love and esteem of his clergy, in spite of opinions generally unpalatable to them. Few bishops have left a more unspotted reputation behind them. He endeavoured to dispense his patronage to the most deserving without regard to personal influence. He always refused to enter into personal controversy. When attacked he would say: ‘I write my own sense as well as I can. If it be right it will support itself; if it be not it is fit it should sink.’ He liberally assisted his clergy with money, books, and in the remission of their fees. As a preacher his style is dignified, but simple, with much calmness of expression and clearness of thought. Archbishop Herring, who when at Lincoln's Inn was one of the most celebrated preachers of the day, was Fleetwood's domestic chaplain, and is said to have derived his excellent style of pulpit oratory from him as a model.

Many of Fleetwood's sermons were published anonymously to avoid prejudice and allow greater freedom of speech. Besides separate sermons on various occasions his works include:

  1. ‘Sermon on 2 Cor. ix. 12, preached before the University of Cambridge in King's College Chapel, 25 March 1689, at the Commemoration of Henry VI,’ 1689, 4to.
  2. ‘Inscriptionum Antiquarum Sylloge,’ 1691, 8vo.
  3. ‘A Method of Christian Devotion, translated from the French of M. Jurieu,’ 1692, 8vo.
  4. ‘An Essay on Miracles, in two Discourses,’ dedicated to Dr. Godolphin, provost of Eton, 1701.
  5. ‘The Reasonable Communicant,’ London, 1704, 8vo (anonymous, erroneously ascribed to Mr. Theophilus Dorrington).
  6. ‘Sixteen Practical Discourses on Relative Duties, with Three Sermons upon the Case of Self-murther, addressed to the parishioners of St. Austins and St. Faith,’ London, 1705, 2 vols. 1736.
  7. ‘Chronicon Pretiosum, or an Account of English Gold and Silver Money’ (anonymous), London, 1707, 8vo.
  8. ‘Charge to the Clergy of the Diocese of St. Asaph,’ London, 1710, 4to.
  9. ‘Romans xiii. vindicated from the Abusive Senses put upon it. Written by a Curate of Salop,’ London, 1710, 8vo (anonymous).
  10. ‘Sermon in Refutation of Dr. Sacheverell's Doctrine of Passive Obedience and Non-resistance.’
  11. ‘Sermon preached before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts at Bow Church, 16 Feb. 1710–11’ (this sermon produced a powerful effect on behalf of the society, and was widely circulated).
  12. ‘Sermon on Ps. lxviii. 30, on the Fast Day, Jan. 16, 1711–12, against such as delight in war. By a Divine of the Church of England,’ London, 1712 (see above).
  13. ‘The Judgment of the Church of England of Lay Baptism and of Dissenters' Baptism, in two parts’ (in reply to Dr. Hickes, who denied its validity), London, 1712, 8vo (anonymous).
  14. ‘Four Sermons,’ with preface, 1712 (see above).
  15. ‘The Life and Miracles of St. Wenefred, together with her Litanies, with some Historical Observations made thereon,’ London, 1713, 8vo (anonymous) (directed against the superstitious pilgrimages made to St. Wenefred's well in his diocese of St. Asaph).
  16. ‘Funeral Sermon on 2 Sam. xii. 5, on Mr. Noble, who was executed at Kingston for the murder of a gentleman with whose wife he had criminal conversation’ (without name or date).
  17. ‘The Counsellor's Plea for the Divorce of Sir G. D[owning] and Mrs. F[orrester]’ (without name or date) [see Dowwning, Sir George, 1684?–1749].
  18. ‘Charge to the Clergy of the Diocese of Ely, 1716,’ London, 1716, 4to.
  19. ‘Papists not excluded from the Throne upon the account of Religion, being a vindication of Bishop Hoadly's “Preservative”’ (without his name). The title is ironical.
  20. Letter from Mr. J. Burdett, executed at Tyburn for the murder of Captain Falkland (without name or date).
  21. Letter to an inhabitant of St. Andrew's, Holborn, about new ceremonies in the church, of which Dr. Sacheverell was the rector (without name or date).
  22. ‘A Defence of Praying before Sermon as directed by the IVth Canon’ (without name or date).
  23. ‘Charge to the Clergy of the Diocese of Ely in August 1722.’ A complete collection of his works was published in one volume folio in 1737, with a prefatory memoir by his nephew, Dr. W. Powell, dean of St. Asaph and prebendary of Ely.

[Biographical preface to Fleetwood's collected works; Bentham's Ely, pp. 208–9; Monk's Bentley, i. 367, 370, ii. 88, 247; Biog. Brit. 1750; Abbey's English Church, i. 120–7.]

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