Project Canterbury

George Rundle Prynne

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.


THE greatest movements in human history, and especially those connected with religion, have enrolled in their ranks people of every type and every position. The rank and file are as necessary as the leaders in any army: any cause that is worth while can use widely varying talents, welding them all into the spear-point which drives the way for progress. But in religion the leaders are not always people who are great as the world counts greatness: very often they appear more as pioneers, members of an advance guard, blazing a trail. To this the Catholic Revival in the English Church is no exception. It is, as much as any religious movement in history, a cause which has won its way under leaders who were hardly recognized as such by the world at large, only realized in that capacity even by their coreligionists when what they had done could be viewed in perspective. That is why the 'Heroes' of the Catholic Revival are, in the majority of cases, people who lived and worked all their lives in one sphere, unknown and generally unhonoured by the world, yet wielding an influence and creating an effect of which they themselves were often unaware, leaving an inspiration and an encouragement out of all proportion to the position (superficially judged) which they occupied.

Such a one was the subject of this memoir: George Rundle Prynne, parish priest of St. Peter's, Plymouth, for fifty-five years. He was born at West Looe, Cornwall, in the year 1818, of an ancient family which has spelt its name in various ways at various periods--a name which he himself wrote 'Pryn' down to his University days. An ancestor, William Pryn, appears in the annals of the seventeenth century with some distinction as a staunch Puritan. George Prynne resembled him closely in his complete sincerity and entire fearlessness, although their religious outlook differed so widely: both went straight and unswervingly for their goal, both were completely unmoved by persecution. George Prynne (christened 'Rundle,' from his mother's maiden name) was not baptized until 1821, for various reasons, not unconnected with the slackness of Church administration (especially in the West Country) in those early days of the nineteenth century. But the delay was not due in any sense to religious indifference on the part of his father and mother, John Allen and Susanna Prynne, who came of devout Cornish Evangelical stock on both sides. Mrs. Prynne died when George was fifteen years of age, and before that time unfortunate monetary transactions had greatly impoverished the family. The boy was therefore largely indebted for his early education to a married sister, Mrs. Kempe, who conducted a small school at Looe. There the village possessed no church, and the Prynne children were sometimes sent to the local chapel in preference to attending no place of worship at all.

When George was eight years old the family moved to Fowey, and the future pioneer of Catholic practice preserved vivid memories of Mattins in Fowey Church. He stayed a good deal with his mother's brother, Charles Rundle, at Stoke Damerel, and from there eventually went to Southwood's School at Devonport.

From the beginning he was intended for Holy Orders, a decision of his parents' in which he entirely concurred. He matriculated at St. John's, Cambridge, in 1836, but afterwards migrated to St. Catherine's College, where he graduated (a pass degree) in 1840.

In 1841 he was ordained at Exeter to the curacy of Tywardreath: the diocese of Exeter in those days was a vast and unwieldy one, covering the whole of Devon and Cornwall. Here, under a High Churchman of the pre-Tractarian period, Prebendary Lyne, Prynne found himself at grips with two factors in the popular life of his native county, Wesleyanism and witchcraft. To combat the former he carefully read up the history of Wesley, being one of the first to give it as his conclusion (a surprising one to the Wesleyans themselves) that 'Wesley never intended his followers to leave the Church of England.' His adventures in dispelling popular superstition with regard to witchcraft, and in saving from popular cruelty and worse the alleged witches themselves, make stirring reading: for the moment, it is enough for us to note the fearlessness and charity (always his marked characteristics) with which he tackled both problems. He was ordained priest in 1842, and so far as ordinary parish work was concerned, seems to have spent much time in teaching boys. He noted in his later recollections the first occasion on which Morning Prayer was sung at Tywar-dreath (instead of the usual monotone) and the first occasion of the use of the surplice in the pulpit: this was in 1843.

He had not yet come fully under the influence of Tractarian teaching, which was naturally longer in reaching the West Country, but he was very soon known for the definite beliefs he held and for his fearlessness in promulgating them. Particularly was he observed for his Eucharistic doctrine: as he was considerably in request as a preacher, the matter was brought to his vicar's notice. Of two sermons which Prynne submitted to him, preached at the daughter church of Tywardreath (Tregaminion Chapel), Prebendary Lyne observed that their teaching 'savoured of Transubstantiation.'

