Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy Taylor
Bishop of Down and Connor
Taylor as depicted in a portrait at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Church Church of Ireland
Diocese Down and Connor
In office 1661–1667
Predecessor Henry Leslie
Successor Roger Boyle
Consecration 27 January 1661
Personal details
Born 1613
Died 13 August 1667(1667-08-13) (aged 53–54)
Nationality English
Denomination Anglicanism
Education Perse School
Alma mater Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Feast day 13 August
Venerated in Church of England

Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) was a cleric in the Church of England who achieved fame as an author during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. He is sometimes known as the "Shakespeare of Divines" for his poetic style of expression, and he is frequently cited as one of the greatest prose writers in the English language. He is remembered in the Church of England's calendar of saints with a Lesser Festival on 13 August.

Taylor was under the patronage of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. He went on to become chaplain in ordinary to King Charles I as a result of Laud's sponsorship. This made him politically suspect when Laud was tried for treason and executed in January 1644/5 by the Puritan parliament during the English Civil War. After the parliamentary victory over the King, he was briefly imprisoned several times.

Eventually, he was allowed to live quietly in Wales, where he became the private chaplain of the Earl of Carbery. After the Restoration, he was made Bishop of Down and Connor in Ireland. He also became vice-chancellor of the University of Dublin.

Early life

Taylor was born in Cambridge, the son of a barber, Nathaniel.[1] He was baptised on 15 August 1613. His father was educated and taught him grammar and mathematics. He was then educated at the Perse School, Cambridge,[2] before going to Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University where he gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1630/1631 and a Master of Arts degree in 1634.[3]

The best evidence of his diligence as a student is the enormous learning of which he showed so easy a command in later years. In 1633, although still below the canonical age, he took holy orders, and accepted the invitation of Thomas Risden, a former fellow-student, to supply his place for a short time as lecturer at St Paul's Cathedral.

Career under Laud

Archbishop William Laud sent for Taylor to preach in his presence at Lambeth, and took the young man under his wing. Taylor did not vacate his fellowship at Cambridge before 1636, but he spent, apparently, much of his time in London, for Laud desired that his considerable talents should receive better opportunities of study and improvement than the obligations of constant preaching would permit. In November 1635 he had been nominated by Laud to a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford,[4] where, says Wood (Athen. Oxon., Ed. Bliss, iii. 781), love and admiration still waited on him. He seems, however, to have spent little time there. He became chaplain to his patron the archbishop, and chaplain in ordinary to Charles I.[5]

At Oxford, William Chillingworth was then busy with his magnum opus, The Religion of Protestants, and it is possible that through his discussions with Chillingworth Taylor may have been turned towards the liberal movement of his age. After two years in Oxford, he was presented, in March 1638, by William Juxon, Bishop of London, to the rectory of Uppingham, in Rutland. There he settled down to the work of a country priest.

In the next year he married Phoebe Langsdale, by whom he had six children: William (d.1642), George (?), Richard (the last two died c.1656/7), Charles, Phoebe and Mary.[6] This Mary married Francis Marsh (1626-93), Archbishop of Dublin. In the autumn of the same year he was appointed to preach in St Mary's on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, and apparently used the occasion to clear himself of a suspicion, which, however, haunted him through life, of a secret leaning to the Roman Catholic position. This suspicion seems to have arisen chiefly from his intimacy with Christopher Davenport, better known as Francis a Sancta Clara, a learned Franciscan friar who became chaplain to Queen Henrietta; but it may have been strengthened by his known connection with Laud, as well as by his ascetic habits. More serious consequences followed his attachment to the Royalist cause. The author of The Sacred Order and Offices of Episcopacy or Episcopacy Asserted against the Arians and Acephali New and Old (1642), could scarcely hope to retain his parish, which was not, however, sequestrated until 1644. Taylor probably accompanied the king to Oxford. In 1643 he was presented to the rectory of Overstone, Northamptonshire, by Charles I. There he would be in close connection with his friend and patron Spencer Compton, 2nd Earl of Northampton.

Royalist prisoner

Jeremy Taylor with figures representing youth, maturity and old age by Pierre Lombart (1650)

During the next fifteen years Taylor's movements are not easily traced. He seems to have been in London during the last weeks of Charles I in 1649, from whom he is said to have received his watch and some jewels which had ornamented the ebony case in which he kept his Bible. He had been taken prisoner with other Royalists in the siege of Cardigan Castle on 4 February 1645. In 1646 he is found in partnership with two other deprived clergymen, keeping a school at Newton Hall, in the parish of Llanfihangel Aberbythych, Carmarthenshire. Here he became private chaplain to and benefited from the hospitality of Richard Vaughan, 2nd Earl of Carbery, whose mansion, Golden Grove, is immortalised in the title of Taylor's still popular manual of devotion, and whose first wife was a constant friend of Taylor. Taylor wrote some of his most distinguished works at Golden Grove.[4] Alice, the third Lady Carbery, was the original of the Lady in John Milton's Comus. Taylor's first wife had died early in 1651. His second wife was Joanna Bridges or Brydges, said to be a natural daughter of Charles I; there is no good evidence for this.[7] She owned a good estate, though probably impoverished by Parliamentarian exactions, at Mandinam, in Carmarthenshire. Several years following their marriage, they moved to Ireland. From time to time Taylor appears in London in the company of his friend John Evelyn, in whose Diary and correspondence his name repeatedly occurs. He was imprisoned three times: in 1645 for an injudicious preface to his Golden Grove; again in Chepstow Castle, from May to October 1655, on what charge does not appear; and a third time in the Tower in 1657, because of the indiscretion of his publisher, Richard Royston, who had decorated his Collection of Offices with a print representing Christ in the attitude of prayer.


  • A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying (1646), a famous plea for toleration published decades before John Locke's Letters Concerning Toleration.
  • Apology for authorised and set forms of Liturgy against the Pretence of the Spirit (1649)
  • Great Exemplar . . . a History of . . . Jesus Christ (1649), inspired, its author tells us, by his earlier intercourse with the earl of Northampton
  • Twenty-seven Sermons (1651), for the summer half-year
  • Twenty-five Sermons (1653), for the winter half-year
  • The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1650)
  • The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651)
  • A controversial treatise on The Real Presence . . . (1654)
  • Golden Grove; or a Manuall of daily prayers and letanies . . . (1655)
  • Unum Necessarium (1655), on the doctrine of repentance, perceived Pelagianism gave great offence to Presbyterians.
  • Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship (1657)
  • Ductor Dubitantium, or the Rule of Conscience . . . (1660)
  • The Worthy Communicant; or a Discourse of the Nature, Effects, and Blessings consequent to the worthy receiving of the Lords Supper... . . . (1660)

The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living provided a manual of Christian practice, which has retained its place with devout readers. The scope of the work is described on the title-page. it deals with the means and instruments of obtaining every virtue, and the remedies against every vice, and considerations serving to the resisting all temptations, together with prayers containing the whole Duty of a Christian. Holy Dying was perhaps even more popular. A very charming piece of work of a lighter kind was inspired by a question from his friend, Mrs Katherine Phillips (the matchless Orinda), asking How far is a dear and perfect friendship authorised by the principles of Christianity? In answer to this he dedicated to the most ingenious and excellent Mrs Katherine Phillips his Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship (1657). His Ductor Dubitantium, or the Rule of Conscience . . . (1660) was intended to be the standard manual of casuistry and ethics for the Christian people.[8] His works were translated into Welsh by Nathanael Jones.

Bishop in Ireland (Ulster) at the Restoration

He probably left Wales in 1657, and his immediate connection with Golden Grove seems to have ceased two years earlier. In 1658, through the kind offices of his friend John Evelyn, Taylor was offered a lectureship in Lisburn, Co. Antrim, by Edward Conway, 2nd Viscount Conway. At first he declined a post in which the duty as to be shared with a Presbyterian, or, as he expressed it, where a Presbyterian and myself shall be like Castor and Pollux, the one up and the other down, and to which also a very meagre salary was attached. He was, however, induced to take it, and found in his patron's property at Portmore, on Lough Neagh, a congenial retreat.

At the Restoration, instead of being recalled to England, as he probably expected and certainly desired, he was appointed to the see of Down and Connor,[4] to which was shortly added the additional responsibility for overviewing the adjacent diocese of Dromore. As bishop he commissioned in 1661 the building of a new cathedral at Dromore for the Dromore diocese. He was also made a member of the Irish privy council and vice-chancellor of the University of Dublin. None of these positions was a sinecure.

Of the university he wrote:

I found all things in a perfect disorder ... a heap of men and boys, but no body of a college, no one member, either fellow or scholar, having any legal title to his place, but thrust in by tyranny or chance.

Accordingly, he set himself vigorously to the task of framing and enforcing regulations for the admission and conduct of members of the university, and also of establishing lectureships. His episcopal labours were still more arduous. There were, at the date of the Restoration, about seventy Presbyterian ministers in the north of Ireland, and most of these were from the west of Scotland, with a dislike for Episcopacy which distinguished the Covenanting party. No wonder that Taylor, writing to James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde shortly after his consecration, should have said, "I perceive myself thrown into a place of torment". His letters perhaps somewhat exaggerate the danger in which he lived, but there is no doubt that his authority was resisted and his overtures rejected.

