“A journey unique”: Archbishop Davidson at the Western Front

May 2016 marks the centenary of Archbishop Randall Davidson’s tour of the Western Front, a journey he described as “unique in my own experience as a man, and I think unique historically in the experience of an Archbishop”. To commemorate Davidson’s visit, Lambeth Palace Library will posting and tweeting extracts from his diary (Davidson 583) and summaries of Davidson’s activities, one hundred years to the day, via its Facebook and Twitter accounts.


Davidson spent 9 days at the Front, from 16 to 24 May, at the invitation of Deputy Chaplain-General Llewellyn Gwynne, and with the “warm concurrence” of Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig. The visit had two principal objectives:

  1. A fact-finding mission, giving Davidson the opportunity to meet with meet the commanders of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.), and to survey almost the entirety of the British-held section of the Western Front, from the military base at Étaples on the French coast, to the Somme (where preparations were continuing for the eponymous battle that was to commence on 1 July).
  2. A morale-boosting tour, to cheer and encourage the chaplains and to allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to meet and talk with ordinary soldiers.


Davidson was profoundly moved by his experiences, and just four days after his return to Lambeth he began dictating to his secretary, Mary Mills, what was to become known as his ‘war diary’, which he supplemented with postcards and maps from the visit.

Davidson diary 1
Davidson’s typsecript ‘war diary’

Though he was kept from the front lines he was never far from danger. On 17 May he visited the shattered town of Ypres, still being regularly shelled by the Germans, donning a steel helmet and carrying a gas mask “ready for use at a moment’s notice”. Davidson was given ample opportunities to observe the ongoing fighting, witnessing a tremendous artillery barrage preceding a successful attack by the Germans on the Vimy Ridge sector. He was:

Constantly impressed when looking across the Front at fighting times by the absence of physical men – guns are firing, shells exploding, and aeroplanes are overhead, and you know that within the few miles which you are looking at there are thousands and thousands of men, but they are all in trenches, and the country sometimes looks as though it were uninhabited. I had not been prepared for this.”

He was also fascinated by the huge logistical operation that kept the British army supplied, noting the huge array of lorries loaded with ammunition, food and other essentials, and was most “amused to find that one of the biggest and most formidable looking of these ranges of cars, turned out on closer inspection to be not great heavy lorries after all, but London omnibuses painted slate colour and looking most imposing and as unlike buses as possible”.

Davidson diary 2
“One felt more & more the fearsomeness of all this going on between Christian peoples”. Davidson made revisions and additions to the typescript in his own hand.

The Archbishop held conferences for the chaplains, one each for the four armies that made up the B.E.F., at which as many of the Church of England chaplains as possible had been gathered, as well chaplains from the Church of Scotland and the English Free Churches. Davidson made it a priority to speak with as many of them as possible, and at the conference at Talbot House in Poperinghe, he recorded that he was “very much struck with the quiet simplicity, and even the unconscious dignity of the chaplains, some of whom I had known quite well; and all of them seemed to me to have ‘grown’ in the best sense”. Davidson also spoke to the troops whenever he could, usually in the hospitals but also those resting from duty on the front line. After meeting a group of soldiers at St. Omer, he wrote of them:

“There was an obvious seriousness which betokened what they had gone through, near Ypres, and might yet have to go through, and it was in a sort of awestruck way that some of them spoke about the fearful fighting in the trenches. No one, they said, could wish to go back to it, though they were quite ready to go when they were wanted, not light-heartedly, but determinedly.”


Davidson’s visit was relatively low-key in comparison to previous episcopal visits to the Front by Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, and Henry Wakefield, Bishop of Birmingham. Those visits had been characterised by preaching marathons and subsequent published accounts that infuriated military commanders. The more circumspect nature of Davidson’s visit was welcomed by Sir Douglas Haig, who, on their meeting at General Headquarters on 20 May, stated: “Visits like yours for quiet consultation with us and for giving stimulus to officers and chaplains, and speaking to the gatherings of men which you come across naturally, are of very real good”.


