Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Benson, Edward White

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1415519Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 1 — Benson, Edward White1901Arthur James Mason

BENSON, EDWARD WHITE (1829–1896), archbishop of Canterbury, was descended from a family of Yorkshire ' dalesmen,' to which belonged also George Benson the divine [q. v.] and Robert Benson, lord Bingley [q. v.] The archbishop always spoke with pride of his sturdy 'forbears' and kinsmen in Craven. His grandfather. Captain White Benson, a boon companion of William Frederick, duke of Gloucester, squandered a handsome fortune, and left his widow and his only son, Edward White Benson the elder, in reduced circumstances. Edward White Benson, the archishop's father, set up as a chemical manufacturer in Birmingham, where the archbishop was born on 14 July 1829. The house was 72 Lombard Street. In 1843 the archbishop's father died, his end being hastened by the failure of his business; and the widow, a sister of Sir Thomas Baker of Manchester, who lived on in a small house in the closed works upon an annuity given her by her husband's partners, had much difficulty to provide for her six surviving children.

At the age of eleven the boy entered King Edward's School, Birmingham, then under the government of James Prince Lee [q. v.], an inspiring teacher, to whom Benson used to say that he owed all that he ever was or should be. Bishop Westcott was at that time one of the senior boys in the school. Another pupil, Joseph Barber Lightfoot [q. v.], who was nearer his own age, became Benson's most intimate friend, and remained so to the end of his life. A devout and imaginative boy, he had already conceived the hope of entering holy orders. He read with eagerness the 'Tracts for the Times' and other ecclesiastical literature, and secretly recited, with Lightfoot or other select associates, the Latin Plours in a little oratory which he fitted up in the dismantled works. A tempting commercial prospect was refused, and in 1848 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a subsizar.

His mother died suddenly in 1850, exhausted by the strain of nursing her children through typhus fever, the eldest girl having died a few hours before. Her annuity ending with her life, the family was left almost penniless. Friends came to their aid, but it is a proof of the strength of Benson's early convictions that he would not allow his youngest brother to become dependent upon his uncle at Manchester, who was a unitarian, lest he should be drawn away from the faith of the church. Benson was himself set free from pecuniary anxiety by the generosity of Francis Martin, the bursar of Trinity, who became a second father to him. His declamation at Trinity in praise of George Herbert made a profound impression upon those who heard or read it. He graduated B.A. in 1852, being placed eighth in the classical tripos, and a senior optime in mathematics; he was also senior chancellor's medallist.

In that autumn he went as a master to Rugby, under Edward Meyrick Goulburn [q. v. Suppl.], where he lived in the house of his cousin, Mrs. Sidgwick, widow of the Rev. William Sidgwick of Skipton, Yorkshire, and mother of Henry Sidgwick [q. v. Suppl.] Next year he was elected fellow of Trinity, but he never resided upon his fellowship. He was ordained deacon in 1853 by his old master, Lee, then bishop of Manchester, and priest at Ely in 1867. In 1859 he was married to Mrs. Sidgwick's daughter Mary, to whom he had been attached from her early childhood.

In January of that year, 1859, Benson had entered upon his first independent duties. His health had suffered at Rugby. He had been thinking of taking work at Cambridge. At one moment he was on the point of becoming domestic chaplain to Tait, bishop of London, afterwards archbishop. Just then Wellington College was being constituted, and on the recommendation of Dr. Temple, who had succeeded Goulburn at Rugby, and who there formed a lifelong friendship with Benson, the prince consort offered Benson the mastership. Here he had the first opportunity of exercising his peculiarly constructive genius. Wellington College was his creation. From the moment of his acceptance of the mastership of the still unborn institution he began to remodel the scheme that had been set before him, the prince consort supporting him at every point until his death in 1861. Instead of the charity school for a few sons of officers which it would otherwise have been, he made Wellington College one of the great public schools of England. He persuaded the governor's to put the whole control of the school into the hands of the master, instead of entrusting the commissariat to a steward and secretary responsible only to themselves. His whole soul was put into every detail of the arrangements. The chapel especially—which was dedicated to the Holy Ghost—and its services had the deepest interest for him. To plan how the boys were to be seated, the windows decorated according to a careful scheme, the capitals carved with plants native to the district, gave him delightful employment. He drew up a characteristic book of hymns and introits for use in the chapel. Though severely simple, there was an impression of care about the services which sometimes gave strangers the feeling that the college was very 'high church.' One such visitor wrote to the governors to complain of the extreme sermon he had heard; it turned out that the sermon on the occasion was preached by Benson's neighbour and congenial friend, Charles Kingsley.

