A History of the Catholic Church 2018 Talk 1

A History of Catholic London in 45 Minutes

Fr Nicholas Schofield

 

The Catholic heritage of this country is largely hidden. Visit our Catholic churches and you’ll find that (with a few exceptions) they were only built in the last 200 years. Look at the list of Archbishops of Westminster and you’ll see that they only go back to 1850. Get to know any parish and you’ll realise that most parishioners trace their Catholicism either to a conversion (their own or a few generations back) or to a Catholic country overseas (whether it be Ireland, Nigeria or Poland). This gives the impression that English Catholicism is only a recent phenomenon. But look a little harder and you’ll soon uncover England’s Catholic past, which stretches back to at least the second century.

Often when I sit on the Underground, I look at the map and try to spot the Catholic associations behind our station names. If you have a think, I’m sure some obvious ones will come to mind: Blackfriars (named after the Dominican house that once stood nearby), Covent Garden (the convent garden of Westminster Abbey), Gospel Oak (taking its name from a tree which acted as a landmark during Rogationtide processions). Others are somewhat misleading: Cannon Street has no connection to religious canons but is an abbreviation of an old word for candle makers!    

Tonight I’m going to try to present you with an overview of the Catholic history of this country, shown through the prism of our capital city. Since we are meeting in the only Catholic parish church in the Square Mile, we will confine many of our observations to the City of London, though we can hardly exclude the City of Westminster! We’ll try to uncover the ghosts of Catholic London, to reveal the Christian heritage that’s at the very root of our nation. And I’m going to do this in about 45 minutes. Of course, it’s going to be full of generalisations. Of course, it’s going to lack detail and overlook many important figures and events. But the aim is to give you a summary.

The danger with history is that we get to know a lot of detail without seeing the broad sweep of the centuries – we might be fascinated about Julius Caesar and have read all the major books about him but still have a limited knowledge of the Roman Empire. What I hope to do tonight is to provide a general framework, so that we can appreciate that the Catholics of today (you and me) very much stand on the shoulders of giants.

I’ve divided this story up into three sections [*]: (1) the medieval world of ‘Catholic London’ – looking especially at how the Faith was established in the city in the first place. Then, (2) the world of the Reformation, that revolution that changed the course of English history. Finally, (3) we’ll look at how the ‘penal times’ blossomed into the ‘second spring’ of the nineteenth century – a legacy that we still enjoy today.

1) Catholic London – from St Lucius to the Reformation

For many people, the story of Christianity in this country begins with St Augustine of Canterbury. He is called the ‘Apostle of the English’ and the one thing everyone knows about him is that he ‘converted England’ in 597. Among his companions was St Mellitus, who became the first bishop of London and opened the first St Paul’s Cathedral. This, however, was only one stage in the long story of the coming of the Faith to the capital.

Indeed, Christianity existed in London long before St Augustine and St Mellitus. Several churches claim very ancient pedigrees. Visit Old St Pancras church, behind the great railway terminus, and we read on the sign that this has been a ‘site of prayer and meditation since 314 AD’. Even more impressive are the claims made by St Peter-upon-Cornhill on Gracechurch Street. Although, like so many City churches, it was rebuilt by Wren, a brass plaque inside states that it was established in 179 AD by ‘Lucius, the first Christian King of this land,’ who set up ‘an Archbishop’s See, and made that Church ye Metropolitane and Chiefe Church of this Kingdom and so it indured ye space of 400 yeares and more, unto the coming of St Austin the Apostle of England’. St Lucius is a shadowy character and it is unclear how he was supposed to have been ‘King’ alongside the Roman occupiers. He supposedly wrote to the pope, St Eleutherius, asking to be instructed in the Faith. Two missionaries were sent, Faganus and Duvianus; Lucius was duly baptised and the British Church founded, with sees in London, York and Caerleon. Some say that ‘King’ Lucius was eventually buried at Gloucester, others that he ended his days as a missionary in Switzerland; indeed, I have visited his reputed tomb in the cathedral at Chur.

