Copleston, Edward (DNB00)

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COPLESTON, EDWARD (1776–1849), bishop of Llandaff, was born 2 Feb. 1776 at Offwell in Devonshire, of which parish his father was the rector. He was descended from one of the most ancient families in the west of England, which was said to have been in possession of its estates before the Conquest. The remains of them were all lost in the cause of Charles I by the bishop's direct ancestor, John Copleston; and his descendant was not a little proud of the family tree, which he spent much time in tracing backwards to its roots. He was educated at home, and at the age of fifteen he gained a scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and two years afterwards the chancellor's prize for Latin hexameters upon ‘Marius amid the ruins of Carthage.’ His Latin poetry was remarkably good, and a Latin epistle which he addressed to a friend in his seventeenth year will bear comparison with Gray's or Milton's. After proceeding B.A. in 1795 he was invited by the authorities of Oriel to fill a vacant fellowship for which none of the candidates were considered good enough. In 1796 he won the prize for an English essay on the subject of agriculture, and in 1797 graduated M.A. and succeeded to a college tutorship, which he held for thirteen years. At this time he commanded a company in the Oxford volunteers, and was celebrated for his bodily strength and activity. He once walked all the way from Oxford to Offwell; and his biographer thinks he must be nearly the last man who was robbed by a highwayman near London, a calamity that befell Copleston between Beaconsfield and Uxbridge on 12 Jan. 1799. As tutor of Oriel he made the acquaintance of John William Ward (afterwards Lord Dudley), with whom he continued to correspond; and in 1841 he published a selection of his letters, which are full of interest.

Copleston, together with the head of his college, Dr. Eveleigh, whom he described as the author and prime mover of the undertaking, was a warm supporter of the new examination statute which was promulgated in 1800, and he volunteered to be one of the first examiners in the new schools. In the same year he became vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford, and in 1802 professor of poetry, in which capacity he showed himself an accomplished critic, as well as a master of Latinity. His Prælections were greatly admired by Newman, who said, however, that the style was ‘more Coplestonian than Ciceronian.’ His ‘Advice to a Young Reviewer,’ a parody of the method of criticism adopted in the earlier numbers of the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ is a marvellous piece of imitation, full of the finest irony. The review soon afterwards published an attack on the Oxford system of education, to which Copleston at once replied and completely demolished his antagonist, whom he convicted not only of stark ignorance of what he had undertaken to condemn, but of much bad Latin besides. Lord Grenville wrote to thank him for his able defence of Latin versification against the swords of the barbarians. The reviewer answered him, and Copleston wrote three ‘replies’ in all, which contain in a small compass the whole case in favour of a classical education as then understood. This defence is the more valuable as Copleston's own intellect was of an order capable of grappling with tougher questions than the value of elegant scholarship. In 1819 he published two letters to Sir Robert Peel, one on the currency and one on pauperism, showing a mastery of political economy. The mischievous effects of a variable standard of value was the subject of the first, which was spoken of in the most flattering terms by Tierney, Baring (afterwards Lord Ashburton), and Sir James Mackintosh in the House of Commons. He advocated the immediate resumption of cash payments, and considered that when this had been effected, then, and not till then, it would be just to repeal the corn laws; paper currency being a concession to the commercial world as protection duties were to the agricultural. In the letters on pauperism he traced the condition of the labouring classes in England to the decline in the value of money, and held that the true remedy was a corresponding increase in the rate of wages. He disliked the principle of a poor law altogether, and seems not to have discerned the real utility of the allotment system, for which it was proposed, in a bill brought in by the government in 1819 but never carried, to enable the parochial authorities to acquire land. Before quitting Copleston's connection with literature we may mention his notice in the ‘Quarterly Review’ of a book very little known, namely, a Latin history of the insurrection of 1745, written by a Scotchman, which Copleston pronounced to be in some parts almost equal to Livy.

Proctor in 1807, Copleston became prebendary of Hoxton in St. Paul's Cathedral 1812. In 1814, on the death of Dr. Eveleigh, he was appointed provost of Oriel. He had been dean for some years, and to him, perhaps more than to any other, is to be attributed the high character which the college acquired during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The best description of it during the twenty years after Copleston's appointment is in Cardinal Newman's ‘History of his Religious Opinions,’ and in Mozley's ‘Reminiscences of Oriel.’ But in the ‘Memoir of Bishop Copleston,’ published in 1851, is to be found a very interesting letter from Mr. John Hughes, formerly a member of the college, containing a picture of Oriel men and manners during the time when Copleston's influence was supreme, which shows that in those days the whole body of Oriel undergraduates held their heads higher than their fellows.

Copleston was a tory of the Pitt and Canning, not of the Eldon and Perceval, school; and in the contest for the chancellorship of the university in 1814 he threw his whole influence into the scale of Lord Grenville, who was elected by a small majority. Lord Liverpool had a just apprehension of his merits, and in 1826 made him dean of Chester. In 1827 he was further promoted to the bishopric of Llandaff and deanery of St. Paul's. In parliament he supported the bill for the removal of Roman catholic disabilities. But he opposed the Reform Bill, his dislike of which he explained at some length in a letter to Lord Ripon in November 1831. In Copleston's opinion the better plan would have been to revive the royal prerogative as to issuing and discontinuing writs, a practice by which the processes of enfranchisement were adjusted to the changes of population without any parliamentary agitation. As a politician he is classed by Archbishop Whately as ‘a decided tory.’ But he was certainly more liberal than the bulk of the tory party fifty years ago. He was in favour of the admission of dissenters to the universities. He supported Dr. Hampden; and we may therefore attach to his disapproval of the Maynooth grant, and of the Jew Declaration Bill, more than ordinary weight. The protest against the third reading of the Maynooth Bill entered on the journals of the House of Lords was probably drawn up by the bishop, and expresses very clearly and concisely his logical objection to the measure.

As bishop of Llandaff he devoted himself strenuously to the work of church restoration which was then commencing in Wales, and more than twenty new churches and fifty-three glebe houses were built in his diocese during his tenure of the see. He also took care to require a knowledge of the Welsh language from the clergy whom he instituted, though he was always of opinion that the want of Welsh services had been greatly exaggerated. All the business of life, he said, was conducted in English, and the natural inference was that the vast majority of the Welsh people had no difficulty in understanding an English service. However, he quite recognised the necessity of having in every parish a clergyman who could speak Welsh. His charges delivered to the clergy of the diocese between 1831 and 1849 contain his views on this question, as well as on the great public controversies of the day. He was a high churchman, who at the same time was thoroughly opposed to the tractarians. He could see no logical distinction between the sacerdotal theory which they inculcated and the Roman doctrine of the priesthood. But all this time he had an equally strong aversion to dissent as substituting unauthorised for authorised teaching, and the order which the christian church had sanctioned by ancient and universal usage for the new-fangled systems of individuals. The bishop died on 14 Oct. 1849, and was buried in the ruined cathedral of Llandaff, having just completed his seventy-third year.

[W. J. Copleston's Memoirs of Edward Copleston, Bishop of Llandaff; Remains of the late Edward Copleston, with an introduction by Archbishop Whately, 1854; Mozley's Reminiscences of Oriel College, 1883; Annual Register, 1849.]

T. E. K.