Edward White Benson

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The Most Reverend and Right Honourable
Edward White Benson
Archbishop of Canterbury
Installed 29 March 1883
Term ended 11 October 1896
Predecessor Archibald Tait
Successor Frederick Temple
Personal details
Birth name Edward White Benson
Born 14 July 1829
Birmingham, Warwickshire, England
Died 11 October 1896(1896-10-11) (aged 67)
Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales
Buried Canterbury Cathedral
Nationality British
Denomination Anglican
Parents Edward White Benson, Sr.
Spouse Mary (Minnie) Sidgwick

Edward White Benson (14 July 1829 – 11 October 1896) was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 until his death.


Edward White Benson was born at Lombard Street in Highgate, Birmingham on 14 July 1829, the son of Birmingham chemical manufacturer Edward White Benson Sr. (26 August 1802 - 7 February 1843) and his wife Harriet Baker Benson (13 June 1805 - 29 May 1850).[1] He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA (8th classic) in 1852.[2] At King Edward’s, Benson “manifested a deeply religious tone of mind and was fond of sermons”.[3]

Schoolmaster at Rugby and Wellington[edit]

Benson began his career as a schoolmaster at Rugby School in 1852, and was ordained deacon in 1852 and priest in 1857. In 1859 Benson was chosen by Prince Albert as the first Master (headmaster) of Wellington College, Berkshire, which had been built as the nation's memorial to the Duke of Wellington. Benson was largely responsible for establishing Wellington as a public school, closely modelled on Rugby School, rather than the military academy originally planned.[1]

Lincoln and Truro[edit]

From 1872 to 1877 he was Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, where in 1874 he set up a Theological College.

He was then appointed the first Bishop of Truro, where he served from 1877 to 1882. He was consecrated a bishop by Archibald Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury, on St Mark's day (25 April) 1877 at St Paul's Cathedral.[4] He founded Truro High School for Girls in 1880.[5]

Archbishop of Canterbury, 1883-1896[edit]

In 1883 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Five years later Benson avoided the prosecution before a lay tribunal of Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln, under the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 for six ritual offences by hearing the case in his own archiepiscopal court (inactive since 1699). [6] In his judgement (often called "the Lincoln Judgement"), he found against the Bishop on two points, with a proviso as to a third that when performing the manual acts during the prayer of consecration in the Holy Communion service, the priest must stand in a way that is visible to the people.[7]

Benson tried to amalgamate the two Convocations and the new houses of laity into a single assembly. In 1896 it was established that they could 'unofficially' meet together.[8]

In September of the same year, the papal apostolic letter Apostolicae curae was published and Benson had started to work on a reply before his sudden death of a heart attack. He died while attending Sunday service in St. Deiniol's Church, Hawarden, Wales, on 11 October 1896, during a visit to former Prime Minister William Gladstone. Three days later his body was put on the train at Sandycroft station to be returned to London.[9]

He was buried at Canterbury Cathedral, in a magnificent tomb located at the western end of the nave. The tomb is emblazoned with the epitaph Benson had chosen: “Miserere mei Deus Per crucem et passionem tuam libera me Christe” ("Have mercy on me O Christ our God, Through Thy Cross and Passion, deliver thou me").[10][11]

His devotion to Saint Cyprian bore posthumous fruit with the publication of Cyprian, his life, his times, his work[12] the following year.[13]


Archbishop Benson

Benson is best remembered for devising the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, an order first used in Truro Cathedral on Christmas Eve, 1880. Considerably revised by Eric Milner White for King's College Cambridge, this service is now used every Christmas around the world.[14]

Benson was the founder of the Church of England Purity Society,[15] an organization which later merged with the White Cross Army. Alfred Ryder served as a trustee of the organization.[16]

Benson told Henry James a simple, rather inexpert story he had heard about the ghosts of evil servants who tried to lure young children to their deaths. James recorded the hint in his Notebooks and eventually used it as the starting-point for his classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.[17]

Pulpit in Lincoln Cathedral commemorating Archbishop Benson
Memorial to Benson in Hawarden Church

The hymn "God Is Working His Purpose Out" was written by Arthur C. Ainger as a tribute to Benson as both were Masters at Eton and Rugby respectively.[18]

In 1914, a boarding house at Wellington College was named after him. Benson House carries the emblem of a blue Tudor Rose, and is situated outside of the main College.[19]

In 2011, a book about Mary Benson characterized her husband as living "a life of relentless success."[20]

Personal life[edit]

Benson married his second cousin Mary (Minnie) Sidgwick, the sister of philosopher Henry, when she was 18. The couple had six children. Benson also supervised the education of his younger sister Ada Benson who was left an orphan in 1852.[21]

Their fifth child was the novelist E. F. Benson, best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia novels. Another son was A. C. Benson, the author of the lyrics to Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory" and master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Their sixth and youngest child, Robert Hugh Benson, became a minister of the Church of England before converting to Roman Catholicism and writing many popular novels. Their daughter, Margaret Benson, was an artist, author, and amateur Egyptologist. None of the children married; and some appeared to suffer from mental illnesses, possibly bipolar disorder.[22]

After the archbishop's death, his widow set up household with Lucy Tait, daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait.[23] A full-length biography of Mary Benson, drawing on her numerous letters, was published in 2011.[24] It cast new and unexpected light on the Bensons' domestic life.


