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Durham University

Van Mildert College

William Van Mildert

A Short History of Bishop William Van Mildert

Prince Bishops

William Van Mildert was the last of the Prince Bishops and a key figure in the foundation of the University of Durham in 1832. The idea of Prince Bishops in Durham dates back to the year 1071, a time shortly after Norman Conquest when William the Conqueror needed to appoint a representative to hold secular and spiritual power over the whole of the North-East of England (1, 2). This position gave the southern King a powerful northern presence to defend against rebellion by the local Saxon population or invasion from Scottish armies. The area became known as the Palatinate of Durham and it was said at the time that the Prince Bishop was like a second King of England (1, 2). Prince Bishops not only had their own parliament with representatives which they could send to the King, but could raise armies, collect their own taxes, set up their own courts, mint their own coins and negotiate directly with the Scottish kings (1, 2).

By 1832 the concept of Prince Bishops seemed outdated and the Great Reform Act saw the removal of the Prince Bishops powers, although the Bishop of Durham retained a seat in the House of Lords which he still holds to this day (3). In fact, it was not until the early 1970s that the palatinate court system was merged into the English court structure (4). So who was William Van Mildert, how did he become Prince Bishop of Durham and how was the University of Durham founded?

Van Mildert

William Van Mildert was born in London on the 6th of November 1765 (5, 6). His father Cornelius was a gin distiller (5, 7). The Van Mildert family were of Dutch descent and there had long been a connection between the family and the church. William Van Mildert’s grandfather and great grandfather had been deacons of the Dutch Reform church at Austin Friars in London, and his father was a devout Anglican. Van Mildert began his education at St. Saviours School, Southwark, until the age of thirteen, when he persuaded his father to allow him to seek holy orders. Van Mildert attended Merchant Taylors’ School, London, in around 1779 to begin preparations for Oxford University where he studied at Queens College, from 1784 (5,7).

Van Mildert graduated with a BA in November 1787 and was ordained deacon in Oxfordshire whilst working towards his MA (5, 7). From here, Van Mildert was ordained a priest in December 1789, becoming curate of Newchurch and Bonnington, in Kent. It was here that Van Mildert met Jane, his future wife, and they married in December 1795. The Van Mildert’s moved to Northamptonshire and although they never had their own children they fostered two of Jane’s nieces (5, 7).

In July 1796, Van Mildert became chaplain to the Grocers’ Company and rector of St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London. During this time Van Mildert lived outside the parish due its poor standard of accommodation, leading to his prosecution for non-residence in 1800. Van Mildert’s case was frequently presented in parliament as evidence that reform of current laws was necessary (5, 7).

Van Mildert opposed many government reforms and became a member of the church campaign group, the Hackney Phalanx (5, 7, 8). The Phalanx was a group of clergy and laymen who published the British Critic, a conservative review which was part of the British reaction against the French Revolution (7, 8). Van Mildert was briefly the editor for the British Critic in 1811 and co-edited the Churchman's Remembrancer between 1802 and 1808. He served as treasurer of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge between 1812 and 1815 and also helped to found the National Society in 1811 and the Church Building Society in 1818 (5, 7). Van Mildert published various texts throughout his life, including a ten-volume edition of the works of the 18th century theologian Daniel Waterland (5, 7). Van Mildert’s Boyle lectures of 1802-1805 on An Historical View of the Rise and Progress of Infidelity, with a Refutation of its Principles and Reasoning’s (9) helped to strengthen his reputation as one of the foremost conservative theologians of the day and it has been said that he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of divinity (5,7).

Van Mildert became chaplain to the fourth Duke of Queensberry in 1807 and vicar of Farningham in Kent, where renovations of an uninhabitable parsonage nearly bankrupted him in 1810. Lord Liverpool offered Van Mildert a professorship of divinity at Oxford and a rectory in Oxfordshire which he accepted (5, 7). At Oxford, Van Mildert became a bachelor and then a doctor of divinity, and a canon of Christ Church. After a short period as Bishop of Llandaff (now part of Cardiff) in 1819 and dean of St. Paul’s in 1820, Van Mildert was offered and accepted the palatine bishopric of Durham. (5, 7, 8)

Van Mildert had strongly opposed parliamentary reform and he was even burned in effigy at the castle gates in November 1831 due to this opposition (7). Van Mildert's resistance to reform may be the reason why he was omitted from Peel's ecclesiastical commission in 1835 and was not recommended to be archbishop of Canterbury (5, 7). He was, however, greatly respected and played an important role in early 19th century theological thought as well as in lively political discussions.

Van Mildert’s health throughout his life was never particularly good and he died aged 70 on 21st February 1836 (5, 7). He was buried in a vault in front of the high altar at Durham Cathedral although he had expressed the wish to be buried at Auckland Castle, his official home. His wife survived him and died in Harrogate in 1837 (5).

Van Mildert and the Foundation of Durham University

There had been calls for a university in Durham reaching back as far as Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, although at that time Oxford and Cambridge Universities had expressed concerns that a University at Durham would damage their position (5, 7). In 1832, Archdeacon Charles Thorp and Van Mildert persuaded the government and parliament to support the idea of a university at Durham (10, 5, 7). On 4th July 1832 the “Act to enable the Dean and Chapter of Durham to appropriate part of the property of their Church to the establishment of a University in connection therewith, for the Advancement of Learning” was passed (11, 12, 13, 14). The first students arrived in 1833, with the University receiving a royal charter and degree-awarding powers in 1837 (12, 13, 14).

There is a substantial collection of material relating to Bishop Van Mildert in the Special Collections section of Durham University Library. Most of this material (over 1300 papers) was discovered in a pigeon loft in Bradden House, Northamptonshire in the early 1970s by Arnold Bradshaw, later Principal of Van Mildert College. The papers were transferred to Van Mildert College so that Bradshaw could catalogue them and in 1989 deposited in the University library. On the basis of these papers, Elizabeth Varley was able to write what is probably the definitive biography of Van Mildert, entitled The Last of the Prince Bishops. William Van Mildert and the High Church Movement of the early Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Sic vos non vobis

(Not for yourselves)

The College is named after William Van Mildert (1765-1836), the last Prince Bishop of Durham. An Englishman of Dutch descent, he was instrumental in the founding of Durham University in 1832 and his castle is the present University College. His portrait hangs in Van Mildert College's Ann Dobson Hall.

The College Motto is his too – sic vos non vobis.