Archbishop James Ussher

Ussher, James, Archbishop of Armagh, was born in the parish of St Nicholas, Dublin, 4th January 1580-81. His father, a clerk in the Court of Chancery, was said to have been descended from one Neville, who came over with King John in the capacity of usher, and changed his name to that of his office. James was taught to read by two aunts who had been blind from infancy, to whom he ever afterwards looked back with affection and respect. From eight to thirteen years of age he attended the school kept by Fullerton and Hamilton, private emissaries of James VI. of Scotland, sent to keep up his influence in Ireland, in view of the prospect of his succeeding to the throne of England and Ireland. [See HAMILTON, SIR JAMES, p. 242.]

Ussher's abilities, diligence, and loving disposition, attracted the esteem of all with whom he came in contact. His name stands second on the list of those admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, when first opened, on 9th January 1593J4. There he studied with ardour, devoting himself especially to historical and chronological enquiries. His immediate relations were divided between the reformed and the Catholic faith, and the religious controversies of the day had thus for him an intense and personal interest. His uncle, Richard Stanyhurst, a Jesuit, endeavoured to attract him towards Catholicism; but as he advanced in years, Ussher became more and more confirmed in the Protestant tenets in which he had been brought up.

At an early age he commenced reading the whole of the Fathers, a prodigious labour, which he did not bring to an end for eighteen years. He took the degree of B.A. about July 1597, and, greatly against his will, was preparing to abandon theology and commence the study of the law, when the death of his father left him at liberty to follow his own bent. He made over the family property to his sisters, taking but a small sum for the purchase of books and his support in the cheapest way in college. About this period he gained considerable credit by engaging in a public controversy with FitzSimon [See FITZSIMON, HENRY, p. 204], a learned Jesuit confined in Dublin Castle.

In 1600 he took the degree of M.A., and was elected to a fellowship, and, although not ordained until December 1601, he was occasionally selected to preach in Christ Church before the Irish Court. As with all earnest men of the time, toleration was hateful to him, and he exerted his influence to have the laws against the Catholics put rigidly in force. Upon one occasion he preached a sermon on the text: "And thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year." This was afterwards regarded as prophetic of the war of 1641; but his biographer shows that the sermon must have been preached towards the end of 1602, or in the course of 1603, instead of 1601, as generally represented. The English army, after the capture of Kinsale, and before leaving Ireland, testified its respect for learning by subscribing £1,800 for the purchase of a library for Trinity College.

Ussher was one of the two sent to London to purchase books with the money. Soon after his return he was appointed Chancellor of St. Patrick's and incumbent of Finglas. Henceforward he visited England every few years for the purpose of consulting books and manuscripts at the great libraries, becoming intimate with Camden, Sir Robert Cotton, and other eminent men of kindred tastes. These visits were generally of three months' duration — one month each being passed in Oxford, Cambridge, and London. In 1607 he was appointed Professor of Divinity to Dublin University; and two years afterwards he received an invitation to preach before the Court in London. The provostship of Trinity College was pressed upon him, but he declined, fearing lest its duties might interfere with his studies. In 1612 he took the degree of D.D., and next year published his first work, dedicated to James I. — Gravissimae Quaestiones de Christianorum Ecclesiarum Continua Successione et Statu, which drew forth an answer from his uncle Stanyhurst, then in exile on the Continent. In the beginning of 1614 he married his cousin Phoebe, daughter of Dr. Lucas Challoner, Vice-Chancellor of the University, who had been enjoined by her father's will, bequeathing her a considerable property, not to marry any other than Dr. Ussher, "if he should propose himself."

At the Irish Convocation of 1615 Dr. Ussher probably drew up the 104 Articles then accepted, which differed considerably from the English 39 Articles. Dr. Elrington says: "The most important ground of objection to the Irish Articles is the introduction of the Lambeth Articles, which had been so recently rejected by the Church of England." In 1614, and again in 1617, Ussher was chosen Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dublin, and during a visit to London of nearly two years' duration, 1619-21, he recommended himself to James I., and was appointed to the bishopric of Meath. On 13th February 1620 he preached before the House of Commons at Westminster; and says: "I dined at court, and betwixt four and five I kissed the King's hand, and had conference with him touching my sermon. He said `I had charge of an unruly flock to look to next Sunday.'"

