08 April 2024

The Bishop of Norwich who
forgot to pass the Port
and lost his right thumb

Francis Chantrey’s statue of Bishop Henry Bathurst in the north transept in Norwich Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Norwich Cathedral, like every English cathedral, has many monuments to former bishops of the diocese, including the grave of Herbert de Losinga, first Bishop of Norwich, who started building Norwich Cathedral in 1096 and an effigy of Bishop John Thomas Pelham, the Bishop of Norwich who censured the eccentric ‘Father Ignatius’ of Norwich.

Close to Bishop Pelham’s effigy is a marble statue by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey of Bishop Henry Bathurst (1744-1837), although Bathurst is buried not in the cathedral but in Great Malvern, beside his Irish-born wife, Grace (Coote), who was born in Kilmallock, Co Limerick.

Unusually, Chantrey supervised the installation of the statue himself, in November 1841, north of the high altar in the bay of the reliquary arch. By 1914, it had been moved to the south transept, and by 1972 it had been moved to its present place cramped corner in the north-west corner of north transept.

Chantrey’s statue shows a bewigged Bathurst sitting in an elegant chair, his hands clasped in his lap – his right thumb is broken – wearing episcopal robes and looking slightly down.

Before the sculpture was installed in Norwich Cathedral, it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1841. Chantrey’s work seems to be based on an earlier portrait of Bathurst, probably by Sir Martin Archer Shee in 1818.

Chantrey shows the bishop seated rather than in his more usual pose for bishops and women showing them kneeling in prayer. This would not have done for Bathurst, however. He was ‘a shockingly bad administrator, greatly addicted to whist, and to long sojourns at Bath and Malvern.’ The result was that during his long tenure at Norwich some wit dubbed it ‘the Dead See.’

Henry Bathurst was born in Brackley, Northamptonshire, the seventh son of Sir Benjamin Bathurst, a slave trader, and a younger brother of Allen Bathurst, 1st Earl Bathurst. He was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford. He was the Rector of Witchingham, Norfolk, a canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and a prebendary of Durham before becoming Bishop of Norwich in 1805, succeeding Charles Manners-Sutton who had become Archbishop of Canterbury.

For many years, Bathurst was considered to be the only ‘liberal; bishop in the House of Lords, and he supported Catholic Emancipation. He was privately critical of the loss of life incurred by the British in fighting Napoleon and in 1815 he and his son, Archdeacon Henry Bathurst of Norwich, attacked the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty in France.

Bathurst admired Napoleon as an enlightened ruler and regretted his exile. When he was over 90 years of age, he went to the House of Lords in 1835 to vote in support of Lord Melbourne’s government.

Bathurst married Grace Coote, who was born in Kilmallock, Co Limerick. She was a daughter of the Very Revd Charles Coote, Dean of Kilfenora Cathedral, Co Clare, and a niece of the Irish politician and general, Sir Eyre Coote.

Bathurst died in London, on 5 April 1837, and was buried with his wife at Great Malvern.

Three types of Port to taste in Porto (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

Bathurst has also given his name to an old saying or question associated with English dining traditions.

Tradition calls for Port served at dinner to be passed to the left – as the saying goes, ‘pass the Port to port’ – pouring a glass for your neighbour on your right before you do so. The bottle or decanter should not touch the table on its way around. If a diner fails to pass the Port, others at the table may ask ‘Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?’

The origin of the question is attributed to Bishop Bathurst. He lived to the age of 93, but by then his eyesight was failing and he had a tendency to fall asleep at the table near the end of a meal. As result, he often failed to pass on the Port, so that several decanters would accumulate at his right elbow, to the distress of anyone further up the table.

All this hardly explains how in his sculpture in the north transept in Norwich Cathedral. But Bishop Bathurst was a bon vivant said to possess a prodigious capacity for wine consumption, and he was sometimes suspected of using his frailties to his advantage.

Other sources say the question originates with John Sheepshanks, Bishop of Norwich in 1893-1910, and Bishop Sheepshanks did his best to perpetuate this notion. His portrait, donated by his grand-daughter, hangs on the wall at Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas in Porto as an encouragement to guests to pass the Port.

English names dominate the Port trade in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Walking down the hill from Porto Cathedral during a visit to the Portuguese city, I decided to stop in a small shop selling varieties of port by the glass and the bottle, and serving it with dark chocolate, to learn a little more about Port.

Port wine (vinho do Porto), or simply Port, is a fortified wine produced with distilled grape spirits exclusively in the Douro Valley in this part of Portugal.

Port is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert wine, but it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties.

Port is produced from grapes grown and processed in the demarcated Douro region. The wine is then fortified by the addition of a neutral grape spirit known as aguardente to stop fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine and boosting its alcohol content. The wine is then stored and aged, often in barrels stored in a ‘Lodge’ or ‘cellar,’ before being bottled.

This wine became known as ‘port’ in the late 17th century because wine from the Douro Valley was brought to Porto for export to other parts of Europe. The Douro Valley stretches from the village of Barqueiros, about 70 km upstream from Porto, and east almost to the Spanish border.

Over 100 varieties of grapes may be used in producing port, although only five are widely cultivated and used. White ports are produced the same way as red ports, but use white grapes, and all Ports commercially available are from a blend of different grapes.

The grapes grown for port are usually small, dense fruit that produce concentrated, long-lasting flavours, suitable for long ageing.

Until 1986, Port could only be exported from Portugal from Vila Nova de Gaia on south bank of the Douro, facing Porto. Traditionally, the wine was taken downriver in flat-bottomed boats, barcos rabelos, to be processed and stored.

But this tradition was brought to an end when several hydroelectric power dams were built along the river in the 1950s and 1960s. Now the wine is brough from the vineyards by tanker trucks and today the barcos rabelos are only used for racing and other displays.

The main categories of port include standard rubies, three-year-old tawnies and white ports. In English-speaking countries, Port is often served after meals as a dessert wine, often with cheese, nuts or chocolate. White and tawny ports are often served as aperitifs.

But there are many traditional church connections with Port.

A Liverpool wine merchant sent two new representatives to Viana do Castelo, north of Porto, in 1678 to learn the wine trade. When they arrived in the Douro Valley, they visited the Abbot of Lamego, who treated them to a ‘very agreeable, sweetish and extremely smooth’ wine that had been fortified with a distilled spirit. They were so pleased with the product that they bought up the Abbot’s entire lot and shipped it home.

Port became popular in England after the Methuen Treaty in 1703, when merchants were permitted to import it at a low duty, while war with France deprived English wine drinkers of French wine.

The continued British involvement in the port trade can be seen in the names of many Port shippers and brands, including Broadbent, Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Gould Campbell, Graham, Osborne, Offley, Sandeman, Taylor and Warre.

Pass the Port to the left please … a choice of bottles in a shop window in Porto (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

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