The Archbishop of Blandford
William Wake, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 18th century, was born in Blandford and always regarded his native town with great affection. Tony Burton-Page tells his story.
Published in February ’11
The Oval, one of the world’s most well-known cricket grounds, is famous for being overlooked not only by some rather ugly gasholders but also by Archbishop Tenison’s School. It was not the only cricket ground to lie under the benign gaze of a school endowed by an Archbishop, though: the Blandford Cricket Club ground’s nearest neighbour was the Archbishop Wake School until its recent move. The school was endowed by a gift from William Wake, a Blandford-born man who, as it happened, succeeded this same Thomas Tenison as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1715. By then Wake was nearly sixty years old and far from Blandford, but he never forgot his birthplace.
Wake was a true man of Dorset, even though he liked to trace his ancestry back to Hereward the Wake. His grandfather, the Rev. William Wake, was rector of Holy Trinity and St Michael in Wareham. A staunch supporter of the Royalist cause throughout the troubled times of the 17th century, he was imprisoned no fewer than nineteen times during the Civil War for his loyalty to Charles I. He lived just long enough to see the restoration of the monarchy before he died in 1661. His son, another William, was a colonel in the King’s army, having joined it in 1646 at the age of eighteen. He remained loyal to the cause even after Charles’s execution in 1649 and took part in the ill-fated west of England rebellion of 1655 led by John Penruddock and Hugh Grove. Many of the ringleaders were taken to Exeter and hanged, despite promises of clemency from the aptly-named Colonel Crook; but one of his officers, ashamed of his senior’s treachery, gave Wake and six others safe conduct to Exeter. He remained in prison there until the monarchy was restored; but his wife Anne, daughter of a well-to-do Blandford farmer, was allowed access to him, and she returned to the family home at Shapwick, a village five miles south of Blandford, early in 1657 to give birth to their first son, inevitably christened William, on 26 January. The event is commemorated by the house’s present-day name, Bishop’s Court.
Thus it came to pass that the father of a future archbishop was in prison at the time of his son’s birth and, by the time he was released, he was in distinctly straitened circumstances. The money from his wife’s dowry had enabled her to start a business bringing raw wool from the Dorset countryside to Wareham and Dorchester, towns which had exclusive royal rights to purchase and export such goods; he now joined her in this trade. When young William was old enough to go to school, they were able to afford to send him to the Free School in Blandford, which despite its name took no pupils without payment and catered primarily for the sons of the well-to-do in Dorset and adjoining counties. It certainly had a fine reputation: the distinguished historian John Aubrey, author of the famous Brief Lives, had been a pupil 25 years previously and credited his proficiency in Latin and Greek to the school, describing it as ‘the most eminent school for the education of gentlemen in the west of England’.
William’s master in 1663, when he began his studies at the age of six, was Leonard Welstead, a Cornishman, later described buy his ex-pupil as ‘once a Dissenting Minister, but an excellent master’. William was understandably disappointed when Welstead moved to Bristol, and even more so when Thomas Curgenven, Welstead’s ‘usher’ (assistant master), was passed over in favour of William Trussell. So, apparently, were some of his schoolfellows, because, when Curgenven started his own school in nearby Iwerne Minster, Wake and several of his contemporaries were sent there to continue their education, only returning to Blandford when Curgenven eventually replaced Trussell, although this was not until 1672, by which time William was ready to leave.
William was a distinguished student – even if, like twelve-year-old schoolboys down the ages, he had been unable to resist scribbling his extra-curricular thoughts in his text-books: his copy of Farnaby’s Index Rhetoricus is decorated not only with practice versions of his signature but also the comment that ‘WW doth want a Perruwige’ (i.e. a periwig). But by the age of fifteen William was so proficient that it was time for him to move on to university. His father originally intended him for Trinity College, Oxford, but on the way to see one of his old Cavalier friends at Christ Church, they bumped into the Dean there, the famous Dr Fell (later Bishop of Oxford), who promptly entered William into his own college. This was a far-sighted move, for Wake was a student who brought nothing but credit to the college, and his name is still hallowed there to this day, not least because of the enormous coin collection and library which he bequeathed to it.
He began his career at Oxford by matriculating as a ‘Commoner of the House’ in 1673 and became a Student in 1675, receiving his BA in 1676 and his MA in 1679. He was a voracious reader, even going so far as to investigate the philosophy of Descartes. Wake himself reckoned that this gave him a broadness of vision: ‘I was thereby determined,’ he wrote in his privately printed autobiography, ‘though not to doubt everything, yet to examine all things without prejudice or partiality.’ It was almost inevitable that when the time came for him to choose a profession he would take Holy Orders, but he very nearly went down a totally different path. His father had been offered an excellent business opportunity out of the blue by the Duchess of Richmond. Considerable sums of money were involved and Colonel Wake wanted his son to be involved, as it would have made them both very rich. He therefore visited him at Oxford to try to talk him out of his vocation, but the younger William had a quiet word with Bishop Fell, who then managed to persuade the colonel that his son was doing the right thing. The senior Wake abandoned his project, but Bishop Fell did not want to risk a change of mind by father or son and promptly ordained William as a deacon in Christ Church, and as a priest six months later.
His first post was as chaplain to Sir Richard Graham, Viscount Preston, who had been appointed ambassador to the court of Louis XIV in Paris. This was in 1682, the year of the Declaratio Cleri Gallicani, the French catholic church’s attempt to be independent of Rome. Wake thus became very well acquainted with a subject which was to be a chief interest in his life: the affairs of the French church. Years later, as Archbishop, he negotiated with leading jurists in France to achieve union between the Anglican and Gallican churches, an idealistic project almost ineviatably doomed to failure in those intransigent times.
He returned to England with Preston in 1685, taking lodgings in London, where he got to know William Clagett, the preacher at Gray’s Inn. They became firm friends and even shared lodgings in Highgate. But Clagett died in 1688 and Wake succeeded him. Clagett’s widow persuaded him to marry and pointed him in the direction of Ethelreda, the daughter of Sir William Hovell, a Norfolk baronet. They were married later that year. It was a long and happy marriage; there were thirteen children, although seven of them died before adulthood, including the son to whom Wake, hoping this was to be his heir, addressed a memoir written late in his life. Three of the daughters married into Dorset families.
Wake continued to rise inexorably in the church. He was appointed as canon of Christ Church in 1689 and rector of St James’s, Westminster (Piccadilly), in 1693; in 1701 he became Dean of Exeter, in 1705 Bishop of Lincoln and in 1715 Archbishop of Canterbury. But he never lost contact with Dorset. In 1690 he preached a sermon at St Mary-le-Bow at a revival of the Dorsetshire Feast, a forerunner of the Society of Dorset Men; and it is recorded that on his frequent visits home for holidays and rest he delighted in preaching at the tiny church of St Andrew in Winterborne Tomson, finding the calm atmosphere refreshing after the great cathedrals. He paid for the oak fittings which are such a notable feature of the church.
His greatest contribution to Blandford life was the bequest of £1000 (later augmented to £1716, a massive sum in those days) for the foundation of a charity school for the education of twelve boys in the town. Such a fund ensured that the school could continue long after his death, and the uniform of long blue coat, yellow stockings and buckle shoes of the ‘blue-coat boys’ was a familiar sight in Blandford for many years. The school was only wound up after World War 2 and the Education Act, but its benefactor is commemorated by the town’s Archbishop Wake School, which has flourished so well that it has moved from the old buildings in Park Road to more modern accomodation to Black Lane, further east in the town. It is fitting that one of Blandford’s greatest sons should be remembered by his services to educating his community.