Agar, Charles (1735–1809), 1st earl of Normanton and Church of Ireland archbishop, was born 22 December 1735 at Gowran Castle, Co. Kilkenny, third son among four sons and a daughter of Henry Agar (1707–46), MP for Gowran, and his wife Anne (1707–65), daughter of Welbore Ellis (1652?–1734), bishop of Meath 1732–4. James Agar (qv) (1713–69) was an uncle, and an elder brother, James (qv) (1734–88), became 1st Viscount Clifden. Following Ellis family tradition, Charles was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford (BA 1759, MA 1762, DCL 1765).
During the final quarter of the eighteenth century Agar was the foremost and most effective leader of the Church of Ireland in administrative, legislative, and political affairs and was the last bishop of the church to play a central role in general public affairs. Throughout his career he was both aided and, at a number of sensitive moments, hindered by the unusual fact that his family had political influence in both Dublin and Westminster. The Agars controlled one of the larger interests in the Irish house of commons, and his uncle Welbore Ellis (1713–1802), 1st Lord Mendip, was a member of the British house of commons for fifty-three years and held office for thirty of those years, including the post of secretary of state for the colonies for a turbulent two months in 1782. Ellis served as Agar's guardian after his father's death and continued as his mentor and confidant. It was through his uncle that in 1763 Agar began the classic route to high preferment with his appointment as a chaplain to the lord lieutenant, with an income provided through additional appointments to the parish of Skryne in the diocese of Meath (1763–5). With the deanery of Kilmore (1765–8) he received the parishes of Annagh (Belturbet) and Ballintemple.
When appointed bishop of Cloyne (nominated 12 February 1768; consecrated 20 March) Agar quickly showed himself to be a diligent and effective diocesan whose commitment to improvements in both clerical residence and church infrastructure was to continue in his subsequent sees. He also made himself active in the house of lords on behalf of the government interest, at a time when the level of activity of the Irish parliament increased substantially, and he subsequently spent long periods as a member of the cabinet.
Following an attempt to secure the archdiocese of Dublin in 1778, which failed through a combination of overreaching and the insecurity of Primate Richard Robinson (qv), his long-promised appointment as archbishop of Cashel (nominated 36 July 1779) elevated both his status and ultimately that of a see which had come to be viewed as something of a backwater. Agar accepted that the condition of the old cathedral on the Rock of Cashel made restoration impractical, and chose to complete the new cathedral in the town. Utilising a reinstituted system of rural deaneries, he maintained close supervision over a difficult diocese. He used this knowledge as the basis for various initiatives at a national level to stimulate church and glebe-house construction. He was personally responsible for the bulk of the church-related legislation passed by the Irish parliament during his membership of the house of lords.
In these matters he no doubt deserves to be deemed an early reformer who stands in contrast to the now discredited idea of an idle Georgian episcopate which ignored the perilous condition of the church. However, his agenda was still one of gradual and defensive reform, based on the principle of protecting the established church rather than trying to extend its influence over what the marquess of Buckingham (qv), the lord lieutenant, in 1787 termed ‘the minds and inclinations’ of the people. To Agar, the clergy were not to be driven by an evangelising zeal but to carry out their duties in a dignified manner so as to set an example to people of all faiths. Agar was a conservative reformer, similar to others found in established churches throughout Europe at the time. They accepted the core of the idea that the church was failing in many of its duties, but they saw the answer in improving their church rather than reducing its exclusive status – with a more supportive laity being an essential part of what was required. Agar went as far as to describe the idea of an established church whose members had exclusive access to public offices as ‘the wisdom of the ages and enlightened nations’ (quoted in Malcomson, 155).
While personally on good terms with his Roman catholic counterpart in Cashel and not an active promoter of sectarianism, Agar nonetheless was a consistent opponent of the many moves to extend religious toleration during this time. In a number of cases he grudgingly acquiesced in measures because of the strength of government support for them. At all times he held to the idea that even minor measures contained within them the potential to destroy what he held to be ‘the principles of the constitution in church and state’ (ibid., 155). In 1792 he drafted anti-relief resolutions for Cashel corporation and allegedly told the house of lords that catholicism was a ‘religion held only by knaves and fools’ (ibid., 515). In the following year he admitted to the house that the administration's policy was such that he would vote in favour of the relief act which extended the franchise to Roman catholics, even though he was opposed to this in principle.
