Life of James Ussher


James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh (1625-1656)

Ussher was born in Dublin on the 4 th January, 1581, the son of Arland Ussher and Margaret Stanyhurst. On both sides of his family he was connected to the properous Dublin merchant élite, an élite which was fractured by religious divisions. On his father’s side was the influential Henry Ussher, Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh from 1595 to 1613, who played an important role in the creation of Trinity College, Dublin in 1592. His mother’s brother was the equally famous historian Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618), a Jesuit priest. Ussher himself would be influenced by both these men, following in Henry’s footsteps as a Church of Ireland cleric and mirroring Richard’s interests in the polemical possibilities of historical scholarship.

lifeussher1Ussher was one of the first scholars in Trinity College Dublin and remained there both as a student and staff member until his elevation in 1621 to the bishopric of Meath. His academic progress was seemless and his intellectual interests were formed early. According to Nicholas Bernard, who preached his funeral oration (see bibliography) he decided at the age of twenty to commence reading the Patristics an immense task which took him over eighteen years. Parr, another biographer, argues that his reading of Thomas Stapleton’s A Fortress of the Faith was the spur, but equally his early polemical altercation with Henry Fitzsimons, a flamboyant Jesuit imprisoned in Dublin Castle in the late 1590s, surely whetted his appetite. His education in the staunch Calvinist college of Trinity College, Dublin, was focused on polemical encounters with Roman Catholics, a field in which Ussher would excell. He rapidly gained his B.A. (1598), M.A. (1601), B.D. (1607) and D.D. (1612). Holding a range of college and ecclesiastical appointments (the latter following his ordination in December 1601) he became Professor of Theological Controversies in 1607, the most important professorship in the University of Dublin.
Both he and his future father-in-law, Luke Challoner, another leading light of the early college, were entrusted with the vital task of purchasing book collections for the college library. This, given the disastrous state of the Dublin book-trade, necessitated a number of buying trips to London, Oxford and Cambridge in the first decade of the seventeenth century. Ussher used these trips not only to augment his own and the college’s collections but also to initiate contact with some of the most noted scholars of the day: William Camden, Robert Cotton etc. 1613 witnesssed his marriage to Luke Challoner’s daughter, Phoebe, and the publication of his first work, Gravissimae Quaestionis, de Christianarum ecclesiarum, in occidentis praesertim partibus, ab apostolicis temporibus, ad nostram usque aetatem, continua successione & statu, historica explicatio (London, 1613). This investigation of the rise of Antichrist, coupled with the identification of medieval heretical groups as proto-protestants, formed the template for many of Ussher’s later works, as did his methodology. The extent and depth of his historical researches is readily apparent in the original manuscript research so evident in this work. Though he flagged his intention to continue the narrative up until 1513 he was in effect forced by pressure of time to conclude his analysis in the early twelfth century.

Ussher was rapidly becoming a leading figure of the Church of Ireland. His position as Professor of Theological Controversies ensured that he played an important role in the formulation of the 1615 Irish Articles, articles which were more Puritan’ than their counterparts in England. Nicholas Bernard in particular emphasises this view and though later commetators sought to minimise Ussher’s role it is clear that he played a vital part in their creation. Four years later he again travelled to England and came to the notice of James I who identified him as a model scholar-cleric worthy of advancement. Ussher did not have to wait long. He stayed in England pursuing his researches for two years, returning to Ireland as Bishop of Meath in 1621.

The following year he set in motion a detailed visitation of his diocese, which still exists and sheds valuable light on the state of the Church of Ireland at this time. However, Ussher soon became involved in controversy. An inflamatory sermon during the swearing-in of Henry Cary, Lord Falkland on the 8 th September, 1622, contained a political message which was no longer acceptable to the ruling powers. Ussher’s call for stringent enforcement of the recusancy laws owed much to his upbringing and his strict Calvinist understanding of the Antichrist, but it made uneasy hearing in the political reality of 1622 when James I was attempting to secure a Spanish infanta for the Prince of Wales. Ussher received a reprimand from the Archbishop of Armagh, Christopher Hampton, who advised him to spend more time in his bishopric.

But for Ussher being a bishop was not the core of his identity. The tension between the demands of his episcopal office and his involvement in scholarly investigation and political disputes is readily apparent in his decision to travel to England in the summer of 1623 in order to research at Oxford and Cambridge. His absence from Ireland of almost three years was made possible by a concession from James I who recognised his scholarly abilities, but indicated that for Ussher, scholarship and the intellectual battle with Roman Catholicism held more attraction than the pastoral mission on the ground. This was a leitmotif throughout his life and led one commentator, Gilbert Burnet, to conclude that he was not made for the governing part of his function.’ Two works published by him in the 1620s were clearly aimed at the Old English market: A Discourse of the Religion Anciently Professed by the Irish and British (which was appended to Christopher Sibthorp’s A Friendly Adverstisement and later published in 1631) and his Answer to a Challenge Made by a Jesuit in Ireland , but the vast majority of his researches in the mid 1620s only came to fruition in a number of publications on biblical chronology in the 1630s (see bibliography).

Hampton died in early January 1625, just in time to allow the ailing James I to appoint Ussher to the Primacy of All Ireland. Again, Ussher took his time before returning to Ireland (in 1626) but once there realised that his political gifts were needed to combat the policies emanating from London. The controversial Graces, which aimed to give a number of concessions to Roman Catholics in return for finacial assistance, were, literally, anathema to Ussher. He convened a meeting of the bishops of the Church of Ireland at his house in Drogheda in November 1626, where they produced a statement of their position on toleration, based on their identification of the papacy as Antichrist. Ussher was asked to give a number of sermons on the subject and eventually the matter was dropped. On Falkland’s return to England a power vacumn was quickly filled by the lord justices, Adam Loftus, Viscount Loftus, and Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork. Hardline Calvinists were in the ascendant in the Dublin adminstration and the next few years, until the arrival of Thomas Wentworth as Lord Deputy in 1633, were, from Ussher’s political point of view, halcyon. This was the high point of Ussher’s influence as an ecclesiastical politician in Irish politics.

Wentworth’s arrival, coupled with the increasing involvement in Irish affairs of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury since 1633, spelt the end of all this. Already Ussher had been fighting another front in the ecclesiastical war  the rise of Arminianism within the Irish church  but now Arminians such as William Chappel were taking over positions of influence. On Laud’s recommendation Chappel became Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, and proceeded to introduce a major reform of the statutes governing the college. The 1634 Convocation was another nightmare for Ussher, his 1615 Articles coming under attack from Laud and his ally John Bramhall, who had been elevated to the Bishopric of Derry. Ussher fought a rearguard action but his ultimate failure was evident in his decision in the mid 1630s to retreat to the safety of his library at Drogheda and leave the running of the church to Bramhall. From c. 1635 to 1639 he concentrated on producing a stream of works, many of them subtle castigations of the Arminian arguments to which he was so opposed  for example his 1631 history of Gotteschalc of Orbais, a ninth century monk, was a coded repudiation of Arminianism, in so far as Gotteschalc himself had been a staunch advocate of double predestination. Likewise, his phenomenal Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates , the result of research trips during the 1620s, spent much time on the fight against Pelagianism in Britain.

The 1640s witnessed Ussher involved in a fascinating balancing act. On the one hand his theological position ensured that the forces of parliament might look on him as a champion and seek his advice on reform. On the other Charles I was equally anxious to draw him to his side. Ussher’s Reduction of Episcopacy offered a halfway house between presbyterianism and episcopacy but he was unwilling to forego the latter altogether. At the same time Ussher was advising the King on how he should handle the increasingly difficult political situation and acting as an intermediary between the King and Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, in the lead up to the latter’s execution. By late 1642 however, Ussher had moved to Oxford and though he might have argued that this was to facilitate his studies, Oxford was the royalist headquarters. By 1643 Ussher had definitively tied his colours to those of Charles I and refused an invitation to the 1643 Westminster Assembly. It was at Oxford that he published on the Ignatian epistles, proving the fraudulent nature of some of the letters, thus making a major contribution to patristic scholarship. The remainder of the 1640s were occupied by a series of journeys between Royalist strongholds, finally ending up in London under the protection of the Countess of Peterborough. Though Parliament might well have made life uncomfortable for him Ussher was allowed to continue his studies, which came to fruition in one of his most famous works: the 1650 Annales veteris testamenti which started with the declaration that creation took place in the year 4004 BC. This rapidly became a publishing success and was later translated into English in 1658. Its major thesis was later incorporated into Authorized Version of the Bible and became a staple for centuries to come. By the mid 1650s Ussher was in poor health. Falling ill on the 20 th of March, 1656, he died the following day at his patroness’ house in Ryegate. Symbolically, in spite of Ussher’s adherence to the royalist cause, Oliver Cromwell insisted on giving him a state funeral and he was buried in Westminster Abbey on the 17 th April, 1656. Ussher was thus a figure who might be appropriated by both royalist and parliamentarian, puritan and anglican. In the world of scholarship his identity was clearer he was, in the words of John Selden, learned to a miracle’.

(c) Elizabethanne Boran.


Scroll to Top