Marsh, Narcissus (1638–1713), archbishop, was born on St Thomas's Eve, 20 December 1638, in the village of Hannington, near Highworth, north Wiltshire, youngest child of William Marsh (who lived on his own estate worth upward of £60 a year) and his wife Grace Colburn. Narcissus wrote in his diary (1690–96) that he was of ‘honest parents’. He had two brothers – with the even more uncommon names Epaphroditus and Onesiphorus – and two sisters, Grace and Deborah.
Education and early career Marsh went to five local schools, and he wrote proudly in his diary: ‘. . . in all which schools I never was so much as once whipt or beaten’. At the age of 16 he was entered as a commoner at Magdalen Hall in Oxford. He describes his studies as ‘. . . old philosophy, mathematics and oriental languages, and before Lent 1658 (when I took my degree of bachelor of arts) I had made good progress in them all’. After Marsh received his BA (February 1657/8), he was elected to a Wiltshire fellowship at Exeter College. In 1660 he took his degree as MA, and in 1662 he was offered the living of Swindon, Wiltshire. Dr Robert Skinner, bishop of Oxford, ordained him deacon and priest in King Henry VII's chapel, Westminster. After a short period in Swindon, Marsh resigned when he discovered that the persons responsible for his preferment expected him to make a simoniacal marriage.
Marsh returned to Oxford and continued with his studies. In 1665 he was made chaplain to Lord Chancellor Hyde, before whom he preached in Worcester House in May and in Berkshire House the following February. In 1667 he took the degree of bachelor of divinity; he was then about 29 years old. In 1671 Marsh began to study for his doctorate of divinity. These studies were delayed by reason of his undertaking, at the request of Dr John Fell, dean of Christ Church and from 1675 bishop of Oxford, to revise the notes and supervise the printing of the translations of Balsamon and Zonaras, Comments on the canons of the Greek councils, which was then being printed at the Oxford University Press. This monumental task took almost a year, but Marsh had some earlier experience with this type of work; he revised and altered Du Trieu's Logick (Oxford, 1662) and when he became provost of TCD he had it printed for the use of the students in the university as Institutio logicae in usum juventutis academicae Dubliniensis (Dublin, 1679). Constantia Maxwell (qv) says that the Logic of Dr Marsh was on the course until about 1782.
Marsh was deeply interested in music. He played the bass viol and held a weekly consort of instrumental and vocal music in his rooms in Oxford. He wrote a tract entitled ‘Essay touching the sympathy between lute or viol strings’, which was printed by Robert Plot in his Natural history of Oxfordshire (Oxford, ). Narcissus Marsh was next appointed principal of St Alban Hall, Oxford, in 1673, by the duke of Ormond (qv), who was chancellor of the university. He made a great success of this position and it was no doubt his administrative and organisational ability that encouraged the bishop of Oxford, Dr Fell, and Ormond to suggest a more important appointment for him, the provostship of TCD. Marsh accepted the position, and was sworn and invested provost on 24 January 1679.
Provost of Trinity, 1679–83 While he was in Trinity he played a major part in the preparation for printing of Bishop William Bedell's (qv) Irish translation of the Old Testament. Bishop Bedell had supervised the translation of the Old Testament into Irish before 1641, but it had never been printed. Marsh, with the help of Dr Andrew Sall (qv) and a transcriber called Denine and some others, prepared the transcripts which they then sent to the Hon. Robert Boyle (qv) in London. Boyle financed the publication, and the translation was printed in London in 1685.
This study and promotion was not his only contribution to Trinity College. He began building the new college hall and chapel. When he had completed these he began to reorganise the library. Although Marsh was able to reorganise the running of the library, he was unable to change the statutes of the college, which entitled only the provost and fellows to study in the library. The students had to be accompanied by either the provost or one of the fellows, who was also obliged to remain in the library with the reader. Marsh also noted that the booksellers' shops in Dublin were furnished with ‘new triffles and pamphlets and not well with them also’. He concluded: “Twas this, and this consideration alone that at first moved me to think of building a library in some other place (not in the college) for publick use, where all might have free access, seeing they cannot have it in the college' (Christian Examiner, no. XXIV, vol. II, Nov. 1833).
Member of the Dublin Philosophical Society, 1683–9 Marsh's next appointment was to the bishopric of Ferns and Leighlin, and rector of Killeban in commendam, in 1683. Before he left Dublin Marsh became one of the first members of the Dublin Philosophical Society. He contributed an early paper to that Society, called ‘An introductory essay to the doctrine of sounds, containing some proposals for the improvement of acousticks’, printed in the Philosophical Transactions, xiv, no. 156 (Oxford, 1684). This paper was remarkable because of Marsh's use of three new words. He used ‘diacoustics’ to describe the study of refracted sound and ‘catacoustics’ for that of reflected sound, and (most important of all) he was the first scientist to use the word ‘microphone’. He was deeply interested in comets and in scientific instruments. When Marsh's friend William Molyneux (qv), founder of the Dublin Philosophical Society, developed the ‘Dublin hygroscope’, an instrument for indicating the moisture in the air, Marsh suggested as an improvement the substitution of a lute string for the more fragile whipcord which Molyneux had been using.