In 1843 he went to St. Andrew's, Clifton, where he remained for three years. Woodford, afterwards Bishop of Ely, and founder of Ely Theological College, was his fellow-curate there, but Prynne's work lay largely in the poor mission district of Mardyke.

Already he was a link between the old Evangelical traditions and the revived Catholic teaching, and it was while he was at Clifton that this link was strengthened by his introduction to Pusey, who remained for many years his close friend, adviser and confidant. Dr. Pusey had had some thought of suggesting Prynne for the vacant benefice of St. Saviour's, Leeds: but Prynne contemplated marriage, and that (among other reasons) caused the idea to be abandoned, since the scheme at the time was for the formation at St. Saviour's of a college of celibate priests.

In 1846 Prynne accepted from Sir Robert Peel (then Prime Minister) the charge of the new parish of Par, carved out of Tywardreath, but he remained there only a short time. It was in this year that he published his first volume of sermons, and in the year following it was the death of his father (a very great grief to him) which made him feel a desire for a time for a quieter sphere. So he removed to the parish of SS. Levan and Sennen, near Land's End, and there for a year or more he plodded on in complete isolation, with scanty congregations and a largely hostile population. He did his best, and often while there consulted Dr. Pusey on various matters: but it would have needed many years of strenuous work to make headway against the stolid Wesleyanism and indifference of the countryside, and the sphere of work itself was not Prynne's metier: he was at his best in a more crowded and more quickly moving centre. Early in 1848 he was offered by Bishop Philpotts of Exeter the new district of St. Peter's, Plymouth. It was a task after Prynne's own heart, and gave full scope for just those gifts which he possessed. He arrived in July, 1848, and began the great work of his life. All that had gone before was preparatory: never, surely, was preparation for any work more effective, never was early promise more completely fulfilled.


Prynne's appointment to St. Peter's was an act of great wisdom on the part of Bishop Philpotts, who selected just the right man for an unusually difficult task. But it was also an act of great courage. It was wise because the district was a populous and very degraded one, hitherto entirely unshepherded, and Prynne's courage, energy and devotion in all departments of his work had marked him out as capable of working it and willing to do so. But it was a critical time for the Church in England, especially for the followers of the Revival. Fifteen years had passed since the preaching of the Assize Sermon, three since the secession of Newman: the political and popular opposition to the 'Puseyites' was at its height, and to gauge the tone of that opposition one has only to glance at the periodicals of the time. The rancour and contempt displayed, for instance, by such a journal as Punch must be read to be believed by a generation which has grown up familiar with those things for which the early Tractarians fought and suffered. Prynne was already definitely 'labelled' by his teaching, and by his known friendship with Pusey. The general attitude of Englishmen towards the Revival, however, was many times intensified in Plymouth. The town had for centuries been identified with Puritanism and Independency: all the churches there at the time were strongly Evangelical, and the Gorham Judgment had recently exacerbated public feeling, which was further aggravated by the 'Surplice Riots' at Exeter. But new parishes were forming in Exeter diocese as a result of Bishop Philpotts' appeal; and he who had had the courage to break the apathetic and timorous policy which was pursued by the majority of the episcopate at that time, acted in accordance with that courageous spirit by nominating Prynne to one of the first of the new districts because he believed him to be the best man for the post. This is, indeed, a fitting place to pay a sincere tribute to the memory of a great prelate, one of the few (in the earlier history of the Revival in particular) who stood by the Revivalists and supported their work both in public and in private with great wisdom and unflinching bravery.

Prynne had before him a long and bitter struggle, but through all its worst years he was not only to be spared the pain and difficulty of episcopal opposition, so often the lot of the Catholic pioneers, but was to have, on the contrary, the sympathy and understanding, the wisdom and unfailing counsel of the Bishop who was familiarly and affectionately known to his contemporaries as 'Henry (or Harry) of Exeter.'

