BISSE, Philip (1666-1721)

BISSE, Philip (1666–1721)

cons. 19 Nov. 1710 bp. of ST DAVIDS; transl. 16 Feb. 1713 bp. of HEREFORD

First sat 25 Nov. 1710; last sat 6 Apr. 1719

bap. 28 May 1666, eldest s. of John Bisse, rect. of Oldbury-on-the-Hill, Glos. and Joyce Gyles. educ. Winchester 1682–6; New Coll. Oxf. matric. 1686, BA 1690, MA 1694, BD and DD 1706. m. ?1704, Bridget (1661–1718), da. of Thomas Osborne, duke of Leeds, and wid. of Charles Fitzcharles, earl of Plymouth; d.s.p. d. 6 Sept. 1721; will 21 July 1718–29 Sept. 1719, pr. 20 Dec. 1721.1

Chap. to Bridget, countess of Plymouth.

Fell. New Coll. Oxf. 1694.

FRS 1706.

Also associated with: Oldbury-on-the-Hill, Glos; St Davids, Pemb. 1710-13; Hereford, Herefs. 1713-d.

Likenesses: oil on canvas attrib. to T. Hill, 1719, New Coll., Oxf.; line engraving aft. foregoing, G. Vertue, 1719, NPG D31450.

Bisse came from a long clerical tradition, being the second of seven children born to a Gloucestershire clergyman descended from an armigerous Somerset family.2 He was ordained in 1692 by John Hough, then bishop of Oxford, but does not appear to have held any ecclesiastical livings before gaining a prestigious chaplaincy to Lady Plymouth. After the death of her first husband she married Bisse but the marriage was not publicly acknowledged until 1706. At least initially, it was not the connection to the extensive Osborne family network that was most influential in shaping Bisse’s career but his kinship to Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford. The Osbornes disapproved of the marriage, presumably because Bisse’s social status was vastly inferior to that of a ducal family, and it was Harley whose support and willingness to own Bisse as his relation and to disclose the marriage to the queen earned the couple’s gratitude.3 Details of both Bisse’s personal relationships and financial circumstances are hazy; by the time of his death, he owned real estate in Herefordshire and Middlesex, although its extent is unknown.

By 1708, Bisse was a prominent Tory clergyman and enthusiastic proponent of the theology of good works. In his sermons and in convocation, he helped to politicize the Anglican doctrinal struggle between the promoters of practical piety – with its perceived advantages of social stability – and diehard Calvinists such as John Williams, of Chichester.4 Early in May 1709 he was said to be a candidate for the vacant bishopric of Chichester but to have little chance of success. By the end of the month his prospects had improved. The queen had been instrumental in effecting a reconciliation between his wife and her father, and had promised Bisse ‘the title of lord’. Bisse also secured the support of John Sharp, archbishop of York.5 His reputation was further enhanced by the rousing fast sermon that he delivered to the Commons in March 1710.6 He was thus ideally placed to benefit from his cousin’s political position when the Harley ministry of 1710 saw a dramatic improvement in the career prospects of Tory clerics. By April 1710 it was already rumoured that Bisse, then aged only 43 (and with no previous ecclesiastical preferments), would be elevated to the episcopate. As he later acknowledged, his elevation was entirely due to the ‘favour’ of Oxford (as Harley had become).7 As Harley’s client, Bisse’s appointment constituted something of a snub to the ‘hot’ Tories such as Henry Sacheverell and Francis Atterbury, the future bishop of Rochester.

Bisse was consecrated in Lambeth Palace chapel on 19 Nov. 1710.8 As an avowed Anglophile, he acted to the detriment of Welsh culture, refusing to subscribe to Welsh books because it would ‘obstruct the English tongue’. Unlike both his predecessor George Bull, and his successor Adam Ottley, he enforced the use of English by erecting charity schools in which only English was spoken.9 There is no evidence that Bisse took a prominent role in Pembrokeshire electoral politics, although his elevation to St Davids dovetailed neatly with the collapse of Whig power in Wales when the Sacheverell trial polarized local party opinion.10 He is known, however, to have acted as Oxford’s agent in the Shropshire elections in 1713.11 On 3 Oct. 1710, Bisse (as bishop-elect) was named in a list of Lords expected to support the ministry. He received his writ of summons on 24 Nov. and took his seat in the House on the following day. 12 He attended for nearly 70 per cent of sittings during the session and held the proxy of John Robinson, then bishop of Bristol, from 11 Dec. for three days. The extant diaries of William Nicolson, bishop of Carlisle and William Wake, then bishop of Lincoln, as well as that of the clergyman Henry Brydges, show that Bisse frequently dined with his fellow bishops when in London and that sometimes these meetings had a partisan political flavour. Strategies for parliamentary as well as Church business must have figured in the table talk.13