The Benson family was of Scandinavian origin with the name of Bjornsen. The Bensons "emerge into history" as an English family in 1348 when John Benson held a "toft" from the Abbey at Swinton-by-Masham.[26]

Arthur Christopher Benson, the Archbishop's son, wrote a genealogy of his family.[27] He found that "Old" Christopher Benson (born 1703) was the "real founder of the fortunes" of the Benson family having acquired a "good deal" of land. He also "established a large business."[28]

Archbishop Edward White Benson's grandfather was Captain White Benson, of the 6th Regiment of Foot. The Archbishop's seal and the Captain's coat of arms show their branch of the Benson family arms were blazoned: Argent, a quatrefoil between two trefoils slipped in bend sable, between four bendlets gules.[29]

The Archbishop's father was Edward White Benson (born in York in 1802, died at Birmingham Heath in 1843). He was a Fellow of the Royal Botanical Society of Edinburgh and the author of books on education and religion.[29] He was also an inventor whose inventions made "considerable fortunes" for others, but not for him.[30]


Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mark D. Chapman, ‘Benson, Edward White (1829–1896)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  2. ^ "Benson, Edward White (BN848EW)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ James Anderson Carr, Life-work of Edward White Benson, D.D.: Sometime Archbishop of Canterbury (Elliot Stock, 1898), 7-8.
  4. ^ "Consecration of the Bishop of Truro (Archived; subscription only)". Church Times (#744). 27 April 1877. p. 245. ISSN 0009-658X. Retrieved 26 December 2016. (subscription required (help)). 
  5. ^ Amy Key Clarke, The Story of Truro High School, the Benson Foundation. Truro: Oscar Blackford, 1979
  6. ^ Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church (Part 2) Adam & Charles Black, place, 1980, p. 354.
  7. ^ Dictionary of the Christian Church 3rd Rev Ed (Oxford University Press, 2005), 982.
  8. ^ Chadwick, Owen The Victorian Church (Part II) Adam & Charles Black, 1980, p. 365.
  9. ^ An article about the Archbishop's passing on the Flintshire website
  10. ^ "Edward White Benson" at Find a Grave
  11. ^ Augustus Blair Donaldson, The Bishopric of Truro: the First Twenty-five Years, 1877-1902 (London: Rivingtons, 1902), 191.
  12. ^ Benson, Edward White (1 January 1897). "Cyprian : his life, his times, his work". London : Macmillan – via Internet Archive. 
  13. ^ Cross & Livingstone The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church OUP(1974) art."Benson, Edward White"
  14. ^ JPC-DESIGN, whychristmas?com /. "The History of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on whychristmas?com". 
  15. ^ ”The Church of England Purity Society” in The Official Year-book of the Church of England (London: SPCK, 1884), 126.
  16. ^ Elizabeth Prettejohn, After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England (Manchester University Press, 1999), 228.
  17. ^ Tessa Hadey, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 186.
  18. ^ "God Is Working His Purpose Out". 
  19. ^ "The Benson"
  20. ^ Rodney Bolt, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson (2011), Prologue.
  21. ^ Ruth Pryor, ‘Benson , Ada (1840–1882)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005 accessed 10 Oct 2016
  22. ^ Jane Ridley, "The gay Lambeth way" (review of Rodney Bolt, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson), The Spectator, 9 July 2011. Retrieved 3 March 2016.
  23. ^ Vicinus, Martha (2004). Intimate Friends: women who loved women (1778–1928). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-85563-5.
  24. ^ Rodney Bolt, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson (2011). Reprinted in paperback as The Impossible Life Of Mary Benson: The Extraordinary Story of a Victorian Wife (2012).
  25. ^ "Edward White Benson - Ancestry.com". 
  26. ^ James Anderson Carr, Life-work of Edward White Benson, D.D.: Sometime Archbishop of Canterbury (Elliot Stock, 1898), 1-2.
  27. ^ Arthur Christopher Benson, Genealogy of the Family of Benson of Banger House and Northwoods, in the Parish of Ripon and Chapelry of Pateley Bridge (Eton: George New, 1894)
  28. ^ Arthur Christopher Benson, Genealogy of the Family of Benson of Banger House and Northwoods, in the Parish of Ripon and Chapelry of Pateley Bridge (Eton: George New, 1894), 7-8. Note that the above family tree gives “Old” Christopher Benson’s birth date as 1708.
  29. ^ a b Joseph Jackson Howard; Frederick Arthur Crisp (1897). Visitation of England and Wales. Priv. print. pp. 122–. 
  30. ^ A. C. Benson, The Life of Edward White Benson, Sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, Vol I, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1900), 4-5.


External links[edit]

Church of England titles
New diocese Bishop of Truro
Succeeded by
George Wilkinson
Preceded by
Archibald Tait
Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by
Frederick Temple