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George Rundle Prynne
An Early Chapter in the History of the Catholic Revival
by A. Clifton Kelway

London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1905. 248 pp.


Birth and parentage--A famous ancestor, William Prynne--Christening and childhood--Reminiscences of early life in Cornwall-- School and college--Ordination and first curacy at Tywardreath--Cornish superstition and belief in witchcraft--Curacy of St. Andrew's, Clifton (1843)--Recommendation to Sir Robert Peel.

GEORGE RUNDLE PRYNNE was born in the little fishing village of West Looe, in Cornwall, on August 23, 1818. He came of an ancient family, the Cornish branch of which is stated to have originated from Resprynn, in the parish of Lanhydrock, near Bodmin. The family name has at various times been indiscriminately spelt, Pryn, Prynn, Prynne, Res Prynne and Rex Prynn. Mr. Bruce, in his "Biographical Fragment," says the name was derived from the gentle eminences which may be seen from the Wenlock Ridge, and which were originally called "Preens," signifying points. The Prynnes, according to this authority, were called De Preens, which ultimately degenerated into De Pryn, and then Prynne. The accuracy of this derivation cannot, however, be admitted, unless it can be shown that it has an anterior and superior claim to the authority, over that hereafter advanced, or implied. There were branches of the family in Cornwall, Devonshire, Herefordshire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire, all bearing the same arms, i.e. Or, a chevron gules, between three boars' heads sable, with motto, Fides prcestantior auro; and this, together with the ancient records, establishes the great antiquity of the family. Indeed, as far as can be ascertained, the name seems to be the most ancient family name which occurs in English history, being the only one mentioned in "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle." Subsequent to the removal of a branch of the family to Aust, there appears to have been a re-grant of the old arms to the Salop Prynnes: "Prynn or Resprynn, Or, a chev. gu. betw. three boars' heads sa. Fides praestantior auro. Prynne (co. Salop), granted by Delhick Garter, 1588, to Edward Prynne of Co. Salop. (Harl. MSS. 1069): Or, a fess ingr. az. betw. coronet or, an eagle displ. p.p. and beaked sa. Deo adjuvante."

Lord Clarendon, in his "History of the Great Rebellion,"spells the name Pryn; so, too, does Walker in his book on the "Sufferings of the Clergy," first published early in the eighteenth century. Archbishop Laud, in his speech at the "Censure of Prynne and Bastwick," published in 1637, spells the name in three ways--Pryn, Prynn, and Prynne, in the same document.

Gilbert, in his "Historical Survey of Cornwall"(1820), spells the name Prynn, and has this to say concerning its origin:--

"The surname of this family, which was formerly written Res-prynn, is supposed to have originated from Res-prynn, in the parish of Lanhydrock. The co-heiress of this family married Whitley, whose heiress married Gran-ville of Stowe and Carmenowe, and the arms are still to be seen at Penheale among the quarterings of the Granville family, viz. argent, a chevron gules, between three boars' heads sable. There are younger branches of the same house still residing in the eastern part of Cornwall."

Mention has been made of the most famous member of this very ancient family, William Prynne, that sturdy Puritan ancestor of George Rundle Prynne, whose life and death occupy so prominent a place in the annals of the seventeenth century. At this early stage of our memoir it is not without interest to notice the leading characteristics of the great Puritan, whose energy and zeal were admittedly the outcome of deep conscientious convictions, and who was so absolutely fearless, though too often bitter and uncharitable, in his condemnation of what he deemed to be the excesses of Church and Court in his day. The record of the following pages will fail in its purpose if it does not disclose in William Prynne's nineteenth-century descendant like sincerity of conviction and absolute fearlessness in time of persecution. The characteristics of both men were somewhat alike. They both laboured consistently to achieve those ends they had placed before them; but in their methods and views no two men, surely, could have been more diametrically opposed to each other. Remembering how great was the gulf which separated the Prynne of the seventeenth century from the poet-priest of the nineteenth, it is amusing to note that in a lantern-lecture on "Famous Hymns and their Authors," issued by a well-known firm, and which has attained wide popularity, a picture of "Prynne in the Pillory" has for years been shown as that of the author of the beautiful little hymn, "Jesu, meek and gentle." The error has only been remedied very recently.

Returning to the subject of our biography, we find that early in his life-probably very soon after his father's death, in 1847-he appears to have revived the old spelling of Prynne. While at Cambridge he had called himself Prynn, as all the rest of his family did, and his Letters of Orders (1841-42) are so made out.

