When Cornelius Cayley’s father – another Cornelius, and a lawyer who became a Recorder at Hull – made his will shortly before his death in 1779, he lamented eloquently that “the extravagance and ill conduct of my late son Cornelius has put it out of my power to make adequate provision for my daughters.” By then, his son had long put his wayward earlier years behind him, having seen the light and undergone a dramatic religious conversion.
Cornelius the son was a great-grandson of Sir William Cayley, the first Cayley baronet. He was born in Hull in 1727. When he was 19, Lord Scarborough, Treasurer to Frederick Prince of Wales, appointed him one of his clerks. The salary in 1756 was £80 a year, not a huge sum, but there were doubtless other perquisites. “Clerk” could cover a multitude of levels of responsibility, but this was almost certainly a relatively junior position, and Cornelius sought promotion to a diplomatic role – under-secretary to the British ambassador in Paris. His cousin, a William Cayley, was at this time British Consul in Cadiz, and this may have influenced him. Encouraged by Lord Scarborough, he sought to polish the necessary social and other skills, taking lessons in French, music, painting and dancing. He wrote in his autobiography that “these studies, with public diversions, dress and gaiety, took up all my thoughts, and so immersed my mind in pleasure, that religion was entirely neglected… very few persons in that great metropolis (London) pursued a larger round of pleasures than what I did.” But he was disappointed in his ambition: the post was granted to a rival. It was a big blow, and the disappointment was a major factor in his increasing questioning of his way of life.
For a time he continued in the pursuits of a fashionable young man, failing to find happiness in them. “My sensualities were more refined than to love the company of mere gluttons or drunkards, or frequenters of brothel houses,” he wrote, and a sense of shame stopped him from breaking “out into open licentiousness.” It was doubtless in these years that he incurred the expenses which cost his father much of his fortune. His parents urged him to go to church and take Communion, but he felt unable to. A religious crisis followed, and he had a vision in which he heard a voice calling out, “Cayley, Cayley, Cayley”, and Death vied for his soul. Shortly afterwards he went with his brother to a ball: the next day his brother fell ill with a high fever, dying within three days. He was devastated, and turned more and more to religion, but never finding in the official Anglican church the answers to his needs.
In about 1751 he heard the Methodist George Whitefield preach. He responded instantly. There was now no turning back, and soon he began to preach himself. This took up more and more of his time, and in autumn vacations he went on a number of preaching tours in Wales and England.
After the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1751, he had retained his court position, staying on in what was now the household of the Dowager Princess. But Methodism was less than respectable and in 1757 his employers gave him an ultimatum: he had to choose between preaching and his official position. He resigned his post, and thereafter devoted himself to proclaiming the gospel and Methodism, and religious writing, with the support of minor aristocrats.
The first version of his autobiography appeared the next year, entitled The riches of God’s free grace, display’d by the conversion of Cornelius Cayley, late clerk in the princess Dowager of Wales’s Treasury, to the faith of Jesus Christ. Two further editions followed, albeit with little additional biographical information. The work was reprinted several times in the 19th century. He also wrote a few allegorical religious poems, and several pamphlets in which he engaged in religious controversies. He corresponded with several leading Protestants in mainland Europe. In 1768 a pamphlet was published opposing the views of him and another Methodist: Rally against Relly: or the lie of Satan detected; as maintained and supported by Relly and Cayley, in opposition to the Holy Ghost.
Little is known about his subsequent life, except that in 1772 he went on a tour through the Low Countries and France: an account of this was published in the Leeds Weekly Newspaper, and afterwards issued as a small book. On his return to England he went to “his little retirement near Leeds”, and probably spent his last years there. He died before his father, possibly only a few weeks earlier, which would place the year as 1779. He married a lady whose maiden name was Dyer, but there seems to be no record of any children.