Bishop Seabury's restored mitre returns to The Commons
Posted on by Pam Dawkins
In 1786, two years after his consecration, Samuel Seabury, Bishop of Connecticut, did something unheard of in the 18th century Anglican Communion and Episcopal Church: he had a mitre made.
That mitre returned to The Commons last month following a five-week restoration at the Textile Conservation Workshop in South Salem, N.Y.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth W. Cameron, a former Episcopal Church in Connecticut archivist and a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, allegedly recovered the mitre from a fraternity that “enjoyed” it at parties. One rumor, according to current ECCT archivist Meg Smith, is they drank beer from it.
The mitre sat in a specially-built wooden box, with a lock and glass door, from 1971 to 2014, “covered inexpertly with UV (very dark) film,” Smith said. It was transferred to an acid-free manuscript box in 2014.
Although a donor had expressed interest in funding the restoration, Smith said, the bishops and canons felt that the Episcopal Church in Connecticut should undertake the project.
“It’s in our interest to preserve this mitre as the first mitre in the Anglican Communion,” she said, quoting Bishop Diocesan Ian T. Douglas.
Seabury had already broken new ground with his election and consecration. He was the first Episcopal bishop outside England and the Celtic churches and, because he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the king, ended up traveling to Aberdeen, Scotland to be ordained by bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who had not sworn allegiance to the King of England.
Read more about Seabury here.
The mitre Seabury bought in 1786 was, apparently, not his first.
In the 1908 “Memoir of Bishop Seabury,” author William Jones Seabury, D.D. (Seabury’s great-grandson), mentions a letter published in the New York Packet in April 1786 - from a man in Boston to a lady in New York - that details Seabury’s appearance months before the purchase.
“We have a bishop in town named Seabury … he dresses in a black shirt with the fore-flap hanging out, that’s one suit; at other times he appears in a black sattin (sic) gown; white sattin sleeves, white belly band, with a scarlet knapsack at his back and something resembling a pyramid on his head.”
In his memoir, William Jones Seabury suggests the London mitre took the place of what Seabury wore at the time the April 1786 letter was written, which was likely “of domestic manufacture.”
It took a trans-Atlantic effort to buy the mitre.
In a letter to Seabury from London, dated September 14, 1786, the Rev. Charles Inglis wrote of his efforts to fulfill Seabury’s desire for a mitre. His difficulty? He couldn’t find anyone who had made one, and had no specifics as to size or materials.
After consulting with the eventual maker, as well as “a very ingenious Embroiderer,” and a variety of books, Inglis ordered the mitre, which the December 1982, edition of The Historiographer described as a “converted silk stove-pipe” hat with the brim recovered and the crown partly cut out.
“The Size I fancy is large enough. The Materials are Paste-Board covered with black Sattin; a Cross, in Gold Embroidery, with a Glory round it, in Front; & a Crown of Thorns, in Gold Embroidery, on the back Part,” Inglis, later first bishop of Nova Scotia, wrote. “The two Lobes, if I may so call them, lined with White Silk; & each pointed with a gilt Cross, such as is usual on the Mitres of Bishops. The lower Part bound with a handsome black Lace, & the Inside lined with black thin Silk. The Ribbons with which it ties down, are Purple & each pointed with a Bit of Gold Lace.”
“My Wish was to have it decent & respectable; without any Thing tawdry, or very expensive about it,” he wrote, adding he didn’t know how much it would cost and the bill would be sent with the mitre.
William Jones Seabury quotes an earlier memoir about the consecration of September 1787, possibly Bishop Seabury’s first official ceremony with the mitre:
“The Consecration service,” writes the Revd. Ashbel Baldwin, “was amazingly grand. The Bishop had on his royal attire. The crown and Mitre were refulgent.”
Seabury wore the mitre until his death in 1796. Again according to the 1908 memoir, the bishop’s son, the Rev. Charles Seabury, kept the mitre, and took it when he moved from New London to Setauket, Long Island, around 1814.
About 50 years after the bishop died, Arthur Cleveland Coxe asked his grandson (William Jones Seabury’s father) about the mitre. Coxe, later the second bishop of Western New York, included a poem about the mitre in “Coxe’s Christian Ballads,” published in 1859.
William Jones Seabury reports his father’s response as: “Why, I rather think it is lying about the garret somewhere, in Setauket.” Coxe, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hartford from 1842 – 1854, offered to bring it to Trinity College in Hartford, where it remained for more than 100 years.
Smith has a display case but the restored mitre is a bit taller than expected, so she will order a new cover for the case. Bishop Douglas, she said, will decided where and how to display Bishop Seabury’s mitre.