Swift's Contexts

A Symposium on Jonathan Swift and the Politics in his Age

Conducted on 21-22/10/2006 at The Deanery of St Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

Archbishop King and Dean Swift

Philip O'Regan (Limerick University)

[The Annual Swift Address was delivered in Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday 22nd October 2006, by Dr Philip O'Regan, who is an accountant and Head of the Department of Accounting and Finance at the University of Limerick, where he lectures in Financial Management and Governance. He is a graduate of UCC and has a PhD in church history. He is the author of Archbishop William King (1650-1729) and the Constitution in Church and State, (2000) Four Courts Press.]

Given the focus of this presentation - the nature and significance of the relationship between Archbishop King and Dean Swift - it is interesting to reflect on the fact that this talk is being given as part of a weekend dedicated to commemorating Swift. Here we are, surrounded by plaques, busts and other memorabilia celebrating the life and impact of the Dean. Meanwhile, King lies in an unmarked grave some distance from here, generally unremembered and uncelebrated. Swift might not be entirely displeased - his belief that this represented some form of just recompense for the many years that King succeeded in frustrating his advancement, overriding his grudging admiration of the Archbishop's own abilities.

Contemporaries of both Swift and King would, however, be somewhat surprised. Had they been asked to nominate whose memory was more likely to endure, many would have suggested that of King, archbishop of Dublin from 1703, pre-eminent leader of the Irish patriot cause, and the dominant Irish ecclesiastical politician of his generation. Even those who appreciated that the literary skills of the Dean distinguished him from most of his Irish and English contemporaries would have expected that the role of the archbishop in nurturing and focusing the Dean's output, would have received greater prominence. For, unlike many classic authors, Swift's output - with the possible exception of Gulliver's Travels - can only be fully appreciated in the context of the political and ecclesiastical circumstances within which they emerged. And here King looms large. Indeed, it is fair to say that many of the major writings for which Swift is justly famous, stemmed, to a greater or lesser degree, from his involvement in various patriotic and ecclesiastical causes with the archbishop.

Swift and King rank as the most remarkable Irish churchmen of the early decades of the eighteenth century. However, while Swift's reputation has grown since his death, King's has declined. A convert to Anglicanism, having been born in 1650 and reared in a Presbyterian milieu, King, a bachelor, was internationally acknowledged as making original contributions in philosophy and religious controversy. He was also a keen parliamentarian, assiduous correspondent, bibliophile, amateur astronomer and historian. Exploiting the opportunities offered by his access to parliament and government, first as Bishop of Derry and then as Archbishop of Dublin, he developed and pursued a vision of his Church as a central element of a compact embracing the monarch and parliament that he called his 'Constitution in Church and State.' For a generation, he succeeded in articulating, and to a lesser extent sustaining, a world in which such an ambitious vision of the place of the Church of Ireland in the broader polity could seem credible(1).

And for much of his life, Swift moved in this slipstream. Indeed, he acknowledged King's importance and significance. Writing to King, then confined to bed with gout, while he himself was suffering from his recurrent headaches, he painted a colourful picture of this symbiosis: "I own my Head and your Grace's feet would be ill joined," he wrote, "but give me your head and take my feet and match us in the kingdom, if you can."(2).

In terms of length of acquaintance with Swift, King ranks second only to Stella; and for almost thirty years - from 1700 until King's death in 1729 - Swift and King were involved in a number of schemes and projects that saw them alternately support, infuriate, trust, mistrust, madden, misunderstand and encourage one another. While Pope, Gay, Harley, and others played key roles in Swift's life, their recollection of the moment often bestowed a greater significance on events than their actual association warranted. In the case of King and Swift, however, their involvement together was substantial, long-lived and complex.

Swift saw in King not only someone who could serve his career, but an older mentor whose approval he occasionally seemed to crave. And significantly, it was Swift who at all points of difficulty and tension sought to rescue their relationship - such as it could be called. I qualify the notion of 'relationship' here because of the rather dysfunctional approaches of both men to their relations with others. Swift's idiosyncrasies are well known. King was equally peculiar. He was a man of few, if any, close friends and was uncomfortable in the presence of women - one woman dismissed him as a "savage monster... a purpled brute... with devilish eyes" while another accused him (unfairly, it should be noted) of plying her husband with prostitutes. In general, King shunned familiarity.

But King also had one thing that Swift wanted, but did not have: he had power. And while less politically adept than Swift, he deployed this to securing the authority of his church and the nascent patriot cause. Valuing loyalty more than imagination and dogma more than wit, King was more inclined to coax those he needed and to bully those he could command. At various times in his dealings with King, Swift fell into one or other of these categories; occasionally King sought to deploy Swift's skills for the good of the church; never did he actively support Swift's longing for promotion. Where Swift sought approval and reward, King supplied merely encouragement and advice. "Hang him!!" Swift exclaimed after yet another patronising letter from King that simply ignored Swift's desperate references to various vacancies that interested him.

