Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Middleton, Conyers

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MIDDLETON, CONYERS (1683–1750), divine, born at York or at Richmond, Yorkshire, on 27 Dec. 1683, was son of William Middleton, rector of Hinderwell, near Whitby, Yorkshire, by his second wife, Barbara Place. He was named after his father's friend, a Conyers of Boulby Hall. The father had some independent means, kept a curate at Hinderwell, and lived at York, where his wife died 8 Aug. 1700, and he on 13 Feb. 1713–14. His other children, one son by the first marriage and two by the second, were extravagant, and he passed his later years in terror of bailiffs. Conyers Middleton is said to have been a good son, and was kind to an old woman who had been his father's only servant for some years. He was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, 19 Jan. 1700, graduated B.A. 1702–3, M.A. 1707, and was elected a fellow of his college in 1706. He was for a short time curate of Trumpington, Cambridge. He was better known for his musical tastes than for excellence in studies, and was afterwards nicknamed ‘fiddling Conyers’ by Bentley, then master of Trinity. Middleton was one of the thirty fellows who on 6 Feb. 1709–10 petitioned the Bishop of Ely as visitor of Trinity College to take steps against Bentley. Middleton vacated his fellowship a few months later by his marriage to Mrs. Sarah Drake, the rich widow of ‘Counsellor Drake’ of Cambridge, and daughter of Mr. Morris of Oak Morris in Kent. He held for a short time the small rectory of Coveney in the Isle of Ely, which was in his wife's gift (he was presented to this in 1726, see Nichols, Lit. Anecd. v. 700). On 3 July 1710 he was one of a party of ten who dined at the Rose Tavern in Cambridge with the members for the university, and drank the health of Sacheverell. They were interrupted by the senior proctor, Richard Laughton, tutor of Clare, who made a formal complaint against them to the heads of houses for disorderly revelling. The authorities treated the complaint as frivolous, but Middleton some time afterwards had to explain that the feast was moderate, and the tavern bill only 1s. 6d. a head. In 1717 George I visited the university, when the degree of D.D. was conferred upon thirty-two persons, including Middleton. Bentley, as regius professor of divinity, demanded a fee of four guineas from each of the new doctors in addition to the established ‘broad-piece.’ Middleton, after some dispute, consented to pay, taking Bentley's written promise to return the money if the claim should be finally disallowed. He was then created doctor. Having vainly applied for a return of the fee, he sued for it as a debt in the vice-chancellor's court. After various delays and attempts to make up the quarrel, the vice-chancellor issued a decree (23 Sept. 1718) for Bentley's arrest. Bentley's refusal to submit to this decree led to further proceedings and to his degradation from all his degrees by a grace of the senate on 18 Oct.

