Born on 17 January 1788 at Newmillerdam, near Wakefield, he was the eldest son of John Lonsdale (1737–1800), vicar of Darfield and perpetual curate of Chapelthorpe. His mother's name was Elizabeth Steer. He was educated at Eton under Joseph Goodall, who thought him the best Latin scholar he had ever had. He went in 1806 to Cambridge, and became Fellow of King's in 1809.
Lonsdale was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1811, but was ordained in the Church of England in October 1815. In the next month he married, and was shortly afterwards appointed chaplain to Archbishop Charles Manners-Sutton and assistant preacher at the Temple Church. In 1822, the archbishop gave him the rectory of Mersham in Kent, which he left in 1827 for a prebendal stall at Lincoln Cathedral.
With further preferment, Lonsdale passed in 1828 to the precentorship of the diocese of Lichfield, later exchanged for a prebend at St Paul's Cathedral. In the same year he became rector of St George's, Bloomsbury, where he remained until 1834. In 1836 he was chosen preacher of Lincoln's Inn, and obtained the rectory of Southfleet, near Gravesend.
In 1839, Lonsdale was elected Principal of King's College, London: the post on its creation had been offered to him. The college prospered under his administration, and the hospital was chiefly founded by him. In 1840 he was elected Provost of Eton, but declined the appointment in favour of Francis Hodgson, who had been nominated by the Crown, but refused by the fellows on the ground of insufficient academic qualification. In 1842 he was made archdeacon of Middlesex, and in October 1843 was raised to the see of Lichfield, being consecrated 3 December. He was unwilling to accept the offer, but on consulting the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London found it had been made on the recommendation of them both. His episcopate was mostly uneventful except as regards church extension, on a large scale. There was controversy attending the establishment of Lichfield Theological College, which was settled by him. His sympathies were High Church; but he protested against the removal of F. D. Maurice from his professorship, and condemned the existing law on marriage with a deceased wife's sister, though he did not vote for its repeal.
Lonsdale died suddenly, on 19 October 1867, of the rupture of a blood-vessel in the brain. Various memorials included a monument in Lichfield Cathedral.
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