A scholarly edition of Davidson’s war diary, edited by Michael Snape, appears in From the Reformation to the Permissive Society: A Miscellany in Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Lambeth Palace Library, (Church of England Record Society Volume 18, 2010) and is available for consultation in the Lambeth Palace Library reading room (Classmark: H5051.C4 [R]), or for purchase through Boydell & Brewer.

The Archbishop and the Suffragettes

In the collection of Archbishop Randall Davidson’s papers held at Lambeth Palace Library are two large volumes containing a number of letters regarding women’s suffrage (Davidson 515 and Davidson 516). From them, we can tease out some of the stories of these women and of the Archbishop’s views on the events surrounding the suffragette movement. Most of these letters refer specifically to the suffragettes and not to the suffragists who protested by non-militant methods for women’s votes.

Davidson took a consistent stance on the issue of women’s suffrage, according to his replies. Whilst he supported the idea of women’s suffrage in general, he disagreed with the militant methods undertaken by the Women’s Social and Political Union, which were often violent and involved the activists acting illegally. Therefore, Davidson chose not to openly show his support for women’s suffrage in case he was misinterpreted as supporting the suffragettes and their tactics. He was, one could say, a passive suffragist.

For many of the suffragettes, this was not what they had hoped for from the head of the Church of England, as most mistook his actions as being anti-women’s suffrage, and others believed that he should show his support for their cause more openly.

It is easy to feel the suffragettes’ frustration when reading these letters. In particular, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), who was well-known for composing The March of the Women and conducting singing through her prison bars with a toothbrush, writes page after page to the Archbishop, venting her frustration and claiming that women are, in her opinion, being ignored and will continue to be ignored unless their point is made through militant acts. Smyth was not afraid to speak her mind about the politicians of the time:

“…if ever I come across Mr Asquith’s path… I shall say, as loudly and distinctly as I can, that I think it disgraceful that millions of women shall be trodden underfoot because of the “convictions” of an old man who notoriously can’t be left alone in a room with a young woman after dinner.” (Letter to Davidson from Ethel Smyth, 11 February 1914, from Davidson 516)

Signature of Dame Ethel Smyth as found on one of her letters to Archbishop Davidson

When reading Davidson’s replies to these letters, one is struck by how careful the Archbishop is not to be associated with the actions of the suffragettes, although his frustration at being misrepresented is also clear:

“Would it not be fairly said “they have even converted a stolid Archbishop?” whereas in the first place he was fairly converted before…” (Letter from Davidson to Miss Agnes Gardiner, 5 March 1907, from Davidson 515)

He is also keen to inform the suffragettes of the damage he believes they are doing to the cause and to the efforts of the suffragists in general by partaking in violent actions such as window smashing, throwing missiles at MPs and other illegal activities.

“I fear [the suffragettes] are daily strengthening the hands of those who say, untruly as I think, that the enthusiasm of good women is apt to lack the kind of balanced judgement which is specially called for in dealing with large political questions.” (Letter from Davidson to Lady Blomfield, 25 October 1909, from Davidson 515)

For many of the WSPU, Davidson’s actions weren’t enough. The Union’s most prolific and founding member, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), was in and out of prison. She underwent hunger strikes and submitted to force feeding, which caused her to be a victim of the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. Whilst in prison, she wrote to Davidson, asking for an audience. Unfortunately, Davidson felt unable to visit her, due to her associations with the suffragettes. The meeting never took place, although Mrs Pankhurst makes her views on the situation clear:

“… I shall call upon women to refuse to obey and men to vote against, a Government which while professing the principles of representative Government, refuses to apply them to women…” (Letter to Davidson from Emmeline Pankhurst, 31 March 1914, for Davidson 516)

Emmeline Pankhurst encourages Archbishop Davidson to meet with her.