Arthur Ashley Sykes [q. v.] soon afterwards published letters protesting against Bentley's degradation, to which a reply was made by Sherlock, who dwelt upon the original demand for fees. Middleton now took up the attack in what he called a ‘full and impartial account’ of the late proceedings, condemning Bentley's conduct as to the fees and in the management of the college. Middleton showed his great powers as a writer of bitter and plausible invective. Two more pamphlets from Sykes were met by two further replies from Middleton, in which Sykes and other supporters of Bentley were roughly handled, especially for bringing up the old scandal about the dinner at the Rose. The pamphlets were anonymous, and Middleton, being hitherto unknown as a writer, was not suspected until he acknowledged his first tract upon its general success. A final reply, written or dictated by Bentley himself, closed this controversy. Middleton was still keen for revenge. His friend John Colbatch [q. v.], Bentley's most determined opponent, was afraid to give the master a pretext for expelling him from his fellowship. He was glad, however, to supply Middleton with materials for ‘On the Present State of Trinity College,’ which was published in 1719. Bentley, having immediately obtained powers from the seniority, brought an action against the publisher. Middleton at once issued an advertisement (dated 9 Feb. 1720), claiming the pamphlet as his own. Bentley continued to prosecute the bookseller till Middleton made a declaration of his authorship before witnesses. Bentley then laid an information against him in the king's bench, founded upon a passage in the pamphlet about the impossibility of obtaining redress in ‘any proper court of justice in the kingdom.’ The proceedings were slow, and meanwhile Middleton took advantage of Bentley's proposals for an edition of the New Testament to attack him in a sharp pamphlet. Bentley replied, using terms of gross abuse directed chiefly against his other enemy, Colbatch, to whom he chose to attribute the authorship. Bentley's reply was condemned by the heads. Colbatch brought an action against him, and Middleton wrote a longer rejoinder, in which he is admitted to have made some very good points, in language far more decent than his opponent's. He is said, on doubtful tradition, to have been helped in the discussion by Charles Ashton [q. v.], master of Jesus College. It has been frequently asserted that his criticisms gave the deathblow to Bentley's project; but Monk shows this to be a ‘vulgar error’ (Monk, ii. 144, 147–9). Meanwhile, Middleton's case came on in the court of king's bench (Trinity term 1721), and he was found guilty of libel. Sentence was delayed. A few of his friends subscribed towards his expenses, and he obtained the intercession of ‘a certain great personage’ for a lenient sentence. The chief justice (Pratt) advised the two doctors to avoid scandal by a compromise, and Bentley finally accepted an apology. Middleton, however, had to pay his own costs and the taxed expenses of his opponent, which, as the balance paid by the college was 150l., were probably considerable. His friends, wishing to make him some compensation, induced the senate to pass a grace by 112 to 49 votes (14 Dec. 1721), which made him ‘Protobibliothecarius’ of the university library, with a salary of 50l. This was a new office, created expressly for Middleton, although the king's recent donation of Bishop Moore's library gave a pretext. Middleton in 1723 published a plan for the future arrangement of the books. He took the opportunity of attacking Bentley for retaining some manuscripts (the famous ‘Codex Bezæ’ among others) in his own house. A dedication to the vice-chancellor also included a phrase, aimed at Bentley, which might be construed as reflecting upon the court of king's bench. Colbatch had vainly recommended its suppression. Bentley immediately appealed to the court, and on 20 June 1723 Middleton was fined 50l. and ordered to provide securities for good behaviour for a year. Bentley had finally triumphed by this time in his long warfare with the college and university. Middleton, disgusted at his defeat, and in weak health, went to Italy. On his return he renewed his old suit for the four guineas. Bentley apparently did not oppose him, and in February 1725–6 he at last got back his fee, together with 12s. costs. Middleton stayed in Rome during a great part of 1724 and 1725. A silly story—probably a bit of college wit taken seriously—is told in the ‘Biographia Britannica,’ that Middleton found that the librarian at the