Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thirlwall, Connop
THIRLWALL, CONNOP (1797–1875), historian and bishop of St. David's, born in London on 11 Feb. 1797, was third son of the Rev. Thomas Thirlwall, by his wife, Mrs. Connop of Mile End, the widow of an apothecary. His full name was Newell Connop Thirlwall.
The father, Thomas Thirlwall (d. 1827), was the son of Thomas Thirlwall (d. 1808), vicar of Cottingham, near Hull, who claimed descent from the barons of Thirlwall Castle, Northumberland. The younger Thomas, after holding some small benefices in London, was presented in 1814 to the rectory of Bower's Gifford in Essex, where he died on 17 March 1827. He was a man of fervent piety, and the author of several published works, including ‘Diatessaron seu integra Historia Domini nostri Jesu Christi, ex quatuor Evangeliis confecta,’ London, 1802, 8vo (Gent. Mag. 1827, i. 568).
Connop Thirlwall showed such precocity that when he was only eleven years of age his father published a volume of his compositions called ‘Primitiæ,’ a work in after years so odious to the author that he destroyed every copy that he could obtain. The preface tells us that ‘at a very early period he read English so well that he was taught Latin at three years of age, and at four read Greek with an ease and fluency which astonished all who heard him. His talent for composition appeared at the age of seven.’ From 1810 to 1813 he was a day scholar at the Charterhouse. After leaving school he seems to have worked alone (Letters, &c., p. 21) for a year, entering Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner in October 1814.
While an undergraduate he found time to learn French and Italian, and, besides acquiring considerable reputation as a speaker at the union, was secretary of the society when the debate was stopped by the entrance of the proctors (24 March 1817), who, by the vice-chancellor's command, bade the members disperse and on no account resume their discussions. A few years later, when Thirlwall spoke at a debating society in London, John Stuart Mill recorded that he was the best speaker he had heard up to that time, and that he had not subsequently heard any one whom he could place above him (Autobiography, p. 125). In 1815 he obtained the Bell and Craven scholarships, and in 1816 was elected scholar of his own college. In 1818 he graduated B.A. He was twenty-second senior optime in the mathematical tripos, and also obtained the first chancellor's medal for proficiency in classics. In October of the same year he was elected fellow of his college.
Thirlwall was now able to realise what he called ‘the most enchanting of my day-dreams’ (Letters, &c., p. 32), and spent several months on the continent. The winter of 1818–19 was passed in Rome, where he formed a close friendship with Bunsen, then secretary to the Prussian legation, at the head of which was Niebuhr; but Thirlwall and the historian never met.
Thirlwall had at this time conceived a dislike to the profession of a clergyman, and, yielding to the urgency of his family (ib. p. 60), he entered Lincoln's Inn in February 1820. He was called to the bar in the summer of 1825. Much of his success in after life may be traced to his legal training; but the work was always distasteful to him, though relieved by foreign tours, by intellectual society, and by a return to more congenial studies whenever he had a moment to spare (ib. p. 67). In 1824 he translated two tales by Tieck, and began his work on Schleiermacher's ‘Critical Essay on the Gospel of St. Luke.’ Both these were published (anonymously) in the following year, the second with a critical introduction, remarkable not only for thoroughness, but for acquaintance with modern German theology, then a field of research untrodden by English students. In October 1827 Thirlwall abandoned law and returned to Cambridge (ib. p. 54). The prospect of the loss of his fellowship at Trinity College, which would have expired in 1828, probably determined the precise moment for taking a step which he had long meditated (ib. pp. 69, 70, 86). He was ordained deacon before the end of 1827, and priest in 1828.
At Cambridge Thirlwall at once undertook his full share of college and university work. Between 1827 and 1832 he held the college offices of junior bursar, junior dean, and head lecturer; and in 1828, 1829, 1832, and 1834 examined for the classical tripos. In 1828 the first volume of the translation of Niebuhr's ‘History of Rome’ appeared, the joint work of himself and Julius Charles Hare [q. v.] This was attacked in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and Thirlwall contributed to Hare's elaborate reply a brief postscript which is worthy of his best days as a controversialist. In 1831 the publication of ‘The Philological Museum’ was commenced with the object of promoting ‘the knowledge and the love of ancient literature.’ Hare and Thirlwall were the editors, and the latter contributed to it several masterly essays (reprinted in Essays, &c., 1880, pp. 1–189). It ceased in 1833. In 1829 Thirlwall held for a short time the vicarage of Over, and in 1832, when Hare left college, he was appointed assistant tutor on the side of William Whewell [q. v.] His lectures were as thorough and systematic as Hare's had been desultory.