The first nominee to St. Peter's, Plymouth, was the Rev. Edward Godfrey; he opened negotiations for the purchase of a disused proprietary chapel (known as Eldad Chapel), which had been the scene of the ministry of an eccentric free-lance cleric named Hawker. But the purchase of the building was still incomplete when Mr. Godfrey accepted an Indian chaplaincy, and Prynne came on the scene. He was inducted on August 16, 1848, and at once began services in the old chapel. A chancel, designed by Street, was added to the building, and other alterations made (such as the removal of unsightly galleries) which made it more fit for worship. An organ was presented by Miss Emily Fellowes, daughter of Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Fellowes, and in the following year Prynne was married to her, thus entering upon upwards of fifty years of supremely happy married life.

The opening of the church of St. Peter in November, 1848, marked the beginning of a struggle which, in the circumstances, was inevitable. From the moment of his arrival in Plymouth, Prynne had been the object of an organized opposition, in no way the work of his parishioners. The things of which he was accused (e.g., the use of the surplice in the pulpit and the collection of the alms in bags instead of plates) seem to us supremely trivial: at that time, and in that place, they were quite sufficient to rouse violent feeling. The disturbances, indeed, of those early days were closely akin in their nature and origin to those at St. George's in the East and St. Barnabas', Pimlico: but the sowers of discord found in Plymouth an even more fruitful soil. The local press fermented the agitation by scurrilous and inflammatory articles, and Prynne at length felt compelled to vindicate his good name, on the urgent advice of the Bishop, Dr. Pusey, and many friends, by suing one Latimer, a local journalist, for libel. The result, in the material sense, was disastrous: despite a summing-up by the judge wholly favourable to Prynne, and the confident expectation of a verdict which would entirely vindicate him, the jury of local Dissenters found for his opponent.

Not only did the expenses of the action swallow up all his available means, but a forced distraint was made upon his furniture and effects to meet the balance, and for the time being he and his devoted young wife were in sore straits. In other ways the action was a blessing in disguise, for it rallied round the Vicar of St. Peter's all his old friends and many new ones.

Controversy was forgotten for a time in 1849, when a virulent outbreak of cholera devastated Plymouth. The selfless devotion of Prynne and his helpers during this terrible epidemic is a story in itself: but from the historical point of view it is remarkable as the occasion of two great steps in Catholic development. To the help of those at Plymouth came Miss Sellon and her Sisters of the Society of the Holy Trinity: it was one of the first instances of the revival of the active religious life within the English Church. The second event was connected with it: to aid the Sisters and clergy in their perilous work among the sick and dying, Prynne established a daily Eucharist in St. Peter's, and with one short break it has continued ever since. This was apparently the first time since the Reformation that the daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice had been known.

The cholera departed, Prynne and his clergy escaped unscathed, and the Sisters also with one exception; and their labours had been in no sense in vain, from any point of view that really counted. Apart from all else, hundreds of souls now recognized the devotion which was an inseparable part of the religion for which Prynne and St. Peter's stood: and the same thing was recognized by the Bishop, to whom a most moving and graphic account of the whole episode was written by Prynne's assistant priest, the Rev. G. H. Hetling. Yet scarcely had the echoes of the visitation died down, when opposition broke out anew, taking on this occasion the shape of a violent attack on the hearing of confessions. During 1849 and 1850 the alterations to St. Peter's were completed, and it was consecrated by Bishop Philpotts. 1850 was the year of the establishment of the Roman hierarchy in England, and it was again a characteristic act on the part of Henry of Exeter that at that very time he welcomed Dr. Pusey to the diocese, and encouraged him to come again. Pusey, together with the redoubtable Archdea con Denison, was present at the consecration of St. Peter's; and directly afterwards the Bishop laid the stone of a community house for Miss Sellon's Sisters. The Bishop then received categorical complaints from several of the local Protestant clergy, headed by the Rev. John Hatchard, Vicar of St. Andrew's, Plymouth, about Prynne and his manner of hearing confessions. The memorialists added that the Confirmation announced to take place at St. Peter's would (if held there) occasion widespread anger and dismay. Prynne wrote a long and reasoned reply to the charges against him, one of the few letters of his that have been preserved: in it he not only justifies Penance in the English Church, but categorically denies and discounts the specific charges against himself, carrying the war into the enemy's camp by exposing the ' rancorous and unscrupulous opposition' he had encountered from the local clergy in everything he had tried to do in Plymouth. The complainants put forward three girls as witnesses to their charges, and the Bishop at first recommended Prynne to prosecute them for slander. Prynne demurred, pointing out the unfortunate experience he had already had (in the case already noted), and further reminded the Bishop that a fair hearing in the Plymouth courts in existing conditions was practically impossible. The Bishop then resolved himself to hold an inquiry: and it was his desire, and that of all right-minded people, that it should be held in private. But publicity was of the very essence of the complainants' policy, and Bishop Philpotts at length arranged a compromise, by which six laymen from either side were to be present. The opposition nominated theirs, but Prynne refused to do so: and he himself did not appear, being very ably represented by his assistant priest, the Rev. F. Darling. The inquiry was held at the Royal Hotel, Plymouth (September 22, 1852), the Bishop being attended by his chaplains and the Archdeacon. No defence was actually needed; the charges were of the flimsiest character, resting on the written testimony of the three girls, and of these two were completely discounted on examination, and the third refused to come forward at all. The proceedings lasted five hours, and at the end the Bishop summed up in every way favourably to Prynne, concluding with these weighty words: 'With my hand upon my heart, I exonerate Mr. Prynne from any blame in this matter, and I acquit him even of indiscretion, and I pray God that every clergyman in my diocese may do his duty as well as Mr. Prynne has done his.'