Vatican had only heard of Cambridge as a school where boys were prepared for Oxford, and that Middleton, to show his dignity, took an hotel at 400l. a year, and injured his fortune by buying antiquities. He did in fact make a collection, of which he afterwards published a description. He sold it to Horace Walpole in 1744 (Walpole, Letters, ed. Cunningham, i. 307). Henry Hare, third lord Coleraine [q. v.], also a collector, was his companion on this journey. Another result of his journey was the ‘Letter from Rome,’ published in 1729, upon the incorporation of pagan beliefs and ceremonies in the catholic church. The argument, as Middleton said in his preface, was old enough, and he only claimed novelty for his mode of statement. It was applauded by the orthodox English divines as an attack upon popery, and its merits of style brought it to a fourth edition in 1741. His first wife died on 19 Feb. 1730–1. In 1731 Middleton was appointed first Woodwardian professor by the executors of the founder, and delivered an inaugural address in Latin, pointing out the services which might be expected from a study of fossils in confirming the history of the deluge. He resigned the chair, however, in 1734, upon his (second) marriage to his cousin Mary, daughter of the Rev. Conyers Place of Dorchester. She died 26 April 1745, aged 38. He had meanwhile got into a controversy with Waterland. Waterland had attacked Matthew Tindal's ‘Christianity as old as the Creation’ (1730), which marked the culmination of the deist controversy. Middleton published an anonymous ‘Letter to Waterland,’ urging that apologists placed themselves in a false position by endeavouring to maintain the historical accuracy of every statement in the Bible. He ridiculed some parts of the book of Genesis, and said that Tindal should be answered by proving the utility of a traditional religion, and confuting his à priori theories of the ‘religion of nature.’ This sceptical tendency, really latent in the ‘Letter from Rome,’ now became obvious. Zachary Pearce [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Rochester, accused him in a ‘Reply’ of covert infidelity. Middleton's authorship had become known, and he was threatened with a loss of his Cambridge degrees. Middleton replied in two pamphlets, making such explanations as he could. Some time later (1733), however, an anonymous pamphlet by Dr. Williams, the public orator, declared that his books ought to be burnt and himself banished from the university, unless he made a recantation. Middleton made an explanation in a final pamphlet, but for some time remained silent upon theological topics. His letters to Lord Oxford (Add. MS. 32457) show that he suspected Oxford of dropping his friendship on account of the suspicions thus cast upon his orthodoxy. He complains that he had ‘for many years’ been ‘a kind of domestic’ to the earl, who now recommended some very inferior person to be travelling governor to a young nobleman. Though some overtures of reconciliation followed, their friendship soon ended. He employed himself upon his life of Cicero, which was long regarded as a model of style. Serious imputations, however, have been made upon his literary honesty. He is accused of plagiarism from the ‘De tribus luminibus Romanorum,’ a scarce work by William Bellenden (d. 1633?) [q. v.] It was a compilation, giving Cicero's history in his own words, and most of the impression having been lost at sea, had become very scarce. Middleton, whose book followed a similar plan, had thus all his materials arranged for him, and instead of acknowledging the debt, boasted in the preface of his great labours. Parr, in his famous ‘Preface to Bellendenus,’ states that after a careful investigation he has been compelled to regard Middleton as guilty of plagiarism. The book was published by subscription in 1741. Middleton had three thousand subscribers, and gained a considerable sum, which, as he says, would enable him to provide for two nieces of about eight years old, left to him by ‘an unfortunate brother who had nothing else to leave’ (Works, i. 397). He also bought from the profits a small estate at Hildersham, six miles from Cambridge, where he turned a ‘rude farm’ into an ‘elegant habitation,’ and spent his summers. He was still living at Cambridge, where he met his friends every night at the coffee-house. Gray, who came into residence in 1742, found Middleton's house the only agreeable place for conversation in Cambridge. His house adjoined Caius College, and looked over the senate-house yard. Cole also speaks of his great charm in society.

Middleton returned to his theological controversies by his writings upon the miraculous powers attributed to the Christian church. He published an ‘Introductory Discourse’ in 1747, followed up by a fuller treatise at the end of 1748. The book denied the credibility of the stories of miracles in periods subsequent to the first age of the church, attacked the character of the narrators, and explained the origin of the narratives by the general credulity of the times in which they arose. The book produced a lively controversy. Hume found that it had eclipsed the volume of essays (published in April 1748), which included his own argument against the credibility of miracles. Gibbon's temporary conversion to catholicism soon afterwards was chiefly due to a perusal of Middleton. The continuity of the claim to miraculous power seemed to him to confirm the later, instead of disproving the earlier stories. Middleton was generally thought to favour the inverse conclusion, although he professed to deny the applicability of his arguments to the first age of the church. The very natural doubts of his sincerity were confirmed by the last volume which he published, an examination of Sherlock's discourses on prophecy (1749–50). Middleton's main position as to the nature of the argument from prophecy might pass for orthodox, but he again attacked the Mosaic account of the fall. Sherlock's book was first published in 1725, in answer to the deist Anthony Collins [q.v.] . Middleton declares that he had never read it until he wrote against it, although it had then been a popular treatise for many years. The bookseller Whiston reported, on the authority of Sherlock, that Middleton professed at least to have read the book when presented by its author on the first publication (see Chalmers, Biog. Dict.) Middleton, however, is said to have had a personal cause of offence. In 1737 he tried to obtain the mastership of the Charterhouse. He says at the time (Misc. Works, i. 390) that Walpole was in his favour, but that the Duke of Newcastle had obtained the appointment for a friend. Walpole, however, afterwards informed him that his failure had really been caused by Sherlock's declaration that the bishops would be offended by Middleton's appointment. Cole says that he heard this from Middleton himself, and the story is repeated in Bishop Newton's autobiography. Warburton says to Hurd (11 July 1750, Letters of an Eminent Prelate, p. 59) that Middleton had been prejudiced against religion ‘by the pretended injuries of some churchmen.’ Such imputations generally deserve little attention, but it must be admitted that, whatever his personal motives, Middleton was probably one of the few divines who can be fairly accused of conscious insincerity. In a letter to Lord Hervey (see Nichols, Anecdotes, v. 421) he says that he would like to have some amends (in the shape of preferment) for that ‘ugly assent and consent, which no man of sense can approve of.’ Except Coveney and the rectory of Hascombe, Surrey, worth 50l. a year, to which he was presented by Sir John Frederick in March 1746–7 (ib. v. 419, 700), he held no preferment, and is said to have observed that as he had not been trusted (with a bishopric) he was ‘at liberty to speak his mind’ (ib. p. 421). His letters to Hervey show that he was much aggrieved at not obtaining preferment. Warburton said (ib. p. 648) that Middleton only went so far as to ‘suspend his belief’ in regard to revelation (see Middleton's Letters to Warburton in Misc. Works, i. 374, 383, 394, which suggested this statement). However his position may be judged from a moral point of view, there can be no doubt that he was far too able a man to be blind to the tendency of his arguments. Not long before his death Middleton married a third wife, Anne, daughter of John Powell of Boughrood, near Radnor. She had lived with Mrs. Trenchard, widow of John Trenchard [q. v.], afterwards married to Thomas Gordon (d. 1750) [q. v.] His health was breaking, and while he was preparing a general answer to the critics of the ‘Free Enquiry,’ he died at Hildersham, ‘of a slow hectic fever and disorder in his liver,’ on 28 July 1750. He was engaged in a lawsuit with a builder at the time of his death (Walpole, Letters, ii. 237; Letters of an Eminent Prelate, p. 54). Middleton left behind him several manuscripts, some of which appeared in the posthumous collection of his ‘Miscellaneous Works.’ His papers were left by his widow to Dr. Heberden. Heberden is said to have burnt one paper against the utility of prayer. It is also said that Bolingbroke surreptitiously preserved a copy of this paper, after advising Middleton's executors to destroy it (Nichols, Anecd. v. 423; Walpole, George II, 1846, i. 224). The paper, however, which Bolingbroke returned with advice against publication, appears to have been a Latin dissertation upon miracles of a decidedly heterodox kind (Bolingbroke's letter of 11 Sept. 1751, in British Museum Addit. MS. 32457, and list of fragments in Addit. MS. 32459).