In 1834 his connection with the educational staff of Trinity College was rudely severed under the following circumstances. A bill to admit dissenters to university degrees had in that year passed the House of Commons by a majority of eighty-nine. The question caused great excitement at Cambridge, and several pamphlets were written to discuss particular aspects of it. The first of these, called ‘Thoughts on the admission of Persons, without regard to their Religious Opinions, to certain Degrees in the Universities of England,’ by Dr. Thomas Turton [q. v.], was promptly answered by Thirlwall in a ‘Letter on the Admission of Dissenters to Academical Degrees.’ His opponent tried to show the evils likely to arise from a mixture of students differing widely from each other in their religious opinions by tracing the history of the theological seminary for nonconformists at Daventry. Thirlwall argued that at Cambridge ‘our colleges are not theological seminaries. We have no theological colleges, no theological tutors, no theological students;’ and, further, that the colleges at Cambridge were not even ‘schools of religious instruction.’ In the development of this part of his argument he condemned the collegiate lectures in divinity and the compulsory attendance at chapel, with ‘the constant repetition of a heartless mechanical service.’ This pamphlet is dated 21 May 1834, and five days later Dr. Christopher Wordsworth [q. v.], master, wrote to the author, calling upon him to resign his appointment as assistant-tutor. Thirlwall obeyed without delay; and, as the master had added that he found ‘some difficulty in understanding how a person with such sentiments can reconcile it to himself to continue a member of a society founded and conducted on principles from which he differs so widely,’ Thirlwall addressed a circular letter to the fellows, asking each of them to send him ‘a private explicit and unreserved declaration’ on this point. All desired to retain him, but all did not acquit him of rashness; and a few did not condemn the master's action.
Not long after these events—in November 1834—Lord Brougham offered him the valuable living of Kirby Underdale in Yorkshire. He accepted without hesitation, and went into residence in July 1835. He had had little experience of parochial work, but he proved himself both energetic and successful in this new field (Letters, &c., p. 133).
It was at Kirby Underdale that Thirlwall completed his ‘History of Greece,’ originally published in the ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia’ of Dr. Dionysius Lardner [q. v.] This work entailed prodigious labour. At Cambridge, where the first volume was written, he used to work all day until half-past three o'clock, when he left his rooms for a rapid walk before dinner, then served in hall at four; and in Yorkshire he is said to have passed sixteen hours of the twenty-four in his study. The first volume appeared in 1835 and the eighth and last in 1844. By a curious coincidence he and George Grote [q. v.], his friend and schoolfellow, were writing on the same subject at the same time unknown to each other. On the appearance of Grote's first two volumes in 1846 Thirlwall welcomed them with generous praise (Letters, p. 194), and when the publication of the fourth volume in 1847 enabled him to form a maturer judgment, he told the author that he rejoiced to think that his own performance would, ‘for all highest purposes, be so superseded’ (Personal Life of Grote, p. 173). Grote in the preface to his work bore testimony to Thirlwall's learning, sagacity, and candour. Portions of Thirlwall's history were translated into German by Leonhard Schmitz in 1840, and into French by A. Joanne in 1852.
In 1840 Lord Melbourne offered the bishopric of St. David's to Thirlwall. He had read his translation of Schleiermacher, and formed so high an opinion of the author that he had tried, but without success, to send him to Norwich in 1837. He was anxious, however, that no bishop appointed by him should be suspected of heterodoxy, and had therefore consulted Archbishop Howley before making the offer, which was accepted at a personal interview. Notwithstanding Melbourne's precaution, the appointment caused some outcry (Letters, &c., p. xiii).
Thirlwall brought to the larger sphere of work as a bishop the thoroughness which had made him successful as a parish clergyman. Within a year he read prayers and preached in Welsh. He visited every part of his large and at that time little known diocese; inspected the condition of schools and churches; and by personal liberality augmented the income of small livings. It has been computed that he spent 40,000l. while bishop on charities of various kinds. After a quarter of a century of steady effort he could point to the restoration of 183 churches; to thirty parishes where new or restored churches were then in progress; to many new parsonages, and to a large increase of education (Charges, ii. 90–100). Yet he was not personally popular. His clergy, while they acknowledged his merits, and felt his intellectual superiority, failed to understand him; and though he did his best to receive them hospitably, and to enter into their wants and wishes, persisted in regarding him as a cold and critical alien. Gradually, therefore, his intercourse with them became limited to the archdeacons and to the few who knew how to value his friendship.
The solitude of Abergwli—the village near Carmarthen where the bishops of St. David's reside—suited Thirlwall exactly. There he could enjoy the sights and sounds of the country; the society of his birds, horses, dogs, and cats; and, above all, his books in all languages and on all subjects. The ‘Letters to a Friend’ (1881) show that in literature his taste was universal, his appetite insatiable. He rarely quitted ‘Chaos,’ as he called his library, unless compelled by business.