His father, John Allen Prynn, was a native of Newlyn East, Cornwall, where he was born, March 3, 1775. He was one of ten children, among whom the proceeds realized by the sale of the family estate at Newlyn were divided on the death of their father, William. The property was sold for £20,000, but almost immediately after its transfer the value of the estate was greatly enhanced by the discovery of a rich lead-mine upon it. This helped to make the fortune of the new proprietor. John Alien Prynn married, in 1802, Susanna, daughter of John and Mary Rundle, of Looe. She died in 1833, when George was fifteen years of age. There were eight children of this marriage, six sons and two daughters. Of the latter, the elder, born in 1805, married a Mr. Kempe, son of the vicar of Fowey, and brother of Prebendary Kempe, of Merton. George Prynne was indebted for his earliest education to this sister, who during his childhood kept a small school at Looe, thus helping out the family resources; these had been somewhat strained by an unfortunate building speculation at West Looe, which had swallowed up the money put into it by the father. Of the other children, five--one daughter and four sons--died at a comparatively early age, the death of the eldest son, John Alien, at nineteen, being a life-long grief to his mother. Dr. Edward Prynne, the eldest surviving son, practised in Cornwall, and later in Plymouth, and died at the age of seventy, in 1886.

Though born in 1818, George's christening was delayed until 1821, when, with his brother Alfred, he was baptized at Stoke Damerel Church, on the Feast of the Annunciation. In nearly every case the children of the family were not received into the Church until some time after their birth, and Mrs. Prynn was not baptized until 1810, five years after the birth of her eldest child. Nevertheless, she was a deeply religious woman, and ever endeavoured to instil religious principles into her children. Moreover, both she and her husband were Church people. But the state of the Church in the villages of England early in the last century was not conducive to strictness of discipline on the part of its members. In a fragment of autobiography which, alas! was never completed, George Prynne thus speaks of the period in question:--

"There was, I think, no place of Church worship in Looe in those days. Talland, the parish church of West Looe, was three miles off, over very steep hills, and St. Martin's, the parish church of East Looe, about a mile up a very steep hill. We were generally, I think, as young children, taken to one of the dissenting meetinghouses in the town, for, although my father and mother were Church people, yet they thought it better to take us to dissenting meetinghouses than that we should not join in some public act of worship on Sundays. Church people were very lax in those days, for Church principles had not been taught in Looe for probably several generations."

The family left Looe in 1826, when George was eight years old, his father having been appointed to a position in the Customs' service at Fowey. It is probably the fine old church of St. Finbarras at Fowey, long since worthily restored, that forms the setting of the following reminiscences of George Prynne's youthful days:-

"I can remember the grand old church to which I was taken every Sunday, and the great square pew in which I was boxed up, and the seats all round from which the family circle looked at each other, or, when they knelt, turned their backs on each other. The whole church was fitted with pews of a similar character. I remember the parson's desk, and the clerk's desk, and their alternate reading of the verses of the Psalms, in which very few of the congregation ever joined, for the clerk's responses, though in a monotone, were not musical or easy to join in. The altar was blocked out of sight altogether by the high square pews, but the Holy Communion was celebrated there once a month, I was told.

"There was a high gallery at the west end of the nave, which was reached by a steep flight of stairs, and to this gallery, which had the Royal Arms in front, the clerk went to give out some verses of one of the metrical Psalms composed by Messrs. Tait and Brady. Hymns of any kind were not considered orthodox or correct in those days. The aged vicar then went to the pulpit in a black gown and read a sermon, and so the service ended. It was certainly not a lively function, and was ndt calculated to aid the devotions of the congregation; but this is the style of service to which our puritanical friends seem anxious to restore us. It was certainly a style of service which by its formality, coldness, and deadness, tended very greatly to fill the dissenting meeting-houses, and led people away from the Church of their Fathers to some form of modern religionism which seemed to give them greater warmth-more sensational hymns, and more exciting preaching."

In the days of his boyhood, George lived a good deal with his mother's brother, Mr. Charles Rundle, at Stoke Damerel, and, when of an age to do so, he was sent to Mr. Southwood's Classical and Mathematical School, at Devonport--an educational institution of some note, which adjoined Admiralty House, the residence of the Commander-in-Chief, at Mount Wise.

Intended from the beginning to take Holy Orders, his course of life and education was all along designed to fit him for this vocation. This he attributes to the wishes and prayers of his mother, who, in speaking to him of the choice of a profession, would say, "I would rather see you a pious clergyman than King of England." During his schooldays at Devonport, he was confirmed in St. Andrew's, the mother church of Plymouth, by Bishop Philpotts of Exeter. From Devonport he proceeded to Cambridge, matriculating at St. John's College in October, 1836, at the age of eighteen. He did not, however, go into residence at St. John's, but migrated to St. Catherine's, where he took his B.A. in January, 1840, and his M.A. some years later. Later in his life Oxford gave him the degree M.A. ad eundem. On September 19, 1841, he was admitted to Deacon's Orders by Bishop Philpotts at Exeter Cathedral, and was licensed to the curacy of Tywardreath, in his native county of Cornwall, which then formed part of the diocese of Exeter.