On 6 Dec. 1710, Bisse had voted in convocation for Atterbury to be confirmed as prolocutor and on 21 Feb. 1711 he was named in the queen’s new licence for the convocation quorum (with John Robinson, Offspring Blackall, of Exeter, and Jonathan Trelawny, ofWinchester). Many of the existing bishops were offended by the inclusion of such new appointees to the episcopate and by what was in effect an intrusion on the authority of Thomas Tenison, archbishop of Canterbury. Age and inexperience notwithstanding, Bisse proved to be a shrewd and effective negotiator. He brokered a compromise and persuaded the queen to amend the offending licence. Nicolson, recorded Bisse’s ‘kind wish’ for unanimity on the episcopal bench.14

Bisse was also involved in non-parliamentary activities. Late in December 1710 he attended a Whitehall meeting of the commissioners of Queen Anne’s bounty, and in March 1711 he was named to a committee of bishops sitting in the heresy case against the Cambridge professor William Whiston.15 On 15 May 1711, Bisse was ordered to preach to the Lords at the public thanksgiving for the Restoration. His sermon lauded an English constitution established for at least 2,000 years. He looked back (with considerable venom) on the interregnum polity that had been ‘torn to pieces by the republican spirit’ and infiltrated by ‘the very dregs of the people’.16

Bisse was in the House on 7 Dec. 1711 for the first day of the new parliamentary session, and he attended 80 per cent of sittings. The following day he protested against the resolution to present the address on account of the additional ‘No Peace without Spain’ clause that encroached on the royal prerogative in foreign affairs. On 19 Dec. he was forecast as likely to support claims of James Hamilton, 4th duke of Hamilton [S], to sit as a British peer and on 20th duly voted against the resolution disabling hi from sitting as duke of Brandon. The next day he again received the proxy of John Robinson (vacated at the end of the session). On 26 Feb. 1712, he voted to agree with the Commons’ amendment in the episcopal communion (Scotland) bill, and on the same day he received the proxy of Thomas Manningham, bishop of Chester (vacated 13 May 1712). On 1 Mar. Bisse supported Greenshields in his appeal before the Lords.17 Clearly a popular preacher in elevated social circles, Bisse took an increasingly prominent role as Oxford’s friend and ally. Over the course of the year he was deeply involved in the somewhat fraught negotiations for the marriage of Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth to Peregrine Hyde Osborne, then styled marquess of Carmarthen, later 3rd duke of Leeds. In convocation, a dispute over the validity of lay baptism led him to become involved in ‘anxious’ meetings with Sharp and Atterbury in which they discussed the need for Oxford to press the queen to prohibit all discussion of controversial doctrinal issues.18 On 11 June 1712, he again received Manningham’s proxy (vacated at the end of the session).

Thoroughly integrated into the social life of the episcopate, Bisse attended the St Stephen’s day dinner at Lambeth Palace on 26 Dec. 1712.19 On 6 Feb. 1713, again through Oxford’s influence, he was translated to the see of Hereford, a city firmly in the grip of the Tories. The translation entrenched Bisse as a member of the Harley–Foley political alliance in Herefordshire but it also brought him into opposition with Thomas Coningsby, Baron Coningsby [I], the future earl of Coningsby, who later described Bisse as ‘the worst of bishops’.20 Unsurprisingly, on 15 Mar. 1713, Oxford and Jonathan Swift together listed Bisse as a supporter of the ministry in the approaching session. On the first day, 9 Apr. 1713, he took his seat as bishop of Hereford, attending the session for 56 per cent of sittings. On 13 June it was forecast that he would support another Tory measure, the French commerce bill. In mid-July he was named to the committee on new London churches, reporting from the committee on 13 July and recommending that a clause be added to preserve the right of petitioners. That summer, ‘being on the spot and having easy access to the treasurer [Oxford] … as well as his inclination to make his court’, he was tipped as the successor to Henry Compton, bishop of London.21 That the post went instead to Robinson did not dampen expectations of further preferment. In February 1714 Bisse was again being tipped for promotion, this time to be archbishop of York. He was reputed to be so anxious for promotion that he had alienated his Hereford diocese by revealing his enthusiasm to leave them for a better see as soon as possible. He lost out to Dawes of Chester, probably because Bisse’s allegiance to Oxford was firm, while Dawes needed encouraging.22