Next year he was consecrated Bishop of Meath in St. Peter's, Drogheda. His writings give a deplorable description of the state of the diocese. The revenues had dwindled, there were few local residences for the clergy, while out of about 207 churches, 142 are set down as "ruinous," 16 with ruined choirs, 19 with ruined chancels, 26 in "reasonable repair," and but 4 in "good repair." He continued to pay frequent visits to London, where he was a special favourite with James, who addressed a letter to the Deputy and Council directing them to grant Ussher leave of absence for an indefinite period, and one of the King's last acts was to appoint him (in March 1624-'5) Archbishop of Armagh. Charles I., also, in consequence of "many painful and acceptable services to his dear father deceased, and upon his special directions,.. bestowed upon the said Primate out of his princely bounty £400."

Ussher returned to Ireland in August 1626, after a long absence. In the interval a controversy came off between him and Dr. Rookwood, a Catholic clergyman, in the presence of Lord and Lady Mordaunt, the one a Catholic, and the other a Protestant. The contention is said to have been brought to an end by Rookwood's inability to answer Ussher's arguments, and Lord Mordaunt became a member of the Church of England. The Countess was ever after the Archbishop's faithful friend, and her attachment comforted the closing years of his life. A bout this period, he joined with others of the clergy in a protest against granting Catholics any toleration: "To give them a toleration, or to consent that they may freely exercise their religion and profess their faith and doctrine, is a grievous sin."

As there was then no archiepiscopal residence at Armagh, he lived chiefly at Drogheda, or at Termonfeckin, near that place, while during a plague he took up his abode at Lambay Island. His public and often embarrassing duties did not withdraw him from the delights of literature. His mind was chiefly directed towards Biblical researches, and through agents in the East he procured several copies of the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Syriac version of the Old Testament. With the view of upholding English influence by exterminating the Irish language, he opposed Bishop Bedell's efforts for the translation and dissemination of the Bible in Irish. (It is worthy of note that Bishop Bedell and Archbishop Marsh, who most strenuously endeavoured to spread a knowledge of Irish amongst the clergy, were Englishmen.)

In 1632 Ussher permitted himself to be made a party to the forcing of a fellow upon Trinity College in violation of its statutes. He was a warm friend and adviser of Lord Wentworth, afterwards Earl of Strafford, and their intimacy terminated only when Ussher knelt beside the Earl at the block. In the Convocation of 1634, mainly through Stafford's influence, the English Articles were accepted in addition to those previously drawn up by the Archbishop; while a separate set of canons was agreed to. One of the greatest of Ussher's works, Britannicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates, was published in August 1639. It had been commenced at the request of King James, twenty years previously. Dr. Elrington declares that "to panegyrize this extraordinary monument of human learning is unnecessary; to detail its contents impossible."

The Archbishop's literary labours were interrupted by the breaking out of the war in 1641. He retired to England, and was appointed by Charles I. to the see of Carlisle in Commendam. In 1642 he went to Oxford, where he continued to avail himself of the treasures of the Bodleian Library. Numbers flocked to hear him, and he often preached before the King. He refused to attend the Assembly of Divines at Westminster in 1643, and preached against its authority. The House of Commons thereupon confiscated his valuable library, but much of it was rescued through the kindness of a friend, who bought it in for him.

When Oxford was about to be besieged, the Archbishop accompanied the Prince of Wales to Bristol. He afterwards proceeded to Cardiff, where, after the battle of Naseby, he was joined by the King. Greatly perplexed as to a choice of residence, he at one time entertained serious thoughts of embarking for France or Holland; but ultimately accepted the invitation of Lady Stradling to her castle of St. Donat's, in Glamorganshire. On his way thither, he and his daughter were roughly handled by some bands of English soldiery, and he lost several of his most valuable manuscripts. At St. Donat's he was kindly treated; and the extensive library in the castle enabled him to turn his sojourn to good account.

