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A balancing act

English Catholic Heroes, edited by John Jolliffe

12 December 2008

12:00 AM

12 December 2008

12:00 AM

English Catholic Heroes John Jolliffe (editor)

Gracewing, pp.242, 9.99

If anyone should wince at a hint of aggression in the title of this book — and some Catholics might — let him or her remember or read Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855), in which every Spaniard is a sallow coward, every priest a slinking prevaricator and every Protestant Englishman an apple-cheeked exemplar of straightforwardness and truth. At least, that is how I remember it, with astonishment; a high point in 300 years of anti-Catholic propaganda.

Tit for tat is never a good idea, but balance is, and this collection of 16 portrait-biographies by different hands can be thought of as a contribution towards fairness. We meet some interesting men (a volume of Catholic Heroines is in preparation, we are rather urgently informed, lest there be murmurs), from the Venerable Bede to Leonard Cheshire and Cardinal Hume. Some are barely known, anyway to this reviewer; John Lingard, for example, and Lord Petre. Also, it is good to be reminded (brilliantly, by Lucy Beckett) of the remarkable story of Cardinal Pole — who was not even an ordained priest when the Pope gave him a cardinal’s hat.


The introduction, by John Jolliffe, pulls no punches. Henry VIII was ‘amoral, treacherous and ruthless, vainglorious and restless’, which seems a little politically parti pris, until we learn from Lucy Beckett that Henry had Pole’s mother, at nearly 70, an erstwhile friend of his (Pole had royal, Plantagenet blood) imprisoned and then executed on no evidence at all.

One of the editor’s non-selections stands out: we miss G. K. Chesterton. However, ‘his verbal somersaults and paradoxes did not equal the achievements of his great friend Hilaire Belloc’. Hmm. Instead, we have a lively and affectionate essay by A. N. Wilson, Belloc’s biographer, which begins, surely accurately, ‘Belloc’s reputation today survives as the author of comic verses for children’.

Of course it is the contributions by ‘professionals’ that catch the eye: Lucy Beckett on Pole, Clare Asquith on Robert Southwell, Roderick O’Donnell on Pugin, A. N. Wilson on Belloc. Best of all — sly, witty, compendious — is Robert Gray on Cardinal Manning.

Gray has written a biography of Manning, and here he describes him as ‘armed with a killing seriousness of purpose, supreme administrative skill, and a total absence of humour’. (This of a man he admires.) Manning began as a Church of England clergyman, well-connected and immediately promoted. When John Henry Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, this gave Manning pause. He was a great admirer of central authority. ‘Something tells me,’ he noted, ‘something keeps rising and saying, “You will end in the Roman Catholic Church”.’ In 1851 that is what happened and, remarks Gray, ‘for the first time in 300 years the Catholic Church was obliged to witness within its ranks the formidable spectacle of a Balliol man on the make.’

Everyone hated Manning, including his colleagues, whom he called the ‘upper ten thousand’ of Catholics and whom Gray describes as ‘more John Bullish than John Bull, involved with agriculture, dedicated to sport (Catholics played an important part in the development of cricket), scornful of any intellectual pretension.’ All loathed him — except the Irish and the poor. He was the first to spot the importance of Irish immigration to the growth of English Catholicism. Others had only noticed how much they smelled. ‘Father Faber bemoaned “the immovable belts of stink” they brought into the London Oratory, which risked driving away worshippers of the washing classes.’ Even the gentle Newman said they reminded him of ‘the “For Gentlemen” on railway platforms’. Manning provided them with schools, refuges (and places in which to wash). He was co-opted into the Committee on Distress in London, and an official who worked with him reckoned that ‘if there had been a dozen Mannings England would have been in some danger of being converted to Christianity’. In 1892 hundreds of thousands of Londoners turned out to pay repect to his funeral procession.

David Knowles, OSB, excommunicated, disgraced, possibly the greatest historian of English monasticism; Leonard Cheshire, winner of the Victoria Cross and tireless, eccentric philanthropist: this book is a serious, complex rebalancing of the scales. Even Charles Kingsley played his part. He is not included here, obviously, but it was his remark, ‘Truth for its own sake has never been a virtue of the Roman clergy’, that drove Newman sighing to his desk, in order to write his great Apologia Pro Vita Sua.


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