Norah Dacre Fox (1878-1961), another prominent member of WSPU, goes further, saying that the Archbishop, in fact, is to blame for their militancy, stating that in the half century since the fight for women’s votes began, the Archbishop of Canterbury has had plenty of opportunities to show his support, and that the support of such a spiritual leader could have resolved the issue before militancy was needed.

“Our view is that the Church is very responsible for Militancy, because it has failed to realise the spiritual meaning of the Women’s movement and has not helped women to get the vote.” (Letter to Davidson from Norah Dacre Fox, 27 February 1914, from Davidson 516)

The two volumes show the vast array of letters sent to the Archbishop by many well-known suffragettes, including Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954), and Louise Creighton (1850-1936). For some members of the WSPU, however, simply writing letters was not enough to cause a reaction from the head of the Church of England. In Davidson 315 we find newspaper accounts regarding Miss Annie Kenney (1879-1953) who, in May 1914, gained access to Lambeth Palace and refused to leave. Archbishop Davidson, his wife and several members of staff attempted to make her leave, but eventually she had to be arrested and removed from the site. Due to the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ (1913) she succeeded in making several visits to Lambeth Palace to seek sanctuary, and Davidson was warned that he could be accused of harbouring someone wanted by the police, so he could do nothing to hinder the arrests. The WSPU thought he could have prevented Miss Kenney’s further arrests. Yet another blow to Davidson’s reputation as a supporter of women’s suffrage. In one of many letters he sent to suffragette supporters he argued his corner, stating that he had treated Miss Kenney with ‘utmost consideration and kindness’, but, as Davidson well knew, the versions of the story being published in the suffragette newspapers painted him in a less than bright light (Letter from Davidson to Mrs Wilcock, 19 June 1914, from Davidson 516).

Archbishop Davidson’s account of Miss Kenney’s visit.


Possibly the most shocking inclusions in these volumes are descriptions sent to the Archbishop of the treatment of imprisoned suffragettes. Pressure on the Archbishop increased in 1914 in response to the methods used to feed the suffragettes. Many accounts go into horrific detail about the acts of forced feeding which were inflicted upon these women and the injuries and damage they suffered as a result. In some cases, the practice was seen as so violating that even the prison doctors refused to take part, and many of the women suffered permanent injuries. We have no evidence of how Davidson reacted to the practice, as no letters of response have been retained in this collection.

In 1918 Davidson had his chance to show his support for women’s suffrage when the motion was voted on in the House of Lords. Women over the age of thirty had the vote, which was the first step to women having equal voting rights to men in the UK.

Code it be Magic: References for Archbishops’ Papers

Why do the Library’s collections of material for Archbishops of Canterbury have such a varying array of reference codes, often including abbreviations, names, numbers or slashes? What lies behind this array of identifiers, each of which should be unique for an orderable archival object, and how do they reflect the collections’ long history?

The earliest records of the administration of Archbishops of Canterbury are the Archbishops’ registers, which don’t have a reference code as such, so the register of Matthew Parker (1504-1575) is Reg. Parker for example. More extensive official papers of Archbishops, which exist from the mid-17th century but not in great quantities until the mid-19th, were traditionally bound into volumes and referenced by the Archbishop’s name and then the volume number, from eighteenth century material for Archbishop Thomas Secker (1693-1768) such as ‘Secker 2’ to more modern material such as ‘Coggan 31’ which includes requests for Archbishop Coggan to pray for rain during the long hot summer of 1976.

Currently work is progressing on the papers of Archbishop Robert Runcie (1921-2000), and his material is housed in archive quality folders with each file having an alphanumeric code which identifies the series of which it forms a part. This could be the so-called ‘main’ section, which reflects the main filing system used within Lambeth Palace at the time or series relating to specific activities, such as Anglican Communion visits (ACV). Some material was not managed as part of these series, so has a reference which reflects that; examples include photographs (PHOTO) and diaries (DIARIES). Further such material relating to senior staff from the period will be added to the catalogue in due course.

