12 October 2021

George Selwyn: his life as
a missionary and bishop is
recalled in Lichfield Cathedral

The effigy of Bishop George Augustus Selwyn (1809-1878) in the Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Each day, at the mid-day Eucharist and Evening Prayer in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral, I have found myself sitting beside the monument to Bishop George Augustus Selwyn (1809-1878).

Selwyn was the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand and the first Metropolitan or Primate of New Zealand (1858-1868), before becoming the 91st Bishop of Lichfield (1868-1878).

George Augustus Selwyn was born on 5 April 1809 at Church Row, Hampstead, the second son of William Selwyn (1775–1855) and of Laetitia Frances Kynaston. At the age of seven, he went to Great Ealing School, where the future Cardinal John Henry Newman and his brother Francis were at school at the same time. He then went to Eton, where he was a contemporary of William Ewart Gladstone.

He went on to Saint John’s College, Cambridge, and was a member of the Cambridge crew in the first Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race at Henley on Thames in 1829. He graduated BA (1831), proceeded MA (1834) and DD (1842), and became a fellow of Saint John’s (1833-1840).

Selwyn was ordained deacon (1833) and priest (1834), and he became an assistant master at Eton, and a curate in Windsor. In 1839, he married Sarah Harriet Richardson, and they were of Canon William Selwyn of Hereford Cathedral and Bishop John Richardson Selwyn of Melanesia, who later became the second Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

The mosaics in the Selwyn memorial in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral, illustrate his life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

When a meeting of bishops at Lambeth in 1841 recommended the appointment of a bishop for New Zealand, Charles James Blomfield, Bishop of London, offered the post to Selwyn. He was consecrated at Lambeth on 17 October 1841, and immediately after Christmas set sail from Plymouth for his new missionary diocese with William Charles Cotton as his chaplain. On the outward voyage, he studied the Māori language and was able to preach in Māori immediately on arrival in Auckland on 30 May 1842.

Selwyn clashed with Archdeacon Henry Williams, the leader of the CMS party in New Zealand, when he supported Governor George Grey’s accusations of improper land purchases by Williams. Grey twice failed to recover the land in the Supreme Court, and when Williams refused to give up the land unless the charges were retracted, he was dismissed from the CMS in November 1849.

Williams was reinstated by CMS in 1854, but there was often a wide gap between the CMS missionaries with their evangelical views and the bishops and other high church clergy, with many clashes on liturgical uses and practices. Yet Selwyn often appointed CMS missionaries to senior positions in New Zealand, including appointing William Williams as the first Bishop of Waiapu.

Selwyn was criticised by CMS missionaries in New Zealand such as Thomas Grace, and by CMS in London, including Henry Venn, for being ineffective in training and ordaining New Zealand teachers, deacons and priests. CMS had funded half of his role on the condition that he ordain as many people as possible, but Selwyn slowed this down by insisting those in training learn Greek and Latin first.

The mosaics in the Selwyn memorial in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral, depict events in his life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The first Māori deacon, Rota Waitoa, was ordained by Selwyn at Saint Paul’s Church, Auckland, but it was two decades before he ordained a Māori priest. Selwyn was blamed for undermining the work of CMS and damaging the enthusiasm Māori had for Christianity.

But Selwyn was an advocate of Māori rights and a critic of unjust and reckless land acquisition practices that led to the New Zealand Wars. However, his support of the Invasion of the Waikato, where, as chaplain, he was frequently seen riding on horseback on the frontlines with the British and colonial forces, and his involvement in the burning of women and children at Rangiaowhia in 1864, damaged his and the church’s relationship with Māori, which is still felt today.

Selwyn was rigorous in travelling throughout New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, including Melanesia, and in 1861 John Coleridge Patteson became the first Bishop of Melanesia.

Selwyn’s pioneering organisation of his diocese set many important precedents. He worked to provide self-governance for the Anglican Church in New Zealand, and he visited England in 1854 to secure the creation of new dioceses and approval for a general synod of bishops, priests, and laity. On his return to New Zealand, four new bishops were consecrated, two for the North Island and two to the South Island.

With Selwyn as the new metropolitan bishop in New Zealand, the first general synod met in 1859, and he drafted the constitution of the Anglican Church of New Zealand, with his role as metropolitan titled ‘the Primate.’

Selwyn returned England to take part in the first Lambeth Conference in 1867. While he was at the conference, he was offered the See of Lichfield, and, with much reluctance, accepted the offer.

He was enthroned as the 91st Bishop of Lichfield in Lichfield Cathedral on 9 January 1868. He organised a diocesan synod for Lichfield, and his general synod in New Zealand and diocesan synod in Lichfield influenced the drafting of the Constitution of the Church of Ireland after disestablishment in 1869.

In 1878, Swelwyn ordained a group of deacons in Lichfield who included John Roberts, honoured as a saint in the Episcopal Church for his missionary work in the Bahamas and Wyoming.

Selwyn died on 11 April 1878 at the age of 69 at the Bishop's Palace, Lichfield, and was buried in Lichfield Cathedral. He is remembered in the Church of England on 11 April.

Selwyn College, Cambridge, was founded to honour his contributions to the life of the church, to missions and to theology. The college coat of arms incorporates the arms of the Diocese of Lichfield impaled with the arms of the Selwyn family.

When Bishop George Augustus Selwyn died on 11 April 1878 at the Bishop’s Palace, he was buried in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Selwyn family owned a large tract of land in Kew, Surrey, and the road from Kew Gardens station to Kew Gardens is named Lichfield Road after Bishop Selwyn.

Selwyn House in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield was built on the side of the mediaeval moat and it closes the view at the east end of the close. Selwyn House is often known as ‘Spite House’ because of a popular Lichfield legend that the first house on the site was built by one of three sisters in the Aston family in the 1750s to block her sisters’ view of the cathedral.

