BLACKALL, Offspring (1655-1716)

BLACKALL (BLACKHALL), Offspring (1655–1716)

cons. 8 Feb. 1708 bp. of EXETER

First sat 2 Mar. 1708; last sat 11 May 1714

bap. 26 Apr. 1655, s. of Thomas Blackall (d.1688), freeman Haberdashers’ Co. and alderman, London, and Martha, da. of Charles Offspring, rect. St Antholin, London. educ. Hackney sch.;1 St Catherine’s, Camb. BA 1675, MA 1678, DD 1700; ord. deacon 1677, ord. priest 1680. m. Anne (d.1762), da. of James Dillingham of London, 4s. (1 d.v.p.), 5da. (1 d.v.p.).2 d. 29 Nov. 1716; will 4 July 1715-20 Nov. 1716, pr. 26 Jan. 1717.3

Fell. St Catherine’s, Camb. 1679-87; Boyle lecturer 1700.

Rect. S. Ockenden, Essex 1690-4, St Mary Aldermary, London 1694, Shobrooke, Devon 1708-16; lecturer, St Olave Jewry 1695-8, St Dunstan-in-the-West 1698; dean, St Burian, Cornw. 1708-16; adn. Exeter 1708-16; treas. Exeter 1709.

Chap. to William and Mary, 1699-1708; chap. ord. to Anne bef. 1704.4

Also associated with: Dalston, Mdx.5 and Exeter, Devon.

Likenesses: oil on canvas by M. Dahl, before 1706, Bishop’s Palace Exeter, engraved by G. Vertue, 1722 (NPG 9131).

A personal favourite of Queen Anne, Offspring Blackall is generally remembered for engaging in religious polemics with John Toland and Benjamin Hoadly. Yet his career was also politically significant if only because his controversial elevation to the episcopate ignited a ministerial crisis. Once he became a bishop he found himself one of a Tory minority in an episcopate dominated by Whig bishops and was condemned as a Jacobite by Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury. Blackall had a puritan heritage through his maternal grandfather, Charles Offspring (Ofspring). His father, a propertied and armigerous City alderman, was originally from Oxfordshire but had settled in Dalston.6 Offspring Blackall inherited property in Minford, Somerset, from his father, who also owned lands in Hertfordshire, Kent, Somerset, Middlesex and London.7 It was believed that Blackall never acquired wealth because of his poor diocese and large family but he actually added considerably to his patrimony, investing heavily in government lotteries and stock. By the time of his death, he had acquired considerable assets and was able to bequeath lands in Bristol, Somerset and Gloucestershire, annuities worth over £200 a year as well as cash and bonds (including over £2,000 in South Sea stock) worth nearly £5,000.

By 1693 Blackall had come to the attention of Henry Compton, bishop of London. At a time when churchmen were increasingly anxious about the effects of the Act of Toleration, a sermon by Blackall against religious sectarianism was particularly well received.8 In 1699, in a sermon to the House of Commons, he denounced the deist John Toland and, more broadly, rationalist intrusions into religious doctrine.9 In 1705 he delivered a sermon, published as The Subject’s Duty, that identified him as a stalwart advocate of the doctrine of nonresistance and created suspicions of nonjuring sympathies.10 His high church clericalism and authoritarian approach to civil obedience attracted criticism from all points on the political spectrum: his views were disliked by Whigs, Jacobites and rationalists alike.

In 1707 Anne made a private promise of preferment to Blackall and William Dawes, the future bishop of Chester, another Tory cleric. When news leaked of her intentions, her ministers, desperate to shore up their parliamentary support by appeasing the Whig Junto, were appalled; the Junto Whigs were furious. John Somers, Baron Somers, demanded that Thomas Tenison, of Canterbury, block Blackall’s appointment. Tenison (despite boasting that he would speak ‘freely’ to the queen), prevaricated in the face of the queen’s obduracy.11 Insisting that Blackall was a personal choice, Anne claimed that opposition to the appointment could only proceed from Whig malice, for Blackall and Dawes were ‘very fit for the station I design them, and indeed I think myself obliged to fill the bishops’ bench with those that will be a credit to it, and to the Church.’ She went on to deny that the appointments were influenced by Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford, or that they represented a breach with the duumvirs, Sidney Godolphin, Baron (later earl of) Godolphin and John Churchill, duke of Marlborough.12 The duumvirs, certain that Harley was at the root of the problem, continued to pressurize the queen to abandon Blackall. In September Godolphin protested that Blackall’s appointment would ‘hearken and encourage’ the opposition in Parliament, insisting that,

