The not-so-great and not-so-good: Usshering in another year

May I remind all denizens of planet Earth, and beyond, that today, 22nd October, is our universe’s 6,018th birthday?

That, of course, is according to Archbishop Ussher. Our natal moment will be 6 p.m. Adam’s and Eve’s come along next Tuesday.

Oh, don’t mock it!

Once upon a time an occasional series, vaguely linked to the “not-so-great and no-so-good” of mainly Irish history, appeared here. I lost count, but think this would be around number 32.

James Ussher was as prominent an academic and scholar as the Anglo-Irish produced in the early 17th-century.In 1594 he was one of the first entry to Queen Elizabeth’s Trinity College, Dublin. He became an ordained minister (and, by any standards, an extraordinarily well-read one) before he was properly of age. In his main career he was a protagonist for protestantism (which, after all, was the whole purpose of TCD at that stage): he was instrumental in composing the original Articles of the Irish Church — which were more hostile to Catholicism, more Calvinist, than the English Thirty-Nine Articles. They were more flexible — especially on the episcopacy and on subscription: as a result the Irish Church had more room to accommodate puritanism. This was conveyed all the way down to the later Twentieth Century (who can forget the Church of Ireland’s dconflicts over a crucifix appearing on the altar?). By no coincidence, in his later years, during the Cromwellian Protectorate, Ussher seems to have flirted with presbyterianism.

Ussher’s progress

At the end of 1621 Ussher was consecrated as Bishop of Meath and, as a member of the Privy Council of Ireland, was a major political as well as ecclesiastical force. In September 1622 he preached a strong anti-Catholic sermon at the swearing in of Henry Cary, Viscount Falkland, as Lord Deputy. Since many of Cary’s family, including his wife, reverted to Catholicism (which is another story), there may be more there than immediately meets the eye, and ear.

In 1625 Ussher was nominated to the Primacy of All Ireland, at a time when Irish politics were approaching fervidity. King Charles needed Irish Catholics to be soft-soaped, at a time when England was on the point of going to war with Spain. Hence the Graces, concessions on toleration, to be rewarded by financial contribution. This put Calvinist Ussher in an ambiguous position, which wasn’t eased by the rise of Arminianism in the Church of England (with Laud looking to regularise Anglican practices across the whole of Charles’s kingdoms), nor by the rule of “Thorough” when Wentworth arrived as Lord Deputy.

A significant moment here was the appointment of William Chappell (John Milton’s tutor at Cambridge) as provost of TCD. Ussher sided with the Calvinist “old guard”, against Chappell. Power was slipping from Ussher, who retreated to Drogheda and scholarship. In 1640 he left for London, as a royalist but with connections to the likes of John Pym. When England moved to Civil War, Ussher was in Oxford and a committed Royalist. He visited Charles in prison on 7th November 1648, and witnessed the king’s execution from the roof of the countess of Peterborough’s house in Whitehall.

Ussher’s anti-Catholicism seems to have softened over time. He have been on good nodding terms with the Four Masters, whose Annals underpinned Ussher’s computations. Which might suggest the postal service between Drogheda, London and Sligo was as good in the seventeenth century as it sometimes is today.

And, surely, he stands as the archetypal and prototype Trinity man.

Mainly remembered for his introduction

The whole business of 4004BC stems from his treatise on the calendar, De Macedonum et Asianorum anno solari dissertatio: cum Graecorum astronomorum parapegmate, ad Macedonici et Juliani anni rationes accommodato. This was the foreword to his final two publications: which were Annales veteris testamenti (1650) and Annalium pars posterior (1654). Ussher was effectively summarising his vast knowledge to generate an integrated chronology for biblical and ancient history. Put aside the Genesis assumptions, and much of it still stands.

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1 Comment

Filed under History, Ireland, politics.ie

One response to “The not-so-great and not-so-good: Usshering in another year

  1. terence patrick hewett

    Always been fascinated with James Ussher. Even more fascinated with John Bunyan: as a Catholic I have learnt a great deal from both

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