From 1933-1982 the Council on Foreign Relations served as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘foreign office’ and its papers were managed separately. Cataloguing work on these is ongoing and the material has the reference CFR. From 1982 its functions were merged into the main Palace administration, so relevant material is within the Runcie papers.

For many earlier Archbishops, some papers which might be considered to be their official material are within the Library’s sequence of manuscripts, which have the reference MS. Often these are items which have entered the Library well after the period of office of the relevant Archbishop. A good example is MS 3274, which are papers of Archbishop Charles Manners Sutton (1755-1828), and which include letters from numerous bishops and politicians. They were acquired through the help of the Friends of the Library in 1984.

The best way to identify relevant material within the Archbishops Papers is to use our online catalogue of archives and manuscripts, where relevant references should be visible in the ‘Order No’ field. But don’t be surprised if they take a variety of forms.

Early Modern Archbishops’ Papers Project 2

Dr Richard Palmer reports on further work to re-catalogue the early modern Archbishops’ papers. In recent weeks seven volumes of papers of Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury 1758-68, were catalogued for the first time on an item by item basis. The papers were found to include many papers inherited by Secker from his predecessors, especially Thomas Herring, Archbishop of Canterbury 1747-57.

Secker 1 mainly comprises papers relating to William and Mary College, Virginia, including a long account of the affairs of the College by John Camm following his dismissal as professor of Divinity in 1757. Also included are papers relating to financial provision for the clergy in Virginia in which Camm also played a prominent part. A letter sent in 1760 to Lord Halifax, Commissioner for Trade and Plantations, signed ‘Philanglus Americanus’, with suggestions on the governance of the American colonies and the role of the Church of England, was found to be the work of Samuel Johnson, President of King’s College, New York, one of Secker’s most prominent correspondents in America.

Secker 2 comprises a miscellany of papers, the largest section relating to the project of Benjamin Kennicott to collate all known Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament. Also included are papers relating to Ireland. Amongst these, as well as 16 letters to Secker from the Dean of Killaloe, published by the Church of England Record Society in 2010, was found an important letter to Secker from his friend John Bowes, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, giving a vivid first-hand account of the anti-union riots in Dublin in December 1759.

Secker 2 f. 232
Letter to Archbishop Secker from William Henry, Dean of Killaloe, 1764 (Secker 2 f. 232)

Secker 3 comprises Canterbury diocesan papers. These were already arranged and listed by the names of parishes, and it was initially assumed that no additional cataloguing was needed. However the papers proved to be more important for their subject matter than their location, and were so disparate in nature (including a report by the architect Robert Mylne on the fabric of Canterbury Cathedal, a catalogue of the parochial library at Detling, and letters on the baptism of a ‘negro’ and an Anabaptist), that a completely new catalogue was necessary. Also included are visitation papers, including an interesting series of 6 letters to Secker from his chaplain, Charles Hall, providing reports on the progress of the visitation in 1762.

Secker 4 comprises metropolitical papers, including correspondence on Secker’s exercise of the ‘Archbishop’s option’, his right to nominate to a benefice of his choice in the diocese of a newly consecrated bishop on its first becoming vacant. Secker’s choice of St George’s Hanover Square, a plum in the diocese of London, caused a rift with Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London, which is a major theme of the correspondence.

Secker 5 comprises Latin exercises (short dissertations on theological topics) written by candidates for institution to benefices or, more typically, dispensations to hold benefices in plurality. These were already catalogued by the names of their authors. However various inaccuracies suggested the need for a new catalogue correlating each exercise with the institution or dispensation which resulted.

Secker 6 mainly comprises papers of Secker as Visitor of various institutions (especially All Souls College, Oxford). Included are letters from Stephen Niblett, Warden of All Souls, and the jurist William Blackstone. The new catalogue allows these papers to be studied alongside other papers of the Archbishop as Visitor of All Souls in the manuscripts series and Vicar General records.

Secker 7 is miscellaneous in character and the new item by item catalogue reveals many significant items which were previously inaccessible. Included is Secker’s letter to Archbishop Herring in 1755 responding to Herring’s proposal to nominate him to be Bishop of London; original declarations and oaths taken by converts from Roman Catholicism; a letter from Jacob Duche in 1765 giving an account of his life, spiritual development and ministry in Philadelphia; and legal opinions by Lord Hardwicke and others. Also present are papers relating to foreign Protestants, the Faculty Office, Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, and the case of Henry Perfect, a clergyman who failed in every respect to match up to his surname.

Archbishop Davidson and the First World War – Outbreak of War

Archbishop Randall Davidson was 66 when war broke out in 1914. He had been Archbishop of Canterbury since 1903 and had already had a lucrative career at the centre of England’s ecclesiastical life, including acting as the trusted confidant of Queen Victoria during his time as resident chaplain to both Archbishop Tait and Archbishop Benson.

Portrait of Archbishop Davidson by John Singer Sargent, 1910
Portrait of Archbishop Davidson by John Singer Sargent, 1910

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Davidson looked to uphold the role of the Church of England within national life and provide support and guidance in moral, social and political matters. Along with much of the population Davidson had believed that war might be avoided and even spoke of the possibility of Britain avoiding the conflict in a sermon he gave at Westminster Abbey on August 2nd 1914. Davidson had good theological contacts in Germany and had previously expressed the belief that war between the two countries was unthinkable.

Davidson’s lack of foresight regarding the conflict did not prevent him, once war had broken out, from taking the lead on appropriate wartime issues, as and when requested by the government. He believed that the Church of England should act to unite and support the nation throughout the wartime period, and at all costs prevent the deterioration of moral standards. The Archbishop, along with other leaders of the national church, benefited from having the ear of prominent members of government and parliament. This enabled him to have a degree of influence, as well as a voice in various conversations and decisions regarding the conflict.

Although Davidson did protest against aspects of the British government’s methods of warfare (as shown throughout his papers for this period held at the Library), he did not look to publically condemn the wartime government and instead focused his attention on applying pressure behind the scenes. He railed against the government’s policy of reprisal, (especially the use of poison gas), advocated the control of alcohol consumption and temperance during the war period and concerned himself with the moral welfare of the men at the front (including criticising in the House of Lords the War Office’s toleration of brothels close to army camps).

There were many aspects of the war that the Archbishop concerned himself with and in the opening months of war the Archbishop was often seen as the natural point of contact for ordinary citizens seeking advice. Members of the Archbishop’s diocese, in particular, sought reassurance and guidance once war had been declared and they repeatedly contacted him for information on anti- invasion preparations in Kent. Whilst often in the dark himself on these matters, Archbishop Davidson was in the rarefied position of having excellent contacts within government, enabling him to acquire and circulate information, including the latest emergency guidance.

Davidson 376 f.89, Anti- invasion guidelines
Davidson 376 f.89, Anti- invasion guidelines

The Archbishop’s priorities could not fail to be affected by the outbreak of war. The war became the over-riding concern for the Church during this period, presenting it with new predicaments and featuring heavily as a priority in the agenda and minutes of Bishops’ meetings (for more about this see the Library’s previous blog post on ‘The First World War and the Bishops’ ) In particular Davidson was keen to ensure the preservation of moral standards during this difficult time and this led him to question the amount of money being given in separation allowances to soldiers’ wives and partners. He controversially succeeded in preventing unmarried partners receiving the same amount as of right. In 1918 Davidson debated with the War Office and in the House of Lords over the toleration of brothels close to army camps. He also condemned the use of poison gas and the bombing of Freiburg in April 1917 in retaliation for the sinking of two hospital ships. In 1916, at the age of 68, he visited the Western Front and this was followed by a second visit in 1918.

Future blog posts in this series will look more closely at the Archbishop’s wartime role and areas of his involvement. For more information about First World War sources see the Library’s research guide . The Library also has a First World War timeline looking at Archbishop Davidson’s involvement with the war.