It was a great triumph for Prynne, but he was the first to realize that it was more than a personal vindication--it was the first great popular victory for the teaching and practice of Penance in the English Church. Thanks and congratulations poured in from all sides, notably from Dr. Pusey, Dr. Neale, Mr. J. D. Chambers, and the Rev. C. Gutch (of St. Saviour's, Leeds). The Bishop himself deprecated Prynne's contention for habitual confession in a written defence that he had prepared (but which he only read after the inquiry), but nevertheless followed up his verdict by holding the Confirmation at St. Peter's as announced. This was marked, after a previous mass meeting on the part of the opposition, by a disgraceful riot outside the church, when the vicarage windows were smashed and stones flung at the Bishop as he crossed Wyndham Square. But despite this and other sporadic outbursts of feeling, that round of the fight was won: the malcontents tried to work up fresh opposition to Prynne on the ground that he had divulged secrets heard in the confessional--an extraordinarily humorous and contradictory charge in the circumstances! But the Bishop discounted it, and Prynne himself swore an affidavit before the Mayor of Plymouth that he had never done what they asserted. The quietus was given to the agitation by an amazingly sympathetic press, all the responsible papers in the district applauding the action of the Bishop and upholding Prynne. Indeed, the final touches came graphically enough from the West of England Conservative, with a scathing denunciation of the rioters at St. Peter's, and recording their awe-struck silence on being suddenly admitted to the church; and from another paper which accused the agitators of being Jesuits in disguise, working for the Tractarian Revival! There was, of course, an underlying truth in the last statement: the unscrupulous persecution of Prynne could not but ultimately react in his favour, and that result was hastened by Prynne's own conduct under persecution. Never did he flinch from his duty; never did he swerve by a hair's-breadth from the course his conscience and his position marked out for him: and not once did he betray the slightest animosity towards his opponents, or indulge in an uncharitable judgment. Courage and perseverance, piety and saintliness, and an unflinching devotion to his cause and all that it involved, are the marks of his life all through this period of stress. There were other priests contending for the same principles in the same diocese at the same time: but though they too encountered opposition and even obloquy, it was upon Prynne that the brunt of the fighting fell, and he proved himself the doughtiest of champions.


Prynne's contention for Eucharistic truth provides a less sensational story than the tale of what he was called upon to undergo in the defence of the Sacrament of Penance: but it filled, both in principle and in time, by far the largest part of his life. We have seen that in the earliest days it was his teaching about the Blessed Sacrament upon which he was first challenged, and after his death in 1903 his old friend, Mr. John Shelly, said:

'From the first time that I knew him to the very end of his life, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament was the one centre of his love and source of his influence, and all who heard him celebrate, all who came in contact with him, felt it to be so.'