The Lucius story was certainly believed by many. The Rector of St Peter’s church for centuries took precedence in the annual Whit Monday procession to St Paul’s, on account of his church’s antiquity, and the twelfth century chronicler Jocelyn of Furness produced a list of fourteen Archbishops of London, starting with Lucius’ archbishop, Thean.

Scholars suggest that this was little more than twelfth century propaganda, engineered by the then Bishop of London, who was an enemy of St Thomas Becket and was trying to move the Metropolitan See from Canterbury to London.  But perhaps there is some truth here; as they say, there is no smoke without fire. We know for sure that three British bishops, one of whom (Restitutus) was from London, attended a church council at Arles in 314. There is also some archaeological evidence showing the presence of the church in Roman London. Much of might seem rather unimpressive: pieces of pottery or pewter with the Chi-Rho symbol.  But in 1995 a large fourth century building was discovered on Tower Hill, which may have been a church (even a cathedral) and bore similarities to the cathedral in the imperial capital at Milan. It was eventually burnt down, probably by the Saxons, and its stones were used in the building of the London Wall and the Tower.

Christianity was definitely present in Roman Londinium. It had probably first reached our shores through Christian officials, soldiers or merchants who settled in this remote colony on the edge of the civilised world, perhaps as early as the second century (with or without the help of ‘King’ Lucius). The Faith seems to have taken a firm hold, although it was never total and it existed alongside the pagan religion of both the Romans and the Ancient Britons.

Although not strictly a Londoner but very much part of this diocese, we should mention the earliest British Christian that we definitely know by name: our first martyr, St Alban. He was a prominent citizen of Verulamium (a town later renamed St Alban’s, to the north of London) who hid a priest who was fleeing from persecution and so impressed was he by the priest’s example that he took instruction and was quickly baptised. When the soldiers came to search for the priest, Alban put on the fugitive’s cloak and was arrested and beheaded – the punishment reserved for Roman citizens. Such was the scandal of his execution that the headsman’s eyes are said to have fallen out at the moment of martyrdom. A cult quickly grew up around the martyr – St Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre visited his shrine in 429 and spread his cult on the continent. The most interesting thing about St Alban is that he may have suffered as early as 209 (about 150 years after the Resurrection), testifying to the early existence of Christianity in the south-east.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fifth century, Britannia remained culturally Roman and Christianity was one of the most obvious signs of this continuity. However, the growing divisions amongst the ruling princes made the former colony increasingly vulnerable to attacks from the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxons’. As we have already seen, the pagan Saxons probably burnt down London’s cathedral and may have put to death its archbishop, the obscure St Vodinus (mentioned by Jocelyn in his list of ‘Archbishops of London’).

The immediate effect of the Saxon invasions, however, was the decline of Londinium. Many of the Roman buildings remained standing, as did the city wall, but the Saxons who settled in the area lived elsewhere. Indeed, Saxon London (as it developed) was located not on the site of the Roman city but just to the west, near Aldwych, the Strand and Covent Garden, around the Fleet river – historians refer to this settlement as Lundenwic. St Bede wrote of it as ‘a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea’.

As we have mentioned, in 604 St Augustine of Canterbury sent his companion, St Mellitus, to establish a cathedral in London, dedicated to St Paul; after Canterbury and Rochester it was the third oldest in terms of foundation. What is interesting is that this cathedral was located in the old Roman city of Londinium, no longer (it seems) a key centre of population. This is sometimes explained in terms of instructions received from Rome, which still understood Britain in terms of the old Roman cities. London had a glorious past but it must still have been a force to be reckoned with a strategically-placed port and defensive walls; it is unlikely that St Mellitus would have gone to all the effort of establishing his cathedral in a completely deserted city of ruins! Moreover, Rome intended London to be the seat of the archbishop, along with York, but largely political reasons kept the ecclesiastical centre at Canterbury.   

London was in a different Saxon Kingdom to Canterbury: that of the East Saxons, but St Ethelbert was regarded as overlord and seems to have been influential in giving St Mellitus grants of land for his cathedral. It is curious that St Mellitus is not better known among London Christians – in our diocese there is a church dedicated to him at Tollington Park but he otherwise is rather forgotten. Yet it was he who worked tirelessly to set up the Church in our city. He travelled to Rome on business and received pragmatic letters from St Gregory advising him to turn pagan temples into churches whenever possible. However, after the death of King Ethelbert and also the King of the East Saxons (Sabert), both in 616, there was a pagan reaction and St Mellitus had to flee for his own safety; he eventually became third Archbishop of Canterbury and was buried there, which is one reason why his cult never really flourished in London and why Canterbury remained the archbishop’s seat.    

London remained essentially pagan for most of the seventh century and it was only with St Erconwald that the Church in London was put on a firm footing once again. Appointed bishop in 675, he rebuilt St Paul’s and also founded the great abbeys at Chertsey and Barking (where his sister, St Ethelburga, was abbess). His shrine at St Paul’s would become one of the glories of medieval London and he was considered one of the city’s patrons and called the ‘light of London’ (Lux Lundoniae) – but, like St Mellitus, he is largely ignored!

Lundenwic continued to be the main trading base and it is quite likely that the present-day churches of St Andrew, Holborn, St Mary-le-Strand, St Clement Danes, St Dunstan-in-the-West and St Martin-in-the-Fields stand on the site of earlier churches that served Lundenwic[1].

The City of London, the location of the old Roman city, was effectively revived under Alfred the Great, from about 886. Seeking to improve England’s security after years of Viking raids and occupation, he rebuilt the city walls and recut the defensive ditch. As the centre of population moved back to the City – now known as Lundenburh – the old Saxon Lundenwic was largely abandoned and became known as the ‘old settlement’, a name which survives to this day in ‘Aldwych’. Having said that, the Vikings continued to pose a problem; in 1012 the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Alphege, was killed while in Danish captivity outside Greenwich; his fate was to be pelted by the bones and skulls of cattle.

Slowly Catholic London developed with its great churches and religious houses. A religious community seems to have existed on the site of Westminster Abbey since around the eighth century; legend even has it that St Peter appeared in a vision and consecrated a church here during the time of St Mellitus. King Edgar and St Dunstan founded a small Benedictine here in 960, which was enlarged by St Edward the Confessor and dedicated to St Peter. This church became known as the ‘West Minster’ to distinguish it from St Paul’s Cathedral, the ‘East Minster’.  Unfortunately, St Edward was lying on his death bed when the new church was consecrated on 28 December 1065. He died a few days later and was the first of many monarchs to be buried in the church.

Medieval London had many religious establishments, most of which have completely disappeared. Most notable is Old St Paul’s, destroyed not by Reformation but by the Great Fire of 1666. It was the largest building in medieval England and the third largest in Europe, built to replace an earlier cathedral destroyed in a fire of 1087. A twenty-first century visitor would be surprised not only by its splendour and size but by its hustle and bustle. The long nave was known as ‘Paul’s Walk’ where much secular business was done. The Churchyard was a centre of the book trade and ‘Paul’s Cross’ an important place for civic ceremonies and open-air sermons; it has been called ‘the public barometer of the nation’s views’. St Paul’s was much more than just a cathedral; it was the very heart of London. Indeed the sword that can be found on the city coat of arms is the sword of St Paul. 

London was a city of churches: by the 1500s there were just over a hundred parish churches within the city and thirty-nine religious houses; church towers and spires dominated the skyline and there were religiously-inspired street names such as Pater Noster Row, Amen Corner and Rood Lane. The main religious orders were there: the Augustinian canons were present at Aldgate and their female branch at Holywell in Shoreditch; there was the Cistercian monastery of St Mary Graces near Tower Hill and a Charterhouse (much of which still stands) at Smithfield; and the various orders of friars have left their mark in place-names: Christ Church Greyfriars on Newgate Street was the home of the Franciscans; Blackfriars station was once the haunt of the Dominicans, while Whitefriars Street (just off Fleet Street) recalls the Carmelite house that once stood there. Around the Tower you can find street names such as ‘Crutched Friars’ (a small order of friars) and ‘Minories’ (referring to the medieval house of the Minoresses or Poor Clares). And that’s not to mention the crusading orders – the Templars have left their name at ‘Temple’ while ‘St John’s Wood’ once belonged to the Knights Hospitaller.