While they had many differences, however, they shared many of the same ecclesiastical, political and economic views. They found common cause in promoting the Church of Ireland as a bulwark of the social order. Yet even here there were tensions. King believed that the church's civic function was the consequence of its pure doctrine and the providence of God. To this end he devoted himself to the study of its history and regarded the communication of its beliefs and teachings as paramount. His actions always sought the church's reform, improvement or advantage; even his emergence in the 1690s as a champion of the patriot cause could be traced in the first place to his determination to secure the rights of the church in a lawsuit that only incidentally became a political cause celebre.

Swift, on the other hand, believed that the church's key civic function provided, in itself, justification enough for its privileges, without any reference to doctrinal purity. Consequently, theological issues were of only secondary importance to him. And so, just as King resisted Swift's pleas for advancement, Swift ignored King's exhortations to devote himself to a more "serious and useful subject" (meaning theology). Swift's primary loyalty was to conservative ideals of the church-state relationship and he filtered events first through a political lens. He viewed the church as more a secular than a divine creation. And he was willing to entertain any alliance that could serve that interest. He was content to see the church supported regardless of personal faith, in order (as he explained so often in his sermons) that peace might be maintained. Swift, as Fauske has observed: "was a man firmly committed to what he saw as the best interests of his church, which he understood to have little to do with God and everything to do with a socio-political compact"(3). In the words of Andrew Carpenter, "the church was King's life, but Swift's profession"(4).

Significantly, however, both men did share an understanding of the power of the printed word. King approached it, in his usual methodical way, as one more means by which the authority and influence of the church might be extended. He wrote under his own name, employed logic and reason, and expected his opponents to succumb to the sheer weight of his arguments.

Swift, however, understood the real power of the author and was more aware of the possibilities with which his skill and ability endowed him. Typically remaining anonymous, he used wit, sarcasm and irony to achieve his ends, often the ridicule of his opponents. And he did possess one talent King did not - the ability to link the immediate concerns of his church to the political moment.


For a man such as Swift, eagerly seeking to exploit his relationship with King to satisfy his desire for advancement, particularly in his early career, engagement with topics of interest to King was paramount. This may explain Swift's early willingness to adopt the Irish patriot cause, in spite of his continuous protestations of indifference to Ireland at this time. Specifically it may, for example, clarify the motivation behind his decision to write The Story of the Injured Lady, in which England is portrayed as an avaricious "conqueror," while Ireland is portrayed as a virtuous victim. It is quite possible that it was written primarily to persuade King of his potential usefulness as a propagandist. If King, rather than the public at large, were the intended audience, then this also explains why it was not published during Swift's lifetime(5).

King and Swift's working relationship can effectively be considered in three discrete periods. The first, dating prior to Swift's appointment as Dean of St. Patrick's, revolved around the campaign in the first decade of the eighteenth century to secure the remit of the First Fruits and Twentieth Parts, a levy imposed on the value and annual income of a benefice. Queen Anne had granted this remission to the Church of England in 1704 and the clergy of the Church of Ireland had immediately decided to seek the same favour. Significantly, it was ultimately differences in style between the two men that eventually persuaded King to involve Swift on behalf of the church. More inclined to seek to achieve his purposes through parliament and other official channels, King had realised by 1707 that this approach was unlikely to yield results. Swift, meanwhile, who had a surer grasp of the personal dynamics involved in the political arena, had managed to develop a very good relationship with a number of senior politicians. Indeed, it was Swift's success in exploiting his friendship in London with Harley that eventually secured the remission from the new Tory ministry in 1710. However, he was disconsolate on discovering that neither King nor the Irish church in general viewed his success as warranting any significant reward or preferment.

Swift's eventual reward, the Deanery of St. Patrick's Cathedral Dublin, came in 1713 via his political supporters in London, and heralded the second phase of their involvement together. King, himself a former Dean of St. Patrick's, was less than happy with Swift's appointment. The only consolation he could take from it was that at least as "his dean" Swift could "do less mischief than [as] a bishop"(6). Not quite the English bishopric that he had hoped for, Swift would have done well to heed the advice of Dean Moreton of Christ Church Cathedral that "'Tis a very unhappy thing to be a dean in any place the Archbishop of Dublin has been or is concern'd"(7). Utterly focused on his God-given role, King had a capacity to consume the best that others could offer and to move on without any regard to the needs of those he had used. If he did not suffer fools lightly, then he found genius even more trying. He was not malicious; he was simply incapable of appreciating the complex needs of a man like Swift.