This was Taylor's golden opportunity to show the wise toleration he had earlier advocated, but the new bishop had nothing to offer the Presbyterian clergy but the alternative of submission to episcopal ordination and jurisdiction or deprivation. Consequently, at his first visitation, he declared thirty-six churches to be vacant; and repossession was secured on his orders. At the same time many of the gentry were apparently won over by his undoubted sincerity and devotedness as well as by his eloquence. With the Roman Catholic element of the population he was less successful. Not knowing the English language, and firmly attached to their traditional forms of worship, they were nonetheless compelled to attend a service they considered profane, conducted in a language they could not understand.

As Reginald Heber says

No part of the administration of Ireland by the English crown has been more extraordinary and more unfortunate than the system pursued for the introduction of the Reformed religion. At the instance of the Irish bishops Taylor undertook his last great work, the Dissuasive from Popery (in two parts, 1664 and 1667), but, as he himself seemed partly conscious, he might have more effectually gained his end by adopting the methods of Ussher and William Bedell, and inducing his clergy to acquire the Irish language.

Taylor died at Lisburn on 13 August 1667. He was buried at Dromore Cathedral where an Apsidal Chancel was later built over the crypt where he was laid to rest.


Taylor's fame has been maintained by the popularity of his sermons and devotional writings rather than by his influence as a theologian or his importance as an ecclesiastic. His mind was neither scientific nor speculative, and he was attracted rather to questions of casuistry than to the problems of pure theology. His wide reading and capacious memory enabled him to carry in his mind the materials of a sound historical theology, but these materials were unsifted by criticism. His immense learning served him rather as a storehouse of illustrations, or as an armoury out of which he could choose the fittest weapon for discomfiting an opponent, than as a quarry furnishing him with material for building up a completely designed and enduring edifice of systematised truth. Indeed, he had very limited faith in the human mind as an instrument of truth. Theology, he says, is rather a divine life than a divine knowledge.

His great plea for toleration is based on the impossibility of erecting theology into a demonstrable science. It is impossible all should be of one mind. And what is impossible to be done is not necessary it should be done. Differences of opinion there must be; but heresy is not an error of the understanding but an error of the will. He would submit all minor questions to the reason of the individual member, but he set certain limits to toleration, excluding whatsoever is against the foundation of faith, or contrary to good life and the laws of obedience, or destructive to human society, and the public and just interests of bodies politic. Peace, he thought, might be made if men would not call all opinions by the name of religion, and superstructures by the name of fundamental articles. Of the propositions of sectarian theologians he said that confidence was the first, and the second, and the third part.

Of a genuine poetic temperament, fervid and mobile in feeling, and of a prolific fancy, he had also the sense and wit that come of varied contact with men. All his gifts were made available for influencing other men by his easy command of a style rarely matched in dignity and color. With all the majesty and stately elaboration and musical rhythm of Milton's finest prose, Taylor's style is relieved and brightened by an astonishing variety of felicitous illustrations, ranging from the most homely and terse to the most dignified and elaborate. His sermons especially abound in quotations and allusions, which have the air of spontaneously suggesting themselves, but which must sometimes have baffled his hearers. This seeming pedantry is, however, atoned for by the clear practical aim of his sermons, the noble ideal he keeps before his hearers, and the skill with which he handles spiritual experience and urges incentives to virtue.

Literary style and influence

Taylor is best known as a prose stylist; his chief fame is the result of his twin devotional manual, Holy Living and Holy Dying. (The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, 1650 and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, 1651). These books were favourites of John Wesley, and admired for their prose style by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, and Thomas de Quincey. They are marked by solemn but vivid rhetoric, elaborate periodic sentences, and careful attention to the music and rhythms of words:

As our life is very short, so it is very miserable; and therefore it is well that it is short. God, in pity to mankind, lest his burden should be insupportable and his nature an intolerable load, hath reduced our state of misery to an abbreviature; and the greater our misery is, the less while it is like to last; the sorrows of a man's spirit being like ponderous weights, which by the greatness of their burden make a swifter motion, and descend into the grave to rest and ease our wearied limbs; for then only we shall sleep quietly, when those fetters are knocked off, which not only bound our souls in prison, but also ate the flesh till the very bones opened the secret garments of their cartilages, discovering their nakedness and sorrow.

—From Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying


Jeremy Taylor is said to have been a lineal descendant of Rowland Taylor, but the assertion has not been proved.[9] Through his daughter, Mary, who married Archbishop Francis Marsh, he had numerous descendants.[10]