Trench, R. C.

Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-86), Archbishop of Dublin, theologian, poet, and amateur philologist

Richard Chenevix Trench was born in Dublin, although his family moved to England in 1810. He attended Twyford School (1816–19) and Harrow School (1819–25), taking up a place at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1825 where he became a member of the famous Apostles club (fellow members were Tennyson and Arthur Hallam). After graduation in 1829 he went travelling in Europe, in particular Spain, and soon after his return to England in 1830 he went back to Spain ‘as part of the somewhat quixotic Torrijos expedition, a group of idealistic volunteers who set out to attack Cadiz in support of the ill-conceived and ineptly executed liberal revolution of José Torrijos, and from which Trench returned unscathed if somewhat embarrassed’.1

Trench was ordained deacon in 1832 and priest in 1835 and held a number of positions in the church. In 1846 he was appointed professor of Divinity at King’s College London, holding this chair until 1856, when he became dean of Westminster. In 1863 he was appointed archbishop of Dublin, and fiercely resisted the disestablishing of the Irish Church which Gladstone began in 1868. Unsuccessful, he nevertheless helped secure the preservation of the Irish Book of Common Prayer of 1878 from the low-church alterations proposed in Ireland’s first general synod of 1871, thus preserving some measure of continuity and stability in the Irish Church over a time of great internal division. In 1875 he broke both knees while crossing the Irish Channel and never fully recovered fitness. He resigned his see in 1884 and returned to London, where he died in 1886 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Trench’s original DNB entry, published in 1898, tells us that ‘although Trench’s tenure of the Dublin archbishopric was historically of importance, it is as a poet, a scholar, and a divine that he will be chiefly remembered.’ Today, however, his poetry is unread and unregarded. Instead, Trench holds his place in history on account of his contribution to the study of language and in particular the part he played in the inception of the OED. In 1851 he published On the Study of Words, a little volume on the etymology and cultural significance of words (considered primarily in relation to religion and theology), a work which had its origin in five lectures delivered to the Diocesan Training School in Winchester, and he followed this up with a similar work, English, Past and Present, in 1855. Both books sold phenomenally well and were reprinted many times over the next seven decades; in 1927 they were published together as a single volume in the Everyman Library (under the title On the Study of Words).

In 1857 Trench joined the Philological Society and was immediately put on the committee set up in June that year, along with Furnivall and Herbert Coleridge, ‘to collect unregistered words in English’. The immediate result took the form of two papers delivered by Trench to the Philological Society in November, ‘On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries’, subsequently published as a single document. Here Trench delivered a formidable critique (based on wide reading of a variety of historical texts) of the failure of past dictionaries to present a complete record of the language: they provided insufficient treatment of words now obsolete; they did not list all the possible senses of words; they did not record all the variant forms a word could take; they were one way or another partial or biased. These lectures in turn gave birth to the ideal of the dictionary that was to become the OED, one that would list every word in the language, tracing its path through history from cradle to grave, and searching out its first and last occurrence in printed texts (for more see OED1’s compilation).

Interestingly, Trench’s commitment to Christianity, and to the notion that God’s purpose was made manifest in all aspects of creation, including language (so that ‘in words contemplated singly, there are boundless stores of moral and historic truth’; Trench 1851: 1) clashes somewhat uncomfortably with the scientific, philological study of language to which he also subscribed and which underlay the OED. For discussion see further our page on Language and morality under OED1 intellectual climate.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. From the ODNB entry on Trench by Kenneth Milne at [accessed 29 August 2018]; subscription required. The original entry by Ronald Bayne is part of the DNB archive, available at the same URL.