Elected a scholar of Corpus Christi, Oxford at the age of only thirteen, he took his BA at Corpus Christi, and his MA at Magdalen College in 1795, aged eighteen. He took holy orders in 1802, being ordained deacon by Bishop Randolph and priest by Bishop Majendie in 1804.
He was selected university preacher in 1804, in which year he published his Sermon on 5th November, delivered before the University of Oxford.
Phillpotts married in October 1804 and in 1805 became vicar of Stainton-le-Street, County Durham, where again he does not appear to have resided - he was appointed chaplain to Bishop Middleham, County Durham, in the succeeding year. For twenty years he was chaplain to Bishop Shute Barrington, in the Diocese of Durham. In 1808 he received his next preferment, being collated by the bishop to the large and important parish of Gateshead—within a year his rapid advancement continued with the collation to the ninth prebendal stall in Durham Cathedral.
"That at the age of 31 he should already have held four livings and a prebendal stall testifies to the regard in which he was held by his diocesan, and the usefulness of his marriage connection."
He now resided for a considerable part of the year at Durham, and on the chapelry of St Margaret in the city becoming vacant, he was presented to it by the Dean and Chapter on 28 September 1810. On 30 December 1815 Phillpotts received yet further preferment, being collated by the bishop to the second canonry in the Cathedral, the emoluments of which were considerably higher than those of the ninth. This he held for five years, at the end of which period his literary and controversial abilities brought him into advancing prominence.
After holding the rich living of Stanhope, Durham, from 1820, and the Deanery of Chester from 1828, he was consecrated Bishop of Exeter in 1831, holding with the see a residentiary canonry at Durham which he secured permission to hold along with his bishopric, one of the last cases of the benefice in commendam by which medieval and later bishops had often profited.
Phillpotts recognised the need to look after his family, extensive as it was—he had 18 children. When he was offered the bishopric in Exeter he realised that the salary (£3,000) was not enough to support his family, so he asked to retain his parish of Stanford-le-Hope, in Durham (as a non-resident), which would be worth an additional £4,000 a year. As a compromise he was instead offered the canonry at Durham which was worth a similar amount, and was a post which he continued to hold until his death.
He was one of the last of a clerical aristocracy, which, whatever their origin, expected to live on a scale comparable to that of the nobility.
The diocese at that time extended from the Somerset and Dorset borders to the Isles of Scilly in Cornwall he wielded considerable power. Amongst his achievements were the creation, midway through his term, of a separate diocese for Cornwall, with a cathedral at Truro.
In 1841 he built for himself a palace at Torquay, Devon. Bishopstowe (now the Palace Hotel) served as the bishop's residence, which he preferred as a home to the Bishop's Residence attached to Exeter Cathedral. The gardens in the 25 acres of private land stretching to the sea are still a major attraction today together with the Bishop's Walk at the local beauty spot of Ansteys Cove.
Phillpotts was aware that his appointment to Exeter was not popular locally and knowing of his unpopularity he at times took measures to protect himself from it. He admits in a letter to Ralph Barnes, his secretary, on 14 December 1830 to being "Cautious...in admitting adverse newspapers to my table, yet the caution has not prevented me from hearing of the extreme unpopularity of my appointment to Exeter."
1831 saw Phillpotts as the victim of the Guy Fawkes Night custom of burning effigies of clergymen; knowing his reputation he took action by requesting protection, thus the 7th Yeomanry Cavalry filled the palace at Exeter, whilst the crowd in the cathedral yard burned Phillpotts in effigy;
".... hollow turnip as head and candle as nose, clad in mitre and lawn sleeves..." (Chadwick I, 1997, p 29)
"so long as Henry Phillpotts was Bishop of Exeter they avoided the Diocese of Exeter, for they knew that this doughty fighter would fight them to the end if he smelt something improper, whatever the cost to his pocket, however unfavourable the publicity and whatever the inadequacy of his own legal standing." (Chadwick II, 1997, p 212)
".... a genuinely religious man with his religion concealed behind porcupine quills, he constantly quarrelled in the House of Commons, exposing opponents' follies with consummate ability, a tongue and eyes of flame, an ugly tough face and vehement speech." (Chadwick I, 1997, p 217)
The bishop's strong views and lack of inhibitions in promoting them at times gained him many enemies in key places:
"That devil of a Bishop who inspired more terror than ever Satan did...of whom, however, it must be said that he is a gentleman." (Lord Melbourne, as quoted in Newton, 1968, p173)
"I must believe in the Apostolic Succession, there being no other way of accounting for the descent of the Bishop of Exeter from Judas Iscariot."(Lambert, 1939, 39)
The text concerning a woman who anointed the head of Jesus with a 'very precious' ointment was chosen by the Bishop for his sermon at the consecration on August 24 1837 of The New Cemetery in Exeter. The occasion was reported enthusiastically in the local newspaper The Flying Post (August 31 1837):
"In its language this sermon was most elegant‚ its delivery was a masterpiece of eloquence, and it was one of the most instructive and enlightened discourses that has been heard."
