Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Thomas Wood, Dean and
Bishop of Lichfield, who
was ‘mean and avaricious’

Thomas Wood (1607-1692), Bishop of Lichfield (1671 to 1692), by Sir Peter Lely … Wood was known for ‘his personal meanness and avarice’

Patrick Comerford

I was writing earlier today about Edward Sydney Woods, the Bishop of Lichfield and his sculpture by Jacob Epstein in Lichfield Cathedral, one of the points on the ‘City of Sculpture’ tour of Lichfield. But the name of Bishop Woods should not be confused with one of his most unsavoury predecessors, Thomas Wood (1607-1692), who was Bishop of Lichfield for over two decades, from 1671 to 1692.

Before becoming Bishop of Lichfield, Thomas Wood had been both a canon and dean of Lichfield Cathedral. But he became one of the most detested canons in restoration Lichfield, as dean he was known for his personal meanness and avarice, and he was publicly excommunicated by Bishop John Hacket. Although he was known at court for being ‘sordid and refractory,’ he manipulated courtiers to become Bishop of Lichfield, and yet he refused to live in the bishop’s palace.

Thomas Wood was the third son of Thomas Wood (1565-1649), and was baptised on 22 July 1607 in Saint John’s Church, in then-fashionable Hackney. He went to Westminster School before going on to Christ Church, Oxford (BA 1631, MA 1634, BD 1641, DD 1642).

After ordination, he was appointed at the age of 28 a chaplain in ordinary to King Charles I, in 1635. The king also appointed him the Rector of Whickham in Durham, and promised him a prebendal stall in Durham Cathedral. However, this appointment was interrupted by the Civil War, and Wood was also ejected from his parish by the Parliamentarians.

But Wood was no Caroline Divine. He idled his time and spent much of it travelling abroad, including some years in Italy. During one long stay in Rome, he took a strong dislike to what he regarded as ‘Popery’ and High Church liturgical practices, and so he remained for the rest of his life.

After his return to England, Wood lived in retirement on his family estate at Hackney until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Once again, he became Rector of Whickham and was reinstated as a royal chaplain. He recalled that Charles I had promised to make him a canon or prebendary in Durham, and at the end of 1660 he was installed as the eleventh canon in Durham Cathedral, a position he continued to hold for the rest of his life, even while he was dean and then bishop of Lichfield.

When the Dean of Lichfield, William Paul, was made Bishop of Oxford, Wood succeeded him as the Dean of Lichfield in early 1664.

Two years later, in 1666 Dean Wood married Grace Clavering, a former parishioner at Whickham, in 1666. He had baptised her as an infant, and there was an age gap of 29 years between them, and this became a point of gossip among the canons of both Lichfield and Durham.

The Tanner manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in Oxford contain voluminous correspondence relating to Wood. One writer says, ‘it is difficult to decide whether he was more detested at Lichfield or Durham.’ His puritanical principles, developed during the Cromwellian era, made him despised by both the Bishop of Lichfield, John Hacket, and the Bishop of Durham, John Cosin. Both were High Church in their sympathies, and both were eagerly restoring their cathedrals, which had been damaged Puritan Parliamentarians during the Civil War.

It was said the dean’s ‘personal meanness and avarice were a bye-word with his brother prebendaries.’

The restoration of Lichfield Cathedral by Bishop John Hacket … a window by CA Kempe in Lichfield Cathedral (© the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield)

In Lichfield, Wood was neglectful of his duties. His dispute with his bishop, John Hacket (1590-1670), was so entrenched that Hacket eventually deprived Wood of all say in the restoration of the cathedral. At the same time, the residentiary canons of Lichfield Cathedral served him with formal articles of complaint.

When Wood remained obdurate, Bishop Hacket excommunicated him publicly. Wood retaliated in 1668 by asking the court of arches to excommunicate the bishop.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon, privately sympathised with Hacket over his difficulties with his ‘most untractable and filthy natured dean.’ But Sancroft was concerned that public dissension would only provide ammunition for nonconformists and other critics of the Church of England, and he intervened to mediate a modus vivendi.

When Hackett died on 28 October 1670, Wood was successful in his backstair manoeuvres at court and was appointed Bishop of Lichfield. His appointment is credited to the influence of Charles II’s mistress, Barbara Villiers, whose daughter Mary was about to marry the dean’s nephew, a son of Sir Henry Wood (1597-1671), a powerful landowner and a Treasurer in the Royal Household.

Wood was consecrated at Lambeth Palace on 2 July 1671 by Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon, alongside Nathaniel Crew, who was consecrated Bishop of Oxford. Both new bishops owed their advancement to family interest at Court and not to any professional merit; each was regarded by the clergy of his time as a scandal to his order and the Church.

Wood was succeeded as Dean of Lichfield by Matthew Smallwood. But, as Bishop of Lichfield, Wood continued his previous behaviour. Archbishop Sheldon was scandalised by his neglect of duty, but he died in 1677 before he could suspend him. Finally, Archbishop William Sancroft suspended him in July 1684, but only after priming the Bishop of Rochester, Francis Turner, to put the case tactfully at court and to establish that ‘the King and Duke [of York] abandon the bishop as sordid and refractory.’

The suspension remained in force for three years until Wood was brought to submission in 1687. Wood had excused himself from residing in his diocese on the grounds that he had no appropriate house to live in. Sancroft handed the sequestrated income to the Dean of Lichfield, Lancelot Addison, with a commission to erect a new episcopal palace.

The Bishop’s Palace built in Lichfield in 1687-1688, was designed by Edward Pierce, who is described by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as one of Christopher Wren’s ‘ablest masons.’

One writer points out that result was the only episcopal residence in Europe known to have been built as a punishment for the resident. However, although Wood was forced to accept it, he succeeded in avoiding living there.

Although he lived into his mid-80s, Wood was a constant invalid. He died at Astrop Wells, Northamptonshire, on 18 April 1692 and was buried at Ufford, Suffolk, four days later. He was succeeded as Bishop of Lichfield by William Lloyd.

Yet Wood was a great benefactor to Christ Church, Oxford, contributing to rebuilding the quadrangle and leaving large bequests. He also built two hospitals or almshouses in Clapton and Ufford, and left charitable bequests to the poor of Durham, Chester, Whickham and Hackney – though not of Lichfield.

The former Bishop’s Palace on the north side of the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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