Sodor and Man Diocese: History and Description

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The territory of the diocese

The origins of the diocese of Sodor and Man are obscure, and the diocese has a very different history from that of the others covered by the Clergy of the Church of England Database. It is, in effect, the diocesan incarnation of the large and hilly island lying to the west of the English Lakes, the Isle of Man. As the dedications of its churches suggest, the arrival of christianity on the island can be traced to Irish missions, but continuity was decisively disrupted by the Norse invasions in the eighth century. The island formed part of an extensive Norse colony known as the Southern Isles (Suthr-eyar), and it is from this that the name ‘Sodor’ derives. At some point this name became attached to the island of Peel on which the Manx cathedral stood, and from the seventeenth century the modern form of the diocesan name came into general use, apparently through the mistaken addition of ‘and Man’ by a careless scribe.

While under Norse rule the island was variously subject to Dublin and Norway, and at other times was independent. Although a ‘tribal’ bishop exercised jurisdiction over the whole of Sodor before this date, the first diocesan bishop recorded was Roolwer in the time of Edward the Confessor, who seems to have been a suffragan of York. In 1152, however, the see was made a suffragan of the Norwegian see of Nidaros (Trondheim), and after this date there were often conflicts between rival bishops consecrated at York and Trondheim respectively. From 1334 the Scottish portions of the diocese were detached when the Scottish kings who had assumed possession of the Isle in the thirteenth century formally ceded it to England. Authority (in practice complete internal sovereignty) over the island was customarily granted out by the monarch, and in 1406 the lordship passed to Sir John Stanley and his heirs. Thus the island became the possession of the earls of Derby, the Stanleys retaining possession until 1736 when, on the extension of the direct male line, the lordship passed to the dukes of Atholl, representing the heiress. It remained with them until 1827.

The impact of the Reformation was necessarily modified by the curious circumstances of the see. Writing in the 1890s, A. W. Moore was struck by what he regarded as the slow impact of Reformation principles, which he in part attributed to the fact that an English liturgy was not necessarily any more accessible than a Latin one to the Manx-speaking population. The dissolution of the monastery at Rushen was none the less a landmark in the diocese’s history. Constitutionally, too, the impact of the Reformation was modified by local circumstance. Not all the statutes which established the Reformation on the mainland applied to Sodor: for example first fruits and tenths were not payable there. In 1542 a statute formally transferred the diocese from the jurisdiction of the metropolitan see of Canterbury to that of York, although the relation to York had already been established in a papal bull of 1458. The constitution of the reformed church of Man was laid down in statutes, the Book of Spiritual Laws, written down in 1610 but of earlier provenance, and subsequently modified in 1677, which contained the provisions of the severe code of ecclesiastical discipline made famous under the rule of Bishop Thomas Wilson in the eighteenth century.

The bishop was Baron of the Isle, with his own court, and with the archdeacon and vicar general sat on the Council of the Isle save for a period between 1777 and 1790 when they were temporarily excluded. The bishop also presided in person or by deputy in three church courts: the consistory court, the chapter court that had cognizance of all moral offences, and the summary court where proofs of wills were taken. The bishop also had his own prison, in the dungeon of Peel Castle, to which offenders against both secular and spiritual laws could be, and at times frequently were, consigned. Appointment to the see, as stated in a royal commission of 1633, took the form of a presentation of a candidate to the crown by the earl of Derby, the crown then instructing the archbishop of York to consecrate. Between 1644 and 1660, there was no bishop, and during this period the Church was superintended by the secular authority. The archdeacon, nominated by the Lord of the Isle, also held courts, and there were two vicars-general. The bishop was entitled to appoint to all livings lapsed for 6 months (although in 1541 the deemsters had ruled that the Lord of the Isle should control such appointments). Most remarkably, the annual Convocation of the clergy of the diocese continued to meet when the mainland convocations were suspended, and its records are a particularly valuable source for the history of the diocese.

The peculiarities of the constitution helped to foster continual and often apparently trivial disputes between the secular and ecclesiastical authorities (for example, concerning spiritual jurisdiction over the garrison) that markedly coloured the ecclesiastical history of the diocese, culminating in the imprisonment of Bishop Thomas Wilson and the vicars-general in 1722. They were accompanied by another running sore, the tithe issue, which climaxed under the episcopate of George Murray in the early nineteenth century.