The boys with whom he began were difficult material to deal with. He had to set a tradition and form a character for the school from the outset. Perhaps it was this fact, as well as natural temperament, that made him a stern disciplinarian at Wellington. Masters and boys alike feared him. But his sternness was joined to profound sympathy with the boys, and to an exact knowledge of them individually. His own idealism could not but be infectious, and there were few, either masters or boys, who came into close connection with him without imbibing something of his exalted spirit.

Wordsworth, bishop of Lincoln, had, at his appointment in 1868, made Benson one of his examining chaplains, and the year after a prebendary of Lincoln Cathedral. That same year Dr. Temple was nominated for the see of Exeter, The choice excited much opposition because of Temple's connection with 'Essays and Reviews;' and Bishop Wordsworth earnestly joined the opposition. Benson felt constrained to come forward as the champion of his friend, and wrote to resign his chaplaincy at Lincoln. Wordsworth smiled and put the letter in the fire; and for some time after Temple's consecration Benson acted as examining chaplain to the two prelates at once. At a later time it was they who presented him between them for his consecration as bishop. When, in 1872, the chancellorship of Lincoln Minster fell vacant, Bishop Wordsworth offered it to him. Thereupon Benson resigned the mastership at Wellington, and took up his residence at Lincoln.

The chancellor of Lincoln was by statute responsible for the teaching of divinity in the city and diocese. The statute was obsolete; but Benson, in accordance with the bishop's desire, set himself to revive it. He formed without delay the beginnings of a 'chancellor's school' for the training of candidates for the ministry, both graduates and non-graduates. By the bishop's munificence they were provided with a suitable home, and it soon took a good rank among the theological colleges of England. Besides teaching the students in this school, Benson gave public lectures on church history in the cathedral, and on the scriptures in a side chapel which he got fitted up for divine worship. He conducted a weekly bible-reading for mechanics of the city. He set on foot and organised night schools for men and lads, which from the outset were remarkably successful. He introduced the university extension lectures into Lincoln. It has been truly said by his faithful coadjutor, Mr. Crowfoot, that 'he took Lincoln by storm.' Besides all this he founded a society of clergy for special evangelistic work in the diocese, of which he was himself the first warden. The holding of a general 'mission' in the city was mainly due to him, and he preached the mission himself in the principal parish church of Lincoln.

Both at Wellington and at Lincoln, Benson had exhibited his powers as an originator. He was soon to have an opportunity of exhibiting them on a larger scale. For many years past, efforts had been made to secure the erection, or the re-erection, of a Cornish see, independent of that.of Devon. Bishop Phillpotts of Exeter had laboured and provided for this end; and under his successor, Bishop Temple, the work of Edmund Carlyon, and of many other promoters of the cause, was crowned in 1876 by a magnificent gift from Lady Rolle which completed the endowment required by parliament for the see of Truro. In December the see was offered to Benson by Lord Beaconsfield, then prime minister. A few months before he had refused the offer of the great see of Calcutta, but the new offer was accepted, and on St. Mark's day (25 April) 1877 Benson was consecrated at St. Paul's, and enthroned at Truro on St. Philip and St. James's day (1 May).

Benson settled in a modest house—Lisescop, as he named it, the Cornish for 'Bishop's Court'—which had formerly been the vicarage of Kenwyn. The place and people proved thoroughly congenial. He delighted in the Cornish people, and was never tired of observing and analysing their character. As Dr. Lightfoot prophesied, in his sermon at the consecration, he was a Cornishman to the Cornishmen, and a Wesleyan to the Wesleyans. Within the first year of his consecration the bishop experienced a great sorrow in the loss of his eldest son, Martin, a boy of seventeen, who died at Winchester College, of which he was a scholar.

The act which constituted the see of Truro empowered the bishop to appoint twenty-four honorary canons, and to make such statutes for them as he thought fit. Other new sees had a similar provision made for them; but his was the only one where the provision was at once made a practical reality. Benson based his statutes mainly upon those of Lincoln, with such adaptations as the circumstances required, and a working chapter was gradually formed, residentiary and non-residentiary, though it was reserved for his successor to obtain some endowment for the officers of the cathedral. He made his chapter a real concilium episcopi, and employed them in giving instructions and lectures in different parts of the diocese. He was the first bishop to appoint a canon whose business it should be to conduct missions in the diocese and to gather a community round him for the purpose. He formed a divinity school, like that at Lincoln, under the charge of the chancellor of the cathedral, for the training of candidates for holy orders. Meanwhile he found it needful to obtain a new cathedral for the see. There had been assigned for the purpose a small plain parish church, undistinguished except by an interesting little southern aisle, and in almost ruinous condition. Cornwall at the time was much impoverished, and the effort to find the endowment of the see was enough to exhaust the resources of its church people. Many thought that it would be best in the circumstances to aim at building a good-sized church of the same type as the old. But the bishop was more ambitious. His enthusiasm at length carried every one with him. John Loughborough Pearson [q. v. Suppl.] was chosen as the architect; and on 20 May 1880 the foundation stone of the present beautiful cathedral was laid by the Prince of Wales (as Duke of Cornwall). The bishop took the keenest interest in the progress of the work. As archbishop he was present at the consecration of Truro Cathedral on 3 Nov. 1887. It was, he said, a most spiritual building.' He left to it his pastoral staff, his ring, and other relics.

Among other works which the bishop took up with ardour was the foundation of a first-rate high school for girls at Truro, to which he sent his own daughters. He put on a new footing the ancient grammar school, though his hopes with regard to it were hardly fulfilled. He threw great energy into the organisation of Sunday-school work in the diocese, and into the maintenance of church day schools in the places where they still remained. It was his principle to make the most of what he found existing. He took a guild for the advancement of holy living, which had proved useful in a few Cornish parishes, and developed it into a powerful diocesan society with many branches. A devotional conference, which had been started by the Cornish clergy some years before he came, received an access of strength, and led on to the holding of diocesan retreats. The yearly conferences with the clergy and representative laity in the various rural deaneries, begun by Bishop Temple, gave him opportunities which he greatly valued. The diocesan conference at Truro, as well through the statesmanship of its president as through the skill and labour of its secretaries, Mr. Carlyon and Mr. J. R. Cornish, became famous for its businesslike character. The interest which he took in every detail of parochial work in every corner of his diocese had a most stimulating effect. Wherever he preached he told the people things about their church, or about their patron saint, or about the history of the place, of which they were ignorant. His attitude towards the prevailing dissent of Cornwall was that of personal friendliness towards all who sought to do good, while he felt bound to endeavour so to reinvigorate every department of church life that the people might of themselves return to what they would feel to be the most scriptural and spiritual religion.

Besides his diocesan work, Benson, in spite of the remoteness of his see, was unfailing in his attendance at convocation and at the meetings of the bishops. The conciliar idea was a powerful motive with him, and he was always indignant when bishops allowed diocesan engagements to interfere with their wider duties as 'the bishops of England.' He was appointed to serve on the royal commission upon ecclesiastical courts in 1881, and laboured hard upon it.

Since his appointment to Truro the eyes of churchmen had been fixed upon him, and when Archbishop Tait died, in December 1882, the queen, acting through W. E. Gladstone as prime minister, offered him the primacy. Tait himself had foreseen that Benson would be his successor, and had for some time past taken him into relations of close intimacy. He gave him rooms in Lollard's Tower. His son-in-law, Dr. Randall Davidson, remained as chaplain to the new archbishop. The appointment was calculated to give peace and confidence to the church, which had been greatly agitated by ritual prosecutions. Archbishop Tait on his death-bed prepared the way for better times, and Benson carried on the tolerant policy. No ritual prosecutions, except that of Bishop King, took place during his primacy.

Benson had not sat in the House of Lords before his translation to Canterbury. But as soon as he became archbishop he made it his duty constantly to attend the sittings of the house, even when there was no ecclesiastical business before it. Everything that concerned the nation concerned in his opinion the church. A conservative by training and temperament, he was glad to speak and vote on matters that were of larger than party interest. In the first year of his archiepiscopate, he spoke warmly in favour of the new extension of the franchise. 'The church,' he said, 'trusts the people.' When many churchmen were inclined to fight the parish councils bill in 1893, because of the way in which it touched some ecclesiastical interests, the archbishop strongly espoused the measure as a whole, while insisting that parish rooms and the church school rooms should be free from proposed encroachments. The bill was passed practically in the form which he advised. He was a member of the 'sweating' committee of the House of Lords, and was profoundly moved by the disclosures which it produced.