Tywardreath, of which the Rev. Charles Lyne, Prebendary of Exeter, was the vicar, was at that time a large and scattered parish, midway between Lostwithiel and St. Blazey, and included the district now known as Par. In addition to the parish church at Tywardreath, there were chapels-of-ease at Golant and Tregaminion, near Fowey, and much time was necessarily spent by the clergy in riding or walking between the three places of worship which had to be served on Sunday. It was a convenient sphere of work for the young curate, as his father was at that time residing at Fowey, of which parish his sister's father-in-law, Mr. Kempe, was vicar. His brother Edward, also, was settled not far away. The parish of Tywardreath was large and populous, its inhabitants consisting mainly of miners and agricultural labourers. The prevailing religion there, as in so many districts of Cornwall, was Wesleyanism, and Prebendary Lyne was wont to urge with voice and pen the unlikeness of modern Wesleyanism to the principles and plans of John Wesley. In order to assist his vicar in these controversial labours, young Prynne read all the writings of John Wesley-not those in the "Journal" only, but all that were contained in the Arminian Magazine and other publications. In the result he declares, "I found abundant matter to prove that John Wesley, to the end of his days, never wished his followers to forsake the Church of England."

Speaking at a later date of the people among whom his first ministerial work was accomplished, Mr. Prynne furnishes some striking illustrations of those superstitions and beliefs in the power of witchcraft, which still, to some extent, obtain in the remoter parts of Cornwall:--

"They (the people of Tywardreath) were certainly superstitious, and strong believers in witchcraft and the power of the evil eye, and evil-wishing was very prevalent among them. Some striking incidents strongly illustrating this made a lifelong impression on me. There was an old woman, living with an imbecile son, in a hut by the roadside near the village of Golant, who was commonly reputed and believed to be a witch. There was a good deal of excitement and talk about her and her doings in the neighbourhood, and her hut was said to be quite unfit for human habitation. My vicar, who was a local magistrate, accompanied by some others, went to see if this report was correct, and found it was but too true, and the poor old woman was removed to clean, tidy rooms in the village of Golant. I went to visit this reputed witch in her new abode, and found a decrepit old woman, very helpless and off her head, and not over happy in her new quarters. The peculiarity of her previous abode, the unaccountable way in which she managed to pick up her living, were, I think, the only grounds which first fixed suspicion upon her, and then, when people called after her and persecuted her, I have no doubt that in her half crazy anger she uttered a good many evil wishes in very excited words against her tormentors.

"But the excitement caused by the supposed witchery of this old woman was as nothing compared to what was soon afterwards raised in the village of Tywardreath itself. One day a young man was brought home from the mine on a stretcher, dead. He had been killed by an accident, not a very rare occurrence amongst miners, but on this occasion the villagers were in a high state of excitement. They declared that the young man had been evil-wished by a witch called Jenny Broad, living in the village, who they averred had had words with him that very morning, and had wished he might be brought home dead. I knew Jenny Broad well. I had chatted with her by her own fireside, and she evidently liked my visits-for no other reason that I know of except that I suppose I conversed with her naturally. She was about fifty years of age, a woman of strong character and strong feelings, and of intellectual capacity certainly above the average of her neighbours. I cannot think how it was that the suspicion of being a witch was fixed on her, as she had neither a hooked nose nor a humped back, but was a clean, well-grown and respectable-looking woman. I did my best to allay the storm that raged against her, but in vain. A fresh incident occurred that added fuel to the excitement. A miner was suddenly taken ill, and as the cause of his illness was not known, poor Jenny was accused of having laid a spell upon him and his family, and the neighbours said he could not recover until the spell was removed. The only question was how this difficult job was to be effected. The sapient decision arrived at by the experts was that it could only be done by a White Wizard. It was ascertained that there was one living at Mevagissey, and he was promptly sent for. His arrival caused a great sensation. I was visiting the sick man as a matter of duty, and found the White Wizard in the room. He was a small, wizened-looking old man, and as I regarded him as a miserable impostor, our interview was not of an amicable character. Of course I did my best to persuade the sick man and his family of their sin and folly, but I fear I was not very successful in shaking their belief in witchcraft and its proper antidote. The excitement was so great as to put the village in a regular uproar. A special meeting of magistrates was called, and the White Wizard was taken into custody and brought before them. The largest room in the principal village inn was crammed with an excited crowd. I was present, and only regret that I did not take notes of one of the most extraordinary examinations I ever attended. The upshot was that the White Wizard was bound over to keep the peace and was ordered out of the village. Several persons were examined in connection with the matter, but on what grounds I do not remember. One thing, however, was elicited from one of the persons examined which could not fail to stamp itself sharply upon my memory-it was the receipt for becoming a black witch. The process related was so shockingly wicked, involving such a terrible profanation of the Blessed Sacrament, that I shrink from recording it. Certainly if any thing could utterly harden the heart, kill conscience, and transfer the will to the keeping of Satan, it would be difficult to imagine any process more likely to effect these objects."

