The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 32: Lancelot Blackburne

ou_chch_10_624x544I start (as with the previous no.31) from my reading-de-blocker, George MacDonald Fraser’s The PyratesThe dedication is:

The Most Reverend and Right Honourable
Archbishop of York
and buccaneer

Which reminded me:

The magnificent Edward Pearce

For many, many years Pearce delighted me with his parliamentary sketches and commentaries. In retirement he reviewed Matthew Parris’s The Great Unfrocked, 2,000 years of Church Scandal.

Sadly, I do not have Parris’s effort, but here is Pearce on Blackburne:

I recall the name Lancelot Blackburne on the tablet of archbishops in York Minster. It has a masterful ring to it, worthy of the man who rose inexorably by way of intrigue, loyal Whiggism and (allegedly) by marrying that wife-confining ogre, George I, to his mistress. From Exeter, whose previous bishop’s gangrenous condition he monitored for his patron, he ascended to the bliss of York.

There is something delicious about Blackburne, a wrong ‘un in excelsis. Reckoned to have started as a pirate’s chaplain in Antigua, which beats the dodgiest Anglican seminary, he had a sharp eye for beneficed mortality and was a good (Whig) party man. He cheerfully hounded a close clergy friend for Jacobite writings until the man died in jail, and meanwhile kept up with the sex.

He was accused, while sub-dean of Exeter, of constructing a secret passage to the house of a neighbour whose wife, a Mrs Martyr, he was enjoying. The wired-up Blackburne had better luck than poor Wakeford. The passage was found, the lady existed, but witnesses failed to turn up or changed their stories. After a period of suspension, the aisle-wise Blackburne was exonerated, a classic good chaps’ cover-up in the best Civil Service tradition.

Advanced to the purple, he kept up his old interests. Taking on a good- looking milkmaid in the office, and later to be accused of three-in-a- bed sex, the Archbishop of York was celebrated in death with these lines:

All the buxom damsels of the North,
Who knew his parts, lament their going forth.

What Blackburne had was nerve…

Back to GMF:

There comes a moment (Chapter the Tenth of Book the Second) when Fraser switches to his reflective/didactic tone:

That was Cartagena of the old days, when Spain held and plundered the New World from California to the Amazon, while the heretic fleas of England, France, and Holland clung almost unregarded to their tiny footholds round the edges of the great sea, and none dare challenge the vast empire of His Catholic Majesty, with its great garrisons and galleons, its fortresses and harbours, its far-clung cities and mines and provinces and plantations with their armies of slaves and priests and settlers and soldiers, its unlimited wealth and power and glory — none, that is, except a lawless company of bare-legged hunters, woodcutters, renegade seamen, gentlemen, fugitives, and scoundrels; one or two of them would write books some day, and win their little fame as explorers and naturalists and historians, and one would even become Archbishop of  York and roar for pipes and rum in the vestry; but mostly they were plain ruffians, and in the time when they hit and ran and harried the Spanish giant by land and sea with their tall ships and long guns, they were called by a name detested in the Escurial, disowned by nervous governments, idolised by their Protestant countrymen, and patronised by history. Buccaneer.

Who was this ex/rotic cleric?

He has an extended entry, by Andrew Starkie, in the Dictionary of National Biography. This represents him as one of the more ‘political’ prelates (and one of the more successful residents of Downing Street). He also is a man of mystery.

The piece starts:

On leaving Westminster [School] he was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford, matriculating on 20 October 1676, and was also that year elected a student (fellow) of the college. He graduated BA in 1680, and in 1681, having been ordained, went to the West Indies. He received permission to proceed MA in absentia, which he did by a decree of convocation on 28 January 1684. He was at that time at Nevis, in the king’s service. The precise nature of Blackburne’s services to the crown remains obscure. A list of payments for ‘Secret Services’ of Charles II in 1681 notes that £20 was paid ‘To Launcelott Blackburne, clerk, bounty, for his transportation to Antego’.

The last citation is to J. Y. Akerman, ed., Moneys received and paid for secret services of Charles II and James II from 30th March 1679 to 25th December 1688.