As Annette Rubery says in her book Lichfield Then & Now in colour, ‘Even though the facts have since been since been disproved, the tale still lives on.’

The truth is Selwyn House was built ca 1777-1780 for Canon James Falconer (1735-1821), Rector of Thorpe Constantine and later Archdeacon of Derby. He was a canon of Lichfield Cathedral but was not assigned one of the houses for canons in the Close. So, Falconer may have built the house immediately after his appointment as a Canon of Lichfield Cathedral.

The house was enlarged in the early 19th century, when an iron balcony was added on the north side. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was home to Harriet Selwyn, the widow of Bishop Selwyn.

After Harriet Selwyn died in 1907, the house became a hostel for students at the Lichfield Theological College, and it was named Selwyn House in honour of the couple. For a brief period during World War I, Bishop Kempthorne lived in the house, but it became a hostel for theological students once again in 1918.

The students moved out of Selwyn House in 1922 and into the Bishop’s Palace, and Selwyn House was the bishop’s residence until 1931, when the students moved back in. The theological college closed in 1972 and Selwyn House was divided into apartments. But the legends about a Spite House persisted.

Selwyn House at the east end of the Cathedral Close in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
136, The Friary, Lichfield

The name of the former Friary Girls’ School, Lichfield, built 100 years ago in 1921, recalled the former Franciscan Friary on the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I am back in Lichfield for three days, staying at the Hedgehog Vintage Inn on Stafford Road, enjoying walks in the countryside, following the daily cycle of prayer in Lichfield Cathedral, meeting some old friends, and finding some ‘down time.’

Before the day begins, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for these few weeks is churches in the Franciscan (and Capuchin) tradition. My photographs this morning (12 October 2021) are from the former Franciscan Friary in Lichfield.

The Friary was founded around 1229, when the first Franciscans or Greyfriars arrived in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

A short distance from the cathedral, the Franciscan Friary once stood in a large estate on the west side of Lichfield.

The friary was founded around 1229, when a group of Franciscans or Greyfriars arrived in Lichfield. Henry III gave them oak trees from local forests for building and grants of money, and they were given houses and land by Alexander de Stavenby, Bishop of Lichfield (1228-1238). In 1241, the Sheriff of Lichfield was authorised ‘to clothe the Friars of Lichfield.’ In 1286, Edward I provided eight oak trees from Cannock Chase for further building.

When a large fire in Lichfield destroyed the Friary in 1291, the people responded generously and the friary was rebuilt.

The friars had generous benefactors in Lichfield. Henry Champanar granted them a free water supply from his springs at Aldershawe. The Crucifix Conduit was built at the gates of the Friary at the corner of Bore Street and Bird Street in 1301, and remained there until the 20th century. When John Comberford died in 1414, he left 10 shillings for masses to the Franciscan mendicant friary in Lichfield.

The friars lived a simple life of poverty, chastity and obedience and spent most of their time preaching and caring for the poor and sick of Lichfield. But with the wealth accrued from generous benefactors, the simple timber structures were replaced by large sandstone buildings on a site covering 12 acres. The large church had a nave measuring 110 ft x 60 ft, and a chancel 95 ft x 28 ft; the cloister was 80 ft square. The buildings also included a dormitory lodge, a refectory and domestic dwellings.

At the Dissolution of the monastic houses, 301 years after the Franciscans had arrived in Lichfield, the Friary was dissolved in 1538. The majority of the buildings, including the church, cloisters, refectory and domestic buildings were demolished, and most of the site was cleared. The only buildings to survive were the dormitory on the west range and a house known as ‘Bishop’s Lodging’ in the south-west corner.

The estate and remaining buildings were sold for £68 in 1544 to Gregory Stonyng, the Master of Saint Mary’s Guild, which provided the effective civic government of Lichfield. He remodelled the buildings for his own domestic use.

The 11 acres of the Friary estate that remained were bought in 1921 by Sir Richard Ashmole Cooper, MP for Walsall. Cooper gave the Friary to the city to develop housing and to lay out new roads and suburbs.

When the new Friary Girls’ School was built in 1921, the Bishop’s Lodging was incorporated into the south-west of the building. A new road named ‘The Friary’ was built across the former site in 1928. In building the road, a clock tower was relocated, and much of the west range of the remaining friary buildings was demolished.

The site of the former friary church was threatened with development in 1933. But an archaeological dig showed the extent and layout of the ruins, and the site eventually became a Scheduled Ancient Monument, preventing any further development.

A classical style portico from Sir Richard Cooper’s home at Shenstone Court was set up in 1937 to frame the entrance to the excavated ruins. The site is now a public garden and the slabs showing the layout of the walls of the cloister can be seen on the ground as well as parts of the north wall of the nave.

Across the street, the Bishop’s Lodging was the only part of the original Friary that survived.

The Friary School moved to the north side of Lichfield in 1975, close to the Hedgehog Vintage Inn where I am staying, and the building became Lichfield Library.

The Library again in recent years to Saint Mary’s Church, and the Friary School building and the Bishop’s Lodging were converted into modern apartments, although not without controversy. But the memory of the Friary is still present in Lichfield today in names that include The Friary, Friary School, Friary Tennis Club, Friary Gardens and Monks Walk.

Part of the surviving walls of the former Franciscan Friary in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Luke 11: 37-41 (NRSVA):

37 While [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. 38 The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.’

A gate leading into the former friary gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (12 October 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for all those with mental health issues. May they receive the care they need and feel able to discuss mental health with their loved ones.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The ‘Bishop’s Lodging’ was one of the few friary buildings to survive the Dissolution (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The memory of the Friary is still present in street names in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)