The Middle Ages were years full of action and change, dominated by constant conflicts between the Church and the King. The most celebrated victim of this was St Thomas Becket – known to many of his contemporaries as ‘Thomas of London’ – who was murdered in his own cathedral of Canterbury in 1170. He gave his name to St Thomas’ Hospital and his tomb was the focus of Chaucer’s pilgrims, who set off on their journey from Southwark. But one thing, despite all this, remained the same. England was Catholic. The Church was the dominant force in society. In the words of Hilaire Belloc, medieval Catholicism was ‘the soul, the vital principle, the continuity of Europe.’

Indeed, the Church by the early 1500s was in pretty good shape – beyond the scars left behind by weak humans in any period of Church History. There was a boom in vocations to the priesthood. One foreign visitor remarked that the citizens of London ‘all attend Mass every day, and say many Paternosters in public (the women carrying long rosaries in their hands), and any who can read taking the Office of Our Lady.’  People visited the shrines of the city, like the tombs of St Erkenwald at old St Paul’s or St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, and made pilgrimages to places like Willesden, where there was a shrine of Our Lady. 

Many parishes had highly active and well-supported organisations called Guilds, which took on a variety of roles – prayer group, (e.g. by providing Masses or candles at a particular altar), charity, social club, trade union, local government agency and bank. Efforts were being made by bishops and priests to improve the catechesis of their congregations. Most of the first printed books were religious; not just heavy, academic tomes but works in English (like the popular Golden Legend, containing the stories of the saints). And the monasteries were still making a valuable contribution to society through their ministry with the poor and the sick and their scholarship.

2) The Reformation

Thousands of books have been written about the Protestant Reformation and I don’t intend to deal with it in great detail here. Suffice to say that its impact was revolutionary – splitting Christendom into ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ camps, which were as often connected to politics as to personal faith. Religious matters were affairs of state. The Faith of the King was the Faith of the State and any dissent was considered not only heresy but treason. That’s why Henry VIII’s personal difficulties with his marriage were able to disrupt the course of English religious history.

Henry’s Break with Rome led to the dissolution of the monasteries. Attacked for their opposition to the divorce and their links to the Catholic World beyond the Channel, the monasteries also provided land and money which the Crown needed to fight war and win the support of the nobles. Thus the Augustinian priory at Aldgate went to Lord Audley, Blackfriars to Lord Cobham and Charterhouse to Lord North (though it later returned to its monastic roots by becoming almshouses and a school). At the same time, the shrines of England were destroyed. Some famous Marian statues were burned on a great bonfire at Chelsea in 1538, including Our Lady of Willesden.

Not surprisingly, there was much opposition to the changes. There were several rebellions and leading supporters of Catherine of Aragon, who refused to support the King’s Supremacy, were executed – most notably the Carthusian martyrs, the bishop of Rochester, St John Fisher, and the Lord Chancellor, St Thomas More. That’s not to mention the Bridgettine, St Richard Reynolds, and the vicar of Isleworth, Blessed John Hale.  

But little really changed on the local level. There was no widespread hostility to the traditional Faith and no great desire to support Protestantism. The English were used to battles between the King and the Church (remember Thomas Becket?). Things one day would surely sort themselves out. There was much uncertainty, as each of Henry’s children pursued a very different policy – the reign of Edward VI saw the continued destruction of old Catholic England and sanctioned a second wave of iconoclasm; his sister, Mary, briefly restored England to the Catholic Faith (with the help of her cousin, Cardinal Pole) but died before it could be consolidated; and Elizabeth continued the fairly conservative view of her father, in which the monarch always knew best. The path taken by the Reformation in England was complex, gradual and piecemeal and its success was by no means guaranteed.   

The reign of Elizabeth I is crucial for our story. She reigned for 45 years – a length of time that allowed things to stabilise and the Church of England to truly become the official religion. Hopes of a Catholic restoration were dashed as each new year of the Queen’s reign began and as each Catholic suitor for a royal marriage were brushed to one side. As the Church of England was consolidated, the Catholic Church took on a new identity that would last for the best part of 300 years.