Middleton took some sons of the nobility into his house as pupils. According to Cole, the regular tutors were much annoyed by his encroaching upon their province. His income was about 600l. or 700l. a year. He is said to have had a share in educating the once famous Mrs. Montagu, granddaughter of his first wife. He was very intimate with John, lord Hervey [q. v.], to whom he dedicated his ‘Cicero,’ and who was erroneously credited with translations of some of the orations. Middleton's letters to him contained the substance of the treatise upon the Roman senate, and were published, with Hervey's replies, by Dr. Knowles in 1778. Middleton's relations with most of the eminent divines of his day were uncomfortable. He carried on a friendly correspondence with Warburton for a time, and Warburton was blamed (in 1738) for complimenting him in the first volume of the ‘Divine Legation’ as a ‘formidable adversary to the freethinkers.’ They afterwards had a dispute about the ‘Letters from Rome,’ which Middleton defended against Warburton in a postscript to the fourth edition (1741). This put an end to their friendship.

A portrait of Middleton, engraved by Ravenet after J. G. Echardt, is prefixed to his ‘Works.’ A medal, taken by Giovanni Pozzo at Rome in 1724, was copied by Wedgwood. The original portrait by J. G. Echardt is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. He was athletic in his youth, but injured his health by an injudicious diet, intended to suppress a tendency to corpulence.

Middleton's fame as a writer of pure English has rather faded. Parr declared that he was scarcely excelled by any one but Addison. He seems to have been admired by Landor, who introduces him, with less deviation than usual from historical accuracy, in an imaginary conversation with Magliabecchi. His writings are among the ablest of those produced by the deist controversy, and with Warburton's ‘Divine Legation’ show the tendency of the discussion to pass into an historical criticism. He touched upon many points raised by modern investigators of the history of religion, without, however, noticing their full significance.

Middleton's works are: 1. ‘A full and impartial Account of all the late Proceedings … against Dr. Bentley,’ 1719. 2. ‘Second Part’ of the above, 1719. 3. ‘Some Remarks upon a Pamphlet entitled “The Case of Dr. Bentley further stated and vindicated” …,’ 1719. 4. ‘A True Account of the Present State of Trinity College in Cambridge under the oppressive rule of their Master, Richard Bentley, late D.D.,’ 1720. 5. ‘Remarks, paragraph by paragraph, upon the Proposals lately published by Richard Bentley for a new Edition of the Greek Testament and Latin Version,’ 1721. 6. ‘Some further Remarks … containing a full Answer to the Editor's late Defence …,’ 1721. 7. ‘Bibliothecæ Cantabrigiensis ordinandæ Methodus quædam …,’ 1723. 8. ‘De Medicorum apud Veteres Romanos degentium Conditione Dissertatio; quà contra viros celeberrimos Jac. Sponium et Rich. Meadium, M.D., servilem atque ignobilem eam fuisse ostenditur,’ 1726. This was in answer to the Harveian oration by Mead, with an appendix by Edmund Chishull [q. v.], and was answered by John Ward [q. v.], Joseph Letherland, and others, to whom Middleton replied in the next: 9. ‘Dissertationis … contra anonymos quosdam … auctores Defensio,’ 1727. Middleton wrote an ‘Appendix seu Definitiones, pars secunda,’ but having met Mead upon friendly terms at the Earl of Oxford's house, suppressed it. It was published in 1761 by Dr. William Heberden the elder [q. v.], with an English letter from Middleton to another opponent, Charles La Motte (see Nichols, Lit. Anecd. i. 266–8, v. 519–20). 10. ‘A Letter from Rome, showing an exact Conformity between Popery and Paganism …,’ 1729. To the 4th edition in 1741 was added a ‘Prefatory Discourse’ and ‘Postscript.’ 11. ‘A Letter to Dr. Waterland, containing some Remarks on his “Vindication of Scripture” …,’ 1731. 12. ‘A Defence of the Letter to Dr. Waterland …,’ 1731. 13. ‘Some further Remarks on a Reply to the Defence of the Letter to Dr. Waterland …,’ 1732. 14. ‘Oratio de Novo Physiologiæ explicandæ munere, ex celeberrimi Woodwardi Testamento instituto, habita Cantabrigiæ in Scholis publicis,’ 1732. 15. ‘Remarks on some Observations addressed to the Author of the Letter to Dr. Waterland,’ 1733. 16. ‘A Dissertation concerning the Origin of Printing in England; showing that it was first introduced … by … William Caxton …,’ 1734–5. The substance of this was reprinted in the ‘Origin of Printing,’ by Bowyer and Nichols, in 1774; second edition 1776, with appendix 1781. (For the controversy to which it refers see under Atkyns, Richard; see also Nichols, Anecd. iii. 171–7.)

