10 June 2015

‘Sir, I will not allow this man to have merit’
… the fighting Chancellor of Ferns

Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford … Henry Bate Dudley was Chancellor in the early 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am working on a paper on a clerical rogue, the Revd Sir Henry Bate Dudley (1745-1824) for the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society.

He was born Henry Bate, but later made pretentious claims to high birth and to high academic attainment. He claimed he was educated at Queen’s College, Oxford, and other biographical notes say that he was educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, but I can find no records in Oxford of the MA, LLD and DD degrees that he claimed at later stages in his life.

As well as being an Anglican clergyman, he wrote a number of comic operas and was the editor of the Morning Post which was notorious for its approach to social and political matters. After falling out with the financial backers of the Morning Post he set up the Morning Herald, but he left this too after another public row.

He became known as “the fighting parson” because of his reputation for fighting duels. One duel was settled with pistols following a an article he published in the Morning Post about the Countess of Strathmore. Another duel followed remarks he made by two dragoon officers concerning remarks made about his sister-in-law, the actress Mrs Hartley.

He was a friend of the artist Thomas Gainsborough who painted his portraits, and he had many influential patrons and friends, including the Lichfield-born actor David Garrick and Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell.

He was jailed for 12 months after publishing an article claiming the Duke of Richmond, who was then the time a Minister of Ordnance, alleging he opposed the strengthening of England’s defences. He also engaged in public arguments with bishops and his fellow clergy.

He was also a keen master of foxhounds, and after one chase remarked that the fox died without the benefit of clergy.

In 1784 he was left a considerable amount of money in a will with the condition that he added Dudley to his name and so he became Henry Bate Dudley.

He moved to Ireland in 1804, when he became Rector of Kilscoran, in the Diocese of Ferns (Co Wexford), and he later became Rector of Kilglass, Co Longford, and Chancellor of Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns.

He lived in Co Wexford until 1812 when he returned to England to become Rector of Willingham, Cambridgeshire, and a prebendary of Ely Cathedral.

Forgetting his own time in prison, he was a brutal magistrate in later life, and was cruel in suppressing the Littlebrook and Ely Riots, sentencing five men to death, nine to transportation and jailing others.

He was certainly not an exemplary clergyman. The saintly Dr Johnson, in discussing Bate with Boswell said, “Sir, I will not allow this man to have merit. No, sir; what he has is rather the contrary: I will indeed allow him courage, and on this account we so far give him credit.”

But he was an interesting clergyman with Co Wexford connections, and working on this paper is an interesting project.

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