Archbishop up a tree?

Posted September 29, 2011 1:44 pm by Lauren Forbes

Confusion reigns here. Frances Arnold, daughter of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, writes to John Murray IV in February 1902. She wants to correct an urban (or rather rural) myth about her father’s friend, the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately (1787-1863).

The myth has been repeated as fact in a new Teacher’s edition of her father’s “Life and correspondence”. It says there that when the letter offering Whately the Archbishopric arrived, he was perched in a tree, and Thomas Arnold passed the letter up to him in a cleft stick. The tree was in Arnold’s garden.

Frances Arnold sets the record straight, finding her information in “Life and correspondence of Richard Whately”, 1866. As she writes to Murray:

 The matter is in itself of no importance, yet it seems a pity that an entirely inaccurate legend should be perpetuated! It seems to have been the Archbishop’s dog, and not the Archbishop who climbed the tree!

I must admit I’m a little disappointed, as climbing dogs are more common than climbing Archbishops, I would have thought.

Frances Arnold includes the full excerpt about the incident with her letter. And the Dictionary of National Biography entry for Richard Whately confirms the “dog” side of things:

 He disregarded Oxford conventions: in the early morning he could be seen walking Christ Church meadows, not wearing a cap and gown as required, but a white hat and coat (he was known as the White Bear), accompanied by his white dog which he had trained to climb trees and from there jump into the water.

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