In a quiet Sussex churchyard near the South Downs, a weather-beaten stone cross bears a faded inscription: “Caroline, wife of Henry Edward Manning”. To the right, along the flint boundary wall, the small red-tiled church of St Peter’s stands on a low embankment, overlooked by a Georgian mansion, now part of Seaford College.
When an exhibition on Cardinal Manning was staged this March at the Jesuit Farm Street Church in London, the fate of his wife was acknowledged in an opening address by Fr Nicholas Schofield, archivist of Westminster archdiocese.
Even today, however, this tragic aspect of Manning’s life remains little known. The cardinal’s love for Caroline offers us, as the late historian Owen Chadwick once told me, a reminder of the “softer side of history”. But it may also, in crucial ways, have influenced Manning’s thinking as a Church leader.
Caroline was the fourth of seven children of the Rev John Sargent, a Cambridge University Fellow who was Anglican rector of Lavington in the early 19th century. A contemporary described the Sargent daughters as having “beauty of no ordinary kind”.
Manning and Caroline became engaged in April 1833, when Manning, then an Anglican, arrived as a curate shortly after his ordination. By the time they were married at St Peter’s that November – by Samuel Wilberforce, son of the great abolitionist, and Caroline’s brother-in-law – Manning had taken over the parish after John Sargent’s sudden death.
Evidence suggests that the union was blissfully happy. But it was also tragically short. By early 1837, the frail Caroline was stricken with “consumption”, or pulmonary TB, a Sargent family weakness.
“I try to leave all in God’s hands – but it is very, very difficult,” Manning wrote to his former Oxford tutor, John Henry Newman, as his young wife wasted away. “No man knows what it is to watch the desire of his eyes fading.”
Caroline was just 25 when she died on July 24, 1837. Wilberforce described her quiet burial a day later “in the beautiful shadow of the peaceful churchyard”. For the 29-year-old Manning, however, it was a devastating blow. Although he threw himself into his parish ministry, his longing for his dead wife was, he confided to Wilberforce, “like a furnace”. On the second anniversary of Caroline’s death, his mother-in-law, Mary Sargent, found him “in quite an agony of tears”.
Manning remained at Lavington for 14 years, becoming an archdeacon in Chichester diocese in 1841 and gaining influence via the Oxford Movement centred on his old university. In 1851, concluding that the church of his birth was irredeemably under the thumb of an ever more secular state, he was received into the Church of Rome and ordained as a Catholic priest.
In 1865, having been within the fold for just 14 years, Manning succeeded Nicholas Wiseman as Archbishop of Westminster, becoming an architect of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council and a cardinal in 1874.
In later years, Manning appears to have removed references to Caroline from his diaries and notebooks, an absence reflected in his first biography in 1892 by Arthur Hutton, which only briefly mentioned the “new and lasting sadness” brought on by her death. A Catholic Truth Society biography in 1896 contained just three lines about Caroline. Another, on Manning’s conversion, declined to give her name.
But more recent Manning scholars, such as Robert Gray and Fr James Pereiro, concur that the short-lived marriage had a deep impact. Witnesses recalled how Manning had composed sermons at Caroline’s graveside and preserved his rectory living room as she left it, with a miniature of her on his desk.
Fr Pereiro thinks that the quiet, contemplative conditions at Lavington proved crucial to Manning’s formation. “Although he remained a deeply emotional person, he didn’t let much out, fearing he could easily lose control,” Fr Pereiro says. “But we know Caroline and her sisters added the warmth of a large, united family, with its singing and devotion, to his spiritual make-up.”
The family connection went beyond warmth. Although five of Caroline’s six siblings also died prematurely, two sisters became Catholics with their families, while three nephews served as Catholic priests, including Fr Ignatius Ryder, who took over the Birmingham Oratory from Newman.
Manning’s keen interest in Christian education owed something to Caroline, who taught in his parish school. Her influence could also be detected in his notion of the Church’s social responsibility and consistent defence of the poor and downtrodden.
Manning’s mediation in the great London dockers strike of 1889 and his important contributions to Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII’s encyclical on labour, could be traced back to preoccupations first nurtured at Lavington, which in 1830 had witnessed “Captain Swing” riots by impoverished rural workers.
Perhaps the personal loss also confirmed his commitment to clerical celibacy. “Our perfection of His friendship will vary in the measure in which we maintain our liberty from all unbalanced human attachment,” Manning wrote in The Eternal Priesthood (1883). “If we be weak and wander to human friendships, we shall soon find that there is no rest.”
Manning was not the Church’s only high-profile widower. Cardinal Thomas Weld (1773-1837) was ordained in 1821 after the death of his wife and made a cardinal nine years later. He attracted attention riding in his carriage through Rome with his eight grandchilden. He later buried his daughter, Mary Lucy, in his church of San Marcello al Corso.
In some cases at least, the Church’s much-derided celibacy discipline has drawn on deeply personal experiences and insights. Manning had carried Caroline’s letters with him, and was grief-stricken when they were stolen during a journey to Rome in 1851. But he kept her personal notebook until the end, finally entrusting it to his successor, Herbert Vaughan, who had it buried with him.
“Not a day has passed since her death on which I have not prayed and meditated from this book”, the dying Manning explained, by Vaughan’s own account. “All the good I may have done, all the good I may have been, I owe to her.”
Few traces of the tragic Caroline survive, beyond a small plaque in Chichester cathedral, recalling Manning’s gift of a window in her memory, but without naming her, and the simple stone cross in St Peter’s churchyard.
When the Lavington estate was sold off in 1903, Anna Wilberforce described how she had set up this up among the beech trees behind St Peter’s Church, where Caroline lay “in her loveliness” alongside her sisters. The family had grown worried, she recorded, “that no one would know whose grave it was”.
Jonathan Luxmoore covers Church news from Warsaw and Oxford
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