So his tried friend and doctor, Mr. Paul Swain, F.R.C.S., speaking after Prynne's death to the men of St. Peter's, said: 'He won for us two things pre-eminently--free access to the tribunal of Penance, and the restoration of the daily Sacrifice.'

This teaching, quite as much as Penance, undoubtedly stirred the opposition which he encountered; and that it was always foremost in his mind is evidenced not only by what we have of his sermons, but by his published writings. These are almost all on the subject of the Eucharist, and it was by them that Prynne became known to thousands who never saw him or St. Peter's, but recognized in them the definite faith, the clear teaching, and the fearless knight-errantry of a champion of the Holy Grail. Best known of all was his Eucharistic Manual, published originally in 1865, and subsequently republished many times. In its original form it was one of the only books of its kind known in the English Church. Later in life, in 1894, he published the Truth and Reality of the Eucharistic Sacrifice: but in the early period (1860) he had done much the same task in presenting in very simple and popular form the academic teaching of the Oxford leaders in his book, A Few Plain Words. He was one of the earliest of the Revivalists strongly to contend for the right of non-communicating attendance: and it was he himself who once concluded an argument for the Eucharist by writing: 'Our enemies will have to cut out our tongues before they shall stop us from declaring the full truth touching the most holy and blessed Sacrament of the altar.' His practice in worship was in accordance with his belief and teaching: for many years the ceremonial at St. Peter's was of the simplest, and the Eucharistic vestments were actually introduced at St. Stephen's, Devonport, before St. Peter's had them. But the Mass was rendered always with the greatest care and reverence, and he made it the centre of all the life and work of St. Peter's as it was of his own. So throughout his long ministry he fought the battle of the Eucharist in the face of ignorance, indifference, prejudice, or misunderstanding, even as he had vindicated Penance in the face of violence and persecution. For though he may never have used the phrase, to George Rundle Prynne, beyond all else, and most emphatically, it was 'the Mass that mattered.'


When opposition, at least in its more bitter form, had ceased, that was to Fr. Prynne the opportunity for consolidation and advance.

So, the initial victory won, he settled to the task of developing St. Peter's parish. The Holy Trinity Sisters withdrew in 1866, after extending their work to Ascot Priory, and even to Honolulu. For a time the parish was served by Sisters from the Community of St. Thomas at Oxford, and then for a year by Sisters from East Grinstead. In 1868 the Community of St. Mary the Virgin at Wantage took over the work, and the Wantage Sisters remain in the parish to this day. By 1861 the population of the parish had doubled: the chapel of the Good Shepherd was built in 1862, and the new parish of All Saints was cut off in 1875. Prynne was as great a believer in religious education in the day schools as he was zealous in the promotion of Sunday Schools: and St. Peter's Schools were among the first and best in Plymouth. He was one of the pioneers of the parochial guild (of which St. Peter's had several), and one of the first parish priests to adopt the practice of parochial missions. Fr. Lowder and Fr. Mackonochie both conducted missions at St. Peter's. He did as much to promote, by personal example and practice, the foundation of rescue work in the English Church as he already had done in the restoration of the Religious life. He was always greatly in demand as a preacher, and he enjoyed the intimate friendship of many of the best-known of the leaders of Catholic thought in the English Church. Through his Eucharistic books, by means of his hymns (the best known of which, 'Jesu, meek and gentle,' has been translated into several languages), and by a little manual Pardon through the Precious Blood, he has helped thousands of people to a belief in our Lord, and to reliance on the Sacraments.

Yet the Church as a body gave him no honour, offered him no preferment. He himself never regretted this, but others regretted it for him, and later in his life there were not wanting indications of the hold he had upon the hearts of many hundreds of people. The present St. Peter's was built on the foundations of the old ' chapel' in 1882, embodying Street's original chancel as its sanctuary. It was designed by the Vicar's second son, George Fellowes Prynne, and erected largely through the generosity of the Middleton family. Bishop Temple consecrated it, preaching a sermon which might have been designed to vindicate Prynne's sacramental teaching. At a function afterwards, the Bishop congratulated Prynne on his work, who, in his reply, thanked God 'for the sunshine' of that day, and added that he did not know that in all the world he had one personal enemy.


