The Greek-play Bishop: Polemic, Prosopography, and Nineteenth-Century Prelates

Arthur Burns, Christopher Stray

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Discussions of classical scholarship and of the Anglican church in Victorian England have both at times identified an 'age of the Greek-play bishop' during which there was a close relationship between classical distinction and episcopal promotion. Closer investigation reveals few prelates fitting the description. This article explains this paradox by tracing the idea of the 'Greek-play bishop' across a variety of nineteenth-century literatures, in the process suggesting the significance more generally of the migration of ideas between overlapping Victorian print cultures. The article demonstrates how the concept originated in the radical critique of Old Corruption around 1830, before in the 1840s and 1850s satirists (notably Sydney Smith) adopted it in ad personam assaults on two bishops, J. H. Monk and C. J. Blomfield. In the 1860s, the concept became a less polemical category in the context of more wide-ranging analyses of the composition of the episcopate, gradually acquiring an elegiac aspect as new intellectual challenges arose to Victorian Christianity. By 1900, the 'Greek-play bishop' had begun to find the place in the conceptual armoury of historians of the nineteenth-century church that it would hold for much of the twentieth century, its polemical origins long forgotten.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1013 - 1038
Number of pages26
Issue number4
Early online date7 Nov 2011
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2011


  • Church of England
  • Classics
  • Greek scholarship
  • Classical scholarship
  • England
  • nineteenth century
  • Bishops
  • Church party
  • Anglicanism
  • Lord Palmerston
  • Sydney Smith
  • Charles James Blomfield
  • Clergy


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