Another key issue was the issue of the Manx language. Bishop John Phillips translated the prayer book into Manx in 1610, although this version was never highly regarded and a new translation was produced in 1765. Phillips’ translation was none the less evidence of an attention to the needs of the diocese not always characteristic of bishops of Sodor, many of whom held other livings on the mainland and rarely if ever visited the island. The lack of interest may in part have reflected the lack of material reward appointment to the diocese brought: Bishop John Meryck, appointed in 1576, reckoned his income rarely exceeded £100; in 1635 the value of the see was estimated at £140; at the end of the century Wilson had an income of less than £300, but within thirty years had raised it above £400. In 1835 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners valued it at £2,555 net, derived entirely from tithes and property (the national average episcopal income was by then £5,936 net). The poor condition of the episcopate was symbolised by the condition of the cathedral at St Germans, described as ‘in ruins’ in 1662; Mark Hildesley was installed in the semi-restored building in 1755, but from then its history until the end of our period was one of decay. Non-residence was an inevitable consequence; in 1697 the island legislature felt obliged to pass an act requiring both parochial and higher clergy to reside on the island and, if absent for more than four months, to forfeit at the first offence half, and at the second a full-year’s income.

The clergy on the island were in general impoverished. Isaac Barrow as bishop managed to obtain the former abbey revenues from the lords of the isle on a 10,000-year lease for use in augmenting clerical incomes and supporting schooling, this being known as the ‘Impropriate Fund’. In 1735, with the failure of Derby line and the lordship being transferred to the dukes of Athol, the fund monies became a matter of dispute, and the church was forced to seek to exploit a collateral security of land now in the hands of the earls of Derby. Until in 1759 the earls agreed to pay an annual sum in compensation of £219; in 1809, Bishop Crigan demanding a revision, Lord Derby bought the revenues for a one-off payment of £16,000. The income from the investments made was thereafter employed to supplement the income of non-beneficed clergy. Barrow also obtained a royal bounty of £100 per annum to be applied to the same purposes. Barrow had grand schemes for education on the island, but which were not realised in his lifetime, in particular that for an ‘academic school’ on the island; in 1706 Wilson was able to found a grammar school in Douglas and establish the ‘academic’ school in Castletown. Wilson was a worthy successor to Barrow, and his long episcopate, followed by that of Mark Hildesley, who sponsored the creation of a Manx Bible, came subsequently to be seen as something of a golden age for the Manx Church, particularly by high churchmen who idolised Wilson (John Keble was his biographer). The latter part of the century was marked by the rise of methodism on the island, although relations with the Church of England remained comparatively harmonious for a longer period than on the mainland.

At the end of the period of the Database the future of the see, already clouded by the tensions provoked by the tithe issue, was about to be called into question by the Ecclesiastical Commission, which in 1836 recommended the incorporation of the island in the see of Carlisle. A vigorous campaign on the island led to this decision being rescinded, however, and shortly after an act of 1839 settled the tithe issue. With the foundation of King William’s College in 1833, and a spurt of church-building, the mid-nineteenth century proved a more prosperous period for the island diocese than could have been anticipated.

The parishes and structure of the diocese

Sodor and Man was the smallest diocese of the Church of England in our period. There were just seventeen parishes, although a casual observer thumbing through the ecclesiastical records might derive the impression that there were more, as nomenclature often varied considerably and confusingly: thus the parish of Santon was sometimes known as St Anne, when in fact the name derived from a dedication to ???. The bishop held the patronage of four of these livings: the vicarages of Braddon, German, Jurby and Patrick; there was of course no dean and chapter to provide further ecclesiastical patronage. Before 1827, most of the other livings were in the gift of the Stanleys and then the duke of Atholl: the vicarages of Arbory, Bride, Lezayre, Lonan, Malew, Marown, Maughold, Michael, Onchan, Rushen, and Santon, and the two rectories on the island, Andreas, in effect annexed to the solitary archdeaconry, that of the archdeacon of Man, and Ballaugh. After 1827 these all passed to the crown. The only exceptions to episcopal and crown patronage were provided by two of the chapels which had been established to serve Douglas (St Barnabas, in the hands of trustees) and Castletown (St Mary’s in the gift of the governor). Andreas was easily the most lucrative living, being worth some £955 p.a. net in 1831-2 and the only living to top £300 save Bride (£370). Several were worth less than £100 p.a. at that date: Santan, Arbory, Braddon (the most populous parish, embracing Douglas), German, Jurby, Lezayre, Malew, Marown, Michael and Rushen. The average net income of the benefices in 1831-2 was £157 (national average £287) only St David’s making a lower return; in consequence the average stipend paid to a curate was only £70, again the lowest of any diocese save for St David’s.

The bishop lived at Bishops Court on the western side of the island.

Peculiar jurisdictions within the diocese

There were no peculiar jurisdictions within the diocese of Sodor and Man.

Extra-diocesan peculiars of the Bishop of Sodor and Man

The bishop had no extra-diocesan peculiars.

Treatment and coverage of the diocese of Sodor and Man in the CCED

The diocese of Sodor and Man contains only one archdeaconry. With no peculiars, it therefore does not present a complex structure requiring careful subdivision. A single CCED region has therefore been created, ‘Isle of Man’, coterminous with the archdeaconry. ‘Isle of Man’ is also the ‘County’ unit.