In 1646 his old friend the Countess of Peterborough prevailed upon him to return to London — her influence securing him from molestation by the Parliament. From the roof of her house Ussher had the anguish of seeing the King led forth to the scaffold. It is related that he fainted at the sight, and had to be carried to bed. He still continued to labour assiduously at his books, and in 1650 published the first part of his Bible Chronology, from which the dates given in the present authorized version are taken. Five years afterwards failing health obliged him to resign his appointment of preacher to the Benchers of Lincoln's Inn. He would have declined Cromwell's occasional invitations to conferences on religious matters and the promotion of Protestant interests at home and abroad, but that his refusal might have militated against the welfare of his brother clergy. He accepted from the Protector the grant of a lease for twenty years of a portion of the primatial lands at Armagh, which, however, does not appear to have been confirmed. He received one payment at least of a quarterly allowance of £100 from Parliament.

The infirmities of age were now pressing upon him; his wife died in 1654, and he himself quietly passed away, 21st March 1655-6, aged 75, at the Countess of Peterborough's, at Ryegate, in Surrey. Cromwell honoured his remains with a stately funeral at Westminster Abbey, but is said to have left his daughter to pay the greater portion of the expense out of her scanty means. Archbishop Ussher is described as well made, and moderately tall, of an erect carriage, with brown hair and a ruddy complexion; his features expressed gravity and benevolence, and his appearance commanded respect and reverence. He was of a vigorous constitution and of simple and temperate habits, which enabled him to bear a life of incessant study; his manners were courteous and affable, his temper sweet and peaceable. He was an impressive preacher, "not with enticing words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and with power." He was of a deeply religious cast of mind — his intolerance being a fault common to all men in that age.

Ussher was a voluminous writer both in Latin and English: in the list in Harris's Ware his works number some forty. Perhaps one of the most important of them was Annales Veteris Testamenti (London, 1650). That relating to Ireland oftenest quoted is his Religion Antiently Professed by the Irish and English (London, 1631). An edition of the Whole Works of Archbishop Ussher, in 17 vols., was published at the expense of Trinity College, Dublin, between 1848 and 1864. It contains much matter for the first time printed, and Dr. Elrington is said to have devoted nearly twenty years of his life to its preparation. At his death, in 1850, vol. xiv. remained unfinished, which was completed by Dr. Reeves; who also compiled the indexes which form the substance of vol. xvii.

This sketch is taken from Dr. Elrington's memoir of the Archbishop's life, which occupies the first volume of the above edition. Dr. Elrington says: "The works which he had published sufficiently attest the stupendous extent of his information, and the skill with which he could make use of the treasures he possessed. His name became celebrated throughout Europe, and his services to the cause of literature, more especially in the departments of history and chronology, have been acknowleged by all modern writers."

Ussher had intended to bequeath his magnificent library of 10,000 volumes to Trinity College; but the shattered state of his finances compelled him to leave it as an only provision for his daughter. The King of Denmark and Cardinal Mazarin competed for its purchase. Cromwell, however, refused to let it out of the kingdom, and obliged his daughter to accept the insufficient sum of £2,200 subscribed by the army of Ireland as a donation to Trinity College. On the receipt of the books in Dublin, they were retained at the Castle, open to depredations, and it was not until the Restoration that the remnant were handed over to the College Library, where they remain — a monument to the wisdom and learning of the great Archbishop. Several remarks upon Archbishop Ussher and upon Elrington's edition of his life will be found in the 2nd and 3rd Series of Notes and Queries. [Ambrose Ussher, the Archbishop's brother, a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, was a man of some eminence. According to Ware, the Library of the College was enriched with thirty-five manuscripts in his handwriting, including a complete translation of the Bible, and an Arabic Dictionary and Grammar.]


118. Ecclesiae Hiberniae Fasti: Rev. Henry Cotton: Indices by John R. Garstin, M.A. 5 vols. Dublin, 1851-'60.

334. Ussher, Rev. James, D.D., Archbishop of Armagh: C. R. Elrington, D.D. Dublin, 1864.

339. Ware, Sir James, Works: Walter Harris. 2 vols. Dublin, 1764.