Henry Dodwell, the scholar and theologian, was born in 1641 at Dublin, though both his parents were of English extraction. His father, William Dodwell, was in the army. His mother was Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir Francis Slingsby. At the time of his birth, the Irish Rebellion, which resulted in the destruction of a large number of protestants, was going on; and, for the first six years of his life, he was confined, with his mother, within the City of Dublin, while his father's estate in Connaught was possessed by the rebels.
In 1648, the Dodwells came over to England in the hope of finding some help from their friends. They settled first in London and then at York, in the neighbourhood of which city, Mrs. Dodwell's brother, Sir Henry Slingsby, resided. For five years, Dodwell was educated in the free school at York. His father returned to Ireland to look after his estate and died of the plague at Waterford in 1650; and his mother, soon afterwards, fell into a consumption of which she died. The orphan boy was reduced to the greatest straits, from which he was at last relieved, in 1654, by his uncle, Henry Dodwell, the incumbent of Hemley and Newbourne in Suffolk. This kind relation paid his debts, took him into his own house, and helped him in his studies.
In 1656, Dodwell was admitted into Trinity College, Dublin, and became a favourite pupil of Dr. John Steam, for whom he conceived a deep attachment. He was elected, in due time, first scholar and then fellow of the college; but, in 1666, he was obliged to resign his fellowship because he declined to take holy orders, which the statutes of the college obliged all fellows to do when they were masters of arts of three years' standing. Bishop Jeremy Taylor offered to use his influence to procure a dispensation to enable Dodwell to hold his fellowship in spite of the statute; but Dodwell refused the offer because he thought it would be a bad precedent for the college. His reasons for declining to take orders were his sense of the responsibility of the sacred ministry, the mean opinion he had of his own abilities and, above all, a conviction that he could be of more service to the cause of religion and the church as a layman than he could be as a clergyman, who might be suspected of being biassed by self-interest.
In 1674, Dodwell settled in London, “as being a place where there was a variety of learned persons, and which afforded opportunity of meeting with books, both of ancient and modern authors”. In 1675, he made the acquaintance of Dr. William Lloyd, afterwards Bishop of St. Asaphs, and subsequently of Worcester; and when Dr. Lloyd was made Chaplain to the Princess of Orange, he accompanied him to Holland. He was also wont to travel with his friend, when he became bishop, on his visitation tours and on other episcopal business; but when Lloyd took the oath of allegiance to William and Mary and Dodwell declined to do so, there was a breach between the friends which was never healed. He also spent much of his time with the famous Bishop Pearson at Chester.
In 1688, Dodwell was appointed, without any solicitation on his part, Camden Professor or Praelector of History at Oxford University, and delivered several valuable 'praelections' in that capacity. But in 1691, he was deprived of his professorship because he refused to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary. He was told “by learned counsel that the act, seemed not to reach his case, in that he was praelector, not professor;” but Dodwell was not the man to take advantage of such chances and, as he had refused to retain his fellowship when he could not conscientiously comply with its conditions, so also he did in the case of the professorship or praelectorship.
Dodwell continued to live at Oxford for some time, but then retired to Cookham, near Maidenhead in Berkshire. Thence, he removed himself to Shottesbrooke, a village on the other side of Maidenhead. He was persuaded to take up his abode there by Francis Cherry, the squire of the place. Cherry and Dodwell used to meet at Maidenhead, whither they went daily, the one from Cookham and the other from Shottesbrooke, to hear the news and to learn what books were newly published. Being kindred spirits, and holding the same views on theological and political topics, they struck up a great friendship and Mr. Cherry fitted up Smewyns Manor for his friend, near his own house. At Shottesbrooke, Dodwell spent the remainder of his life. In 1694, he married Ann Elliot, a lady in whose father's house at Cookham he had lodged. By her he had ten children, six of whom survived him.
Cherry and Dodwell, being nonjurors, could not attend their parish church. They therefore maintained, jointly, a nonjuring chaplain, Francis Brokesby, who afterwards became Dodwell's biographer. But in 1710, on the death of Bishop Lloyd of Norwich, the last but one of the surviving nonjuring prelates, and “the surrendry of Bishop Ken, there being not now two claimants of the same altar of which the dispossessed had the better title,” Dodwell, with Cherry and Mr. Robert Nelson, returned to the communion of the established church. They were admitted to communion at St. Mildred's, Poultry, by the excellent Archbishop Sharp. In 1711, Dodwell caught cold, whilst on a walk from Shottesbrooke to London, and died from the effects of it.
Dodwell was universally esteemed as a most pious and learned man. His views were those of a staunch Anglican churchman, equally removed from Puritanism on the one side and Romanism on the other. Thomas Hearne, the antiquary, was brought up at Shottesbrooke, partly under his instruction and constantly refers in his 'Diary' to “the great Mr. Dodwell” as an unimpeachable authority on all points of learning. He speaks of the “reputation he [Dodwell] had deservedly obtained of being a most profound scholar, a most pious man and one of ye greatest integrity”; and yet more strongly: “I take him to be the greatest scholar in Europe when he died; but, what exceeds that, his piety and sanctity were beyond compare.” His extensive and accurate knowledge won the admiration of some who had less sympathy than Hearne with his theological and political opinions. Gibbon, for instance, in his 'Entraits raisonnes de mes Lectures' writes: “Dodwell's learning was immense; in this part of history, especially that of the upper empire, the most minute fact or passage could not, escape him; and his skill in employing them is equal to his learning.” This was a subject on which the great historian could speak with authority. That Dodwell's character and attainments were very highly estimated by his contemporaries is shown by testimonies too numerous to be quoted. That he was mainly instrumental in bringing back Robert Nelson to the established church is one out of many proofs. But that, in spite of his vast, learning, his numerous works have now fallen into comparative oblivion is not to be wondered at. Gibbon gives one reason: “The worst of this author is his method and style - the one perplexed beyond imagination, the other negligent to a degree of barbarism.” Other reasons may be that the special interest in many of the subjects on which Dodwell wrote has died away and that he was fond of broaching eccentric theories which embarrassed his friends at least as much as his opponents. Bishop Ken, for instance, notices with dismay the strange ideas of “the excellent Mr. Dodwell” and even Hearne cannot altogether endorse them. Dodwell had a great veneration for the English clergy and might, himself, have been described with more accuracy than Addison was, as “a parson in a tye-wig.” All his tastes were clerical and his theological attainments were such as few clergymen have reached. Hearne heard that he was in the habit of composing sermons for his friend Dr. Lloyd; whether this was so or not, his writings show that he would have been quite in his element in so doing. Dodwell was a most voluminous writer on an immense variety of subjects, in all of which he showed vast learning, great ingenuity, and, in spite of some eccentricities, great powers of reasoning.
Edited from Leslie Stephen's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1888)
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