From 1795 onwards Agar was an active promoter, perhaps even the originator, of the idea that full catholic emancipation was incompatible with the coronation oath – an argument which George III adopted, leading to his refusal to support Pitt's post-union emancipation proposal, and the subsequent fall of Pitt's administration. Agar was correct in fearing that growing toleration undermined the traditional position of a church establishment, and both he and his brethren were unable to win more than occasional tactical victories in the face of growing determination from London that catholics be conciliated.
Agar's position as one of the confidential advisers of various lords lieutenant came not from his position in the church but from his deep understanding of law and parliament. Until the appointment of John FitzGibbon (qv) as lord chancellor, he was the effective leader of the government interest in the lords and was viewed as the only member capable of dealing with much of the business. Being reliably conservative and reactionary, Agar came near the top of the ballots to select members of the house's secret committees which investigated the activities of the United Irishmen.
He went briefly into opposition during the regency crisis (1788–9), and his swift return to government caused much adverse contemporary and historical comment. In fact, his relations with the administration had already been strained, as immediately before this he had been in serious conflict with a lord lieutenant, Buckingham, who had been pushing church reform proposals that Agar regarded as hostile innovations which had not been fully thought through. In addition, Ellis's whig connections gave him a freedom of action not shared by others. At the end of the crisis his talents were needed by government, and he returned to being a loyal supporter. This loyalty was rewarded in 1795 with the title Baron Somerton .
The anti-clericalism of the Irish house of commons and the near-permanent state of insecurity amongst the wider clergy made Agar a natural supporter of union as a means of preserving the church. However, he was initially opposed when the measure was mooted in 1798, because of the threat of catholic emancipation and tithe commutation being linked to it, and because of a failure to include him in early discussions. By July 1799 he reached an agreement with the viceroy, Lord Cornwallis (qv), to support the union and was, in return, assured of the representation of the Irish bishops in the united parliament, his own seat for life, and his promotion to Dublin when it would become vacant.
During the passage of the union Agar paid particular attention to the fifth article, concerning the union of the Churches of England and Ireland, including the statement that ‘the continuance and preservation of the said united church as the established Church of England and Ireland shall be deemed and taken to be an essential and fundamental part of the union’. This provision gave considerable reassurance to the church but was ultimately not to stand in the way of later disestablishment of the Irish church. Agar was duly elected to serve as an Irish representative peer in Westminster, and succeeded as archbishop of Dublin in 1801. Elevation to Viscount Somerton in 1800 was an additional side benefit of his support for the union.
Agar's influence fell substantially in his final years as newer prelates sought to assert themselves and there were few opportunities for him to shine. He did, however, succeed in receiving the earldom of Normanton in 1806, largely in recognition of his past service and sought by him as part of his longer-term determination to ensure that his family would be firmly established. This was also aided by his growing wealth, which amounted to half a million pounds when he died. This wealth damaged his reputation significantly during and after his life. It is clear that he made substantial sums from leasing the lands of Cashel see to himself, and that the poor impression this was likely to give led him to conceal the arrangement. It did not, however, amount to the permanent alienation of the land as stated in many accounts, and records suggest that his wealth came from his being an active and creative manager of this and his other episcopal income.
A small man with a large nose, Agar was a witty and considerate friend who had a wide range of interests including music, gardening, and French cuisine. Nonetheless he had an extremely poor public image, due to the stridency of his views and his quickness of temper. He was conventionally religious but no more, and, though well read, left behind no serious sermon or other work. His interest in music led him to donate an organ and endow the choir of Cashel cathedral. His Dublin home was at 47 St Stephen's Green till he moved the residence of the archbishop of Dublin to 16 St Stephen's Green. He died on 14 July 1809 at his London residence in Great Cumberland Place and is buried in Westminster abbey.
He married (1776) Jane Benson, a member of a clerical family from Co. Down; they had three sons and one daughter. His widow died on 25 October 1826 and was buried with him. His papers are preserved in the Hampshire Record Office, Winchester, England, and copies of much of the collection are also in the PRONI.