Shadowy stuff. Starkie adds:

Blackburne’s reputation, both during his lifetime and subsequently, has been characterized, whether justifiably or not, more by unverifiable rumour and scandal than by his political and ecclesiastical accomplishments. A story was told that while in the West Indies he had served on a buccaneering expedition against the Spanish, and took his part of the booty. It was said that one old buccaneer returned to England and asked after his old chum Blackburne, only to be told he was now archbishop of York. Another story, recounted by James Granger, also illustrates the very worldly reputation which Blackburne enjoyed. The archbishop, it was alleged, was conducting a visitation to St Mary’s Church in Nottingham. It was said that Blackburne ‘had ordered some of the … attendants, to bring him pipes and tobacco, and some liquor into the vestry for his refreshment after the fatigue of confirmation’. The rector of the church, hearing of the orders, ‘remonstrated with the archbishop upon the impropriety of his conduct’ and told Blackburne that ‘his vestry should not be converted into a smoking-room’ (Malcolm, 199). The apparent failure of Blackburne to perform any confirmations while archbishop of York, however, calls into question the reliability of this account.

‘Malcolm’ there is no relative, but an abbreviation for a book-title of 1805, the full title of which extends to:

Letters between the Rev. James Granger, M.A., rector of Shiplake, and many of the most eminent literary men of his time : composing a copious history and illustration of his Biographical history of England, with miscellanies and notes of tours in France, Holland and Spain, by the same gentleman, edited by J.P. Malcolm

We should not discredit the Reverend Granger. He was a contemporary (1723-1776) of Blackburne. Another testimony comes from the Memories of Horace Walpole:

Blackbourn, the jolly old Archbishop of York, who had all the manners of a man of quality, though he had been a buccaneer, and was a clergyman; but he retained nothing of his first profession, except his seraglio.

Peter Sabor, editing Horace Walpole, the Critical Heritage, includes an unsigned piece in the Quarterly Review (May 1822) to cast suspicion on that:

This vulgar detraction Walpole delights to register against every body; but particularly against the heads of the church; and thus he furnishes Archbishop Blackbourn with a bastard … He tells us, without any hesitation, that Bishop Hayter was a natural son of Archbishop Blackbourn’s. Now, we have before us extracts from the registers of the parish of Chagford, which prove that the Bishop, Thomas Hayter, was ‘the son of George Hayter, Rector of this parish, and of Grace, his wife’! and that Thomas was one of a family of not fewer, we believe, than ten children.

That fails to acknowledge Blackburne leaving Hayter a substantial legacy. Ahem!

Another contemporary dishes the dirt

In 1727 York Corporation appointed Francis Drake, a physician, as City Surgeon. This gave Drake full access to the records. He set about compiling a history of York (which gave Drake the opportunity to pay off several debts of ingratitude and spite). Blackburne seems to have offended by refusing Drake’s invitation to be a subscriber to the publication. Drake took revenge by suggesting Blackburen would never die a martyr to his chastity.

The sum total of a man?

Starkie has this summary (with further illustration):

It was contended that Blackburne was favoured by the first two Georges because of the laxity of his moral precepts. One rumour suggested that Blackburne was rewarded with the archbishopric of York for secretly marrying George I to his mistress the duchess of Kendal. Horace Walpole alleged that Blackburne, talking with Queen Caroline in the presence of Sir Robert Walpole, had remarked, ‘Madam, I am glad you like the king’s new mistress, Lady Yarmouth; it shews you are a sensible woman, your Majesty having no objection for your husband to divert himself’ (Works of … Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, 2.135). The controversial archbishop has even been charged with the evidently groundless allegations that he was the father of Francis Blackburne, the heterodox author of the Confessional, and that Dick Turpin was his butler at Bishopthorpe. It is at this distance of time impossible to make definitive judgements about the veracity of the numerous allegations levelled against Blackburne. They must therefore be thought to illustrate the reputation rather than the reality of the man.

Well, it’s one way to be remembered.


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Filed under crime, George MacDonald Fraser, History, Independent, reading, York

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