Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dolben, John (1625-1686)
DOLBEN, JOHN (1625–1686), archbishop of York (1683–6), was the eldest son of Dr. William Dolben [q. v.], prebendary of Lincoln and rector of Stanwick, Northamptonshire, where he was born 20 March 1625. His mother was niece to Lord-keeper Williams, on whose nomination when twelve years of age he was admitted king's scholar at Westminster, and educated there under Dr. Busby [q. v.] In 1640, at the early age of fifteen, he was elected student of Christ Church, Oxford, and was ‘the second in order of six succeeding generations of one family who passed through the same course of education, and did good service in their day to church and state.’ Two years after his election he composed a set of Latin iambics to celebrate the return of Charles I from Scotland in 1641, which were published in a work entitled ‘Oxonia Eucharistica.’ When two years later Oxford became the central position of the royal military operations, twenty of the hundred students of Christ Church became officers in the king's army (Wood, Annals, ed. Gutch, ii. 478). Of these Dolben was one of the most ardent. He joined the royal forces as a volunteer, accompanied the army on their northward march, and rose to the rank of ensign. At Marston Moor, 2 July 1644, while carrying the colours, he was wounded in the shoulder by a musket ball. This, however, did not prevent his taking an active part in the defence of the city of York, then beleaguered by Fairfax. During the siege he received a severe shot-wound in the thigh, the bone of which was broken, and he was confined to his bed for twelve months. As a reward for his bravery he was promoted to the rank of captain and major. But in 1646, the royal cause becoming hopeless, the army was disbanded, and Dolben returned to Christ Church to pursue the studies which had been thus rudely interrupted. Being now of M.A. standing he took that degree 9 Dec. 1647, by accumulation, without the usual preliminary of the B.A. degree (Wood, Fasti, ii. 103). On the parliamentary visitation of the university the following year, he replied to the demand whether he would submit to the authority of parliament, 3 May 1648, that ‘as to his apprehension there was some ambiguity in the words of the question; until it was further explained he could not make any direct categorical answer to it’ (Register of the Visitors of the Univ. of Oxford, ed. Burrows, Camden Soc., p. 32). He was deprived of his studentship, and his name was removed from the books of the house. Of the next eight years of Dolben's life we have no record. In 1656 he was ordained by Bishop King of Chichester, and the next year he married Catherine, daughter of Ralph Sheldon, esq., of Stanton, Derbyshire, the niece of Dr. Sheldon, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury. Mr. Sheldon had a house in St. Aldates, Oxford, where Dolben found a home until after the Restoration. During this period Dolben shares with Fell [q. v.] and Allestree [q. v.] the honour of having privately maintained the service and administered the sacraments of the proscribed church of England in defiance of the penal laws. The place of meeting was the house of Dr. Thomas Willis [q. v.], the celebrated physician (whose sister Fell had married), opposite to Merton College, to which, writes Wood, ‘most of the loyalists in Oxford, especially scholars ejected in 1648, did daily resort’ (Athenæ Oxon. iii. 1050). This courageous act of loyalty to their church was commemorated by the pencil of Sir Peter Lely in two pictures, one hanging in the deanery at Christ Church, and a copy of the other, which belongs to Dolben's descendants at Finedon Hall, in the hall of the same college. The three divines are painted seated at a table, in their gowns and bands, with open prayer-books before them, Dolben occupying the centre, with Allestree on the right hand and Fell on the left. These private services were continued until the Restoration. Dolben's services insured honourable recognition. But preferment was hardly rapid enough to satisfy his expectations. As early as April 1660 Dolben and Allestree petitioned the crown for canonries at Christ Church (State Papers, Dom. p. 86), to which they were appointed within ten days of one another, Allestree on the 17th, Dolben on 27 July; in the words of South's consecration sermon, ‘returning poor and bare to a college as bare, after a long persecution.’ The bareness of his college he did his best to retrieve as soon as he had the means, contributing largely to the erection of the north side of the great quadrangle undertaken by Dr. Fell. In commemoration of this munificence his arms as archbishop of York are carved on the roof of the great gateway erected by Sir Christopher Wren. On 3 Oct. of the same year he took his D.D. degree, in company with their loyal colleagues Allestree and Fell. Dolben was also appointed about the same time to the living of Newington-cum-Britwell, Oxfordshire, on the king's presentation. On 7 Feb. 1661 he writes to Williams, as secretary to Sir Edward Nicholas, secretary of state, thanking him for the care of his business, which he begs he will expedite, adding that he ‘will send any money that may be wanted.’ Such powerful advocacy was not in vain. On the 29th of the following April he was installed prebendary of Caddington Major in the cathedral of St. Paul's, his wife's uncle, Sheldon, being bishop of London, and the following year, 11 Oct. 1662, became on his nomination archdeacon of London, and shortly afterwards vicar of St. Giles's, Cripplegate. The next year he rose to the higher dignity of the deanery of Westminster, being installed 5 Dec. 1662. It is recorded to his credit that on his appointment as dean he at once gave up his parochial benefices, and in 1664 resigned his archdeaconry. His stall he held till he was advanced to the episcopate in 1666. Canon Overton remarks: ‘Perhaps the fact of Dolben having married Sheldon's niece was no hindrance to his promotion; but he deserved it by his merits. He was a man of great benevolence, generosity, and candour, noted as an excellent preacher, described by Hickes (Memoirs of Comber, p. 189) as very conversable and popular, and such every way as gave him a mighty advantage of doing much good,’ &c. (Life in the English Church, p. 33). Comber himself speaks of him as ‘a prelate of great presence, ready parts, graceful conversation, and wondrous generosity’ (Memoirs, u. s. p. 212). In October 1660, when the regicides were lying under sentence of death, Dolben was commissioned, in conjunction with Dr. Barwick [q. v.], dean of St. Paul's, to visit them in the hope of persuading them to condemn their act. They began with the military divine, Hugh Peters, in the hope that he might use his influence with his companions, by whom ‘his prophecies were regarded as oracles.’ Their exhortations, however, entirely failed (Barwick's Life, p. 295). Dolben was elected prolocutor of the lower house of convocation, in succession to Dr. Barwick in 1664, and appointed clerk of the closet in the same year, a position of great difficulty in so licentious a court, which he filled with courage and dignity (State Papers, Dom. p. 617). Dolben's tenure of the deanery of Westminster was marked by the frank energy, sound good sense, transparent candour, geniality, and generosity which rendered him one of the most popular of the ecclesiastics of his day. On the very day of his installation he prevailed with a somewhat reluctant chapter to make the abbey an equal sharer with themselves in all dividends, a plan which secured the proper repair of the building, till the change of system in the present century. As dean he also resolutely maintained the independence of the abbey of all diocesan control. As a preacher he rivalled in popularity the most celebrated pulpit orators of his day. People crowded the abbey when it was known he was to preach, and Dryden has immortalised him in his ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ (vv. 868–9) as
Him of the western dome, whose weighty sense
Flows in fit words and heavenly eloquence.
The few sermons which exist in print prove that this popularity was by no means undeserved. They are ‘clear and plain, written in a pure and terse style, with something of the downright abruptness of the soldier in the subject, argued out admirably in a very racy and practical fashion’ (Overton, Life in the English Church, pp. 243–4). He at first preached from a manuscript, but a hint from Charles II induced him to become an extempore preacher, and ‘therefore his preaching was well liked of’ (Wood, Life, cxii). During his residence at Westminster as dean the great fire of London broke out (1666), and the dean, ‘who in the civil wars had often stood sentinel,’ gathered the Westminster scholars in a company, and marched at their head to the scene of the conflagration, and kept them hard at work for many hours fetching water from the back of St. Dunstan's Church, which by their exertions they succeeded in saving (Autobiography of J. Taswell, Camd. Soc. p. 12).