Marsh also invented a new lamp to ‘enlighten’ a large hall or church (T. Birch, History of Royal Society, London, 1757). K. T. Hoppen (The common scientist in the seventeenth century (London, 1970) p. 141) says that Marsh's knowledge of insects, and particularly of caterpillars, was quite impressive. He was acquainted with the researches of Johann Goedart, of whose major work Martin Lister had published an English translation (1682). According to Hoppen, ‘Marsh tried to discover some reliable and logical method of insect classification – one of the perennial problems of contemporary zoology – and his proposals were not without merit, for they incorporated the suggestion of classification by follicles and aurelias’. Many years later when Marsh became Primate, he was made vice-president of the Dublin Philosophical Society.
In 1689 Marsh, like many other protestants in Ireland, fled to England. The bishop of St Asaph bestowed on him the parish of Gresford for his support. He also spent some time in London and Oxford, and while in England he helped to provide assistance for many of his poor fellow clergymen.
Archbishop of Cashel, Dublin, and Armagh, 1690–1713 After the battle of the Boyne, Marsh returned to Ireland and on 25 December 1690 he was promoted archbishop of Cashel. In 1694 he was appointed to the see of Dublin and enthroned in St Patrick's cathedral in May of that year. He was many times a lord justice (1699, 1700–01, 1701–2, 1707, 1707–8, 1710), and as a member of the Irish house of lords was also a member of its committees for religion and grievances and chairman of the committee for temporary acts. In 1697–8 he was a member of the parliament that passed many severe penal laws. These included an act banishing catholic bishops and regular clergy, the act for the confirmation of the articles of Limerick, and other penal legislation. It does appear that he took part in the drafting of some of these penal laws. In 1698–9, when the English parliament was considering the prohibition of Irish woollen exports overseas, Marsh was worried about the impact on Irish trade, though he does not seem to have made any public protest.
Although Archbishop Marsh showed intolerance towards catholics, he was equally intolerant to any other groups whom he regarded as a threat to the Church of Ireland. When the presbyterian minister Thomas Emlyn (1663–1741) was charged in 1703 with publishing a blasphemous book, he was tried and sentenced to one year in prison and fined £1,000. After Emlyn had spent two years in prison, his friends petitioned the government to reduce the fine. The government agreed. But Marsh, who sat on the bench at Emlyn's trial, at first refused to reduce the fine, although after much pleading he was eventually persuaded to do so.
Archbishop Marsh took a much more sympathetic view of huguenots than he did of catholics or protestant dissenters. When the huguenots worshipped in the Lady chapel of St Patrick's cathedral they were bound by the discipline and canons of the Church of Ireland. The French congregation prepared their own discipline; this was a more liberal interpretation of conformity than that which was required of them as a condition of their use of the Lady chapel. They submitted their new discipline to Marsh, who nonetheless approved and praised it.
As archbishop of Dublin he worked hard on organising his diocese. He made long, tiring journeys visiting his clergy and parishes. He ordered his clergy to preach and visit their parishioners regularly, and he admonished them if they did not do so. Marsh also tried to reform the obvious abuses in the Church of Ireland, such as the number of bishops who were non-resident in their diocese, and he refused to take part in the ordination of unworthy men.
He was promoted to the primacy of Armagh in February 1703. While in Armagh, he repaired the cathedral and rebuilt many churches in his archdiocese at his own expense. He also instituted and largely endowed the almshouses in Drogheda for the widows of clergymen who had served in the Armagh diocese, and he provided the widows with pensions. He contributed large sums of money for missionary activities. Archbishop Narcissus Marsh died on 2 November 1713 and is buried in the churchyard of St Patrick's cathedral beside his library. His handsome monument in the cathedral was designed by Grinling Gibbons. The majority of his letters are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Smith 52 (15,659) (extracts); letters from Marsh to Dr T. Smith, 1679–1709); microfilm copies are in Marsh's Library, Dublin. Some were printed in the Christian Examiner, 2 November 1833, 761–72. Portraits are at Exeter College, Oxford; TCD; the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (later the Irish Museum of Modern Art), Dublin; Synod Hall, Armagh; and two at Marsh's Library, Dublin.
Assessment Jonathan Swift (qv) had a poor opinion of Marsh, blaming him for his own lack of promotion in the Church of Ireland, and wrote a spiteful ‘Character of Primate Marsh’ (published c.1710). But many of Marsh's contemporaries took a more charitable view of him. They regarded him as an exemplary prelate: pious, scholarly, deeply spiritual, and sincere, if not effective as a reformer. The bishop of Oxford described him as a man of ‘learning, virtue, gravity and diligence’, though he also said that he lacked courage. Archbishop William King (qv) said that Marsh, whom he succeeded in Dublin, was ‘an excellent person and scholar yet is too modest and unacquainted with the world’. King also believed that Marsh was not very effective in carrying out necessary reforms.
Although Marsh got the idea of building a public library when he was provost of TCD, he did not have the money or the opportunity to do so until he became archbishop of Dublin. As archbishop he lived in the palace of St Sepulchre (latterly Kevin St. garda station) and he had the land and the money to build his library. This magnificent public library, known as Marsh's Library, with its superb collection of books, is still open to scholars, students, and visitors. It is a noble tribute to his memory, built entirely at his own initiative and expense.