The first eight years of Swift's deanship were to be characterised by numerous squabbles and demarcation disputes over the prerogatives of the Deanery. Most of these were resolved in King's favour. It says something of the importance that Swift attached to their relationship that at every turn it was he who sought to clarify misunderstandings and to maintain communication. Had Swift reciprocated King's antagonism during these years, it is likely that the two men would have become implacable enemies.

Swift's capacity to reduce complex issues to personalities and farce often spared him the need to engage with a deeper analysis. However, the final phase of his activity with King - from the passing of the Declaratory Act, which had effectively removed much of the Irish parliament's presumed independence in 1720, until King's death in 1729 - was to provide evidence of the full array of the Dean's abilities. It was a period in which he substantially advanced the patriot position, in the process superseding King as the leading patriot ideologue of the day. Portraying the church as an essential but independent part of Ireland's political architecture, and capitalising on the financial difficulties and extreme poverty of the period, he succeeded in linking its prospects to the day-to-day economic concerns of landowners and artisans. Significantly, both King and Swift reached this point together, although King was more deeply and personally impacted by the actual poverty that underlay Swift's insight. As Fauske has so clearly identified, for the sake of the church, the Dean was constructing a new consensus, with the concerns of the church made central to a raised Irish Anglican consciousness(8). Thus, while King and others in parliament concentrated on the legal and political claims that complemented the Dean's analysis, Swift produced pamphlets that ensured churchmen, secular peers, farmers and tradesmen now acted as allies. Beginning with the radical proposals for self-sufficiency in A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture - in which Swift presents King as the model Irishman - and through to the Drapier's Letters, their concerted campaign to ensure that the effects of the Declaratory Act might be somewhat negated, proved successful, at least in the short term.

King's attitude to the Dean's public success was revealing. While acknowledging that Swift's writings had been crucial in ensuring that the "spirit of this poor kingdom" had been maintained at critical moments, he criticised Swift's delay in entering the fray. More to the point, he remained both jealous and suspicious of the dean's capacity to stimulate the 'mob'. And he could not resist comparing Drapier's "ludicrous and satirical style" with the "sobriety, modesty and great force" of other pamphleteers(9). To Swift's intense irritation, nothing could wean King away from his belief in the long-term efficacy of rational over emotional argument.


In conclusion, then, it is fair to say that King's great contribution was to provide Swift with opportunity, focus and a political ideology that offered an outlet for his genius. Both men successfully assisted the Anglican polity in Ireland in negotiating the shifting political circumstances that accompanied the various regime changes of their time. However, their provenance established a hierarchy of concerns within Irish patriot ideology that emphasised unduly the position of the Church. In the absence of clerical successors of equal calibre, this vision of the central role of the Church of Ireland simply could not be sustained.

On a personal level, it was Swift's misfortune to find his prospects for advancement so closely linked to a man like King. In effect, King deliberately kept Swift in check in order to limit him, and those like him, who had a more secular agenda for the church. The characteristics the archbishop valued were commitment to the church, a personal piety, and a dedication to the pastoral concerns of parishioners. He expected incumbents to spend less time at court and more time at church. These qualities of meekness, submission and pastoral application do not, however, immediately spring to mind when thinking of the Dean. Given the fraught, yet productive nature of their relationship, it is perhaps appropriate that, following the recent acquisition of a full-sized portrait of King, both men now face one another across the dining room in the deanery, where once again they can glower and scowl at one another to their hearts' content.

Notes and References

[1] Philip O'Regan, Archbishop William King (1650-1729) and the Constitution in Church and State, Four Courts Press, 2000.
[2] Swift to King, 28 September, 1721, The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed., Sir Harold Williams, Oxford, 1965 edition.
[3] C.J. Fauske, Jonathan Swift and the Church of Ireland, 1710-1724, Four Courts Press, 2002, p.4
[4] A.I. Carpenter, Archbishop King and Dean Swift, Unpublished PhD, UCD, 1970.
[5] See also, A.I. Carpenter, Archbishop King and Dean Swift, Unpublished PhD, UCD, 1970, pp.297-300.
[6] King to Archbishop Wake, May 8, 1716, Gilbert Collection, MS 28.
[7] Anon., An Account of the Innovations made by the Archbishop of Dublin, London, 1704, p.21.
[8] C.J. Fauske, Jonathan Swift and the Church of Ireland, 1710-1724, Four Courts Press, 2002, pp.93-4.
[9] King to Molyneux, 24 November, 1724, TCD Ms 2537/187-8; King to General Gorge, 12 December, 1724, TCD Ms. 2537/195.

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(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2006; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.