It would be a Church marked by exile; English seminaries and religious houses were founded overseas to train priests for the mission and pray for England’s conversion. Back home, it would be a minority, underground Church. Today, the parish is the basic unit of the English Catholicism, but 300 years ago the Church was based around the homes of the great Catholic families. Priests would visit as often as possible or occasionally live there as chaplains, though in the guise of a servant.

Despite the tiny number of English Catholics in proportion to the general population, the ‘idea’ and ‘threat’ of Catholicism would dominate the national psyche for centuries. In 1569 the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland led a Catholic rebellion, known as the ‘Northern Rising’, which tried to put Mary Queen of Scots (Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin) on the English throne. Needless to say it failed. The following year the Pope sent a Bull excommunicating Elizabeth, designed to coincide with the previous year’s rebellion. An armed rising and a papal excommunication hardly endeared England’s Catholics to the Queen, nor did the various schemes of invasion and assassination supported by the Catholic powers, even the pope himself. Then, of course, there was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. If Guy Fawkes had succeeded in blowing up Parliament, it would have been the seventeenth century’s version of 9/11 (in fact, the casualties of 5/11 would have exceeded those of 9/11); in the eyes of the populace, the Jesuits and their allies were the al-Qaeda of Stuart England.

It is little wonder, then, that Catholics were associated with treason and conspiracy. Little wonder that the period saw so much persecution, especially of priests, who were seen as agents of a foreign power intent on overthrowing the Protestant regime. The foreign seminaries proved their worth by supplying a crop of martyrs – many of whom suffered in London, 105 of them at Tyburn. In 2010 Pope Benedict led prayer vigil in Hyde Park and provided us with one of those ‘is this really happening’ moments of his visit – are there really 80,000 Catholics silently adoring the Blessed Sacrament with the pope in Hyde Park, a short distance from the spot where 105 of our martyrs suffered? There were other sites of martyrdom dotted around the city: Clerkenwell, Fleet Street, Gray’s Inn, Isleworth, Kingston-on-Thames, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Mile End Green, St Paul’s churchyard, Shoreditch, Smithfield, Southwark, Tower Green and Tower Hill.

Most of the martyrs were innocent of dark plots and just wanted to be good priests. Laws were passed imposing fines on those who failed to attend church and even making it treason simply to be a priest (a particularly low point in English legal history). Anti-Catholicism became part of the English identity.

Despite being the centre of a Protestant regime and passing anti-Catholic legislation, Catholicism could still be found in London, at all levels of society. This is perhaps hardly surprising given it was the centre of population, into which was mixed the presence of foreign merchants and diplomats. Indeed Catholicism was flaunted semi-publicly in the foreign embassies and some of our modern London parishes - Spanish Place, Warwick Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Ely Place - derive from these embassy chapels. It could even be found at Court. The Stuart Kings had a tendency to marry Catholic princesses, who had their own chaplains and chapels, which gave Londoners a taste of continental Catholic ceremonial. It’s worth mentioning one of these royal chaplains – St Claude de la Colombière, a chaplain to Mary of Modena, wife of James II. Before coming to England he had been spiritual director to St Margaret Mary. Protestant London therefore became one of the first places to hear this ‘new’ devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

There was a gradual return to ordered church government in the seceventeenth century, though hindered by divisions within the English Catholic community. During the reign of Charles I a bishop was at last appointed, with the title of Vicar Apostolic of England. Then, in 1688, the English Church was split up into four Districts, each under a Vicar Apostolic, one of which was called the London District (comprising the modern-day dioceses of Arundel and Brighton, Brentwood, Portsmouth, Southwark, Westminster and part of Northampton). The bishop lived simply, often being forced to change his address, though as the British Empire grew it was the bishop in London who had nominal jurisdiction over the colonies!

