How many English cardinals have worried about their dual allegiance to the
Pope and the Crown? Probably most of them, says David Twiston Davies
Princes of the Church: A History of the English Cardinals by Dorn Aidan Bellenger and Stella Fisher, Sutton £20
It is a great honour for an Englishman to be created a cardinal; but how many have had cause to wonder whether their dual allegiance to Pope and Sovereign might one day become a problem? Most, is the likely answer.
Of course, their responses to those allegiances have varied greatly. Some have never set foot in their homeland after being promoted to the Sacred College. Others have concentrated on serving the Crown, aware that they have been elevated less for their spiritual qualities than because it suited the political game being played on the map of Europe. All concerned have been aware that trouble can only result if matters are pressed too far. However, most cardinals have proved fleet enough, as is shown by the fact that only one, John Fisher, has had to realise fully that their red robes are a reminder of the martyrdom that might be expected of them.
In this deft survey, Dom Aidan Bellenger and Stella Fisher pick their way through our 40-odd cardinals. The vagueness of number is deliberate, since while it is reasonably clear who were members of the Sacred College there is doubt about how English some were: Boso Breakspear was nephew of the only English Pope, Adrian IV, but there is no clear evidence that he had any personal connection with these shores. Thomas Langley, Bishop of Durham, and Robert Hallum, Archbishop of Canterbury, were acknowledged to be significant cardinals in the early 15th century, but they were elevated by the anti-pope "John XXIII", who was not an out-and-out rogue. Two Scots, Charles Erskine, a papal diplomat of Jacobite origins, and William Heard, the only Oxford blue to become a cardinal, are also included by the authors because they spent significant periods in London.
While kings have been happy to employ such well-educated clerics in senior administrative positions, they have also been aware that they owe their rank to a superior who often had different priorities, not only on the other side of Europe but even outside this world altogether.
The first English cardinal was Robert Pullen, archdeacon of Rochester and a friend of St Bernard, who was promoted around 1144 and died in Rome two years later after serving as papal chancellor, Stephen Lang
ton, archbishop of Canterbury, was a supporter of Magna Carta who lived abroad when Pope Innocent III placed England under an interdict, before settling down in his last decade to running his province. Many of his reforms were similar to those introduced in France by Robert Curzon, a papal legate accused of favouring the English diplomatically who eventually died in Egypt on crusade.
Simon Langham resigned the see of Canterbury to end up cardinal bishop of Palestrina; William Courtenay, another Archbishop of Canterbury, refused bestowal of the red hat but still used his influence to support the unstable Pope Urban VI far more effectively than he could have done if he had moved to Rome. King Henry V also refused to countenance his cousin Henry Beaufort's elevation, though Beaufort eventually received his promotion and helped to finance the government of Henry VI. Lowly born Thomas Wolsey cut a magnificent figure but, as schoolboys know even today, failed to deliver the divorce Henry VW desired and damaged the Church's cause irreparably.
From then on cardinals were the subject of general, not just kingly, suspicion. Reginald Pole, the link between the new and old worlds, was keenly aware of the effects of the break with Rome. Forced to live abroad by his cousin Henry VIII, Pole almost became Pope in 1549 before he returned home to become Archbishop of Canterbury in Mary's reign. He was significantly cautious, refusing the offer of help from the newly founded Jesuits, whom he regarded as too Spanish and too controversial.
With the exception of the brief reign of King James 11, England was off bounds to cardinals for more than two centuries. William Allen would have been immediately executed as the organiser of the mission priests who returned to minister to the remaining minority of Catholics; Henry Benedict Stuart, the longest serving member of the College, would have been similarly unwelcome as the rightful King Henry IX; the only time he attempted to come was when his brother Bonnie Prince Charlie was marching down to Derby in 1745.
Nevertheless, whatever their prejudices, the English have never been indifferent to cardinals.
Nicholas Wiseman, who became the first Archbishop of Westminster in 1850, attracted enormous interest as a flamboyant Spanish-born Irishman with a liking for the good things of life — his "lobster salad" side, some Catholics sniffed disapprovingly.
Henry Manning, who helped to resolve the 1889 dock strike, made a significant mark in Rome by helping to steer the doctrine of papal infallibility through the first Vatican Council. However, his influence turned out to be far less than that of his contemporary John Henry Newman, one of the great prose writers of the 19th century, whose spirit hovered over the Second Vatican Council.
More than ever before, the English cardinals in the 20th century endeavoured to smooth away Protestant suspicions, though sometimes at a personal cost. Francis Aidan Gasquet, the former prior of Downside, was considered so pro-British when he lived in the Vatican during the First World War that the only cardinal who would dine with him was Merry de Val, an Ushaw-trained diplomat who never served in England.
By the end of the century the Queen referred to Basil Hume as "my cardinal". Yet a new dimension of the old dilemma is emerging now, as the present cardinal faces a secular establishment increasingly exasperated with the idea of religion while the faithful, encouraged by the Pope's skill in communications, thirst for a more vigorous apostolate.
David 7Wiston Davies works for The Daily Telegraph