The Dioceses of England

The Dioceses of England  (c. 1892) 
by Edward Augustus Freeman

The Dioceses of England.


(Reprinted from "The Guardian" of September 28, 1887.)



The history of the ecclesiastical divisions of England has some characteristics of its own, which may be profitably compared with those of some other countries. Gaul was mapped out into dioceses in the days of Roman dominion. The see, the bishopstool, was placed in the chief town of the Gaulish tribe and the extent of the diocese was determined by the extent of the jurisdiction of the city. That is, the ecclesiastical divisions followed the civil divisions of the time. And to this day they are the best guide to them. Change has been considerable, but much less than might have been looked for. The ancient and modern divisions still largely coincide. And when change has been made, it has largely taken the shape of simple union and simple division. Against these geography does not kick. Simply to divide a large district or to unite two small ones needs no geographical protest. The main boundaries live on through either process. What geography kicks at is the making a district out of mere scraps of other districts. Then we lose our way.

Thus, to turn to the modern map of Germany, civil or ecclesiastical, one who is accustomed to the old map does lose his way, as he does not either in France or in England. The ecclesiastical map has, according to ancient rule, followed the civil map, and we cannot complain. But the civil map has so changed that the new has no reference to the old. An eminent Presbyterian wept at coming to Mainz and finding only a diocesan Bishop. He did not expect to find an Elector, but he did expect to find an Archbishop of some kind. But on the principle which gave Mainz either Archbishop or Elector, it was most likely right that, when the Elector passed away, the Archbishop should pass away also.

England comes somewhere between the two. The civil divisions have, for the last thousand years, changed wonderfully little. An English shire has become something like a natural object; it goes along with the rivers and mountains. But the ecclesiastical divisions have parted company with the civil much more than elsewhere. They were mapped out, and that gradually, with reference to civil divisions which have long ceased to exist, and which in some parts of the country have left no traces. In Wessex the old under-kingdoms still exist in the shape of shires, to some extent in the shape of dioceses In Mercia the shires date only from the tenth century. Wessex started with a single bishopric, that of Dorchester or Winchester; kingdom and diocese were the same. Mercian conquest cut short both to the north; West-Saxon conquest enlarged both to the west. Then the diocese was divided, the new dioceses following the lines of old shires—though would perhaps be the truer name than scír. Several processes of union and of separation have since happened, but on the whole things keep a good deal of their old shape. The diocese of Somerset has hardly changed at all. Devonshire and Cornwall have been united and then separated. Wiltshire and Dorset have been united, separated, united again. They may easily be separated again. Changes of this kind take very little trouble and do little despite to history. It would be equally easy to separate a whole Surrey from Hampshire. But then Surrey has been pulled about already; it has got into the hopeless London mess, which is beyond the understanding of us rustics. Berkshire, too, has been taken bodily into Mercia and joined on to Oxford. But, because it has been taken bodily, it may be more easily got back again. It is more cruel when a piece of Wiltshire has been stuck on to Bristol, to the confusion of all geography.

As the dioceses of Gaul represented the civil divisions of the country at the time when Episcopacy was established, so it was in England. But in England, instead of these cities and their districts, they represented Teutonic kingdoms and principalities. And those kingdoms and principalities have been less lasting than the districts of the Gaulish cities. Hence the ecclesiastical and temporal divisions in England have parted further asunder than they have ever done in France. Also in Gaul the cities themselves were more important than they were in England, and their relative positions have proved more permanent. The Bishop was Bishop of a city, and he remains so. The English Bishop was sometimes Bishop of a city from the beginning, more commonly he was Bishop of a land or rather of a people. His title was Bishop of the South-Saxons or of the Sumorsætan. The place of the bishopstool in Gaul varied but seldom (as St. Lo was moved to Coutances); in England it was ever shifting. This leads to confusion. "Somerset," "Wells," "Bath," and "Bath and Wells" are simply different names for the same extent of country. So were Lichfield, Chester, Coventry, Coventry and Lichfield, Lichfield and Coventry. So were Elmham, Thetford, and Norwich; so were others. The bishopstool was changed, and the style of the Bishop with it, but the boundaries of the diocese remained the same.

The principle that I should try to lay down is that dioceses should follow counties. It is the principle of old Gaul, the principle of modern Germany, the principle of England at several intermediate stages, that the ecclesiastical divisions should follow the civil. It is specially needful in England, where the civil divisions are so old, where they enter into so many points of men's thoughts, feelings, and associations. A diocese made up of scraps is as bad as the last abomination in civil divisions, the pestilent "Assize County," against which rational grand juries are protesting. Let shire and diocese be the same; let Bishop and ealdorman sit side by side, whenever they have a chance; then we know where we are; we are not pulled one way in the flesh and another in the spirit. I am sure the all but absolute identity of the shire of Somerset and the diocese of Somerset has been of the greatest practical use. The Bishop and the bishopric are known everywhere, as something which is a man's own as much as the shire with its sheriff and lord-lieutenant. It is not so where geography is less happy. I remember the remark forty years ago, when the great restoration of the church of Hereford was going on. It was said that the people of Herefordshire cared for their cathedral church; it was an essential part of their shire and city. But the people of that part of Shropshire which was in the diocese of Hereford did not care for the church of Hereford; to them it was a foreign church in a foreign city and shire.