The liberties of all Europe, the safety of your majesty’s person and of these kingdoms, the future preservation of the protestant religion, the strength of your government, and the glory of your reign, depend upon the success of next sessions of Parliament, & indeed upon every sessions of Parliament while this war lasts. … This being truly the case, what colour of reason can incline your majesty to discourage and dissatisfy those whose principles and interest lead them on with so much warmth and zeal to carry you through the difficulties of this war, and have already given you so many unquestionable proofs of their preferring your majesty’s interest and the support of your government, above all others? And what appearance will it have, what reflection will it not cause in the world, that all these weighty things together, cannot stand in the balance with this single point, whether Dr Blackall, at this time, be made a bishop or a dean or a prebend.13

However, by October the opening of additional patronage opportunities for churchmen had calmed the situation. Edmund Gibson, (later bishop of London) confided in William Wake, bishop of Lincoln and the future archbishop of Canterbury, that he believed it ‘agreed, on the Whig side, that Dr Blackhall’s going to Exeter shall break no squares.’14

On 6 Jan. 1708 Anne made a formal announcement of Blackall’s nomination as bishop of Exeter.15 He received his writ of summons on 2 Mar. 1708 and took his seat in the House on the same day.16 He appears to have been a diligent pastor but a less than conscientious parliamentarian. Although he put in an appearance at seven of the nine sessions held during his episcopate, he never attended for more than two-fifths of sittings and usually attended for less than a quarter. Rather, he resided almost constantly in his diocese, and is said to have declared that bishops should concentrate on their dioceses ‘where they could do much good, and not be so fond of attending Parliament, where they could do little or none’.17

Taking his seat four months after the start of the winter 1707 parliamentary session, Blackall attended for only ten days before the session closed on 1 Apr. 1708. There was no effort to enlist his support in the April 1708 Exeter by-election but the situation had changed by the time of the general election a month later. John Poulett, Earl Poulett, assuming that intervention by the bishop would swing the Exeter electorate, asked Harley to pressurize Blackall into supporting the Poulett candidate, Tory merchant Nicholas Wood. Wood was elected but Blackall’s role in the election is unclear. Blackall’s intervention was also sought by George Granville, later Baron Lansdown, who wanted the bishop’s assistance in electing Henry St John, the future Viscount Bolingbroke, for Lostwithiel against the interest of his local rival Charles Bodvile Robartes, 2nd earl of Radnor.18

In May 1708 a printed list of party affiliation unsurprisingly marked Blackall as a Tory. He arrived ten days after the start of business for the November 1708 session and attended one quarter of the sittings. On 31 Jan. 1709 he preached a dour sermon before the House of Lords on the sins of the fathers being visited on their children.19 The second reading of the general naturalization bill on 15 Mar. 1709 split the episcopal bench. In the vote on whether to retain the words ‘some protestant reformed congregation’, Blackall was one of ten bishops who divided on party lines in favour of the much more restrictive phrase ‘parochial church’; seven Whig bishops led by Tenison voted to keep the original wording. On 22 Mar. 1709, in the division of a committee of the whole sitting on the bill to improve the union on a question of Scottish law (whether those accused of treason should be given a list of witnesses five days before their trial), Blackall voted in opposition to the court. On 25 Mar. Blackall voted to postpone discussion of the validity of Scots marriage settlements under the new treason law to the following day, voting with the court Whig William Cowper, Baron Cowper, and Godolphin against the Junto-led opposition, including Somers and Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland.20