In this atmosphere of Wesleyanism and withcraft George Prynne laboured for two years, going up to the cathedral at Exeter for his ordination to the priesthood on September 25, 1842. The revival in Church life associated with the Oxford movement had not yet penetrated to this remote part of England, but Prebendary Lyne would seem to have belonged to the old-fashioned school of high Churchmen of pre-Tractarian days, and the parish appears to have been well worked, a celebration of the Holy Eucharist being provided monthly at the parish church. Evening services, too-on Fridays at Tywardreath and on Thursdays at Tregaminion-were notable in days like these, when many incumbents of the Exeter diocese had to be compelled to reside in or near the parishes entrusted to their charge. The young curate's chief work here seems to have been teaching in the schools and instructing the village boys in the then almost unknown art of chanting. In his diary for July 16, 1843, he notes that the service was chanted for the first time at Tregaminion, a large congregation being present; and on August 6 of the same year there is the entry, "Mr. Lyne preached for the first time, on Sacrament Sunday, in his surplice." This was at Tywardreath Church, where the communicants on that occasion numbered fifty-eight. Five years later, at St. Sidwell's, Exeter, the mob attacked Mr. Courtney with dangerous violence because he ventured to obey his bishop's direction and preach in a surplice. Tywardreath, therefore, would seem to have been somewhat in advance of many other parishes in this matter.

Though he had not yet come under the full influence of Catholic teaching, George Prynne, even in those early days, attracted attention for the definiteness of his teaching on the subject of the Holy Eucharist. Complaints were made about his preaching at Tregaminion Chapel, and this led to two of his sermons being condemned by his vicar on the ground that their teaching savoured of Transubstantiation. Nevertheless, he was undoubtedly in considerable request as a preacher, and was frequently asked to occupy the pulpit at Fowey, St. Blazey, and other neighbouring churches.

In the autumn of 1843, having decided that it would be well to leave Tywardreath, he first endeavoured to obtain a naval chaplaincy, and afterwards applied for a curacy at Lyndhurst, in the New Forest, but without success. Being offered the curacy of St. Andrew's, Clifton, he bade farewell to Tywardreath on December i8th, going immediately to his new sphere, where he remained for three years as second curate to the Rev. James Taylor. Clifton was, in many respects, a more congenial sphere of work than Tywardreath, and his diary discloses the fact that the young priest was far happier there than he had previously been. One of his colleagues at St. Andrew's, Clifton, was Mr. Woodford, who afterwards became Bishop of Ely. Prynne had charge of a very poor district, and here he soon began to display that gift for mission work among the poor, which he subsequently developed to such splendid purpose. While Prynne was working there several new districts were carved out of the old and unwieldy parish of Clifton. It was suggested that one such district should consist of Mardyke, the locality of which Prynne had special charge. The scheme was not carried out at the time, but the following letter from Mr. Taylor to Sir Robert Peel indicates the high opinion which the young priest speedily earned at Clifton:--

"Clifton, Jan. 13th, 1845.


"May I be permitted with the profoundest respect to solicit your patronage in favour of my curate, the Rev. George Rundle Prynne, who is anxious to obtain the appointment to the Mardyke district in my parish about to be assigned under the late Act. Wapping and Whitehall do not more differ from each other than do the separate parts of my parish. Mardyke and its vicinity are the Wapping of Clifton.

"I have had full experience of Mr. Prynne, and can bear testimony to his fervent zeal in the discharge of his duties, especially of his attention to the poorer part of our population. Should you be inclined to favour this application, I will answer for him that he shall not be like too many others whom I have known, though beneficed elsewhere, yet setting up their domicile in the fashionable part of Clifton, and from thence occasionally and by snatches repairing to the performance of their clerical duties; but shall be content to be located and shall constantly abide among these destitute people, and shall do his diligence gladly to promote both their temporal and eternal interests. I have the honour to be, Sir,

"Your most respectful
"and obedient humble servant,
Incumbent of Clifton."
To the Rt. Hon, Sir Robert Peel, Bart."

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