The Lincoln Trial

Amid a great controversy surrounding the role of ritual in the Church of England during the 19th century, matters came to a head with the prosecution and trial of the Bishop of Lincoln, Edward King, for ritualistic practices in 1888-90.

King served as chaplain, lecturer and eventually principal at Cuddesdon Theological College from 1858 before becoming Regius Professor of Pastoral Theology at Oxford 1873-1885; he was a prominent Anglo-Catholic as part of the Oxford Movement, and the principal founder of St Stephen’s House, a theological college ‘in the catholic tradition of the Church of England’.[1]  His appointment to the Bishopric of Lincoln in 1885 was clearly of concern to some in the anti-ritualist camp.

Caricature of Edward King by Leslie Ward, 1890 (Vanity Fair, 13 September 1890)

The Church Association – one of the main organisations leading opposition to ritualism – was formed in 1865 to ‘defend the Church of England against ritualistic (Anglo Catholic) teaching which was making inroads into the Church’.[2]  Aside from publishing a number to Tracts, one of the Church Association’s main tactics was to instigate the prosecution of number of ritualist priests under the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874, which had been introduced to parliament by Archbishop Tait and led to the imprisonment of some clergy.

Against this backdrop, in June 1888 the Church Association accused King of performing six ritualistic acts which had been declared illegal at Lincoln Minster and at St. Peter-at-Gowts, Lincoln, on the 4th and 18th of December 1887 respectively.  The six acts in question were: taking the ‘eastward position’ during the service; having lighted candles on the altar; mixing water with wine; repeating the Agnus Dei; making the sign of the cross during the absolution and blessing; and the ablution of the sacred vessels.[3]  The Church Association appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, to prosecute his bishop for performing these.

This raised many questions: did the Archbishop have the authority to try a bishop?  If he did, was he willing to do so?  Could he decide to dismiss the case?  Could the secular courts prevent him from trying the bishop, or alternatively compel him to do so?  To resolve the impasse Benson referred the matter to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, who confirmed the Archbishop’s authority to deal with the case.  As a result, Benson revived ‘The Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury’, which had lain inactive since 1699, in order to try King.

Watercolour of the trial scene from the Lincoln Trial, signed ‘C. and E. Floris, 1889 (MS 4825/1

The proceedings began on the 12th February 1889, taking place in the Great Hall at Lambeth Palace, at that time (and until very recently) part of Lambeth Palace Library.  The petitioners, acting on behalf of the Church Association, were formally Ernest de Lacy Read & others.  Five Episcopal Assessors were appointed to assist Benson: Frederick Temple (Bishop of London), William Stubbs (Bishop of Oxford), Anthony Thorold (Bishop of Rochester), John Wordsworth (Bishop of Salisbury), and James Atlay (Bishop of Hereford).  Various points of protest and ecclesiastical law were considered before the actual trial itself took place from the 4th to the 25th of February 1890.

Benson’s ‘Lincoln Judgement’ was delivered on 21st November 1890.  A mixed bag of verdicts, most sources consider the judgement as favourable to King in the main.  It was found that there was no offence committed by taking the eastward position, the use of lighted candles, the mixing of water with wine, the repeating of the Agnus Dei (which was considered part of the use of hymns), or the ablution of the vessels.  However, King was forbidden from mixing water with wine during the service (it was permitted to do the mixing before the service began) and from making the sign of the cross.  He was also required to stand in such a way that the ‘Manual Acts’ of consecration were visible to those attending.  No punishment was imposed on King but he was obliged to adhere to the judgement, which by all accounts he did.  The petitioners appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council without success, their case being dismissed on 2nd August 1892.

The case settled matters of ritual for a time – at least until Archbishop Frederick Temple ruled against the use of incense and candles in 1899 – and many of the practices Bishop King used became widespread.  Nonetheless, despite largely being exonerated, the stress of the case had a negative effect of King, with his biography stating that he became ill afterwards and grew visibly older.[4]  For the Church Association the case also had a negative effect: public opinion turned against such prosecutions and sympathy for King swayed many towards the ritualists.[5]  120 years later Archbishop Rowan Williams described the case as an embarrassment to the Church, stating that the prosecutions made ‘both the Church and the state look rather silly’.[6]

Lambeth Palace Library holds a great deal of archival material related to the case: some Vicar General records have recently been added to the online archives catalogue, while other records were previously catalogued in the manuscript sequence (in particular MS 3764-3767 and MS 3768-3770).  As well as a number of Church Association Tracts there is also a significant amount of secondary material to be found in printed book catalogue.

[1] St. Stephen’s House, ‘History’,

[2] Church Society, ‘Our History’,

[3] Russell, George William Erskine, Edward King, Sixtieth Bishop of Lincoln: A Memoir (1912), p.147.

[4] Russell, p.211.

[5] Scotland, Nigel, ‘Evangelicals, Anglicans and Ritualism in Victorian England’, Churchman 111/3 (1997),

[6] ‘Bishop of the Poor: Edward King reinvented the role of diocesan bishop’ (2010),