Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Courayer, Pierre François le
COURAYER, PIERRE FRANÇOIS le (1681–1776), French divine, was born at Rouen on 17 Nov. 1681. His father was president of the court of justice of that city. Having been educated at Vernon and Beauvais, he joined the fraternity of St. Genevieve. In 1706 he was made presbyter of the congregation, and in 1711 librarian. He had published several small works on literary subjects when, in 1714, he became one of the appellants against the bull ‘Unigenitus,’ which condemned the Jansenists. He took this step simply from love of justice, as he himself in no way favoured the Jansenist opinions. These appellants obtained the name of anti-constitutionaries, or the opposers of the papal constitution. The famous Cardinal de Noailles at one time belonged to them, as did all the most prominent doctors of the Sorbonne. The strife between them and the constitutionist party was long and bitter. It was in the course of this strife that friendly relations were established between Wake, archbishop of Canterbury, and the Sorbonne doctors, Du Pin and Girardin. Negotiations were set on foot as to a possible union between the Anglican and Gallican churches. Courayer thus came to know somewhat of the real position of the Anglican church, and formed a friendship with Archbishop Wake which was of lifelong duration. With the archbishop's help he studied the question of the validity of Anglican orders; but he had not determined to write anything on the subject until circumstances seemed to compel him. The Abbé Renaudot, famous for his oriental learning, had published a memoir on Anglican orders, in a book set forth by the Abbé Gould in 1720, entitled ‘The True Faith of the Catholic Church.’ This memoir was full of misstatements, and it excited Courayer to give to the world a truer account of the subject. ‘The thing in question,’ he says, ‘is no less than to know whether the church of England, formerly so illustrious, and even now so respectable for the enlightenment of her prelates and the condition of her clergy, is without a succession, without a hierarchy, and without a ministry.’ Courayer does not altogether accept the position of the Anglican church, but he defends the validity of its orders in a most masterly manner. By the valuable help of Archbishop Wake he was able to avoid the mistakes as to the English church into which foreign divines were so apt to fall. The jesuit party, knowing of the composition and character of the work, used every effort to prevent its publication. To diminish Courayer's responsibility, his friends stole the manuscript from him, and it appeared in 1723 with the name of a Brussels publisher, but without the author's name. This, however, was soon known, and then Courayer was subjected to the most violent attacks, both from jesuits and Jansenists. The most remarkable assault was that made by the Abbé Hardouin—that erratic genius who wrote to prove that almost all the classical writings were forgeries. A more formidable antagonist was the Dominican, Le Quien. Another was a French-Irishman, one Fennel, whose book, as Courayer complains, was written in ‘French-Irish.’ Against these manifold antagonists Courayer wrote his ‘Defence,’ which appeared in 1726, published by the same Brussels publisher. It was a larger work than the first, being printed in three volumes. Replies were at once forthcoming, and these Courayer answered in his ‘Historical Relation,’ published in 1729. Before this last work appeared Courayer had been obliged to fly from France and take refuge in England. At an assembly of twenty bishops, with the Cardinal de Bissy at their head, held at the abbey of St. Germain near Paris, Courayer's works were formally condemned, and soon after were suppressed by authority. He was threatened with excommunication if he did not retract; but his great desire was to answer the misstatements made against him. This he could not do in France, and he began to meditate flight. At this moment Bishop Atterbury, then living in exile in Paris, strongly encouraged him to fly to England, and gave him valuable assistance in arranging for his journey. Atterbury had long been Courayer's warm admirer. His picture ornamented Atterbury's rooms, and the bishop had been able to procure for him from Oxford the honour of a D.D. honoris causâ (1727). The timid scholar and recluse would probably never have found his way to our shores had not the bishop furnished him with a capable English attendant. As it was, he reached Greenwich in safety in January 1728. The greatest interest had been excited about him in England. Lord Percival sent his coach and six to convey him to his house, which