The only objection to the general union of shire and diocese is that it would make dioceses of such different sizes. That, of course, should be avoided in an absolute counsel of perfection. In mapping out a new country we should make both shires and dioceses as nearly equal as physical circumstances might allow That in England they are not equal is one of the consequences of living in an old country, where things have grown up bit by bit. And I am sure that the gain of having shire and diocese the same quite outweighs any disadvantages which may spring from difference of size. Of course, the rule is only a general one, and need not be pressed inflexibly in every case. We need not press it so far as to ask for a separate Bishop for Rutland or to refuse two Bishops to Lancashire.

Another point is suggested by old civil arrangements. Some cities and boroughs are themselves counties. This precedent might suggest that it might sometimes, from geographical or other reasons, be convenient to let a city or borough be a diocese of itself. Take one case. The bishopric of Bristol is a standing difficulty. Henry VIII. planted the bishopstool at Bristol, and made Dorset the diocese. From this the union of Gloucester and Bristol was a natural revulsion. The cry for a separate bishopric of Bristol is equally natural now. But it is an equally natural cry that the abiding frontier of the diocese of Somerset, already slightly nibbled at, must not be further disturbed by any patched-up bishopric of "Bath and Bristol," or nobody knows what. Bristol in temporal matters belongs neither to Gloucestershire nor to Somerset; it is a free city. Why cannot it be the same in ecclesiastical matters? There is, of course, the obvious objection that a Bishop of Bristol only would have a very small diocese. But there is yet greater objection either to no Bishop of Bristol at all or to a Bishop of Bristol with a diocese patched up out of West-Saxon shires.

Let us now look through the dioceses in order, beginning from the top of the map. As northern England was gradually cut short, the diocese of Durham was cut short, till the palatine bishopric itself and the one shire of Northumberland (in the later sense) alone were left. These two have been lately divided, a division thoroughly according to ancient precedent, diocese and shire coinciding. That the city of Newcastle is not central for the diocese is a pity, but it cannot be helped.

The old diocese of Carlisle was the earldom which William Rufus added to England, and in which Henry I. founded a bishopric. The shires of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire are all later than the bishopric. Cumberland and Westmorland were made by dividing the earldom of Carlisle and adding a piece of Yorkshire to each division. Lancashire was made by adding another piece of Yorkshire to that part of Cheshire which lay between Mersey and Kibble. Till Henry VIII.'s time these civil changes did not affect the dioceses. Cumberland and Westmorland were divided between Carlisle and York; Lancashire was divided between York and the dioceses variously called Lichfield, Chester, and Coventry, that which at one time had its bishopstool in St. John's Church at Chester. Henry VIII. founded a new bishopric at Chester, with its bishopstool at St. Werburgh's. He gave it as diocese part of old Chester (alias Lichfield, alias Coventry)— namely, Cheshire and that part of Lancashire which had been taken out of Cheshire, also part of York — namely, the districts which had been taken off from Yorkshire to found the three new shires. That is to say, Henry VIII.'s diocese of Chester took in Cheshire, Lancashire, and those parts of Cumberland and Westmorland which had formed no part of the earldom of Carlisle. The lands of the earldom still formed the diocese of Carlisle.

All this is very complicated. I believe the above is a satisfactory general account, though I cannot, without research, for which I have just now no opportunity, guarantee the exact changes of every parish. There are everywhere local exceptional cases which no one can bear in mind off the spot. But I am sure that the above account satisfies the main facts of geography. One point to be noticed in these changes is that they involved a change in the provincial boundary. Henry first put his new diocese of Chester into Canterbury, then into York. That is to say, so much of the new diocese as lay south of Ribble was in the end transferred from Canterbury to York.

Later changes have enlarged the diocese of Carlisle by the rest of Cumberland and Westmorland and the northern part of Lancashire. This division, it may be noticed, though it does not answer to any civil division, answers very well to a natural division. The Bishop of Carlisle is Bishop of the lakes and mountains. The rest of Lancashire is divided between the new dioceses of Manchester and Liverpool; Cheshire makes an excellent diocese by itself.

The changes of Henry VIII. left to the diocese of York the later county of York and the county of Nottingham. Our first cry is that the three ridings and the shire should each make a diocese. The accepted division of Yorkshire seems to follow other lines, and any lines would have some difficulties. Yet somehow one cannot help pointing to St. John's Minster at Beverley as asking for a bishopstool on one ground and to Trinity Church at Hull as asking for it on another.