But he took a lively interest in the events of the day, and in all questions affecting not merely his own diocese, but the church at large. On such he elaborated his decision unbiassed by considerations of party, of his own order, or of public opinion. His seclusion from such influences gives a special value to his eleven triennial charges, which are, in fact, an epitome of the history of the church of England during his episcopate, narrated by a man of judicial mind, without passion or prejudice, and fearless in the expression of his views. At periods of great excitement he often took the unpopular side. He supported the grant to Maynooth (1845); the abolition of the civil disabilities of the Jews (1848); and the disestablishment of the Irish church (1869). On these occasions he spoke in the House of Lords, of which he always had the ear when he chose to address it; and in the case of the Irish church it is said that no speech had so great an effect in favour of the measure as his. He joined his brother bishops in their action against ‘Essays and Reviews;’ but he declined to inhibit Bishop Colenso from preaching in his diocese, or to urge him to resign his bishopric.
He was a regular attendant at convocation, a member of the royal commission on ritual (1868), and chairman of the Old Testament Revision Company. In May 1874 Thirlwall resigned his bishopric and retired to Bath, blind and partially paralysed. He died unmarried at 59 Pulteney Street, Bath, on 27 July 1875. He was buried on 3 Aug. in Westminster Abbey, in the same grave with George Grote. His funeral sermon, which was preached by Dean Stanley, formed the preface of the posthumous volume of Thirlwall's ‘Letters to a Friend’ (1881). In 1884 the Thirlwall prize was instituted at Cambridge in the bishop's memory; by the conditions of the foundation a medal is awarded in alternate years for the best dissertation involving original historical research, together with a sum of money to defray the expenses of publication.
Thirlwall's published works (excluding separately issued speeches and sermons) were:
- ‘Primitiæ; or Essays and Poems on various Subjects, Religious, Moral, and Entertaining. By Connop Thirlwall, eleven years of age’ (preface dated 23 Jan. 1809), London, 1809.
- ‘The Pictures; the Betrothing. Novels from the German of Lewis Tieck,’ 8vo, London, 1825.
- ‘A Critical Essay on the Gospel of St. Luke, by Dr. F. Schleiermacher; with an Introduction by the Translator, containing an Account of the Controversy respecting the Origin of the first three Gospels since Bishop Marsh's Dissertation,’ 8vo, London, 1825.
- ‘Niebuhr's History of Rome, translated by J. C. Hare and Connop Thirlwall,’ 8vo, Cambridge, 1828–1832.
- ‘Vindication of Niebuhr's “History of Rome” from the Charges of the “Quarterly Review,”’ Hare and Thirlwall, 8vo, Cambridge, 1829.
- ‘Letter to the Rev. T. Turton, D.D., on the Admission of Dissenters to Academical Degrees (21 May),’ 8vo, Cambridge, 1834. ‘Second Letter’ (to the same, 13 June), 1834.
- ‘History of Greece,’ 8 vols. 8vo, London, 1835–44; 2nd edit. 1845–52.
- ‘Speech on Civil Disabilities of the Jews (25 May),’ 8vo, London, 1848.
- ‘Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury on Statements of Sir B. Hall with regard to the Collegiate Church of Brecon,’ 8vo, London, 1851; ‘Second Letter’ to same, 1851.
- ‘Letter to the Rev. Rowland Williams,’ 8vo, London, 1860.
- ‘Letter to J. Bowstead, Esq., on Education in South Wales,’ 8vo, London, 1861.
- ‘Reply to a Letter of Lord Bishop of Cape Town (29 April),’ 8vo, London, 1867.
The Rev. J. J. S. Perowne (now bishop of Worcester) edited Thirlwall's ‘Remains, Literary and Theological,’ 8vo, London, 1877–8 (vol. i. Charges delivered between 1842 and 1863, vol. ii. Charges delivered between 1863 and 1872; and vol. iii. ‘Essays, Speeches, and Sermons,’ 1878. The last volume contains Thirlwall's contributions to the Philological Museum, five speeches and eight sermons, the letter on diocesan synods (1867), the letter to the archbishop of Canterbury on the episcopal meeting of 1867, and four miscellaneous publications. In 1881 Dean Stanley edited ‘Letters to a Friend’ (Miss Johns), and in the same year Dr. Perowne and the Rev. Louis Stokes edited ‘Letters, Literary and Theological,’ with a memoir.
[The materials for a life of Thirlwall are scattered and imperfect. A defective memoir was prefixed by Mr. Stokes to his edition of the bishop's ‘Letters,’ 1881. See also Quarterly Review, xxxix. 8; Memoirs of Bunsen, i. 339; Life of Rev. Rowland Williams, 1874, ch. xv.; Torrens's Life of Lord Melbourne, ii. 332; Lord Houghton in Fortnightly Review, 1878, p. 226; Church Quarterly Review, April 1883 (by the present writer); Life of Bishop Gray, 1876, ii. 41, 51; Life of Bishop Wilberforce, vol. iii. passim; Life of Rev. F. D. Maurice, i. 454; Life, by John Morgan, in ‘Four Biographical Sketches,’ London, 1892.]