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Treasure of the Month

Highlighting some of our most precious historic artefacts, from manuscripts to jewellery.

September 2019: Journals of Bishop Herbert Hensley Henson, 1885-1947

As part of the 2019 Durham Book Festival, on Tuesday 8th October, Durham Cathedral will be opening the doors to its Refectory Library for a workshop centred around the journals and letterbooks of Herbert Hensley Henson. Dean of Durham between 1912-17 and Bishop 1920-1939, Henson was a controversial, and often unpopular figure, whose strident views sometimes put him in direct opposition to his own diocese. His handwritten journals consist of 101 notebooks – every page covered – and fifteen letterbooks, written over a sixty-two year period between May 1885 and April 1947. All are in the collections of Durham Cathedral Library, and have been selected, as a collection, to be Treasure of the Month for September 2019.


Following what appears to have been an unhappy childhood and an unconventional education – which he felt always set him apart from his fellow bishops – Henson had already garnered a reputation as a phenomenal preacher and a dedicated churchman by the time he was appointed Dean of Durham in 1912. He had been keeping his journals for twenty seven years already – colourful, sometimes provocative, often brutally honest accounts of both his private and professional lives. Fifteen years after the stillbirth of his only child, he reflected on how fatherhood may have changed him: “Probably our characters would have been greatly advantaged, and we should have escaped the isolation which is beginning to shadow our lives ... I incline to the conclusion that the childless clergyman loses more than he gains” (October 20th 1920).


Alongside his own life, Henson described local, national and international events – including the fight for women’s suffrage (of which he did not approve), the First World War, the miners’ strike, the Great Depression, and appeasement – with a sharp wit and a keen eye. As a result, interest in his journals was particularly significant during the centenary of World War One – as Dean of Durham from 1912 until late 1917, his insights into Durham at the time give a vital first-hand account of how the Great War affected the city and its residents, as well as the broader Church of England. Furthermore, his warnings about the danger of appeasement, and his stress on the importance of standing up to a new threat from Germany during the 1930s – like those of Churchill, largely ignored at the time – have helped vindicate Henson, for so long considered a loose cannon.

Other entries take a lighter tone – such as his description of a somewhat unexpected Swedish bath taken in 1920: “The whole performance seemed as natural and fitting as showing your tongue to a doctor, or stripping for his inspection; but it was a startling experience for a bashful bishop!” Cutting and amusing doodles frequently litter his letters and other papers – including this sketch of his fellow bishops following the 1927 Lambeth Conference.


After a short spell as Bishop of Hereford from 1917, Henson returned to Durham as bishop in 1920, and continued to court controversy. While acknowledging he liked the miners he came into contact with on a personal level, he vehemently opposed the miners’ strike, feeling that he was “witnessing the deliberate suicide of a great nation”. At the Miners Gala in July 1925, Dean Welldon was mistaken for Henson and attacked, eventually being thrown into the River Wear. Henson was unsympathetic: “As far as Welldon himself is concerned, he only gets his deserts” (July 27th 1925).


Henson was in his 70s by the time he retired from his position at Durham; his warnings against appeasement and his statement that “there can be no compromise or patched up peace” largely ignored. In 1940 he was persuaded out of retirement by Churchill and took up a post as canon at Westminster Abbey – Churchill feeling that Henson’s preaching could serve as a useful boost to wartime morale. Henson was not happy in this appointment however: he resigned the following year, and died six years later.


A team of volunteers working in Durham Cathedral Library have been transcribing the journals of Henson as part of the Church, State and Nation in Britain project, which aims to produce a digital edition of his journals between 1900 and 1939. The journals uploaded and annotated so far cover the period 1900 to 1909, and can be accessed here:


For further information on Courting Controversy: Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham, the Henson book festival event – and to buy tickets – please see: