“That devil of a Bishop who inspired more terror than ever Satan did… of whom, however, it must be said that he is a gentleman.”
Henry Phillpotts (1778–1869) was the Anglican Bishop of Exeter from 1830 to 1869.
He was England’s longest-serving bishop since the 14th century and a conservative who opposed Catholic emancipation. In both the pulpit and in the House of Lords Henry was an opponent of political, economic and social reform.
Henry was described as “one of the last of a clerical aristocracy, which, whatever their origin, expected to live on a scale comparable to that of the nobility”.
Accordingly, in 1841 he built a palace in Torquay called Bishopstowe. This served as his home, which he preferred to the Bishop’s Residence attached to Exeter Cathedral.
Bishopstowe is now the Palace Hotel. The 25 acres of private land stretched to Anstey’s Cove, and we can see some fine views from the Bishop’s Walk.
At the Church of England’s General Synod in 2006 it was alleged that Henry was paid almost £13,000 in 1833 (equivalent to more than £1,000,000 in present day value), under the terms of the Slavery Abolition Act.
This was compensation paid for 665 slaves on a plantation in Barbados that Henry held in joint ownership with three business colleagues. Exeter Cathedral states that Henry was then able to restore the Bishop’s Palace in a “most creditable manner”.
Church involvement in the Barbados slave trade went back at least to 1710, when the planter Christopher Codrington died. Codrington left his three sugar estates of 800-acres to the Church’s newly-established Society for the Propagation of the Christian Religion in Foreign Parts (SPG).
According to Woodville Marshall, emeritus professor of history at the University of the West Indies, the Church had “professional planters to run the place… The Church didn’t play an active role, because they were more interested in the receipts.”
After the plantation was left to the SPG, its slaves were branded on the chest with the word “society”, to remind everyone that these were slaves of the Lord. In 1740, 30 years after the Church took over, four out of every 10 slaves bought by the plantation died within three years.
It’s been suggested that having a Bishop personally owning slaves was seen as a powerful legitimating tool for Caribbean interests in Britain. The Church of England itself was also directly involved in slavery.
Henry Phillpotts still held office as Bishop of Exeter on his death at the age of 91 on 18 September 1869 and he is buried in the churchyard at St Marychurch. The church tower at St Marychurch was restored in 1873, at a cost of £3,500, in the Bishop’s memory.