Bishop William Poynter and exorcism in Regency England

William Poynter (1762-1827), Vicar Apostolic of the London District 1812-27

My article ‘Bishop William Poynter and exorcism in Regency England’ has recently been published in vol. 33:2 of British Catholic History, the journal of the Catholic Record Society. The article is based on a remarkable set of correspondence I discovered at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone, which I believe to be the sole surviving correspondence regarding an exorcism in any British public archive. The correspondence covers the period 1814-15 and features a number of letters to Bishop William Poynter and his officials from Thomas Moore, the brother of the alleged demoniac Peter Moore, as well as replies from Poynter and his Vicar General. Thomas Moore was demanding an exorcism for Peter, whom he believed to be possessed. One priest from the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Chapel, Richard Broderick, offered to perform the exorcism but then withdrew at the last moment. Poynter himself prevaricated, telling Thomas Moore that if he could find a priest willing to perform the rite then he (Poynter) would authorise it; however, it is more than likely that Poynter exerted pressure on his clergy not to agree to Thomas Moore’s requests. Finally, in August 1815 Thomas Moore drew a blank, and Poynter therefore definitely forbade the proposed exorcism.

The case is interesting not only because it offers a detailed insight into different attitudes to exorcism in the Regency Catholic Church in England, but also because another Vicar Apostolic, John Milner, authorised (and actively encouraged) an exorcism at the same time (August 1815) as Poynter prohibited an exorcism in his own district. Both cases can therefore be considered an episode in the long-running feud between the Ultramontane Milner and other clergy he considered to be less than loyal to the full-blooded ‘supernaturalist’ Catholicism Milner espoused. However, in spite of this brief revival, exorcism more or less disappeared from English Catholic life for the remainder of the nineteenth century, and was not discussed again by Catholics until the emergence of Spiritualism in the 1890s. My book A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity contains a full account of developing British attitudes to the rite.

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