The most famous of these Vicars Apostolic, Richard Challoner, still had to be disguised as a layman and say Mass discreetly in London pubs and cockpits. Despite his own poverty, he managed to establish schools and wrote a whole library of books for English Catholics – devotional works like The Garden of the Soul and Meditations for Every Day of the Year, historical volumes such as The Memoirs of the Missionary Priests (an important source book on the English Martyrs), not to mention a revision of the Douay Bible.

Despite the growing numbers of London Catholics, conditions were still hard. We think of St Mary Moorfields. Its origins are obscure but go back at least to a Mass centre on Ropemaker’s Alley established in the 1730s and known for security reasons as the ‘Penny Hotel’.  As recently as February 1771 the two priests of Moorfields, Richard Dillon and John Fuller, among others, were indicted for their Priesthood at the Old Bailey and acquitted! In his recent study of English Catholics, Roy Hattersley calls this ‘the triumph of an independent legal system’ but it was caused by an Act of 1699 that rewarded informants a princely £100 for leading the authorities to a Catholic priest. There were plenty of anti-Catholic bigots around who were only too happy to oblige.[2]

(3) The Second Spring   

The end of the eighteenth century saw many challenges to the old order – the ideas of the ‘Enlightenment’, the American War of Independence and, most notably, the French Revolution, with its purge of monarchy, aristocracy and clergy. Old differences dating from the Reformation suddenly seemed less important as the ruling classes united to oppose the new common enemy – revolution. We can see this in the way England welcomed five and a half thousand French clergy in the 1790s – seen as brave refugees from the diabolic revolutionary forces rather than sinister, ‘popish’ priests. Some of these set up churches in London – the parishes of Hampstead, Somers Town, Tottenham and Our Lady of Victories, Kensington trace their origins to these émigré priests. Also there was a ‘Chapel Royal’ on Little George Street which was attended by two future Kings of France (while in exile): Louis XVIII and Charles X.

The bonding together of traditional elites and new ideas of civil liberty and tolerance led to changes in the law. A series of Relief Acts, starting in the 1770s, made life easier for English Catholics; Catholic schools and churches could be opened from 1791 and Catholics could enter much of public life with Catholic Emancipation in 1829. These concessions led to much controversy and opposition. One result was the Gordon Riots of 1780 in which the church of St Mary Moorfields was ransacked and the venerable priest, Fr Richard Dillon, had to witness his house being turned upside down and his books and furniture burnt, so that he had no bed to sleep on. He is supposed to have died from the shock. The Sardinian Chapel at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the Bavarian Chapel at Warwick Street were also destroyed.

Conditions had improved vastly but the Catholic Church was still very understated. Churches were largely unadorned and ceremonies simple. Confessionals were a rarity. In an illuminating book on Catholic London A Century Ago (1905), Bernard Ward wrote that ‘there are those still alive who have described the scene on a Saturday evening, when the line of penitents were kneeling all up the stairs of the priest’s house, taking their turns for admissions to his room.’ An Anglican clergyman famously wrote of Bishop Griffiths, one of our Vicars Apostolic: ‘I just now saw the R.C. Bishop of London get out of an omnibus in Piccadilly, seize his carpet bag, and trudge straight home with it to Golden Square. He had a blue cloak, but it hung below the skirts, and on he went. A very pleasing, venerable, episcopal-looking man, very like any other Bishop, save that none of ours would touch a carpet bag with his little finger.’

 

Then, in 1850, Blessed Pius IX restored the Catholic Hierarchy in England and Wales – creating dioceses with bishops, with one Archdiocese (until 1911): that of Westminster .This was seen as a direct threat to the Anglican establishment – surely the new Catholic bishops, in using territorial titles, were setting up opposition to the Anglican bishops? And what cheek to name a Catholic diocese ‘Westminster’ after the very heart of the Protestant establishment!

