Trench is the son of Richard Trench (1774–1860), barrister-at-law, and the Dublin writer Melesina Chenevix (1768–1827). His elder brother is Francis Chenevix Trench. He is educated at Harrow School, and graduates from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1829. In 1830 he visits Spain. While incumbent of Curdridge Chapel near Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire, he publishes The Story of Justin Martyr and Other Poems (1835), which is favourably received, and is followed by Sabbation, Honor Neale, and other Poems (1838), and Poems from Eastern Sources (1842). These volumes reveal the author as the most gifted of the immediate disciples of William Wordsworth, with a warmer colouring and more pronounced ecclesiastical sympathies than the master, and strong affinities to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Keble and Richard Monckton Milnes.
In 1841 Trench resigns his living to become curate to Samuel Wilberforce, then rector of Alverstoke, and upon Wilberforce’s promotion to the deanery of Westminster Abbey in 1845 he is presented to the rectory of Itchen Stoke. In 1845 and 1846 he preaches the Hulsean Lectures, and in the former year is made examining chaplain to Wilberforce, now Bishop of Oxford. He is shortly afterwards appointed to a theological chair at King’s College London.
In 1851 Trench establishes his fame as a philologist by The Study of Words, originally delivered as lectures to the pupils of the Diocesan Training School, Winchester. His stated purpose is to demonstrate that in words, even taken singly, “there are boundless stores of moral and historic truth, and no less of passion and imagination laid up” — an argument which he supports by a number of apposite illustrations. It is followed by two little volumes of similar character — English Past and Present (1855) and A Select Glossary of English Words (1859). All have gone through numerous editions and have contributed much to promote the historical study of the English tongue. Another great service to English philology is rendered by his paper, read before the Philological Society, On some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries (1857), which gives the first impulse to the great Oxford English Dictionary. He envisages a totally new dictionary that is a “lexicon totius Anglicitatis.” As one of the three founders of the dictionary, he expresses his vision that it will be “an entirely new Dictionary; no patch upon old garments, but a new garment throughout.”
Trench’s advocacy of a revised translation of the New Testament (1858) helps promote another great national project. In 1856 he publishes a valuable essay on Pedro Calderón de la Barca, with a translation of a portion of Life is a Dream in the original metre. In 1841 he had published his Notes on the Parables of our Lord, and in 1846 his Notes on the Miracles, popular works which are treasuries of erudite and acute illustration.
In 1856 Trench becomes Dean of Westminster Abbey, a position which suits him. Here he introduces evening nave services. In January 1864 he is advanced to the post of Archbishop of Dublin. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley had been first choice, but is rejected by the Church of Ireland, and, according to Bishop Wilberforce’s correspondence, Trench’s appointment is favoured neither by the Prime Minister nor the Lord Lieutenant. It is, moreover, unpopular in Ireland, and a blow to English literature, yet it turns out to be fortunate. He cannot prevent the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, though he resists with dignity. But, when the disestablished communion has to be reconstituted under the greatest difficulties, it is important that the occupant of his position should be a man of a liberal and genial spirit.
This is the work of the remainder of Trench’s life. It exposes him at times to considerable abuse, but he comes to be appreciated and, when he resigns his archbishopric because of poor health in November 1884, clergy and laity unanimously record their sense of his “wisdom, learning, diligence, and munificence.” He finds time for Lectures on Medieval Church History (1878), and his poetical works are rearranged and collected in two volumes (last edition, 1885). He dies at Eaton Square, London, on March 28, 1886, after a lingering illness. He is buried at Westminster Abbey.
George W. E. Russell describes Trench as “a man of singularly vague and dreamy habits” and recounts the following anecdote of his old age:
“He once went back to pay a visit to his successor, Lord Plunket. Finding himself back again in his old palace, sitting at his old dinner-table, and gazing across it at his wife, he lapsed in memory to the days when he was master of the house, and gently remarked to Mrs. Trench, ‘I am afraid, my love, that we must put this cook down among our failures.'”