The session ended on 21 Apr. 1709 and Blackall became immersed in a vicious dispute with Benjamin Hoadly, the future bishop of Winchest, that sparked debate in Parliament about the concept of popular sovereignty and the constitutional role of the Lords. The altercation arose from Blackall’s sermon at St James on 8 Mar. 1709 (the anniversary of Anne’s accession) in which he took as his text the defining biblical sanction for absolute authority (Rom. 13:4).21 The sermon, which repeated the sentiments already voiced in The Subject’s Duty, created anxious ripples in Whig circles. Hoadly responded to it in Some considerations humbly offered to … the Bishop of Exeter, accusing Blackall of attacking the Revolution: the quarrel became so ugly that it was rumoured Blackall would resort to legal action; at least one observer thought that Hoadly risked an action of scandalum magnatum.22 Throughout Blackall reiterated the divine origin of doctrines of subjection and nonresistance, both of which, he maintained, were vital ‘to the honour of Christianity and the security of human society’. To Blackall accountability of human authority to God was a doctrine higher even ‘than the very tip-top of Toryism’.23 Back in his diocese he set his face against the tactics of the reformation of manners movement; when he preached to the grand jury he chose to take as his subject the ninth commandment (against bearing false witness) and ‘represented how odious and ignominious it was to be an informer and that, excepting the cases of treason, murder or such heinous crimes, no body was bound to detect his neighbour’.24

Although listed as attending the Lords on 25 Jan. 1710 (his only attendance that session), it seems likely that, as Ralph Bridges later wrote he had been at Exeter all winter and had received private instructions from the queen to stay away from the House. Indeed, when the House divided on the question of guilt of Henry Sacheverell on 25 Mar., it was noted that Blackall was in the country.25 In September 1710, after the Tory victory in the general election, Blackall and the cathedral chapter drew up a loyal address.26 The following month Harley’s analysis of the House of Lords listed Blackall as a supporter of the new ministry. The election victory appears to have propelled Blackall to Westminster for the new session of Parliament that began in November 1710 when he put in his highest level of attendance (38 per cent). Blackall arrived two days after the start of the session. Remaining in London over Christmas, he attended the St Stephen’s dinner at Lambeth and the meeting for Queen Anne’s Bounty at Whitehall three days later.27

On 5 Feb. 1711 he registered his dissent against the repeal of the General Naturalization Act. The following day, after the queen’s levée, Blackall and William Nicolson, bishop of Carlisle dined in Kensington where there was ‘Tory discourse’.28 On 21 Feb. the queen’s new licence named Blackall to the Convocation quorum, thus offending the more senior bishops.29 He attended the House on 1 Mar. for the debate on the appeal of James Greenshields but did not attend the session after 26 March.

On 29 Nov. 1711 (in advance of the new session that opened on 7 Dec.) Blackall excused his inability to attend Parliament by reference to an outbreak of smallpox in the region and once more registered his proxy in favour of Dawes.30 Blackall attended for one-fifth of sittings, but again missed the last ten weeks of business. On 2 Jan. 1712, after the debate on the adjournment (following the creation of Harley’s ‘dozen’), the episcopal bench again split on party lines. Eleven of the bishops present voted with the Junto; the remaining four, all Tories and including Dawes, voted against the Junto. Blackall was not present but his proxy was used by Dawes.31 The proxy was vacated on 11 Feb. with Blackall’s attendance. On 26 Feb., in the division on the Scottish toleration bill, Blackall voted to agree with the Commons’ amendment. The Easter dinner at Lambeth on 22 Apr. was marked by another rift between Tory and Whig bishops when the validity of lay baptism was discussed. A horrified Sharp then summoned Blackall and Dawes to a meeting where they agreed that such a recognition would ‘be too great an encouragement to the Dissenter’.32 Blackall attended the House on 28 Apr., but two days later again registered his proxy in favour of William Dawes (vacated at the end of the session on 8 July).

Blackall’s unswerving loyalty to the Oxford ministry was noted in spring 1713 in a party listing compiled by Jonathan Swift. His poor attendance, nevertheless, limited his usefulness to the ministry. On 14 Feb. he responded to a command to ‘hasten to London’ with an excuse about the delays caused by poor weather and an insistence that his inability to make anything other than short journeys would delay his arrival until the end of the month. His attendance record was so poor that he felt obliged to remind Oxford that he had indeed attended the previous session.33 On 9 Apr., Blackall attended the House for the first day of the new session and attended for nine per cent of sittings (just six days during April). He missed the last 11 weeks of the session. On 13 June he was listed in Oxford’s estimate of support for the bill confirming the 8th and 9th articles of the French commercial treaty. The next parliamentary session opened on 16 Feb. 1714 and Blackall arrived at the House on 2 Mar. He attended for some 28 per cent of sittings. Blackall attended the House for the final time on 11 May. Two days later he again registered his proxy with William Dawes, now archbishop of York.

In May 1714 Daniel Finch, 2nd earl of Nottingham, forecast that Blackall would support the schism bill. On 11 June, in the division on extending the schism bill to Ireland, Blackall’s proxy was used by Dawes to carry the vote by 75 to 74. Four days later, in the main division on the bill, Blackall’s proxy was again used in support of the measure.34 He failed to attend either of the short sessions following the demise of the queen or the long session at the beginning of the new king’s reign. It is possible that Blackall deliberately avoided Parliament after the accession of George I on political grounds, but he suffered from tenesmus which probably made the journey to London a daunting prospect. His reluctance to attend was so well known that the declaration of an intention to do so in November 1715 was interpreted as symptomatic of the determination of the Tories to summon ‘their whole strength to fight impeachments and other affairs, inch by inch with the government.’35

On 2 Sept. 1716, while on visitation in Cornwall, Blackall fell from his horse and suffered a serious injury. Gangrene set in and he died on 29 Nov. 1716.36 Before his death he may have tried to set in train a series of resignations in order to be able to transfer his commendams to friends and relatives.37 In his will he requested a ‘very private burial’ without sermon, monument or burial inscription. On 2 Dec. 1716 he was duly given a quiet funeral in Exeter Cathedral. Blackall left a wife (his executrix) and seven children, all well provided for with state lottery tickets, stock and land. He was succeeded as bishop of Exeter by Lancelot Blackburne. His works were published with a preface by William Dawes.


  • 1 Add. 4224, f. 302.
  • 2 TNA, PROB 11/556; Reg. Baptisms … of the City of Exeter, i. 160-1.
  • 3 TNA, PROB 11/556.
  • 4 O. Blackall, Lawfulness and the Right Manner of Keeping Christmas (1705).
  • 5 VCH Mdx. x. 89.
  • 6 VCH Mdx. x. 28; J.R. Woodhead, Rulers of London, 1660-1689, p. 32.
  • 7 TNA, PROB 11/393.
  • 8 O. Blackall, Sermon Preached … October the 7th, 1693 (1694), 28.
  • 9 G.H. Jenkins, Literature, Relig. and Soc. in Wales, 1660-1730, p. 276.
  • 10 O. Blackall, Subject’s Duty (1705).
  • 11 Surr. Hist. Cent. 371/14/D11, D12.
  • 12 Add. 61101, ff. 97-98.
  • 13 Add. 61118, ff. 17-22.
  • 14 Christ Church Lib. Oxf. Wake mss 17, f. 176.
  • 15 Nicolson, London Diaries, 440.
  • 16 PA, HL/PO/JO/19/2/2469.
  • 17 R. Polwhele, Hist. Devon (1793) i. 313.
  • 18 HP Commons, 1690-1715, ii. 88, 141-4.
  • 19 O. Blackall, Of Children’s Bearing the Iniquities of their Fathers (1709).
  • 20 Nicolson, London Diaries, 485-6, 488-9.
  • 21 O. Blackall, Divine Institution of Magistracy (1709).
  • 22 HMC Downshire, i. 872, 877, 876; Add. 72494, ff. 119-20.
  • 23 Blackall, Five Sermons, 193, 205.
  • 24 Wake mss 23, f. 196.
  • 25 Add. 15574, ff. 65-68; Add. 72495, f. 1.
  • 26 HP Commons, 1690-1715, ii. 144.
  • 27 Nicolson, London Diaries, 525-6.
  • 28 Ibid. 543.
  • 29 N. Sykes, William Wake, i. 124-5, 129-30.
  • 30 HMC Portland, v. 117-18.
  • 31 Brit. Pols. 517 n.62.
  • 32 Wake mss 17, ff. 322-3; LPL, ms 953, f. 32-33.
  • 33 Add. 70211, Blackall to Oxford, 14 Feb. 1713.
  • 34 Nicolson, London Diaries, 612; Add. 70070, newsletter, 15 June 1714.
  • 35 Wake mss 6, f. 163; Bodl. Gibson-Nicolson Corresp. Add. A. 269, pp. 47-48.
  • 36 HMC Var. viii. 89; Wake mss 20, ff. 215-6; Blackall, Works, i. preface.
  • 37 Wake mss 20, f. 224.