Penrith and the POTUS - Background

Biden Family Bible (Josh Hamer/Getty Images)

Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the USA on a family bible that was translated and annotated by a Penrith parish priest, George Leo Haydock

The recent inauguration of Joe Biden as President of the United States included the traditional swearing-in of the new incumbent with an oath, with his hand on the Bible, to uphold the constitution of the Republic. In President Biden’s case, the oath of office was taken on an heirloom family copy of the Scripture. Broken lettering on the spine of the opulent, if now somewhat distressed, volume reads HOLY BIBLE/ DOUAY & RHEIM[S]/ [GEORGE LE]0 HAYDOCK’S/ [NOTES &] REFERENCES/ [ILLUS]TRATED]

What might be the link between this Biden family Bible and Penrith?

George Leo Haydock was born in 1774 into an old north Lancashire Catholic gentry family. Following early education in a Lancashire Catholic school, he completed his preparation for the priesthood at the expatriate seminary at Douai [‘Douay’] in France. After the seminary was closed down in1793 by order of the French revolutionary government, it was re-settled in County Durham, where George Leo was ordained in 1798 and took up teaching, with special references to Scriptural studies. From 1806 onwards, encouraged by his publisher brother Thomas, Haydock began work on a new edition of the whole Bible in English that had been originally produced in the Continental seminaries of Douai and Reims [‘Rheims’] between 1582 and 1609. Aided by the work of an accumulated mass of Biblical commentaries over the centuries, the production was to be enriched with ample notes that were ‘historical, critical explanatory and controversial’. Miraculously labouring on this immense task amidst demanding parochial work for Catholic congregations on the Yorkshire coast, George Leo Haydock and his brother delivered an initial complete two-volume set of the work in 1814.

The ‘Haydock Bible’ became an instant success throughout the Catholic English-speaking work, the last British editions in Haydock’s lifetime coming off the presses in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1845-8. The product found a ready market in the United States, the first American edition being produced in President Biden’s home state, Pennsylvania, in 1823-5. Over the decades, the text became more and more lavishly produced and richly illustrated, a cherished icon in Catholic homes. A copy purchased by an immigrant Irish couple named Fitzgerald was passed on over the generations to their descendant John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who used it at his own swearing-in January 1961, when Joe Biden was his young Democrat hero-worshipper - so January 2021 was not the first time that a Haydock Bible has featured in a United States presidential oath-taking: indeed, Mr Biden brought his family copy to the podium for the solemn vows at his inception as vice-president in 2008. This family heirloom may date from c. 1893, when an edition was issued by C. R. Parish of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, within the general area of Joe Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, PA. The George Leo Haydock Scripture remains enormously popular in the United States, with online and CD versions continuing to appear. The beloved, battered item used in the recent inauguration might, however, benefit from the attention of a good Cumbrian book restorer.

Leo Haydock was transferred in 1839 to the little Catholic ‘mission’ of Penrith, where his inherited means spared him from being a financial burden to his pauper Irish parishioners, who at that time worshipped in a dark, dank chapel in Bishop Yards. His care and compassion for his people - poor migrants, like President Biden’s Irish forebears - is demonstrated in his parish registers, which have recently been transferred to the Cumbria Archive Service, Carlisle. Rev. George Leo Haydock’s best-remembered action in Penrith is his intervention to becalm rioting between English and Irish navvies during the railway construction on 1846, without which many lives would certainly have been lost. His lasting local achievement before his death in 1849 was the construction of the beautiful church of St Catherine of Alexandria in Drovers Lane, Penrith, where the recently completed Haydock Centre commemorates his great life.

Text by Michael Mullett

Photo: Josh Haner/Getty Images.