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James Ussher

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James Ussher (1581-1656) was an Irish scholar and the Archbishop of Armagh in the early 17th century. He is known for his work in documenting the genealogies of the Bible with other historical events to produce a timeline from the Creation, which he dated to 4004 BC, to 73 AD.


Early life

James Ussher was born in Dublin on the 4th of January, 1581. His father was named Arland Ussher and his mother Margaret. His uncle Henry Ussher was the Archbishop of Armagh from 1595 to 1613. In 1594, Ussher entered as a student into the new Trinity College in Dublin which had been established in the same year. The main purpose of the university was to provide a Protestant education for the upper classes in largely Catholic Ireland, and the uncompromising Calvinist form of Protestantism favored by the university had a major influence on Ussher's theological views. Ussher's father had intended him to become a lawyer but after his death in 1598, Ussher was able to concentrate his studies on theology. He earned his BA in 1598 and his MA 1601. In the same year, he was ordained as a priest. He became a fellow in 1600 and a Doctor of Divinity in 1612. Ussher was appointed as the professor of theological controversies in 1607, a vice-chancellor in 1615 and a vice-provost in 1616.

Much of Ussher's early work concentrated on attacking Catholic theology and demonstrating the primacy of Protestantism, chracterized by many of his anti-Catholic sermons in which he preached against the toleration of Catholics within Ireland. His first published work in 1613 was Gravissimae quaestionis, de Christianarum ecclesiarum … continua successione et statu, historica explicatio, which attempted to demonstrate that the Catholic Church had become corrupt in the eleventh century but the original doctrines of the Christian faith had survived until the Reformation among various heretical groups. Ussher also took part in the drafting of the first confession of faith of the Protestant Church of Ireland in 1615. Unlike the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England which they were based on, the articles expressed a more Calvinist doctrine and were much more anti-Catholic. In 1613, Ussher married Phoebe Challoner. Their only child was a daughter named Elizabeth who was born in 1619.

Appointment as Bishop

Ussher went on a two-year visit to England in 1619. He met with the English king James I, who was so impressed by Ussher's scholarly knowledge that he appointed him as the new Bishop of Meath in 1621. After his return to Ireland, Ussher also became a member of the Irish privy council and was asked to preach during the swearing of the new lord deputy, Viscount Falkland in September 8, 1622. He held a very politically-charged sermon, urging the new lord deputy to show no toleration towards the Irish Catholics. Though his sermon received praise from some quarters, the Catholics complained about its more hostile parts and Ussher was rebuked by Archbishop Hampton of Armagh and ordered to retract his anti-Catholic remarks. Ussher returned to England in 1623 to research for his work about the history of the English church. During his stay, Ussher published his next major work in 1624, An Answer to a Challenge Made by a Jesuit in Ireland which was dedicated to King James. It sought to demonstrate that the medieval Catholic Church had adopted many practices that were contrary to the Christian faith.

Archbishop of Armagh

After the death of Archbishop Hampton in 1625, James appointed Ussher as the new Archbishop of Armagh. Ussher returned to Ireland in 1626. As England was about to go to war with Spain, the new king Charles I attempted to secure the loyalty of the Irish Catholics by offering them a series of concessions, including religious tolerance, known as the Graces. Ussher and the other Protestant bishops began a public campaign against the Graces and managed to prevent their official confirmation by the Irish Parliament. Falkland left the office of lord deputy in 1629 and a replacement was not appointed for almost four years.

During the absence of a deputy, the position was filled by two justices, Viscount Loftus and Richard Boyle, the earl of Cork who supported Ussher's efforts to enforce conformity among the Catholic population. When Thomas Wentworth was finally appointed as the new lord deputy in 1633, Ussher hoped that he would continue the anti-Catholic measures. At first Wentworth appeared to satisfy Ussher's expectations when he settled a longstanding dispute between the archbishoprics of Dublin and Armagh, by granting Armagh primacy in the Irish church, even though he convinced Ussher to delay the enforcing of anti-Catholic laws.

A conflict between Wentworth and Ussher began in 1634, when Wentworth proposed replacing the Irish articles of faith with those of the Church of England and gained the support of John Bramhall, the bishop of Derry. Due to Ussher's stern opposition, Wentworth was eventually forced to compromise and it was agreed that the Irish clergy should consent to both articles of faith. This gave William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury a much greater control over the Irish church and by 1635, Ussher had lost most of his influence in the church to Bramhall.

During the 1630s, Ussher's studies concentrated on the rise of Christianity in Britain, culminating in the publication of Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates in 1639, a major historical work which detailed the history of the Christian Church in the British Isles until the end of the seventh century.

Life during the Civil War

In 1640, after Charles was forced to recall the English Parliament, Ussher travelled to England once again. As the conflict between King and Parliament aggravated, both sides attempted to gain Ussher among their supporters. Despite his Calvinist leanings, Ussher remained a firm supporter of the king and strove to make a compromise between the two sides. Because of the conflict over episcopacy, he published several works during this period, which attempted to prove that bishops had been a feature of the Church from the earliest times.

As a result of an Irish uprising in 1641, Ussher lost his position as archbishop but Charles appointed him as the Bishop of Carlisle. After the English Civil War began in 1642, Ussher moved to Oxford which was one of the major Royalist strongholds. As the Royalist side was close to defeat in 1645, Ussher left Oxford and briefly settled in the Welsh city of Cardiff. He returned to London in 1646 and received protection from the Countess of Peterborough. She granted him a residence in London where Ussher remained for most of his remaining life.

Final years and death

After the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the end of the Civil War, Ussher withdrew from public life and focused on his studies during his final years. His last great work was Annales veteris testamenti which was published in 1650 and its second part Annalium pars posterior in 1654. In this work, Ussher used his substantial study of ancient records and Biblical chronicles to trace the history of the world from creation, which he dated at 4004 BC, to 73 AD, following the fall of Jerusalem and therefore the end of the nation of Israel. The work was quickly translated into English and became his most popular and well-known work, earning him an international reputation. (A new English translation was published in 2003.)

In February 1656, Ussher moved to the Countess's house in Reigate where he died in March 21 of the same year of an internal hemorrhage. He was first supposed to buried in Reigate but Cromwell agreed to grant him a state funeral and he was eventually buried in Westminster Abbey on 17 April 1656.


  • Alan Ford, Ussher, James (1581–1656), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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