Comment Opinion & Features

After Manning’s death, 100,000 paid their respects. No wonder

Cardinal Manning, photographed by Herbert Rose Barraud in the 1880s

No one was ever more eager to submit to the judgment of Rome than Cardinal Manning, who served as Archbishop of Westminster from 1865 to his death in 1892. Yet one can imagine Manning raising a celestial eyebrow at Cardinal Newman’s imminent elevation to sainthood.

“I see much danger in an English Catholicism of which Newman is the highest type,” he wrote in 1866. “It is the old Anglican, patristic, literary Oxford tone transplanted into the Church. It takes the line of deprecating exaggerations, foreign devotions, Ultramontanism, anti-national sympathies. In one word it is worldly Catholicism, and it will have the worldly on its side, and will deceive many.”

No wonder, the reader may consider, that Manning is a largely forgotten figure, while Newman basks in the approval of contemporary Catholic theologians. Whereas Manning rejoiced in the more extreme claims of the Church, and was influential in the definition of papal infallibility, Newman strove, with great subtlety, to make an essentially medieval theology acceptable to the modern world. To the extent that the Church has embraced much of his thinking he succeeded brilliantly. The modern world, on the other hand, has not been notably impressed by Catholicism.

Manning, unlike Newman, was not primarily a theologian: rather his mind closed like a steel trap on faith as the most efficacious basis for practising the ethics of the New Testament. Imbued by nature with a love of domination, he never lost the appetite for power; he did, however, succeed most abundantly in altering the ends for which he strove.

At Oxford, contemporaries had spoken of the young Manning, so decided in opinion, so dominant in action, so inflexible of will, as a future prime minister, with William Gladstone, born a year later in 1809, a likely bet for Archbishop of Canterbury. When Manning was 21, however, the bankruptcy of his father ruined his political prospects. In his first, bitter disappointment, he reacted with almost Byronic spleen; gradually, though, the moral imperative inherent in his Evangelical background asserted itself.

In 1833 Manning married into an Evangelical family and became a country clergyman. The marriage, however, was childless, and within four years his wife had died of consumption. Solitary and driven, Manning appeared more than ever certain to occupy the highest offices in the Church of England.

Gradually, though, he discovered that his clear and ruthless intellect could no longer accommodate the obfuscations and compromises of Anglicanism. In 1851, aged 42, he joined the One True Church. Fourteen years later, through a combination of charitable labour in London and adroit politicking in Rome – he just loved Pope Pius IX – Manning was appointed Archbishop of Westminster.

He immediately made clear that his concern was for the outcasts of English society, in particular the Irish working class, rather than to those whom he christened the Upper Ten Thousand. These were the old English Catholics, often deeply impressed with the writings of Newman – even while given, as Manning naughtily observed, to “praying for success in finding a really satisfactory maid”.

The new archbishop made education his first priority, and in the process played an important part in securing denominational state education in England. In 1865, there were perhaps 11,000 children in Catholic primary schools in the Westminster diocese; a figure doubled by the time of Manning’s death. Some 10,000 children had been rescued from the workhouses and found places in Catholic schools. A further 4,500 waifs, strays and outcasts had been housed and educated.

“If there had been some half-dozen Mannings,” observed the secretary of the housing commission on which Manning served from 1884, “England would have run some risk of being converted to Christianity.”

The smooth Harrovian lived to adopt the vulgar temperance movement. The ambitious first-class Balliol man declared himself an admirer of the Salvation Army. The fierce Tory jingo transmuted into the defender of Ireland’s cause. These were noble transformations, certainly not achieved without suffering.

Manning was raised to the cardinalate in 1875. If he could never subdue his imperious will, he did succeed in serving the multitude. After his death, more than 100,000 (so the Times estimated) filed past his corpse in Archbishop’s House. And when his coffin was borne in procession over the four miles from the Brompton Oratory to Kensal Green cemetery, the route was lined all the way with mourners.

No other English Catholic has come near to earning such a tribute. And very few of those who paid homage in the streets, one may hazard, were connoisseurs of the writings of Cardinal Newman.

Subsequently Manning’s reputation was compromised by Edmund Purcell’s spiteful biography and Lytton Strachey’s sniggering essay. Would it be hopelessly naïve, however, to suggest that faith, and even perhaps sanctity, should be measured by what is achieved as well as by what is believed?

Robert Gray is the author of Cardinal Manning: A biography