he desired Courayer to regard as his own, and made him a handsome present. Archbishop Wake received him the next day at Lambeth with the utmost cordiality, and also made him a present. He was followed in this by Bishops Hare, Sherlock, and others. Lord Blandford sent him 50l. Courayer became the lion of the day. Sometimes he stayed with his aristocratic friends for six months at a time. His manners were charming, his vivacity unflagging. He never pretended to be converted to the Anglican church, though he occasionally attended its services. He obtained a pension of 100l. a year from the government. At Oxford he delivered a Latin oration in the theatre with unbounded applause. Queen Caroline made him a favoured member of her learned coterie. Courayer now (1736) published a French translation of Father Paul's ‘History of the Council of Trent,’ with valuable notes. The previous French translation of this great work was very unsatisfactory. Courayer's was altogether an admirable work, and its sale was very rapid. He purchased with the profits made by the sale an annuity of 100l., which, together with his pension, made him a rich man, his wants being of the simplest description. He remitted money to his nun-sisters in France, and, it is said, gave as much as 50l. or 60l. annually to the poor prisoners. He was in the habit of spending one evening weekly at court with the queen and princesses, when the king would often make one of the party. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has given a humorous description of him in his lodgings over a toyshop in Holborn, attired in a flowered dressing-gown and a cap with a gold band. In 1744 he published at Amsterdam an ‘Examination of the Defects of Theology,’ &c., in which he began to show the rationalising spirit which is apparent in his later writings. At the age of eighty-two he published a translation of Sleidan's ‘History of the Reformation,’ a copy of which he presented to the university of Oxford, together with his picture which had belonged to Atterbury, but which, at the bishop's death, had come into his hands. The picture, still to be seen at Oxford, bears the motto, ‘Quocunque duxit veritas ausus sequi,’ which well represents the spirit of Courayer's writings. Two treatises which he left at his death to the Princess Amelia, but which were afterwards published (‘Declarations as to my latest Opinions,’ 1787; ‘A Treatise on the Divinity of Jesus Christ,’ 1810), have brought on him the charge of Socinianism, and his life has been written by a Socinian biographer. There is no reason, however, to suppose that Courayer departed from the orthodox faith, though his speculations are very bold. According to Milner's ‘Life of Bishop Challoner’ (1798, p. 28), Courayer to the last maintained that ‘he was in the bosom of the catholic church, and that he had been guilty of no crime whatever, and therefore was accustomed to present himself in the catholic chapels which he frequented, at the altar, in order to receive the holy communion; but our zealous prelate was inflexible in requiring a retractation of his errors as public as his profession of them had been, and likewise his return to religious obedience, before he would admit him to the participation of the sacraments, and by his orders Father Courayer was always publicly passed over by the officiating priest when he presented himself among others at the altar rail.’ He died at his lodgings in Spring Gardens on 17 Oct. 1776, at the age of ninety-five, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, where a Latin inscription, from the pen of Mr. Kynaston of Brasenose, records the chief facts of his life and the virtues of his character. In his will he declares himself to die a true member of the catholic church, but without approving many of the superstitions which have been introduced into it. The fact of his never having adopted the Anglican position gives an additional value to his great work on Anglican orders, as coming from an impartial outsider; and Courayer's services to the church of England must be ranked very high. His statements have been severely tested, but have been found extremely accurate. The book on Anglican orders was badly translated by Daniel Williams, a nonjuring clergyman living in France, but has been excellently edited by an Oxford divine (1844). Williams also translated the ‘Defence’ in 1728.
[Courayer's Dissertation on the Validity of the Ordinations of the English, with Account of the Writer, Oxford, 1844; Works of Archbishop Bramhall, vol. iii. Oxford, 1842; Histoire du Concile de Trente, trad. par Courayer, 3 vols. 4to. Amsterdam, 1751; Letters of Lady M. Wortley Montagu, 3 vols. 8vo. London, 1837.]