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In Search of Mrs Manning

by Fr Nicholas Schofield

It is always fascinating looking at old census records. It is as if the past is frozen in time. The details of every man, woman and child living in the UK on a particular day were carefully recorded each decade. If they were away from home they were registered at the address where they were found by the census officials.

The other day I was looking at the 1891 census records for Cardinal Manning. His entry appears among the list of residents of Carlisle Mansions, just round the corner from the present-day Archbishop’s House, although the census taker made a point of calling number 282 ‘Cardinal Manning’s Palace’. It provides a snapshot of his household on 5th April 1891, Easter Saturday.

Visiting the cardinal that day were his eventual successor, Bishop Herbert Vaughan, and his brother Kenelm, also a Catholic priest. It is interesting to see the names of Manning’s household: his secretary William Johnson, who later became an Auxiliary Bishop in Westminster, and his ‘butler’ and ‘domestic servant’, William Newman. His presence in Manning’s home led to a malicious rumour that ‘he had been chosen for this name of his because Manning liked to order about a person called Newman – but,’ added Manning’s friend, J. E. C. Bodley, ‘this was pure legend.’ Then there were the rest of the domestic staff, now long forgotten but essential to this eminent Victorian’s well-being: James Coombs, the butler’s assistant; Catherine Harnett, ‘cook and housekeeper’, and (presumably) her daughter, also called Catherine, who was the ‘kitchen maid’; and finally Margaret Crankan, ‘house maid’.

There is one detail that stands out, however. The occupation of 82 year-old Henry Edward Manning is given, as one might expect, as ‘Cardinal Archbishop’ but his ‘condition as to marriage’ is that of a ‘widower’.

In actual fact, Manning was one of two 19th century English cardinals who had formerly been married. The first was Cardinal Thomas Weld, from a well-known English Catholic family who in 1796 married Lucy Clifford, by whom he had a daughter, Mary Lucy. His wife died in 1815 and three years later his daughter married, allowing him to prepare for ordination. When he was eventually made a cardinal his daughter watched the consistory from behind a curtain and he attracted much attention in Rome by riding in his carriage with his assembled grandchildren. He was known as the ‘Cardinal of the Seven Sacraments’.

Henry Edward Manning, on the other hand, was born in Totteridge, Hertfordshire in 1808 and studied at Harrow and Oxford. His father was a wealthy West Indian sugar merchant but when the family business collapsed the young Manning experienced something of a conversion and prepared himself for Holy Orders in the Church of England. He was ordained in 1832 and took up a seemingly obscure curacy at Lavington and Graffham, near Chichester in Sussex.

Shortly afterwards the Rector, Rev John Sargent, died and Manning succeeded him. The late Rector had seven children, including five daughters. According to George Dudley Ryder, who married the youngest of them, ‘the beauty of those sisters was of no ordinary kind’. Thomas Mozley met them at a breakfast party in 1829. He noted that they had a ‘peach bloom’ on their cheeks, which added to their beauty. It also acted as a harbinger of tragedy, for the Sargents had a weak constitution, with a tubercular strain, and only one of the seven siblings outlived their mother.

The young Manning married Caroline Sargent on 7th November 1833 after a three-month courtship. The ceremony was performed by the bride’s brother-in-law, Samuel Wilberforce, later bishop first of Oxford and then Winchester. Caroline’s family would later prove influential in her husband’s conversion to Rome: two sisters-in-law would eventually be received into the Church with their husbands and children, and a nephew, Fr Ignatius Ryder, succeeded Newman as Provost of the Birmingham Oratory.

The couple seems to have been generally happy. Some claim that Manning proposed marriage by telling the young lady, ‘Caroline, I have spoken to your mother’; and it is difficult to imagine even young Mr Manning on his knees before Caroline.’ There are hints that Caroline had some initial reservations about the marriage. On honeymoon, Manning wrote to Mrs Sargent that his bride was now ‘more like herself’ and ‘it really seems as if a weight of uncertainty and depression had been removed’.

The newly-married Manning threw himself into prayer, study and parish work. Unusually for the times, he took his pastoral responsibilities seriously, introducing the daily round of morning and evening prayer and tolling the bell himself to call his flock to church. He tried to visit his parishioners regularly, many of whom were Downland shepherds, and became a familiar and stately figure trudging the country lanes.

In 1837, the same year that the widower Cardinal Weld died, Caroline fell ill. She died of consumption on 24th July, aged only 25, leaving her husband a childless widower. On her deathbed, she told her mother, ‘look after Henry’, and this she did for a number of years, keeping house for him and acting as a companion.

In his book Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey claimed that ‘in after years, the memory of his wife seemed to be blotted from his mind’ and that he saw her death as opening up his career possibilities, numbering it among ‘God’s special mercies’. In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. Manning was clearly heart-broken and spent many hours beside his wife’s grave, where he would often compose his sermons. He wrote to Newman, ‘I try to leave all in God’s hands – but it is very, very difficult … No man knows what it is to watch the desire of his eyes fading away.’ He confessed to Samuel Wilberforce that he felt ‘the absolute need of full employment, and to the best of my powers I maintain a habit of fixed attention, and suffer as few intervals of disengaged time as I can.’ If he seldom spoke of Caroline in subsequent years, it may be that he found it too painful.

He later erected a stained glass window in Chichester Cathedral in her memory and treasured all her letters. These were stolen while travelling to Rome in 1851. One of his companions remembered that ‘at the first moment after the discovery of his loss the expression of grief in his face and voice was such as I have seldom witnessed. He spoke little; and when I was beginning to speak, he laid his hand upon my arm, and said, ’Say nothing! I can just endure it when I keep perfectly silent.’ He gradually learnt to accept the loss, reflecting that ‘the loss was probably necessary – necessary to sever all bonds to earth’ as he began a new chapter in his life as a Catholic priest.

Caroline would not be forgotten. Years later, a flower from her grave would each year be taken to the aged Cardinal in Westminster, who regarded it with great emotion. As he lay dying in 1892, he entrusted a volume of his wife’s prayers and reflections to Herbert Vaughan, saying: ‘not a day has passed since her death 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.’ The precious volume was kept under his pillow and presumably buried with him.

It is an astonishing thought. Caroline’s grave at Lavington is now in a rather poor state, covered in lichen and difficult to read, but her personal book of prayers lies with her beloved in the magnificence of the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.

This article originally appeared in the Catholic Times on 9th March. It is reprinted by kind permission of the Catholic Times.