Naturally, however, legislation upon church matters engaged most of his attention in parliament. His first speech there was on behalf of the bill for giving effect to the recommendations of the cathedrals commission, over which Tait had presided. Twice he endeavoured to get the measure passed, but in vain. Nor was he more successful in regard to the proposals of the ecclesiastical courts commission, of which he had been a member. Again and again he introduced bills founded upon the monumental work produced by that commission; but opinion was too much divided to permit the bills to become statutes. He laboured untiringly at practical reforms. Three successive patronage bills represented a vast amount of thought and consultation on the subject. They bore fruit after his death in the Benefices Act, 1898. His clergy discipline bill, after a long and patient struggle, became law in 1892, the object being to simplify the process for removing criminous incumbents from their benefices.

Nothing demanded of him greater efforts than the cause of the church schools. He succeeded in obtaining the appointment of a royal commission, in 1886, to inquire into the working of the Education Acts, which brought prominently before the public the value of the voluntary schools, and the difficulties under which they laboured. He spoke in favour of the free education bill in 1891, though he took care to obtain modifications of what would otherwise have increased the hardships of church schools. He was strongly opposed to seeking rate aid for these schools, feeling sure that such aid was incompatible with full liberty to teach the doctrine of the church in them. Although he did not live to see carried the measures which he had devised for the good of the voluntary schools, they were embodied in the act of 1897.

Like his pattern Cyprian, Benson, though a born priest, would do nothing without his laity. At Truro Lord Mount Edgcumbe particularly, at Canterbury Lord Selborne, Sir E,, Webster, and Chancellor Dibdin, were his constant advisers. But he was anxious that the counsels of laymen should be more openly and directly heard. For this purpose he created in 1886 a house of laymen to sit in connection with the convocation of his province. Its office is purely consultative; but the existence of a body of laymen, deputed by an orderly system of election in the different dioceses, to aid with their advice the ancient convocations of the church, is full of potentialities for the future. The house of laymen is one of the chief monuments of his statesmanship.

Another such monument is the continued existence of the church in Wales, if not in England, as an established church. From the commencement of his archiepiscopate he took a deep interest in the Welsh church. He was anxious to strengthen its position by the enrichment of its spiritual vitality. For this purpose, with the concurrence of the Welsh bishops, he arranged every year for a series of retreats and shorter devotional gatherings for the Welsh clergy, and for missions—especially itinerant missions of open-air preachers—to be held in different districts. Only in conjunction with this spiritual work would he undertake to strive for the preservation of endowments and privileges. He visited Wales himself several times. Although the Tithe Act of 1891 was not, in his view, a perfect measure—certainly not one of disinterested goodwill to the church—he strenuously supported it in order to put an end to the demoralising war which was being carried on against tithes in Wales. In that year the liberal party made Welsh disestablishment a part of its official programme. Many people considered the Welsh church indefensible, and held that the church in England would be the stronger for allowing it to be disestablished. The archbishop thought otherwise. The 'church congress' was held that year at Rhyl. Benson attended it. He made there the most memorable and effectual speech of his life. 'I come,' he said, 'from the steps of the chair of Augustine to tell you that by the benediction of God we will not quietly see you disinherited.' That speech marked the turn of the tide. The campaign, however, was carried on for four years longer. In 1893 Gladstone's government introduced a suspensory bill, to preclude the formation of any further vested interests in the Welsh church. In 1895 a Welsh disestablishment bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons, and was in committee at the date of the liberal government's fall. It was the vigilant attitude of the archbishop, joined with the labours of the bishops of St. Asaph and St. Davids and others, that largely contributed to repel the attack.

It was seen that the Welsh suspensory bill was only a first step to general disestablishment, and the archbishop took measures in view of the larger issue. He organised an enormous meeting in the Albert Hall (16 May 1893), preceded by a great communion at St. Paul's, consisting of both convocations and the houses of laymen, together with other elected representatives of the laity. It was not only an imposing demonstration: it was the beginning of a new organisation for the defence of the church, which gradually absorbed the older 'Church Defence Institution,' and exists now as the Central Church Committee for Church Defence and Instruction. The organisation is one to touch every parish, and the work is chiefly that of diffusing true information on the subject of the church. Quieter times followed; but the organisation still exists.