  1. ‘The History of the Life of M. Tullius Cicero,’ 2 vols. 4to, 1741; 4th edition in 1750.
  2. ‘The Epistles of M. T. Cicero to M. Brutus and of Brutus to Cicero …,’ the Latin with English translation, and a prefatory dissertation in defence of the authenticity of the epistles, 1743. This was in reply to James Tunstall, who had attacked the use of the epistles in the ‘Life.’ Middleton's opinion was attacked by Markland and others (see Nichols, Anecd. v. 412–14, note). The opinion of modern critics seems to be generally against him.
  3. ‘Germana quædam Antiquitatis eruditæ Monumenta …,’ 1745 (account of the antiquities bought by him in Rome); with an engraving of Middleton by J. Mynde.
  4. ‘A Treatise on the Roman Senate,’ 1747.
  5. ‘An Introductory Discourse to a larger Work … concerning the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church from the earliest ages … with a Postscript … on an Archidiaconal Charge … by the Rev. Dr. Chapman …,’ 1747.
  6. ‘Remarks on two Pamphlets’ (against the last), 1748.
  7. ‘A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers,’ &c., 1749.
  8. ‘An Examination of the Lord Bishop of London's Discourses concerning the Use and Intent of Prophecy, with … a further Inquiry into the Mosaic account of the Fall,’ 1750.
  9. ‘A Vindication of the Free Inquiry … from the Objections of Dr. Dodwell and Mr. Church’ (posthumous), 1751.

Middleton's ‘Miscellaneous Works’ were published in 4 vols. 4to in 1752, and in 5 vols. 8vo in 1755. They include all the above except ‘The Life of Cicero,’ ‘Germana Antiquitatis Monumenta,’ and the first four pamphlets against Bentley, which are in the quarto but omitted in the octavo edition; and the following, published for the first time:

  1. ‘Preface to an intended Answer to all the Objections made against the Free Inquiry.’
  2. ‘Cursory Reflections on the Dispute … between St. Peter and St. Paul.’
  3. ‘Reflections on the Variations … among the four Evangelists …’
  4. ‘An Essay on the Gift of Tongues …’
  5. ‘Some short Remarks on a Story … concerning St. John … and Cerinthus …’
  6. ‘An Essay on the Allegorical and Literal Interpretation of the Creation and Fall of Man.’
  7. ‘De Latinarum Literarum Pronunciatione Dissertatio.’
  8. A few letters to Warburton and others. Further letters to Warburton in Addit. MS. 32457.

In Nichols's ‘Anecdotes,’ v. 521, a list is given of some other manuscripts of little importance left at his death.

[Biog. Brit.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. v. 405–23 and elsewhere; a few notices are in Nichols's Illustrations; Monk's Life of Bentley, 1833, i. 253, 287, 373–4, ii. 31, 44, 49, 69–73, 91–6, 130–5, 142, 149–54, 199–202, 209–10 (Monk had before him Middleton's correspondence with Colbatch); Watson's Warburton, 1863, pp. 63, 132–5, 141–2, 258–62, 369–73; Addit. MSS. 32457 (Middleton's miscellaneous correspondence), 32458 (correspondence with Lord Hervey); Notes and Queries, 8th ser. v. 285. Some fragments of earlier letters to Hervey are given in this, and were, it is said, circulated ‘all over the nation.’ Another copy is in Addit. MS. 5826, f. 21 (Cole's Collection; see also quotations in Nichols's Anecdotes as above); Addit. MS. 32459 (fragments and rough drafts of writings); Cole's Athenæ Cantabr. Addit. MS. 5833, ff. 229–34.]

L. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.198
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
346 i 8 f.e. Middleton, Conyers: for thus read then
347 i 36 for 'Letter to Rome' read 'Letter from Rome'