Bisse was again in the House on the first day of the next parliamentary session (16 Feb. 1714); he attended this session for some 53 per cent of sittings. On 17 Mar. 1714 he registered his proxy (vacated on 31 Mar.) in favour of his successor at St Davids, Adam Ottley. On 5 Apr. he was named to the committee to prepare an address to the queen that, in conjunction with the States General, the emperor should be asked to guarantee the Protestant succession in the House of Hanover. In forecasts for voting on the schism bill, Bisse was listed as a likely supporter. Bisse dined with Ottley, Nicolson, and George Smalridge, of Bristol, at the home of John Robinson on 25 May 1714.23 Two weeks later Bisse, Ottley, Smalridge, and Robinson all voted in favour of extending the schism bill to Ireland. Bisse again voted for the schism bill on 15 June. Six days later, he received the proxy of another of Oxford’s episcopal allies, George Hooper, of Bath and Wells (vacated at the end of the session).

Bisse arrived three days into the brief session following the queen’s death and attended on one day only. On 20 Oct. 1714, the coronation of George I was greeted with riots in Hereford; Bisse horrified Hereford Tories when he appeared before the clergy ‘with a joyful and entirely pleased countenance’. Yet the previous year, after a sermon delivered by Sacheverell to the sons of the clergy, he had attended a social gathering where the musicians played a popular Jacobite song that was received ‘with universal acclamations’.24 There is also some evidence that, after the accession of George I, Bisse went into opposition and became part of an undercover group that was associated with the Jacobite cause.25 His political and parliamentary career after 1715 will be discussed further in the next phase of this work. He died at Westminster on 6 Sept. 1721, aged 54. Having bequeathed £100 to his Oxford college for its ‘beautifying’, he left the bulk of his real and personal estate to his brother Thomas Bisse (founder of the Three Choirs Festival) and to his sister Joyce Bisse, requesting interment next to his wife, who had predeceased him. Lauded by a contemporary, Abel Boyer, as a man of singular integrity and sweetness, Bisse was buried in his cathedral on 11 Sept. with a ‘sumptuous’ monument.26


  • 1 TNA, PROB 11/582.
  • 2 Vis. Som. 1623 (Harl. Soc. xi), 8; Som. and Dorset N and Q, v. 213–14; Add. 34568, ff. 49–50.
  • 3 HMC Portland, iv. 321; Add. 70064, Bisse to R. Harley, 29 Mar. 1707.
  • 4 P. Bisse, A Sermon Preached at the Anniversary Meeting of the Sons of the Clergy (1708).
  • 5 Christ Church, Oxf. Wake mss 17, ff. 209, 215; Add. 61443, f. 42.
  • 6 P. Bisse, A Sermon Preached before the Honourable House of Commons (1710).
  • 7 Longleat, Bath mss, Thynne pprs, 46, f. 274; Wake mss, 23, f. 205; Add. 70211, Bisse to Oxford, 9 Sept. 1711.
  • 8 Thynne pprs. 44, ff. 81–82.
  • 9 M. Clement, The SPCK and Wales, 1699–1740, 32, 58; G.H. Jenkins, Literature, Religion and Soc. in Wales, 1660–1730, 276.
  • 10 HP Commons, 1690–1715, ii. 812–16; P.D.G. Thomas, Pols. in Eighteenth-century Wales, 74–76.
  • 11 Add. 70279, A. Baldwyn to Oxford, 27 June 1713.
  • 12 HMC Lords, n.s. ix. 9.
  • 13 Nicolson, London Diaries; LPL, ms 1770; SCLA, DR 671/89.
  • 14 Sykes, William Wake, i. 124–5, 129–30; Nicolson, London Diaries, 565.
  • 15 Nicolson, London Diaries, 526; LPL, ms 1770, f. 106.
  • 16 P. Bisse, A Sermon Preached before the Right Honourable House of Peers, on Tuesday the 29th May, 1711 (1711), 9-11.
  • 17 NLS, Advocates mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto V, f. 148r.
  • 18 G.V. Bennett, Tory Crisis in Church and State, 155.
  • 19 LPL, ms 1770, f. 128.
  • 20 HP Commons, 1690–1715, ii. 257–9, 262; HP Commons, 1715–54, i. 571.
  • 21 Add. 72496, ff. 94–95; 72501, f. 22.
  • 22 HMC Portland, vii. 178–80.
  • 23 Nicolson, London Diaries, 610.
  • 24 P.K. Monod, Jacobitism and the Eng. People, 148, 172, 175; G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 329 n. 36.
  • 25 Letters of Atterbury to the Chevalier de St George, i. 11–21; HMC Stuart v. 456.
  • 26 Pol. State, xxii. 329.