Four of us assembled at Sotheby’s on a chilly February day in 2000 to drive up to Marston, a few miles north of Grantham, off the A1, to attend the funeral of Henry Thorold in the predominantly 13th-century church of St Mary’s. We found ourselves seats in an already crowded church and settled down. Suddenly the acrid but pleasing smell of incense was identifiable in the distance. A member of the Lincolnshire squirearchy in the row in front said: “I hope this is going to be OK. I always thought Henry was a sound prayer book man.” I surmised that he was fairly swiftly going to be disillusioned.
The poor Bishop of Lincoln (Robert Hardy; obit 9 April 2021) had to celebrate a Requiem Mass in the Roman Rite, this shortly after the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, had asked publicly (and vainly) for this to be discontinued in the Church of England. The lessons were from the Authorised Version. The homily was given by Henry’s brother Father John Thorold and started with the words “Henry was a very greedy little boy”. The finale of the service was Henry’s coffin being abluted and censed by Father Brendan O’Callaghan of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Grantham. Here, in the words of our present prime minister, like Henry a King’s Scholar at Eton, was having your cake and eating it. A rather shell-shocked congregation staggered up to Marston Hall for tea (not a beverage Henry ever seemed partial to).
Henry would incidentally have not been amused by the start of his brother’s “eulogy”. He had not relished his appearance in James Lees-Milne’s diaries (A Mingled Measure, 1994) “A profile like George III’s and a stomach like George IV’s. Is rather greedy and hogs his food… Knows Lincolnshire backwards and all the families that ever were, they being to a man his relations. Is fervently right wing and deplores all I deplore. He motors round the country in a large old Bentley motor car and wears a dog collar, an unexpected combination.”
Henry was born on 4 June 1921, the scion of a long-established Lincolnshire family, in the county since at least the reign of Edward III although Henry claimed pre-Conquest origins. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and then ordained in the Scottish Episcopal Church in Dundee. He spent a period as a naval chaplain. After the war he went to Lancing, the high church public school on the Sussex Downs. He served as a chaplain for almost 20 years and was a much loved housemaster of Gibbs House. He had to resign in 1968 after a row with the late Christopher Campling, subsequently Dean of Ripon, who as senior chaplain had had the temerity to attempt to alter the established order of services. The latter in his liberalism demonstrated everything that Henry abominated in Anglican clergymen.
After a brief period as chaplain at Summerfields, the prep school in North Oxford where he had himself been as a boy, Henry retired to Marston Hall, the fragment of the great Elizabethan house of the Thorolds, which he embellished with the assistance of the architect Francis Johnson. He was surrounded by portraits of his ancestors. The only possible disadvantage of the house was its extreme cold. Here was planted the Lancing Avenue of Lombardy poplars given to him by the school when he retired as a housemaster. Marston Hall was uniquely held not to have a thing distastefully called a postcode.
His “retirement” was an extremely industrious one. He was chairman and prime mover of the Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust whence he conducted wars with clergymen of the modern persuasion who had little interest in their church buildings. He preached in his declamatory style and celebrated services throughout the county, always avoiding the use of the Alternative Service Book, as well as looking at every one of the 600 odd churches of Lincolnshire.
He also became an author having been approached by his friend John Betjeman to write the Shell Guide to Lincolnshire. Betjeman was a great lover of Lincolnshire and wrote two poems about the county, “A Lincolnshire Church” and “A Lincolnshire Tale”. The verse below from the latter always reminds me of Henry:
“Kirkby with Muckby-cum-Sparrowby-cum-Spinx
Is down a long lane in the county of Lincs,…
The remoteness was awful, the stillness intense
Of invisible fenland, around and immense.”
Through Betjeman, Henry became a close friend of John and Myfanwy Piper.
Henry went on to write further Shell Guides – Derbyshire, County Durham, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire – as well as other works including Lincolnshire Churches Revisited in 1989 with an introduction by the Prince of Wales.
My wife and I first met Henry in what he would have hated to call “Cumbria”, in fact Westmorland, in the late 1980s. He and I took to each other at once, recognising ourselves as individuals of similar prejudices and tastes.
Lincolnshire is not at first the most prepossessing of counties (“a county of fogs and frogs,” as George III said); Henry was amused to receive a letter from the Queen Mother written in her hand to him in “Lincoldshire”.
Under Henry’s tuition, the county, with its ancient divisions of Holland, Kesteven and Lindsey, became almost magical. We trawled it endlessly, looking at churches. Lunch if possible had to be taken in a pub belonging to Batemans where its “Good Honest Ales” were served; the beer was brewed in the remote town of Wainfleet which was “to be venerated as the birthplace of William of Waynflete (c 1395), Bishop of Winchester, first Provost of Eton, founder of Magdalen College, Oxford”. (Lincolnshire Churches Revisited.)
There were a few non ecclesiological destinations such as Woodhall Spa (the Bournemouth of Lincolnshire with its kinéma in the woods) and Grimsby (with its tall red-brick Victorian tower dominating the docks, “like Siena only better”).
The pronunciation of Lincolnshire place names was a minefield – Brant Broughton (“Brant Brooton”), Burgh-le-Marsh (‘Burrough-le-Marsh”), Grantham (“Grantam”), and Saltfleetby All Saints (“Sollerby All Saints”) spring to mind.
Henry’s attitude to Roman Catholicism was not that of a certain type of High Anglican of his generation who regarded it at best as “the Italian Mission to the Irish”. He thought of it sympathetically and regretted the terrible architectural destruction caused by the Reformation. His Collins Guide to the Ruined Abbeys of England, Wales and Scotland was dedicated “To the memory of Dame Eugenia Thorold, OSB, Abbess of Pontoise (died 1667), Dame Christina Thorold, OSB of Pontoise (died 1699), Dame Catherine Thorold, OSB of Pontoise (died 1699) and Sister Catherine Thorold, OSB of Ghent (died 1634) Daughters of St Benedict LAUS DEO”. The entry on Walsingham reads: “‘Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us’ – such is the response of the faithful to the intercessions at the shrine of Our Lady, a response repeated with fervour still. The religious fervour which surrounded Walsingham – and which again surrounds it now – the devotion to Our Lady cannot be exaggerated… All these twentieth century shrines (in Walsingham) deserve a visit, and the cry goes up – as it has for many centuries – Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us.”
The vote in 1992 of the General Synod of the Church of England to ordain women came as a terrible blow to him. He correctly foresaw that it would mean the end of the civilised, humorous and intelligent Church of England he had loved. He said to me on various occasions that had he been younger he would have followed me across the Tiber but as it was he was too old and too involved in maintaining rural Anglicanism in Lincolnshire to do so. (He was not in fact a “squarson” as he was frequently misdescribed. Although he and his brother had the advowsons of Marston, Hougham and Hough-on-the-Hill and for some eight years he had to maintain the pattern of worship in the three churches for the lack of an actual vicar, he never, as he used to point out with some acidity, received any emolument for so doing.)
We inevitably saw somewhat less of Henry in the last two years of his life as he was constantly in and out of nursing homes. He died on the 1 February 2000 having just lived into what he regarded as his favourite month. His carefully choreographed funeral demonstrated his underlying sympathy towards Rome. I was aware he was the last in a long line of antiquarian High Church bachelor Anglican parsons and that England would probably not see his like again. I think he would have regarded the Ordinariate with fascination had he lived to see it and might even have managed to join it. Requiescat in pace.
This is a shortened version of an article printed in the May Newsletter of the Friends of the Ordinariate.
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.