The fate of Nottinghamshire is the strangest of all. It was lately torn from York, diocese and province, not to set it up as an independent diocese, but to join it with Lincoln; now it is haled from Lincoln to Derbyshire, taken in like sort out of Lichfield, and asking for its separate Bishop as much as Nottingham. The head towns of both shires have been passed by, and the bishopstool has been set in a village where the Bishop does not live and which it has been felt too grotesque to raise to the rank of a city. The mere sentimental respect for a grand church was probably never carried so far. Ancient founders would have cut the knot by building churches at Nottingham and Derby yet grander than that at Southwell.

The other diocese affected by the foundation of Henry VIII.'s diocese of Chester, that called at different times Lichfield, Coventry, and Chester, was originally one of the largest in England. We have seen its dismemberments in favour of Chester and Southwell. Warwickshire has also been taken off and added to Worcester. Thus of its three old bishopstools the oldest alone remains, that of Lichfield. What is left to it is the county of Stafford and part of Shropshire. The rest of that shire remains attached to the diocese of Hereford, also increased of late times by part of the diocese of St. Davids. Worcester, which anciently took in the shire of Worcester and Gloucester, was divided by Henry VIII. between Worcester and Gloucester. He also founded the diocese of Bristol, with its head at Bristol and its body in Dorset. At present Worcester diocese takes in Worcestershire and Warwickshire; Gloucester and Bristol takes in Gloucestershire, part of Wiltshire, the city of Bristol, and a small scrap of Somerset.

In this region new dioceses seem needed for Derbyshire, Shropshire, and Warwickshire. The place of the bishopstool in either of the first two can admit of no doubt; that of Warwickshire might stir up controversies.

Eastward lay the vast diocese whose bishopstool was once at Dorchester and then at Lincoln. Ranging from Thames to Humber, it took in ten shires—Lincoln, Leicester, Rutland, Northampton, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Bedford, Buckingham, Hertford, and Oxford. Of these Cambridge under Henry I. became the diocese of Ely; under Henry VIII. those of Oxford and of Northampton and Rutland became the diocese of Oxford and Peterborough. By later changes the shires of Bedford and Huntingdon have been added to Ely, which has also thrust itself into the East Anglian land. There the two bishoprics of North and South Folk had got united into the unwieldy diocese, called at different times after Elmham, Thetford, and Norwich. To promote confusion, instead of a separate bishopric of Suffolk, part of Suffolk has been joined to Ely. Of the other shires which belonged to Lincoln, Leicester is joined to Peterborough, Buckingham to Oxford, to which has more strangely been added the West Saxon land of Berkshire. Hertfordshire, too, has first gone wandering after Rochester, and then come back to its own St. Albans. The head shire of Lincoln now remains the whole diocese of its Bishop.

Among the small shires of Eastern Mercia one might somewhat relax the rule of a Bishop to each diocese. Huntingdon and Bedford might go together. But a separate bishopric for Leicester is as much needed as one for Suffolk. As we draw near to south-eastern England, the minds of "provincials" (not in the ecclesiastical sense) begin to be troubled: "metropolitan" (not in the ecclesiastical sense) vastness is too much for them. One can remember the old see of London and its momentary fellow of Westminster; one can remember the mother of all at Canterbury and the home of her faithful crossbearer at Rochester. But geography is baffled by the ecclesiastical adventures of the county of Essex, and even with those of western Kent. Within these bounds it is a grievously practical question; outside them we are tempted to say only:—

"Quantulâ sapientiâ dividuntur dioeceses."

From this troublesome region it is relief to escape into a plain, straightforward land, whose name and boundaries seem hardly to admit of change, the diocese of the South-Saxons, with its bishopstool, first at Selsey, then at Chichester, the diocese which longer than any other in England kept on its territorial name. Sussex is the true fellow to Somerset; both ask simply to be left alone, though we perhaps think that Norman Stigand might have done more wisely if he had planted his bishopstool at Lewes.

Of Wessex I have already spoken casually. Several things might well be done; but the lines for all these are obvious. Somerset, Devonshire, Cornwall, as you are. Different bishoprics of Berkshire, Dorset, and Wiltshire—that is, all Wiltshire, taking in Cricklade and the rest that is gone to Bristol. Hampshire should be apart from Surrey. As for Surrey itself, the difficulty has already suggested itself.

Here is a good deal of change proposed. But it is all of it change working on ancient lines; a good deal of it would simply be the undoing of unwise changes in late times. And, as I am asked to speak to a map, I look at the matter simply as a question of ideal ecclesiastical geography. Practical questions of all kinds, above all, questions of income, I must leave to others.

E. A. Freeman.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.