Stuart, William (1755–1822), Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh, was born in February or March 1755 possibly at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, Scotland, fifth son of John Stuart (1713–92), 3rd earl of Bute, first lord of the treasury (1761–3), and his wife Mary (d. 1794), only daughter of Edward Wortley Montagu of Wortley, York. As a young boy he was said to have aimed at life in the church and to have studied hard to this end. Boarding at Winchester College in the 1760s, he attended St John's College, Cambridge, graduating BA (1772) and MA (1774). After his ordination (c.1780) he was appointed vicar of Luton, Bedfordshire, a living on the family estate. In 1789 Stuart secured a doctorate in divinity and was promoted canon of Christ Church, Oxford. He was elected to the see of St David's in Wales in late 1793, consecrated bishop at Lambeth on 12 January 1794, and asked to preach at court in 1794, and again over the winter of 1799/1800; his serious-minded homilies were admired by King George III.
Stuart was far from the first choice for appointment to the Irish primacy, over which there were lengthy negotiations and delays, and was taken aback in July 1800 to receive an urgent request from the king to consider assumption to the office, it being, among other things, ‘infinitely more lucrative than is generally supposed’ (Brynn, 43) (the primacy was worth c.£17,000 a year). Although initially reluctant to go to Ireland, by October 1800 Stuart had assented. As the king's intervention was carried out on his own initiative, neither the British nor Irish administrations welcomed royal insistence that Stuart be appointed. The king had his way, however, and Stuart was translated from St David's by royal letters patent dated 22 November 1800. As an instance of undue royal interference, the appointment contributed to the resignation of William Pitt in March 1801.
The king had hoped that Stuart would prove a staunch defender of the established church, and he certainly proved to be a strong anti-emancipationist: in the early months of 1801 he resisted government pressure to evict the sitting anti-catholic MP Patrick Duigenan (qv) from Armagh borough to bring in the pro-emancipation Irish chancellor of the exchequer Isaac Corry (qv). Stuart had been given no definite instructions, but soon realised that reforms were required to regenerate the established church. Early in 1801 he cautioned the lord lieutenant, Philip Yorke (qv), earl of Hardwicke, to make no church appointments except on merit. Taking a bleak view of the Irish church as ‘bishops without clergy, churches without clergymen, and clergymen without churches’, Stuart determined to purge bad practice and strengthen church morale. From 1803 he encouraged clergymen to build churches and glebe-houses financed by parliamentary grant, but the financial provisions of the scheme were poorly conceived and it accomplished little until amended by legislation in 1808 and 1810.
Stuart concentrated on church administration rather than secular politics, and successive administrations criticised his neglect of his parliamentary business. He was anxious to resist the Erastian pretensions of the Irish executive and the first major confrontation between viceroy and primate occurred in November 1801, when Hardwicke proposed the translation of George de la Poer Beresford (qv) – son of John Beresford (qv) – from the see of Clonfert to that of Kilmore. Deploring Beresford as one ‘of the most profligate men in Europe’ in a letter to the prime minister (quoted in Bowen, 41), Stuart threatened to resign if the hapless bishop was not disposed of in a southern diocese, where he might scandalise fewer protestants. His fierce opposition and intemperate language soured relations with Hardwicke and even irritated the king. After two months Stuart was forced to back down, unassuaged by vague promises of future consultation in episcopal appointments. It was a lesson in the limits of his authority within the state. His future strategy was to seek modest reforms through alliance with such like-minded churchmen as Charles Brodrick (qv), archbishop of Cashel, and to confine more ambitious efforts to his own archdiocese. Stuart fell under Brodrick's sway and imbibed much of his hostility to Charles Agar (qv), archbishop of Cashel (1779–1801) and Dublin (1801–9), who had been the dominant figure in the Irish church until 1801 (and who had been Stuart's main rival for the primacy). In most matters Stuart and Brodrick took up a united front against Agar.
By early 1805, worried that parliamentary radicals might exploit an inquiry into the condition of the Irish church in order to attack the institution before it could be reformed, Stuart persuaded the Irish administration to let him supervise an internal investigation, while condemning in private the apathy of individuals in the Irish hierarchy. He was frustrated not to be able to enforce clerical residency under canon law, but effective statutory legislation in this regard took decades to emerge; he tended to oscillate between the desire for legislative intervention and fear lest public exposure destroy the Irish church. His proposals for a settlement of the tithe question in late 1807 envisaged tithe reduction and commutation and an independent system of valuation. Closely resembling the legislative solution of 1838, these were too radical in 1807 for the Irish executive, let alone the Irish church. His was essentially a holding action in a difficult context in which he had to stomach bad appointments which perpetuated much of the indiscipline and impiety of the Georgian church. In 1810 he attacked the lord lieutenant, the duke of Richmond (qv) for appointing several bishops whom Stuart considered were overly sympathetic to catholics. In April 1811 he railed helplessly against ‘the spirit of gambling . . . excited’ by the chance of episcopal translation; ‘all seem to consider exchanges the sole business of their profession’ (ibid., 71). As chairman of the Irish board of education, which issued fourteen reports (1809–13), he criticised Peel's proposals in 1814–15 for reform of the parochial school system, claiming that they over-indulged an inefficient church. Although Stuart worked hard to root out abuses and raise the spiritual values of the established church, his fault-finding and prickliness were often wearying to both government and fellow clergy. Nor did he always practise what he preached: he strongly enforced duty of residence for the clergy in his own diocese but was himself frequently absent in England. He died 6 May 1822, in Hill St., Berkeley Square, London, poisoned by an embrocation accidentally dispensed to him by his daughter in place of a draught of medicine. He is buried in Luton Park, Bedfordshire.
He married (April 1796) Sophia Juliana (d. 1847), daughter of Thomas Penn of Stoke Pogis, Buckinghamshire, England; they had two sons and two daughters. A three-quarter-length portrait of Stuart by William Owen (1769–1825) was hung in the archbishop's palace, Armagh.