The Catholic Historical Review 87.1 (2001) 110-111
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Scandal in the Church:
Edward Drax Free, 1764-1843
Scandal in the Church: Edward Drax Free, 1764-1843. By R. B. Outhwaite. (Rio Grande, Ohio: The Hambledon Press. 1997. Pp. xvi, 180. $40.00.)
Whether the century be the sixteenth or the twenty-first, a clergyman who fails to abide by his vows attracts far more media attention than does a member of the laity. Edward Drax Free proved to be the most notorious exemplar of clerical iniquity to be found in the early nineteenth-century Church of England. Himself the youngest son of a clergyman, Free earned B.A., M.A., B.D., and D.D. degrees and the status of fellow from St. John's College, Oxford. In 1808 that college appointed him to one of the "livings" under its jurisdiction, and Free became parish rector in the tiny (population 301) village of Sutton, Bedfordshire. That decision proved to be a gross mistake.
In the course of the next decade and a half, Dr. Free managed to seduce and impregnate a succession of youthful housekeepers and to become the father of at least five illegitimate children. He often neglected his duty to conduct Sunday services, and church attendance declined sharply. Frequently he quarreled with his parishioners over the fees that he sought to extract for baptisms and funerals and over the wages that he failed to pay his employees. He sold the lead roof from the church roof and the trees on the church land and pocketed the proceeds. He permitted his pigs to wander about the churchyard and uproot the gravestones.
All such iniquities might not have sufficed to remove him from his office had he not sued the local lord of the manor for failing to attend church. Montagu Burgoyne (a grand-nephew of the British general of the War of the American Revolution and a cousin of prime minister Lord North) not only was found innocent but went on to have himself chosen as a lowly parish church-warden. In that position he launched in 1823 the legal suit that seven years later caused the chief ecclesiastical court to remove Free from his office, and--after a ten-day siege--to force him physically out of the church rectory. Edward Drax Free utilized every legal strategem available--including the secular courts and even the House of Lords--to delay the proceedings that deprived him of his "freehold" and to slander his critics. Ultimately he failed, but, publicly unrepentant, he devoted his final years petitioning vainly for a restoration of his St. John's College fellowship. A London carriage accident ended his life at the age of seventy-eight. [End Page 109] Only in 1840 did Parliament pass a law that streamlined the process whereby bishops might discipline erring clerics.
Free may well have been an altogether untypical individual, but the readable tale that Outhwaite tells serves as a useful introduction to early nineteenth-century parish life in England as well as to the complexities of both ecclesiastical and secular law. The author was never able to find an actual portrait of his subject, but he has fashioned from numerous legal records, pamphlets, and newspaper articles, a persuasive pen-portrait of a person totally unsuited for his vocation--or any other.
Walter L. Arnstein
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign