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Ward, William Georgelocked

  • Sheridan Gilley

William George Ward (1812–1882)

by George J. Stodart, pubd 1889 (after Emily Combe, c. 1832)

Ward, William George (1812–1882), theologian and philosopher, was born in London on 21 March 1812, the eldest son of the four sons and four daughters of William Ward (1787–1849), MP, director of the Bank of England, and proprietor of Lord's cricket ground, and his wife, Emily, née Combe (d. 1848), the fifth daughter of Harvey Christian Combe (1752–1818) of Cobham Park, Surrey, MP and brewer.

Early life

From 1820 to 1823 Ward attended a private school, Eagle House, Brook Green, Hammersmith, and in 1823 went to Winchester College, where he won the gold medal for Latin prose composition in 1829, although his verses were deliberately grotesque. In 1830 he matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, and was president of the university's undergraduate debating society, the Union, in the Michaelmas term of 1832. In 1833 he won a scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford, but in spite of his first-rate abilities as a mathematician and Latinist he took only a second-class degree because he refused to answer questions on applied mathematics and literary history. In 1834 he was elected a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, at the same time as the future archbishop of Canterbury Archibald Campbell Tait, and was made college lecturer in both logic and mathematics. Being fat and thick-skinned, he claimed to have 'the intellect of an archangel, and the habits of an eating, walking and sleeping rhinoceros' (Chadwick, 130). His liveliness as a debater, lecturer, and conversationalist went with acute depression, which he treated by indulging his love for burlesque, drama, opera, and music; his sensibility oscillated between the dramatic and the dogmatic. Many years later, however, his second son, Wilfrid Philip Ward, would give up an ambition to become an opera singer, out of fear that he would be angry. His deepest friendship was with his pupil Arthur Hugh Clough, although a platonic interpretation must be placed on Ward's request to Clough for the 'unnatural demonstrations' which Clough recorded in his diary (Oxford Diaries, 85).

The Oxford Movement and Ideal of a Christian Church

Ward's intellectual development was spurred by his sometimes brutal impatience with what he saw as insincerity and shams. He was first influenced by the logical clarity of the utilitarians Bentham and James Mill, then by the proto-liberalism of Whately and Thomas Arnold, from whom he also derived an intense moral earnestness and sympathy for the poor. He was ordained a deacon in 1836, when still an advocate of Arnold's liberal theology, but soon concluded that this led straight to scepticism. Arnold's moralism, however, prepared Ward to receive J. H. Newman's argument that conscience is the foundation of religion. He attended Newman's lectures defending the Church of England as a via media between popery and popular protestantism at St Mary's in 1836, and after the publication of the first two volumes of Froude's Remains in 1838, when he was ordained a priest, he proclaimed himself a follower of Newman and of the high-church movement, taken in its ultra-Catholic sense.

Ward still held that Rome was corrupt, but, lacking historical sympathy, he had no affection for the Church of England as a complicated institution created by historic compromise. His love of logic and pure mathematics left him unsatisfied with any position that was less than wholly self-coherent, and made him a restless Anglican. Newman told Wilfrid Ward that his father 'was never a High Churchman, never a Tractarian, never a Puseyite, never a Newmanite' (W. Ward, Ward and the Oxford Movement, 136). This was not quite true; Ward was a Newmanite in his absolute trust and regard for Newman, who was embarrassed by his daring logical deductions from his own premisses. From 1838 Ward was the chief of a Romanizing party among the Tractarians, containing another fellow of Balliol, Frederick Oakeley, as well as F. W. Faber, J. D. Dalgairns, J. A. Froude, and J. B. Morris, all of whom (except Froude) were to become Roman Catholics.

When Newman's Tract 90 (1841) was attacked by four Oxford tutors, one of them Ward's Balliol friend Tait, Ward wrote two pamphlets, A Few Words in Defence of Tract 90 and A Few Words More, in which he incautiously translated Newman's view that the seemingly protestant Thirty-Nine Articles should be read in their 'literal and grammatical sense' into the idea that they might be subscribed in their 'non-natural' sense, that is, in the opposite sense to that intended by their framers. In the resulting furore, Ward readily gave up his college lectureships. 'What heresy may he not insinuate under the form of a syllogism!' worried the master of Balliol, Richard Jenkyns (W. Ward, Ward and the Oxford Movement, 175), though Ward was allowed to become junior bursar in 1841 and senior bursar in 1842. His friendships included the Catholic converts and Gothic enthusiasts Augustus Welby Pugin and Ambrose Phillipps, afterwards Phillipps De Lisle. Once Newman had retreated from Oxford to Littlemore, Ward took on the role of a leader of the Oxford Movement, and between 1841 and 1843 contributed eight articles to the British Critic, then under the editorship of Tom Mozley, in which he frankly presented the Roman Catholic church as the model of the one true church. William Palmer of Worcester College wrote in reply his anti-Roman Narrative of Events Connected with the Publication of the Tracts for the Times (1843). Ward responded to Palmer in his most celebrated work, The Ideal of a Christian Church Considered in Comparison with Existing Practice (1844), in which he argued that neither evangelical emotion nor the liberal intellect but conscience was the foundation for religion, but that the only proper discipline for conscience was the Roman Catholic church. According to this Newmanesque position, the Catholic church alone trained up conscience into the holiness necessary to eternal salvation, as defined by her moral, ascetic, and mystical theology, and as inculcated practically and pastorally by her religious orders sanctified by vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

Ward's title earned him notoriety under the sobriquet of ‘Ideal’ Ward. His obvious offence to protestant opinion lay in passages like 'oh most joyful, most wonderful, most unexpected sight, we find the whole cycle of Roman doctrine gradually possessing numbers of English Churchmen' (The Ideal of a Christian Church, 565) and 'Three years have passed since I said plainly that in subscribing the Articles I renounce no one Roman doctrine' (ibid., 567). These and five other passages were cited by the vice-chancellor of Oxford, Benjamin Parsons Symons, on 13 December 1844 as cause for a motion to the university convocation to condemn the Ideal as inconsistent with the Thirty-Nine Articles and to strip Ward of his degrees (literally to ‘degrade’ him). A third proposal, to require subscription to the articles in the sense intended by their sixteenth-century framers, raised a storm among liberals like Ward's great friend Arthur Penrhyn Stanley. Like Stanley, Ward argued that the Church of England could not censure any position, not even liberalism, and so could not condemn him, but must be consistent in its inconsistency. The proposal for a test on the articles was abandoned, but was replaced by a censure on Newman's Tract 90. In one of the most celebrated incidents in the history of the Victorian church, in a snow-bound Oxford, with Ward falling head over heels on the steps of the Sheldonian, convocation voted on 13 February 1845 by 777 votes to 386 to condemn the Ideal and by 569 votes to 511 to degrade him (to remove his MA). The two proctors, one of them Newman's disciple Richard Church, vetoed a vote on the condemnation of Tract 90. The size of the minorities that voted for Ward was astonishing, given the charges, while the undergraduates showed their sympathy for him by snowballing the vice-chancellor.

Marriage and conversion

On 31 March 1845 Ward married Frances Mary Wingfield (1816/17–1898), youngest daughter of John Wingfield (1760–1825), vicar of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, prebendary of Worcester, and canon of York. Having publicly stated his belief in the virtue of clerical celibacy, Ward was an easy target for the press, and had already provoked ridicule though a letter to The Times in which he declared himself too gross for the celibate priesthood. 'How', he wrote, 'any one can imagine that I have ever professed any vocation to a high and ascetic life, I am utterly at a loss to conceive' (The Times, 3 March 1845). His son, who wrote his biography, could not bring himself to publish this self-accusation, but it seems to confirm the poet laureate Tennyson's assessment that Ward was 'the most truthful man I ever knew …. He was grotesquely truthful' (W. Ward, Ward and the Catholic Revival, 399). On 5 September 1845 Ward and his wife, Frances, were received into the Roman Catholic church at Farm Street by the Jesuit Father Brownbill. In 1846, Ward employed Pugin to design him a Gothic house near the seminary of St Edmund's, Old Hall, near Ware, in Hertfordshire. In 1849 he inherited a fortune on the Isle of Wight from his childless uncle, George Henry Ward, which was entailed on him from his grandfather George Ward (1751–1829). The birth of four daughters preceded that of the first of his three sons, Edmund Granville, in 1853, which elicited a storm of congratulations from fellow Catholics, provoking Ward's indignant remark that fatherhood, unlike theology or philosophy, was 'a thing any man may do' (ibid., 43). Characteristically rigorous, he argued from a syllogism that he must lack affection for his children while they were under the age of reason since: '1. “I can have no affection for persons with whose character I am unacquainted;” 2. “I know nothing of the character of my younger children; ergo, I can have no affection for them.”' Once they had become 'reasonable beings', however, he showed them an attention which won their undying loyalty (ibid., 67). His youngest son, Bernard Nicholas Ward (1857–1920), later became a headmaster and historian.

Moral philosopher and dogmatic theologian

In 1851 Nicholas Wiseman, then cardinal archbishop of Westminster, appointed Ward lecturer in moral philosophy at St Edmund's Hall, near Ware, and then, in 1852, lecturer in dogmatic theology. In order to defer to Catholic opposition to his position as a layman in a seminary, he declined to accept the title of professor. Pope Pius IX conferred on him a doctorate of philosophy in 1854, and is supposed to have defended his status as a seminary teacher by declaring that it was 'a novel objection to anyone who is engaged in the work of God' that Ward should have received a sacrament, marriage, which no pope or priest could receive (M. Ward, The Wilfrid Wards and the Transition, 1.12). Ward also had the backing of a new friend, the vice-president of St Edmund's, Herbert (later Cardinal) Vaughan.

Ward resigned his position at St Edmund's in 1858, but so disliked his life as ‘Squire Ward’ at Northwood House, Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, that he returned to the seminary in 1861, coming back to Wight in 1871 to live in a new house, Weston Manor, on his estate at Freshwater at the western end of the island.

Ward's sympathies in the 1860s in the conflict between the liberal Catholic school of John Acton and Richard Simpson and the ‘new ultramontanes’ like Henry Edward Manning and Ward's own confessor, Father Faber, were entirely with the latter group, as the liberal Catholics seemed to him to exalt the scientific intellect over conscience and the need for holiness. For the same reasons he repudiated his old master, Newman, fearing that he might be a crypto-liberal, although he remained deeply fascinated by him. In a dream, he was once dining with a veiled lady, to whom he exclaimed, '“I have never felt such charm in any conversation since I used to talk with John Henry Newman, at Oxford.” “I am John Henry Newman”, the lady replied', raising her veil (W. Ward, Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, 2 vols., 1912, 2.349).

The Dublin Review and Metaphysical Society

In 1863 Ward became editor of the Catholic journal the Dublin Review, of which Manning was the proprietor. Leaving politics, literature, and secular history to his sub-editors, Edward Healy Thompson and John Cashel Hoey, he made the Dublin Review 'a kind of theological battering ram' (M. Ward, W. G. Ward and Wilfrid Ward, Dublin Review, 198, 1936, 237) for his unbending ultramontanism; he warned Hoey he would be 'very narrow and very strong' (W. Ward, Ward and the Catholic Revival, 223). There is no exact date given for the celebrated story that, during the First Vatican Council of 1869–70, he said that he 'should like a new papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast' (ibid., 14), but he had defended the infallibility of the anti-liberal encyclical 'Quanta cura' and the accompanying Syllabus of Errors of 1864 as if the pope could hardly open his mouth without making an infallible pronouncement. His critic the Oratorian Ignatius Ryder compared such an extreme view of papal infallibility with the Midas touch of gold, as very inconvenient if very wonderful; Ward was said to have enunciated his startling conclusions with the 'serenity of a philosopher' but defended them with 'the vehemence of a fanatic' (DNB). His uncompromising teaching on the papacy was summed up in De infallibilitatis extensione (1869), and he had written about 125 essays and reviews for the Dublin Review by the time of his retirement as its editor in 1878. When, in 1865, the notoriously pro-papal Manning became archbishop of Westminster he jumped with joy once, or according to another account, thrice, over a chair. In 1865 he supported the parliamentary candidature of an anti-Catholic Conservative against Sir John Simeon on the Isle of Wight because he counted Simeon, a Catholic convert like himself, as a liberal Catholic. Pope Pius IX recognized Ward's services to theology in a special brief addressed to him in 1870.

Ward's connections with philosophers extended far beyond the circle of his fellow Catholics. In his friendly correspondence with John Stuart Mill, which began with his two articles in The Tablet in 1848 on Mill's Political Economy and was resumed in 1865, he denied Mill's empiricism, that knowledge could be derived wholly from reason and experience, on the intuitionist grounds that knowledge depended on the reliability of memory, which could only be assumed. The two joined forces in 1866 to condemn Governor Eyre's brutal repression of the Jamaican rising. In 1871 in the Dublin Review Ward attacked Mill's 'anti-theistic philosophy', arguing against scientific determinism, for the possibility of miracles, and for the freedom of the will. Mill described Ward's writings as 'the best that is likely to be said by any future champion' (W. Ward, Ward and the Catholic Revival, 320), while Ward returned the compliment by describing Mill's death in 1873 as a 'severe controversial disappointment' (ibid., 295). With Manning and his neighbour at Freshwater, Tennyson, Ward was a founder member of the Metaphysical Society, created in 1869 by the editor James Knowles. He read three papers to the society in 1869–70, and was its chairman during 1870; his intuitionism, theism, and moralism aligned him with the Unitarian James Martineau against the agnostic T. H. Huxley. Knowles told Huxley's biographer son Leonard Huxley that the 'wonderfully genial and kindly tone' of the society's meetings 'was very largely owing to your father & to Dr Ward—who habitually hit each other at the hardest—but never with a touch of lost temper or lost courtesy' (P. Metcalf, James Knowles: Victorian Editor and Architect, 1980, 224).

Death and final assessment

Mill and Huxley's affectionate portraits of Ward confirm the otherwise inexplicable description of him by the most moderate of men, Richard Church, as 'the most amusing, the most tolerant man in Oxford' (W. Ward, Ward and the Oxford Movement, 214), and may account for the request from his old Balliol friend and foe, Archibald Campbell Tait, then archbishop of Canterbury, who was near the grave himself, for news of Ward's condition as he lay dying. Ward died at Netherhall House, Fitzjohn Avenue, Hampstead, London, on 6 July 1882, and was buried in the Catholic churchyard of Weston Manor after a panegyric by Herbert Vaughan, then bishop of Salford. Tennyson recited James Shirley's 'The Glories of our Blood and State' at his graveside, beginning with the last lines,

Only the laurels of the justSmell sweet, and blossom in their dust.

He also composed an elegy on Ward; the second, revised, version ran:

Farewell, whose living like I shall not find,—Whose faith and work were bells of full accord,—My friend, the most unworldly of mankind,Most generous of all Ultramontanes, Ward.How subtle at tierce and quart of mind with mind,How loyal in the following of thy Lord!


  • W. Ward, William George Ward and the Oxford Movement (1889)
  • W. Ward, William George Ward and the Catholic revival (1893)
  • M. Ward, The Wilfrid Wards and the transition, 1 (1934)
  • K. T. Hoppen, ‘W. G. Ward and liberal Catholicism’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 23 (1972), 323–44
  • K. T. Hoppen, ‘Church, state and ultramontanism in mid-Victorian England: the case of William George Ward’, Journal of Church and State, 18 (1976), 289–309
  • K. T. Hoppen, ‘William George Ward and nineteenth-century Catholicism’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1966
  • O. Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman, 2nd edn (1987)
  • The Oxford diaries of Arthur Hugh Clough, ed. A. Kenny (1990), 85


  • U. St Andr. L., corresp. and papers
  • Westm. DA, corresp., MSS, and lecture notes
  • Birmingham Oratory, letters to J. H. Newman
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44360–44527
  • LPL, letters to A. C. Tait
  • LUL, corresp. with G. C. Robertson
  • Westm. DA, corresp. with E. H. Thompson, etc.


  • G. J. Stodart, engraving (after miniature by E. Combe, 1832), repro. in Ward, William George Ward and the Oxford Movement, frontispiece [see illus.]
  • G. W. Wilson, photograph, priv. coll.
  • portrait (after bust by M. Raggi), repro. in Ward, William George Ward and the Catholic revival, frontispiece
  • wood-engraving, NPG; repro. in ILN (29 July 1882)

Wealth at Death

£40,262 18s. 2d.: probate, 2 Nov 1882, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

W. E. Houghton, ed., , 5 vols. (1966–89); new edn (1999) [CD-ROM]