The event of Benson's primacy which is generally considered to be the most important was the trial of Dr. Edward King, bishop of Lincoln, before him for alleged ritual offences. In 1888 the body known as the Church Association prayed him, as metropolitan, to judge the case. Only one undoubted precedent since the Reformation could be adduced for the trial of a bishop before his metropolitan. The charges themselves were of a frivolous character. The archbishop might have declined upon that ground to entertain them. The strongest pressure was brought upon him to do so. To this course he would not consent. He saw that, if he did so, the complainants would apply to queen's bench for a mandamus, and that, if the mandamus were granted, he should be forced to hear the case after all; while if it were refused on the ground that he had no jurisdiction, he would be in the position of having claimed, by the use of his discretion, a power which the queen's bench did not recognise. Besides, in the abeyance of other courts which high church-men could acknowledge, he was not sorry to give proofs that there was a really spiritual court in existence, before which they might plead. In former cases, before the public worship regulation court, they had felt unable to produce their evidence. While petitions were poured in upon him, begging him to dismiss the suit, Benson had the strength, almost unsupported, to determine to proceed with it, if his jurisdiction were once established. The prosecution appealed to the privy council upon that question, and the judicial committee decided that the jurisdiction existed.

On 12 Feb. 1889 the trial opened. The bishop's counsel began by a protest against the constitution of the court, alleging that the case ought to be tried before the bishops of the province. Benson allowed the question to be fully argued before him, and on 11 May gave an elaborate judgment, asserting the competence of the court. The hearing of the case proper began in the following February. The archbishop sat with five bishops as assessors. Judgment was given on 21 Nov.—the archbishop's eldest daughter having died a few weeks before. Meantime he had been laboriously occupied, even during his brief holiday in Switzerland, in studies bearing upon the case. From his youth up he had taken a great interest in liturgical matters, and so brought to the case the knowledge of an expert. His judgment was a masterpiece of erudition as well as of judicial lucidity. But the main merits of it were, first, that it refused to base itself upon previous decisions of the privy council, but went de novo into every question raised, admitting the light of fresh evidence; and, secondly, it treated the prayer-book not as a merely legal document to be interpreted by nothing beyond its own explicit language, but in an historical manner, with an eye to the usages of the church before the Reformation. The chief points of it were that it allowed the celebrant at the eucharist to assume what is called the eastward position, the mixing of water with the wine in such a way as not to constitute a 'ceremony,' the ablution of the vessels before leaving the altar, and the use of candles at the celebration when not required for the purpose of giving light. Benson's judgment was, in the words of Dean Church, 'the most courageous thing that has come from Lambeth for the last two hundred years.' In those of Bishop Westcott, it 'vindicated beyond reversal one master principle of his faith, the historic continuity of our church. The Reformation was shown to be not its beginning but a critical stage in its growth.'

While Benson thus spent himself for the good of the church at home, he bestowed more care upon the church abroad than any archbishop of Canterbury before him. He threw himself into the missionary work of the church not only with ardour and sagacity, but with a philosophic largeness of view. The founding of a new mission, like that to Corea for example, gave him profound delight. He guided the young church on the Niger through a most grave crisis. When the bishop of Madagascar returned to England at the moment of the French occupation, the archbishop made him go back within a fortnight. He succeeded in practically healing the schism which for some twenty-five years had divided the church in Natal.

Nor were his sympathies confined to the churches in direct communion with Canterbury. He sent an envoy to Kiew in 1888 to convey the good wishes of the Anglican church on the nine hundredth anniversary of the conversion of Russia. He revived the office of an Anglican bishop at Jerusalem, unhampered by the connection with Lutherans which had formerly existed. The revival was strenuously opposed by most high churchmen, partly because of the past history of the office, and partly from a dislike of intrusion into other men's jurisdictions. But the archbishop knew his ground. He had assured himself that the step had the approval of the Eastern prelates whose prerogative was thought to be invaded, and he had confidence that any bishop whom he sent as his legatus a latere would improve the relations between the churches. A mission dearer to his heart was that to the decayed Assyrian church, of which mission he was practically the founder. The appeals of that church, oppressed by their Moslem neighbours, and infested by Romanist and presbyterian proselytisers, had received occasional attention before, especially when Howley sent George Percy Badger [q. v. Suppl.] to reside for some years along them. But Benson first put the work on a solid basis. After sending Mr. Athelstan Riley to make investigations on the spot, he despatched in 1886 Mr. Maclean and Mr. Browne upon the mission, which has since been greatly developed, to aid the Assyrian church by teaching and in other ways, without drawing away its members from their proper allegiance, and on the other hand without condoning, by any act of communion, the Nestorian heresy with which that church is formally tainted. It was his hope that in the course of time the revived Assyrian church might become again, what it had once been, a great evangelising agency among those Asiatics whom it is hard for European minds to reach.