On the death of Bishop Warner, Dolben was chosen to succeed him in the see of Rochester, to which he was consecrated at Lambeth Chapel by his uncle, Archbishop Sheldon, 25 Nov. 1666, the sermon being preached by his old friend and fellow-student, Dr. Robert South, from Tit. ii. 15 (South, Sermons, i. 122 ff). The income of the see being very small, he was allowed to hold the deanery of Westminster in commendam (State Papers, Dom. p. 257), thus inaugurating a system which continued till the time of Horsley, by which the income of a poor suburban bishopric was augmented, and a town residence provided for its occupant. He occupied the deanery for twenty years till his translation to York, being ‘held in great esteem by the inhabitants of Westminster,’ and spoken of as ‘a very good dean’ (Stanley, Memoirs of Westminster Abbey, p. 451). Dolben at once began at his own cost to repair the episcopal palace at Bromley, which had suffered severely during the Commonwealth, a work recorded by Evelyn, who more than once speaks in his ‘Diary’ with much esteem of his ‘worthy neighbour’ (Diary, 23 Aug. 1669, ii. 43; 19 Aug. 1683, ib. p. 183; 15 April 1686, ib. p. 252). Dolben had been scarcely bishop a year when the fall of Clarendon involved him in temporary disgrace at court. Pepys mentions in his ‘Diary,’ 23 Dec. 1667, the suspension of the Bishop of Rochester, who, together with Morley of Winchester, ‘and other great prelates,’ was forbidden the court, and deprived of his place as clerk of the closet. He also records a visit paid to Dolben at this time at the deanery, 24 Feb. 1668, in company with Dr. Christopher Gibbons, for the purpose of trying an organ which he was thinking of purchasing, when he found him, though ‘under disgrace at court,’ living in considerable state ‘like a great prelate.’ ‘I saw his lady,’ he continues, ‘of whom the Terræ Filius at Oxford was once so merry, and two children, one a very pretty little boy like him (afterwards Sir Gilbert Dolben [q. v.]), so fat and black’ (Pepys, Diary, ii. 430, iii. 329, 333, 366, 385). That Dolben's disgrace with Charles was not lasting is proved by his appointment as lord high almoner in 1675, and when five years later the death of Archbishop Sterne of York vacated that see, he was selected as his successor. He was elected ‘in a very full chapter’ 28 July, and enthroned 26 Aug. 1683, amidst the universal acclamation of the citizens. Burnet, who disliked him as having, as he believed, when engaged on the ‘History of the Reformation,’ used his influence to hinder his researches in the Cottonian Library, under the apprehension that he would ‘make an ill use of it’ (Own Time, i. 396, fol. edit.), and who sneers at him as ‘a man of more spirit than discretion, an excellent preacher, but of a fine conversation, which laid him open to much censure in a vicious court’—records that ‘he proved a much better archbishop than bishop’ (ib. p. 590). Beyond the commendation of men such as Evelyn, we have little if any evidence of his administration of the see of Rochester. His short archiepiscopate was one of much vigour. Thoresby tells us that ‘he was much honoured as a preaching bishop, visiting the churches of his diocese, and addressing the people in his plain, vigorous style’ (Diary, 1 May 1684). His first business was to reform his cathedral, which he sought to make ‘a seminary and nursery of christian virtue.’ With this view he collated the admirable Dr. Comber, afterwards dean of Durham [q. v.], to the precentorship, where he proved his earnest coadjutor in his unwelcome but salutary reformations. Among these was the restoration of the weekly celebration of the holy communion, which had fallen into desuetude. The change was strongly opposed by the canons. He also, ‘though with great temper and moderation,’ according to Thoresby, strongly urged the observance of saints' days in all the churches of his diocese, defending the institution from the charge of Romish superstition. The best of the clergy and laity of the diocese deemed themselves ‘very happy’ in their archbishop, so ‘very active in his station.’ On his journey from London to York just before Easter 1686 he slept at an inn in a room infected with the small-pox. On Good Friday he preached in the minster pulpit. On Easter Tuesday the disease declared itself, accompanied with a lethargic seizure, and on the following Sunday he died at his palace of Bishopthorpe, on the improvement of which he had spent a large sum, his end being due, according to his friend Dr. Comber, ‘rather to grief at the melancholy prospect of public affairs,’ James II using his utmost endeavours to destroy the church of England, than to the small-pox (Comber, Memoirs, p. 211). He was buried on the north side of the south aisle of York minster, under a marble monument bearing his effigy robed and mitred, with a long epitaph recording the chief facts of his life, from the pen of his chaplain, the Rev. Leonard Welstead. Evelyn speaks of the death of the archbishop, ‘my special loving friend and excellent neighbour,’ as ‘an inexpressible loss to the whole church, and to his province especially, being a learned, wise, strict, and most worthy prelate.’ He adds: ‘I look on this as a great stroke to the poor church of England in this defecting period’ (Diary, 15 April 1686, ii. 252, edit. 1850). His loss was not less felt as a member of the legislature than as a prelate. ‘No one of the bench of bishops,’ writes Sir W. Trumbull, ‘I may say not all of them, had that interest and authority in the House of Lords which he had … he was not to be browbeaten or daunted by the arrogance or titles of any courtier or favourite. His presence of mind and readiness of elocution, accompanied with good breeding and inimitable wit, gave him a greater superiority than any other lord could pretend to from his dignity of office’ (History of Rochester, 1772). By his wife, who survived him twenty years, dying and being buried at Finedon, he had two sons, Gilbert [q. v.] and John [q. v.], and one daughter, Catherine, who died in infancy. He bequeathed his chapel plate to the altar of York minster, and above three thousand volumes of great value to its library. His only published works are three sermons preached before Charles II: (1) On Job xix. 19, preached at Whitehall on Good Friday 1664; (2) on Ps. liv. 6, 7, also before the king on 20 June 1665, on the thanksgiving for the defeat of the Dutch off Harwich, June 3; (3) on Ps. xviii. 1–31, on 14 Aug. 1666, on the defeat of De Ruyter, 25 July (see Pepys's Diary of that date). There are also two copies of Latin verses reprinted by his descendant, the Rev. Dolben Paul: (a) on the return of Charles I from Scotland, 1641; (b) on the death of the Princess of Orange in 1660.
His person was commanding, but over-corpulent; his complexion dark. His countenance is described as open, his eye lively and piercing, his presence majestic, his general aspect of extraordinary comeliness. Besides the historical picture already mentioned by Lely, and engraved by Loggan, Bromley mentions a portrait by Huysman, engraved by Tompson. Portraits of Dolben exist also in Christ Church Hall and in the deanery, Westminster (engraved in 1822 by Robert Grove), at Bishopthorpe, and at Finedon Hall.[Welch's List of Queen's Scholars, Westminster; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. vol. iv. col. 188, 868; Grainger's Biog. Hist. iii. 245–7, ed. 1775; Taswell's Autobiography, p. 12 (Camd. Soc.); Memoirs of Comber, pp. 186–9, 212; Bedford's Life of Barwick, p. 295; Burnet's Own Time, i. 396, 590, fol. ed.; Thoresby's Diary, i. 172, ii. 425, 436, 439, 440; Evelyn's Diary, ii. 43, 183, 252; Pepys's Diary, ii. 430, iii. 329, 333, 366, 385; Calamy's Own Time, ii. 228; History and Antiquities of Rochester, 1772, 8vo; Overton's Life in the English Church, 1660–1714, pp. 33–34, 243–5, 310; Paul's Dolben's Life and Character, 1884.]