 

The first Archbishop of Westminster was Nicholas Wiseman. He belonged to an Irish family who had settled in Seville, where the future cardinal was born. He spent many years in Rome as student and then Rector of the Venerable English College

A noted scholar and man of letters, the Pope once joked that Wiseman’s best-selling novel, Fabiola: or, The Church of the Catacombs, had done more good for the Church than any papal encyclical! He had spent his formative years in Rome, as both a student at and Rector of the Venerable English College, and some were suspicious of the various Roman practices which he helped introduce to England, such as Vespers and Benediction or the QuarantOre. Wiseman’s years at Westminster were marked by numerous disputes with the other bishops and even his closest collaborators. Like all those with creative talents, he could be temperamental. Yet, he presided over a Church growing in self-confidence. As Wilfrid Ward famously wrote, after Wiseman’s death, that he found them a persecuted sect, he left them a church’.

Of particular importance to those of us gathered here is that England and Wales’ only Archbishop chose the old St Mary Moorfields as his Pro-Cathedral in 1850 – meaning a temporary cathedral until a permanent could be built. Many great events took place here, including Wiseman’s funeral in 1865. Its burial vault was also a popular place of burial for Catholics until it was closed in 1853 and those who rested here included Bishops Poynter, Bramston and Gradwell and the composer Carl Maria von Weber.

One of Wiseman’s greatest legacies was the welcoming of many distinguished converts from the Church of England, largely through the influence of the Oxford Movement. These included his eventual successor, Henry Edward Manning. As a young man he had fallen in love with and married Caroline Sargent. When she died four years later Manning was grief-stricken and even years later, on his deathbed, spoke of a volume of his wife’s prayers and thoughts, which he kept under his pillow and venerated almost as a relic. ‘Not a day has passed since her death,’ he said, ‘on which I have not prayed and meditated from that book. All the good I may have done, all the good I may have been, I owe to her. ’

As Archbishop, he was closely identified with the working classes, either before or since. In 1884 he served on a Royal Commission that investigated the condition of working-class housing. He endorsed trade unionism, believed that every citizen had a right to work and became a popular hero after mediating in the London Dock Strike of 1889.  Liberal he may have been politically, but in terms of ecclesiology there was no doubt where he stood, staunchly defending the pope when his temporal power was threatened by Italian unification and supporting Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council.

The rate of change during this period was rapid. In London there were 24 churches in 1826 and 102 in 1863. Within a hundred years of the restoration of the Hierarchy, most Catholics were within easy distance of a church and most large parishes could boast a convent of nuns and a Catholic school, often built thanks to the huge sacrifices of the Catholic community, many of them Irish immigrants. Further parish expansion came in the twentieth century with the creation of new suburbs and the building of new railway lines. Parishes were often founded long before a church could be built: often Mass would first be celebrated in a private house or a temporary building made of corrugated metal. Schools were seen as a priority – in my parish the school building dates from 1896 and the permanent church only opened in 1931.

Catholics are still a minority but we have become more and more a respected part of the nation. Many of our cardinals have been national figures: Manning (as already mentioned) had a great concern for social issues, Arthur Hinsley was a popular and influential broadcaster during the war, and Basil Hume was seen as a man of great spirituality. Westminster Cathedral, with its liturgical and musical excellence, is as much a part of the London skyline as St Paul’s. English Catholics have made crucial contributions to the arts – we could mention Edward Elgar, Oscar Wilde, J. R. R. Tolkein, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Evelyn Waugh – and some of our finest schools are Catholic – according to The Times the Comprehensive School of the Year is the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School.

But these achievements shouldn’t make us relax smugly too much. We may have some fine churches and institutions, we may have a glorious heritage going right back to the second century, we may claim to be the ‘isle of saints’ and the ‘Dowry of Mary’ – but today we find ourselves in a diverse and largely secular city. Most people may believe in some kind of Supreme Being but they can’t give Him a name as we can; most people have a sentimental attachment to our beautiful church buildings but very few use them; most people admire the work of dedicated Christians but are afraid of making a commitment. Even a large proportion of Catholics are ignorant and lukewarm when it comes to matters of Faith.

And so it’s over to you. The ‘Faith of our Fathers’ has been handed down to us, despite ‘dungeons, fire and sword’. It’s up to us to discover it, to embrace it, to make it part of our life – so that we can hand it down to our children, so that we can set fire to the earth.



[1] C7 burials have been found at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

[2] Such as William Payne, the ‘Protestant Carpenter’.