He was perhaps less alert to seize an opening in relation to the great Roman church. While his desire for union among all Christians was very strong, he had no hope of anything being gained by intercourse with Rome, or even by direct co-operation with its English representatives on points of common interest, like religious education. Since the time of Laud, no such direct advance has been made by Rome to an archbishop of Canterbury as was made in 1894 to Archbishop Benson. Leo XIII had been greatly impressed by what he had learned concerning the state of religion in England; and the Abbé Portal, who had written a work on Anglican orders, hastened from an important interview with the pope to seek an audience of Archbishop Benson. He represented the pope as anxious to write in person to the English archbishops, and as intending to submit the question of English orders to M. Duchesne, who had already declared himself in favour of their validity. He desired to elicit some expression of welcome for a letter which he brought from Cardinal Rampolla, which might encourage the pope to take further steps. But the archbishop was justly annoyed at the interview having been sprung upon him unprepared and gave no encouragement. Whether a more sympathetic attitude on his part would have produced any effect at Rome cannot now be known. At any rate the moment passed. Shortly after, the pope addressed an encyclical to the English people without so much as a mention of the English church. The commission on Anglican orders proved to be a wholly different thing from what M. Portal had said. It pronounced in an opposite sense to M. Duchesne, and the organ of the French savants who wished to facilitate reunion was suppressed by authority.

Throughout all the pressure of public work the archbishop never lost sight of the pastoral part of his office. He visited his diocese, and in particular his cathedral city, more frequently than most of his predecessors. He preached a great deal, and never without deep and careful thought. He devoted much attention to the sisterhoods of which he was visitor. But the piece of pastoral work which interested him most was a weekly gathering in Lent which he instituted in Lambeth Chapel; there he instructed a great throng of fashionable ladies in various books of the Bible.

In 1896 he started on 16 Sept. for a short tour in Ireland, to preach at the reopening of Kildare Cathedral and elsewhere. He was all the more glad to do so because he had strongly and openly disapproved of the action of the Archbishop of Dublin (William Conyngham Plunket, Lord Plunket [q. v. Suppl.]) in consecrating a bishop for the reforming party in Spain. He was everywhere received with enthusiasm. On Friday, 9 Oct., he gave an inspiring address at a great meeting at Belfast in furtherance of the building of a cathedral there. He crossed the Irish Channel the same day, and proceeded on the 10th to Hawarden, to stay with Gladstone, for whom he had the deepest veneration. The following day, Sunday, he went to the early celebration of the holy eucharist, and received, kneeling beside his wife. After breakfast he returned to the church, cheerful and seeming unusually well, for the morning prayer, and sat in Gladstone's place. While the absolution was being pronounced he died, by a sudden failure of the heart. The body was conveyed on the 14th to Canterbury, where it lay in the 'crown' of the cathedral, visited by multitudes of mourners. The funeral took place on Friday the 16th, in the presence of the Duke of York and a vast congregation. He was the first archbishop buried in his own cathedral since Pole.

The archbishop was survived by his wife, by three sons (Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson of Eton College, Mr. Edward Frederic Benson the novelist, and Mr. Robert Hugh Benson) and by one daughter, Margaret.

Most men engaged in such arduous and multifarious work as Archbishop Benson would have given up all hope of consecutive study. Benson clung to his reading with indomitable perseverance. His hours of sleep were reduced to a minimum. Every day before breakfast, which was an early meal in his household, he secured time for earnest study of his New Testament. For some years before his death he took as the topic for this study the Revelation of St. John. One result is the suggestive and stimulating volume upon that book published since his death ('The Apocalypse,' 1900). Besides this, from his Wellington days onwards, he worked hard whenever opportunity came, and chiefly at midnight, upon Cyprian. He undertook the work mainly as a corrective to the desultory habit of mind likely to be produced by such a mixture of external duties, and as a relief from care. He went with extraordinary thoroughness into the minutiae. He used half playfully to persuade himself that the 'Cyprian' was his only serious life-work, and that all else was only so much interruption. Few things ever gave him such pleasure as a visit in 1892 to Carthage and the scenes with which his mind had so long been familiar. The history lived for him with a wonderful vividness and freshness, and continually threw light for him upon the daily problems from which he had turned to it as a refuge. He lived to complete his task, all but for a few verifications, and the book was published in 1897, a few months after his death. It would have been a great book if written by a man of leisure; for one in a position like his it is nothing short of marvellous.

Archbishop Benson's was a personality of very large and varied gifts. He had the temperament of a poet and a dramatist, with swift insight and emotions at once profound and soon stirred. He was naturally sanguine, though, like other sanguine persons, liable to great depression. His was the very opposite temper to that which made Butler refuse the primacy of a 'falling church.' Benson showed 'no alacrity at sinking,' said a leader-writer in the 'Times,' looking back at the difficulties which would have drowned a weaker man in the first days at Wellington. He was a masterful ruler, and was determined to carry through whatever he felt to be right. Yet, reliant as he was upon his own judgment (under God), no man was ever more careful to consult every one concerned, or more loyal to those whom he consulted. By nature passionate, he learned to control his temper without losing the force which lies behind it. His industry knew no bounds. 'The first off-day since this time last year,' he wrote towards the end of a so-called holiday abroad. Three secretaries as well as himself were incessantly engaged upon his letters. 'The penny post,' he said, 'is one of those ordinances of man to which we have to submit for the Lord's sake.' The business of the see of Canterbury rose in his time to an unprecedented amount, so that he used to say that he needed a college of cardinals to do it. He did nothing in slovenly fashion, but went to the bottom of everything. His curious literary style was due to his determination to get behind the commonplace and conventional. Details fascinated him; he seemed wholly absorbed in them. His position made him a trustee of the British Museum, and his mind would be on fire for days with the thought of some ornament lately brought from Egypt or Ægina. He would expatiate at length upon the way to choose oats or to fold a rochet. He was devoted to animals, always wondering 'what they were.' In social life he was notable for genial freedom and courtliness. With all his gentleness and his rich store of affection, he had an almost unique dignity of bearing.

None of the painted pictures of Archbishop Benson are wholly satisfactory as portraits. The two principal pictures are one by Laurence, in the possession of Mrs. Benson, painted at the time of his leaving Wellington; and one by Herkomer at Lambeth. The portrait in the hall at Trinity College, Cambridge, was painted after his death. His fine features seemed, in spite of the rapid changes of expression, which made him look almost a different man at different moments, to lend themselves more readily to the sculptor than to the portrait painter. A bust, by Mr. Hope Pinker, at Wellington represents him better than the paintings. But the best likeness of him is the effigy upon his monument at Canterbury, by Mr. Brock, executed partly from a mask taken from the archbishop's face after death.

His chief works, not reckoning separate sermons or articles, are:

  1. 'Boy-Life' (sermons at Wellington College), 1874; 2nd edit. 1883.
  2. 'Singleheart' (sermons at Lincoln), 1877.
  3. 'The Cathedral: its Necessary Place in the Life of the Church,' 1878.
  4. 'The Seven Gifts' (addresses at his primary visitation of Canterbury diocese), 1885.
  5. 'Christ and His Times' (at second visitation), 1889.
  6. 'Fishers of Men' (at third visitation), 1893.
  7. 'Living Theology (and other Sermons),' 1891.

Posthumously published were:

  1. 'Cyprian: his Life, his Times, his Work,' 1897.
  2. 'Prayers, Public and Private,' 1899.
  3. 'The Apocalypse,' 1900.

[Life of E. W. Benson, by his eldest son, Mr. A. C. Benson; articles in the Times for 21 and 26 Dec. 1882, 29 and 30 March 1883, 12 and 17 Oct. 1896; Quarterly Review, October 1897; 'Archbishop Benson in Ireland,' by Professor J. H. Bernard.]

A. J. M.