In the Foreword to Davies’ biography of Bishop Phillpotts, Prof. Norman Sykes summarises the character of the Bishop:
… Henry of Exeter, like Job’s war-horse, snuffed the battle from afar; and scented, moreover, a remarkable number and variety of contests in which to engage, without exhausting his capacity for polemic. Like William Warburton of an earlier age (though perhaps he would not have relished the comparison) he was a born fighter. It was his fortune furthermore to live in an age when occasions of dispute were legion; and he threw himself with avidity into their several aspects. Born into the era of the unreformed Parliament and Church, he opposed Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform; and was a pluralist who wished to retain in commendam the golden rectory of Stanhope with the See of Exeter, and only compromised by the exchange of living for a rich prebendal stall of Durham, Yet he lived to adjust himself to revolutionary changes in both Church and State. In ecclesiastical matters he was a champion of the principles of the Tractarian revival (a position not to his mind in the leastwise incompatible with mordant criticism of details and individuals); he encouraged the wearing of the surplice, and was a pioneer in the restoration of diocesan synods, and became involved in controversy concerning religious sisterhoods in the Church of England. He was the protagonist in the famous Gorham controversy, and held his ground in defeat when Manning seceded to Rome in protest against the verdict of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Gorham’s favour. As a diocesan bishop he was outstanding in administration and pastoral oversight; and his episcopate left its enduring mark on the Diocese of Exeter.
Davies himself explains:
… No biographer of Phillpotts could, I think, compete his task with a feeling of real affection for the subject of his study. His character and gifts must command respect, if not approval; but he exhibited a curious lack of balance, and a failure to appreciate and adapt himself to the mood of the times which must detract from a firm claim to greatness on behalf of one so impervious to the changes in contemporary thought and opinion. He deserves, however, to be commemorated as an outstanding figure in the Anglican Church of the nineteenth century, and in particular for his High Church sympathies before the days of the Oxford Movement, at the same time noting that he could never quite come to terms with the Tractarians; and also for his many innovations in diocesan administration, for example, his opposition to non-residence, his advocacy of theological colleges, and his courage in convening a diocesan synod – perhaps the most important event of his career. This study is therefore both an attempt to do justice to his virtues in fearlessly contending for his convictions, while at the same time not disguising those failings which were such a conspicuous feature of his character.
".... I wish it to sit again, only for the purpose of synodically devising a better synod than itself; one, more like the synods of the early church – in one house, with less of power to the Presbyters – but more means of counsel and aid from them to the Bishops than their separate house gives. I need not tell you that Convocation is not the ancient Synod of our own Church. We need, – and must have – a legislative body, sitting for real business from time to time. It ought to consist of bishops either solely (in the presence of Presyters who should have a right, not to debate with them, but, hearing what they discuss, to represent by writing their opinions, when they think it necessary) or of bishops and such divines and representatives of the clergy, as shall be found necessary, securing a real preponderance to the bishops.... I am confident that it is hardly possible for us to go on long without restoring to the Church a real Church legislation.... There is not perhaps enough needing amendment in the Rubrics, of itself, to require a Synod. But of the Canons this cannot be said.... They must be altered if the Church is to last in England, under the pressure of all that is opposed to it in privileges (supposed or real) of Dissenters – and with the little of real power of restraint over its own members, even its clergy, which it at present has."
"The House of Lords expected a humane and courtly manner of bishops and was horrified at the fury of his tone, at the incongruity between his violence and his lawn sleeves." (Chadwick I, 1997, 217)
On the one hand, the famous Gorham judgment was the outcome of his refusal to give the living of Brampford Speke to George Cornelius Gorham (1787–1857]), who had expressed disbelief in rebirth through baptism; on the other hand, he denounced the equally famous Tract XC in his episcopal charge of 1843.
An allegation made at the General Synod in 2006 claimed that Phillpotts was paid almost £13,000 (£12,729.5s.2d) in 1833, under the terms of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, as compensation for the loss of slaves from the Codrington Plantation in Barbados that belonged to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel when they were emancipated. In fact, the compensation was paid for 665 slaves that Phillpotts held in joint ownership with three business colleagues to work on a plantation in Jamaica. It is not established what share of such funds, equivalent to more than one million pounds sterling in present day value, went to Phillpotts and it has not been established what he might have done with the funds but Exeter Cathedral states that Phillpotts was able to restore the Bishop's palace in a "most creditable manner". Both the office of the present Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, and the Devon County Library (which holds Diocesan records), have stated that they hold no record of any further involvement in the slave trade by Bishop Phillpotts.
His biographer sums up his legacy thus:
"The champion of lost causes, his attitude, his policy, and even his virtues became increasingly inappropriate. Loyal and even tender in family relationships; staunch in friendships; violent in controversy; brilliant in debate, he certainly deserves to be commemorated as one of the outstanding figures on the Bench during the nineteenth century"
"Fierce, fiery, and intolerant of opposition to a fault, and sincere and earnest in an age which is not remarkable for earnestness in religion, he held to the last to the via media of the Anglican Church as the strongest safeguard against Romish and Calvinistic errors, and probably rejoiced to die like Ken and Laud and scores of High Church prelates of the Stuart times, expressing his firm faith in the Anglo-Catholic Church as essentially one and the same in doctrine and faith with the undivided Church of the first five centuries of the Christian era. Well, at length he rests from his labours side by side with Archbishop Sumner and Mr Gorham. Let us write on his tomb one simple word, Requiescat."
The church tower at St. Marychurch was restored in 1873, at a cost of £3,500, in the bishop's memory.
The Bishop Phillpott's Library in Truro, Cornwall, founded by the bishop in 1856 for the benefit of the clergy of Cornwall, continues to be an important centre for theological and religious studies, with its more than 10,000 volumes, mainly theological, open to access by clergy and students of all denominations.