This consecration of St. Peter's was the crowning-point of Prynne's life and work: but over twenty years of life remained to him, and they were filled with the steady and quiet activities of a diligent priest and teacher, by act, by word, and by pen. Plymouth did all in its power to make up, by honouring him, for the opposition of the early years: he was publicly presented in 1884 with an address and 400 guineas on completing thirty-six years of his vicariate. It was a tribute from the Church of England, for associated with it were the Earl of Devon, Lord Halifax, Canon Body, and many others. In his reply, Prynne recorded advances in the parish and beyond, the raising of £32,000 in his time of office (exclusive of any grants or collections), but emphasized most strongly of all the restoration of the daily Eucharist. He was elected Proctor in Convocation by his brother clergy in 1885, receiving more votes than both the other candidates put together, and remained in office till 1892. He was an early member of the Society of the Holy Cross (for priests) and of the English Church Union: and it is probable that his election as Vice-President of the latter gave him almost more pleasure than his election as Proctor.

It was natural that in his long vicariate he should have trained many priests: among them was Fr. Ignatius of Llanthony (then the Rev. J. L. Lyne) and many another who has done sterling work for the Church and the Catholic cause. Indeed, the steady activities of these last years, brightened and cheered by many marks of love and affection from others, were overshadowed by only two sorrows. The first was the request of his then Bishop (Bickersteth) in 1899 that he would abandon the use of incense in deference to the Archbishop's 'Opinion': Prynne complied, after painful heart-searchings, but the conscientious effort cost him much misunderstanding and coldness on the part of friends. The congregation protested to the Bishop, but loyally stood by Prynne, and two years later incense was restored, and Reservation started on Bishop Bickersteth's resignation. The other cloud came in 1901 with the death of his beloved wife: but already the aged priest himself was beginning to fail. He continued to do some duty for two years more, but the physical weakness (it was never more than physical) which had shown itself at intervals since 1890 gradually increased. He preached at Truro Cathedral festival in 1902, but Ash Wednesday, 1903, saw him at the altar of St. Peter's for the last time. He made his Communion on March 13; it proved to be his Viaticum. Despite his age and illness, he was sorely troubled at being unable to receive the Blessed Eucharist fasting; for the first time he broke the rigid rule of a long lifetime. The call came on the Feast of the Annunciation, the anniversary of his baptism and of his ordination to the priesthood. He was eighty-five years of age, and in the fifty-fifth of his vicariate of St. Peter's.

His laying to rest was just as he would have wished: the solemn procession from the house to the church, across the very square where half a century earlier a wild mob had howled against him, lined now with throngs of people of all ages and conditions, all doing him honour. The Vespers, the watch before the altar all night; and from an early hour next morning, the constant pleading of the Holy Sacrifice for the repose of his soul: all this was just such a departing as George Rundle Prynne would have chosen, such as he had earned. His body was laid in the peaceful churchyard of Plympton St. Mary, and though no prelate attended his funeral, he was surrounded by the love and the prayers of hundreds who blessed his name: priests and laymen, helpers and pupils, Sisters and children, poor from the town and simple folk from the country, Christians of the rank and file who knew and honoured him as a great priest and yet one of themselves. And all over the world hundreds of other priests and lay-people blessed him too, and thanked God for what he had taught them.

The burden of all the many tributes to his memory was that, however men might differ from him in conviction or in method, none could be unaware that in him were seen the fruits of the Spirit in their fulness. His principles had never varied one iota, though his practice might develop: to the end he retained the winning and charming personality which had so often won friends, disarmed enemies, and helped to convert souls. 'The prevailing characteristic of his life was love,' said Mr. Paul Swain of him, 'and he never lost his temper, or said an unkind word of anyone. He was possessed, too, of the most extraordinary humility.' So it was that, fighter as he was, and the utterly uncompromising champion of definite Catholic truth, forced so often into the bitter path of controversy, he lived to see the triumph of all that he held dear, to a point at least which in the early days he himself could hardly have believed possible: and that triumph was due in no small measure to his complete selflessness and entire self-sacrifice. 'Behold a great priest, who in his days pleased God, and was found just, and in the time of wrath was made a reconciliation.' (Ecclus. xlv.).

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