William Alexander was no great scholar, but rose through church to become Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland

​​The Alexanders were one of the most significant Ulster-Scots families in 19th century north-west Ulster. They counted the Earls of Caledon among their kinsmen.
William Alexander was born in Londonderry almost 200 years ago and rose to become Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All IrelandWilliam Alexander was born in Londonderry almost 200 years ago and rose to become Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland
William Alexander was born in Londonderry almost 200 years ago and rose to become Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland

William Alexander was the eldest son of Robert Alexander, the Rector of Termoneeny (Knockloughrim) in the diocese of Derry, and was born in Londonderry on April 13 1824.

One of William’s brothers became a rear-admiral and another was a soldier who was killed in action at Delhi in 1857.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

William was educated at Tonbridge School in Kent and won an exhibition to Oxford in 1841. Despite his genuine scholarly inclinations, he failed to fulfil his academic promise (at least partially through illness), leaving Oxford with large debts and a fourth-class degree.

At Oxford he was profoundly influenced by the ‘Oxford Movement’ (which sought the return of the Church of England to pre-Reformation beliefs and liturgical practice) and the sermons of John Henry Newman.

When in 1845 Newman left the Church of England and his teaching post at Oxford University and was received into the Roman Catholic Church, Alexander seriously considered following him to the extent that he took his name off the college books, wrote to his mother stating his intention of converting and then left Oxford.

Doubts began to surface on his journey home. He encountered a Quakeress who managed to calm him. This combined with a torturous night of soul searching in a cheap hotel in Birmingham, resolved his doubts.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Alexander was ordained in September 1847. He was appointed curate of Templemore (Londonderry) and then successively rector of Termonamongan (Killeter), Fahan (Buncrana), and Camus-juxta-Mourne (Strabane), all in the diocese of Derry apart from Fahan.

He was conscientious in visiting the sick and all who claimed any connection with the Church of Ireland and ecumenical too in calling with those Presbyterians and Roman Catholics who he thought would appreciate a visit.

In October 1850 he married Cecil Frances, the celebrated poet and hymn writer.

Her religious outlook and writing had been strongly influenced by her contacts with John Keble, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, another leading light in the ‘Oxford Movement’.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Fanny Alexander was attracted to clever men. A previous romantic interest was William Archer Butler (who incidentally preached the sermon at Alexander’s ordination). Reputed to be ‘the cleverest man in Ireland’, Archer Butler became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, when he graduated (his intellectual prowess was such that the chair was created specifically for him) and Rector of Raymochy near Dunfanaghy.

While engaged in famine relief, he caught ‘famine fever’ and died very suddenly in July 1848. Fanny, many years later, told her two daughters that she had been in love with Archer Butler and that it was his death which had prevented the match.

Despite the fourth-class degree, Alexander was a highly intelligent and scholarly man with a transatlantic reputation. He was a gifted poet (like his wife) and an eloquent preacher, his sermons being greatly admired for their simplicity and warmth.

Retaining links with Oxford, in 1850 he won the Denyer theological prize for an essay on the 'Divinity of Christ'. In 1853 he recited in the Sheldonian theatre a congratulatory ode to Lord Derby, on his assumption of the chancellorship of the university. In 1860 he obtained the university prize for his sacred poem 'The Waters of Babylon'. In 1867 he very narrowly lost out in the election for the professorship of poetry at Oxford.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

On October 6 1867 he was consecrated bishop of Derry and Raphoe. The early years of his episcopacy coincided with the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. He opposed disestablishment and spoke forcefully against it in the House of Lords. While Mrs Alexander was never reconciled to disestablishment, Bishop Alexander led his diocese with good grace in successfully coming to terms with the challenges of the new dispensation and diligently attended to his pastoral duties, confirmations, ordinations and visitations.

Mrs Alexander died at the Bishop’s Palace in Londonderry on October 12 1895 and is buried in the City Cemetery.

On February 25 1896 Bishop Alexander was elected Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. Although a high churchman, he enjoyed the support of all parties within the church.

Arguably his leadership might be regarded as unspectacular and uneventful but that may have been exactly what the church required in those years. Armagh was less taxing in one respect than his former diocese because it was served by an excellent rail network which made travel a great deal less onerous.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He resigned the archbishopric on January 30 1911, and died in retirement at Torquay on September 12 later that year. He was buried in Derry Cemetery beside his wife.

Canon J B Leslie wrote admiringly but not entirely uncritically of the Archbishop in ‘Derry Clergy and Parishes’ in 1937:

‘… he was endowed with a fine presence, a beautiful voice, well calculated to register thought and emotion, a versatile intellect, firm convictions, wide sympathies, a sense of humour and kindliness of heart. He was a poet of no mean order, and a preacher of great power – with that delightful kind of word painting which alas! Is very uncommon today.

‘As a parochial clergyman he was loved and esteemed, as a bishop he won the confidence of clergy and laity. As a Primate he worthily filled the chair of Ussher and Bramhall. [Two distinguished 17th-century Archbishops of Armagh from opposite ends of the theological spectrum.]

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

‘He was not perhaps gifted with the powers of administration, and as chaiman of meetings he did not shine; but he was a great Primate and a great Churchman. His speech in the House of Lords against the Disestablishment Bill [in June 1869] was one of the most powerful utterances heard in that assembly.

‘His words, describing the results of Home Rule were a prophecy that has come true. [Here Leslie may have been thinking of his speech entitled ‘Perils of Home Rule’ delivered at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in March 1893.]

‘Whenever he preached in the Great Cathedrals of England he drew immense congregations, and the same was true during a preaching and lecturing tour in America … in 1891’.

Related topics: