Cornthwaite, Robert (18181890), Roman Catholic bishop of Leeds, was born in Preston on 9 May 1818, son of William and Elizabeth Cornthwaite, and was sent to St Cuthbert's College, Ushaw, in 1830. In 1842 he went to the English College, Rome, to complete his theological education and was ordained priest on 9 November 1845. In the following year he began work as a mission priest in Carlisle before returning to Rome as rector of the English College in 1851, where he remained for six years. Conflict between Cornthwaite and Louis English, formerly president of the Collegio Pio (which was united with the English College in 1855), seems to have led to Cornthwaite's resignation. Nevertheless, Pius IX recognized the value of his work there and shortly after his resignation Cornthwaite received a papal honour which gave him the title of monsignor. From 1857 to 1861 he worked in the Darlington mission, becoming both canon theologian and secretary to the bishop of Hexham, before being appointed bishop of Beverley. He was consecrated on 10 November 1861.
Cornthwaite was a convinced ultramontane and, on taking charge of Beverley, made clear his determination to ensure that all in the diocese understood the importance of loyalty and obedience to the pope. He showed his own devotion to the papacy at the Vatican Council in 186970, when he was one of only three English bishops consistently to support the definition of papal infallibility. Cornthwaite also had a high view of the priestly life and cared for the well-being and sanctification of his clergy, organizing annual retreats for them, and stressing the importance of days of meditation and self-examination. He soon gained the reputation of being an efficient administrator and organizer, bringing order to diocesan affairs. Cornthwaite also believed strongly in the importance of education, placing the provision of schools before churches, and was the only English bishop to establish a successful diocesan seminary for the education of priests. The foundation stone of St Joseph's seminary was laid in 1876; it was opened in 1878, the year in which the bishop had to reconcile priests and people to the division of Beverley, a diocese encompassing the whole of Yorkshire, into the two new dioceses of Leeds and Middlesbrough. Despite much initial opposition this was finally accepted and Cornthwaite became bishop of Leeds.
Although he seems to have recovered from a stroke in 1864, Cornthwaite's health gave cause for concern from the late 1880s and a coadjutor was appointed in February 1890. The bishop died on 16 June 1890. After a funeral service at St Anne's Cathedral, Leeds, he was buried in the cemetery attached to the church of Mary Immaculate, Sicklinghall. Cornthwaite was regarded not only as an able administrator but as a man of sanctity and prayer who hid a tender heart beneath a cool and reserved exterior. Perhaps his greatest achievement lay in welding together the different elements of the Catholic community in Yorkshire, so that secular priests, members of religious orders, old Catholic gentry, converts, and Irish immigrants were able to work together to create a revived and flourishing Catholic church.
Jennifer F. Supple-Green
Leeds Diocesan Archives, Cornthwaite MSS · F. J. Cwiekowski, The English bishops and the First Vatican Council (1971), 1024, 1369 · R. Carson, The first hundred yearsdiocese of Middlesbrough, 18781978 (1978), 1926 · The Tablet (26 Oct 1889) · The Tablet (1 March 1890) · The Tablet (21 June 1890) · Leeds Mercury (17 June 1890) · Leeds Mercury (21 June 1890) · Leeds Mercury (25 Feb 1890) · J. F. Supple-Green, The Catholic revival in Yorkshire, 18501900 (1990), 2560
English College, Rome, papers as rector
Leeds Diocesan Archives, corresp. and papers
Westm. DA | Ushaw College, Durham, letters to C. Newsham
oils, bishop's house, Leeds
Wealth at death
£207 11s. 11d.: probate, 11 Dec 1890, CGPLA Eng. & Wales