Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fiddes, Richard

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

FIDDES, RICHARD (1671–1725), divine and historian, the eldest son of John Fiddes, was born in 1671 at Hunmanby, near Scarborough, but was brought up by an uncle who was vicar of Brightwell, Oxfordshire. By him he was educated at a school at Wickham, near Scarborough. In October 1687 he entered as a commoner at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but for some reason unknown transferred himself in March 1690 to University College, where he took the degree of B.A. in 1691. In 1693 he returned to Yorkshire, and married Mrs. Jane Anderson, who is said to have been a ‘gentlewoman well descended and of a good fortune.’ Next year he took holy orders, and in 1696 was presented by Ralph Rand of Skirlaw to the rectory of Halsham in Holderness (Poulson, Hist. of Holderness, ii. 383). The parish was small, and Fiddes had leisure for study. He suffered from an affection of the throat, which impaired his voice, so that he could scarcely articulate distinctly, except occasionally, when he was stimulated by society and a few glasses of wine. On this ground he obtained from Archbishop Sharp leave of non-residence, and removed from Halsham, first to Wickham, but in 1712 took up his residence in London to pursue the career of a man of letters. His reason for so doing was a plea of poverty and the burden of a large family. It would seem, however, that Fiddes's poverty was the result of domestic mismanagement, for the rectorial tithes of Halsham are commuted at 760l., and if Mrs. Fiddes had a ‘good fortune,’ there seems to be no reason why the household should not have been adequately maintained. However, Fiddes seems always to have represented himself as struggling against money difficulties, and soon after his arrival in London he managed to interest Swift in his favour. Kennett, in a diary of 1713 (Swift, Works, ed. Scott, xvi. 99), writes of Swift: ‘He was soliciting the Earl of Arran to speak to his brother, the Duke of Ormonde, to get a chaplain's place established in the garrison of Hull for Mr. Fiddes, a clergyman in that neighbourhood, who had lately been in jail, and published sermons to pay fees.’ Whether or no Fiddes had really been in gaol for debt we do not know; but he had certainly begun to publish sermons, which were neither better nor worse than the generality of those of his day. But Fiddes had a reputation for learning, and was recommended to Swift by George Smallridge, afterwards bishop of Bristol, who reminded Swift of Fiddes's presence at a dinner at Sherlock's (ib. 84). The chaplaincy at Hull was accordingly given to him, and he further received from his university the degree of B.D. by diploma. He was made chaplain to the Earl of Oxford, and seemed to be now in a good position. With the change of ministry in 1714 his fortunes fell also, and he was deprived of his chaplaincy at Hull. In 1714 he took advantage of the stir caused by Pope's plan of his translation of the ‘Iliad’ to publish ‘A Prefatory Epistle concerning some remarks to be published in Homer's “Iliad.”’ In this he declared his willingness to write a book which should (1) examine the ‘Iliad’ by the rules of epic poetry, (2) consider the objections raised against it by former writers, (3) defend Homer against Plato and Scaliger. It is perhaps scarcely strange that the demand for such a work was not large enough to encourage Fiddes to proceed. He accordingly turned to theology, and published by subscription, in 1718, ‘Theologia Speculativa, or the first part of a Body of Divinity.’ This work had some success as a compendium of current theology, and procured for its author the degree of D.D. from the university of Oxford. It was followed in 1720 by a second part, ‘Theologia Practica,’ which dealt with Christian ethics in the same way as the first part had dealt with Christian doctrine.

More important than his theology was a little book in which Fiddes interposed in the controversy between Shaftesbury and Mandeville, ‘A General Treatise of Morality, formed upon the Principles of Natural Reason only,’ 1724. In this he attacks Mandeville, and defines moral truth as consisting ‘in the contemplation of the moral perfections of the divine nature, the rule and model of perfection to all other intelligent beings’ (Fowler, Shaftesbury and Hutchinson, 142–3). In the same year was published, again by subscription, the work of Fiddes which attracted most attention in his own day, and was longest remembered in English literature, viz. ‘A Life of Cardinal Wolsey.’ The noticeable features of this work are that it attempted to vindicate Wolsey's memory from the obloquy which had persistently pursued it, and also that it took a view of the Reformation less unfavourable to the mediæval church than that of most protestant writers. Fiddes was immediately attacked both by the press and in the pulpit. He had been faithful to the Earl of Oxford after his fall, and had frequently visited him in prison; further, in the preface to the ‘Life of Wolsey,’ he said that Atterbury had offered him the opportunity of writing it in his house, and he paid a warm tribute to Atterbury's abilities. It therefore suited Atterbury's assailants to accuse Fiddes of popery, and represent him as employed by Atterbury to write his work. An attack in the ‘London Journal’ led to a pamphlet by Fiddes in his own defence, ‘An Answer to Britannicus, compiler of the “London Journal”’ (1725), in which he cleared himself from the charge of popery, and maintained his impartiality. At the same time Dr. Knight, prebendary of Ely, in a sermon denounced Fiddes as ‘throwing dirt upon the happy reformation of religion among us,’ and after Fiddes's death returned to the charge in the preface to his ‘Life of Erasmus.’

Fiddes next issued a prospectus for a volume containing the lives of More and Fisher, and had written a good deal of the work when his health broke down, and he died, in 1725, at Putney, in the house of his friend John Anstis, and was buried in Fulham churchyard. The manuscript of his life of More was lost.

Besides the works mentioned, Fiddes published many sermons, most of which were collected into a volume, ‘Fifty-two Practical Discourses,’ 1720; also ‘A Letter in Answer to a Freethinker, occasioned by the late Duke of Buckingham's Epitaph,’ 1721. Birch, in ‘General Dictionary,’ p. 244, prints a letter of Fiddes to a protestant lady to dissuade her from turning Roman catholic.

Fiddes's ‘Life of Wolsey’ was a considerable work, and was founded upon real research; the documents appended still make the book valuable. The view of Wolsey which Fiddes took is in its general outline the same as that taken by Brewer in his ‘History of Henry VIII,’ though Fiddes regarded Wolsey rather as a patron of letters and a benefactor of the university of Oxford than as a great statesman engaged in foreign affairs. Fiddes's style is not happy, being involved and lumbering; but his ‘Life of Wolsey’ marked a real advance in historical insight.

Fiddes had all a student's heedlessness of ordinary prudence. He was continually in money difficulties, and left a wife and six children ill provided for. He was so forgetful of common things when absorbed in study that one night he was lost, and was discovered locked up in the Bodleian Library. He had a very retentive memory, which made his erudition seem greater than it really was. In spite of his physical infirmity he was valued in society and had many friends, both in Oxford and London.

[The only material for a life of Fiddes is the article by Thomas Birch in the General Dictionary, Critical and Historical, v. 238, &c. Birch wrote in 1736, from information supplied by Fiddes's family. All subsequent notices of Fiddes have been repetitions of this. Birch's dates are not accurate, nor is his account of Halsham, which he describes as being in a marsh, and affecting Fiddes's throat by its dampness. The information about Fiddes's literary life is gathered from the prefaces and dedications of his various works.]

M. C.