In the third excerpt from The Catholics and their Houses, Peter Stanford and Leanda de Lisle delve into the history behind Grace Dieu Manor, Leicestershire.
The Catholic Church, the never knew
Till Mr Pugin taught her, That orthodoxy had to do At all with bricks and
mortar Song on Pugin's "Contrasts"
TUCKED AWAY BEHIND a screen of trees on the edge of Charnwood Forest, Grace Dieu Manor has always echoed to the laughter of children. Today, run by the Rosminian order as a Catholic prep school, William Railton's Tudor Gothic manor house was the first marital home of the . noted 19th-century convert Ambrose lisle March Phillipps, his wife and their 16 children.
Ambrose was born into the bosom of the English Establishment, son of a Member of Parliament, scion of an old Leicestershire land-owning family. In 1825, however, at the tender age of 16, he outraged his father and broke every convention of his class by becoming a Roman Catholic. It was a brave act. Catholics were not granted full civil rights until 1829 and 'Ambrose knew no other lay Catholics at the time of his conversion.
The determined teenager matured into a tireless worker for the revival of the "old religion" in England. He was one of a trio of outstanding lay leaders in the vanguard of English Catholicism in the years after emancipation, the others being John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and the architect Augustus Welby Pugin. They shared a passion for medieval Catholicism and saw a revival of Gothic art, architecture and liturgy as the route to recapturing the past. As part of that drive, Grace
Dieu became a centre for Catholic liturgy and proselytising.
It was Ambrose who first persuaded the Rosminian order to send a mission to England. They arrived in 1835, the year Grace Dieu was completed. Their leader was the Italian Aloysius Gentili, who did not immediately warm to Protestant England. "In this country," he wrote, "though it has fallen so low, our religion has a great harvest, but is without labourers... all is melancholy, a heavy atmosphere hangs over a monotonous countryside, the poverty is frightening."
Gentili was less than diplomatic in introducing a new regime of austerity and the local bishop was persuaded to sack him. He then turned to his patron, Ambrose, and was welcomed to Grace Dieu as chaplain. The transfer was accompanied, however, by a few words of advice to Gentili from Ambrose. In order to foster better relations with the English, it was suggested, the Italian Rosminian might wash more often and shave occasionally. Gentili took such
concerns for vanity but
Ambrose insisted that a scruffy priest would not make the impact they so desired.
Rosminian missions were eventually set up in Shepshed and then Loughborough. By that stage Ambrose had already achieved a great deal, despite limited financial means. He had set up a Catholic school two miles from Grace Dieu and in 1837 no fewer than three local chapels were consecrated with great ceremony.
Like the house, the chapel at Grace Dieu was built by Railton in Tudor Gothic style. Among its embellishments
was the first rood screen, separating the choir from the nave, to be erected in England since the 16th century. When Pugin first saw it, he embraced Ambrose saying: "Now at last, I have found a Christian after my own heart."
In the late 1840s, Pugin
turned his attention to Grace
Dieu itself, adding an extra
wing and extending the chapel to provide a shrine to the Blessed Sacrament with an elaborate stone canopy. In addition, the interior decorations were given a face-lift.
Pugin also designed the vestments worn by the clergy at Grace Dieu but their striking Gothic style caused an almighty row between those "Ultramontane" Catholics whose principal concern was respect for papal authority and the "medievalists"like Pugin and Ambrose. The Ultramontanes saw Pugin's long, wide single-colour chasubles, in marked contrast to designs
favoured by Rome, as an affront to papal authority. They persuaded the ecclesiastical authorities to reject them. Pugin's misery at this rebuff helped drive him into mental illness and precipitated his death in 1852. Ambrose's energy and enthusiasm led
him to clash with the Catholic
hierarchy on many occasions.
At one point he was labelled a dangerous fanatic by the authorities, but Grace Dieu proved an inspiration to many.
Though Ambrose was wrong in anticipating a mass return around the country to England's pre-Reformation status as "Mary's dowry", he did prove ahead of his time in other matters. In 1857, for example, he helped found the Association for Promoting the Unity of Christendom, a precursor of the modern ecumenical movement. And while his romantic vision of English medieval Catholicism failed to take root in his own church, it did plant the seed of a Catholic style of worship within Anglican ranks which endures to this day. Ambrose managed the rare feat of befriending both Gladstone and Disraeli the latter immortalised him as Eustace
Lyle in his novel Goningsby.
The death of his father in
1862 did not bring Ambrose any relief from the huge financial strain his activities had placed him under. But it did allow him to Gothicise his name, by the addition of de Lisle. What money he did inherit he spent on renovating the family seat from its austere Palladian style, which he considered "pagan".
When Ambrose inherited Garendon, he passed Grace Dieu to his son, AmbroseCharles, and his daughter-inlaw, Fanny. She reputedly still haunts the house after dying there in a freak accident. A memorial window was erected to her in 1872.
Fanny's husband was the last de Lisle to live at Grace Dieu. In 1933, the Rosminian order took it over as a prep school. It was an appropriate outcome for a building that was once the centre of the Rosminian mission in Leicestershire, though Ambrose would be grieved to hear that Gregorian Chant is no longer heard in the chapel, and the Railton rood screen was burnt by an over-enthusiastic priest in the wake of Vatican II.
Perhaps the best tribute to Ambrose dc Lisle came from his fellow Victorian convert, Cardinal Newman. He said after Ambrose's death: "Noone can forget him or his great virtues, or his claims on the gratitude of English Catholics... He has in our history a place altogether special."