Anna James reports
‘If they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.’
‘Every library should try to be complete on something, if it were only the history of pinheads.’
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Poet at the Breakfast Table (London, 1884), p.224.
The archives at Pusey House, built up by successive custodians over 134 years, have been officially recognised by The National Archives as one of the most important collections of papers of 19th century churchmen outside the National Libraries. The papers on Tractarianism and the Anglican branch of the Oxford Movement are unparalleled, but space being finite, we cannot attempt to acquire every relevant or related document ever written on the matter. The one area where Pusey House aims to be exhaustively comprehensive is (unsurprisingly) the papers of E.B. Pusey himself. So, when a collection of letters from Pusey to F.R. Wegg-Prosser was spotted on the open market by an eagle-eyed reader, the Library was very keen to acquire them. The collection was purchased with the assistance of a grant from the Friends of National Libraries, and is of core importance to our archive, both in terms of providing comprehensive coverage of the life and thought of Dr Pusey, and in providing primary material of the relationship between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the Victorian era.
Francis Richard Haggitt (1824–1911) was the son of the Rector of Nuneham Courtney, a village seven miles south of Oxford. He attended Eton, was awarded a BA by Balliol College, Oxford in 1845, and then served as Member of Parliament for Herefordshire from 1847–1852, where he was associated with the Tory party. In 1849, he inherited a surname, a Herefordshire estate, and a quarter of a million pounds from his great-uncle, the Venerable Dr Richard Prosser, the Archdeacon of Durham. A devout man who took his faith seriously, the newly named Wegg-Prosser began to correspond with John Henry Newman in 1851 and effectively ended his political career with his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in the following year. Wegg-Prosser subsequently devoted his energies towards his faith, founding a Benedictine abbey on his land at Belmont and becoming a leading layman, spokesman and supporter of the Roman cause. A church built on his estate acted as the cathedral for the newly-formed Roman Catholic diocese of Newport for sixty years.
Wegg-Prosser’s crisis of faith (or rather, crisis in faith) in 1851 sparked a flurry of letter writing, including extensive correspondence with Dr Pusey. It is clear from the tone of the letters that the pair were already well acquainted by this point (Pusey urbanely addresses his correspondent as ‘My dear WP’). The letters (six from Pusey, one from Wegg-Prosser) affirm and elaborate upon Pusey’s theological understanding of the place of Anglicanism in the wider Catholic Church and restate Pusey’s doctrinal views on matters including the real presence, the immaculate conception and even the place of doctrine. He ranges over his subjects with characteristic scholarship, calling on knowledge of the Church Fathers and the Councils of the Early Church as a matter of course.
In addition to the correspondence with Dr Pusey, there are also 27 letters dating from 1847–1886 from 13 other correspondents. These include Wegg-Prosser’s fellow MP, J.G. Hubbard (later Baron Addington), the Orthodox chaplain to the Russian Embassy, Eugene Popoff, and Anglican priest, Roman Catholic convert and pre-Raphaelite writer on English craft, JH Pollen. Unexpectedly, these other letters have revealed a previously unrecorded attempt at reunion between Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Churches spearheaded by Wegg-Prosser in 1850. It seems to have produced little enthusiasm from any quarter.
Although we have acquired only a couple of Wegg-Prosser’s own letters in the series of correspondence, it seems from the replies that he received that he was in a state of irritability verging on paranoia in the early 1850s. Many of the letters start with apologies for having inadvertently caused offence, and veiled suggestions that the problem lies with the recipient, not the writer. In his third letter Pusey wrote somewhat petulantly: ‘I have not the slightest idea, that it wd [sic] have any weight with you. Nothing that I have ever said, has had the slightest weight with you.’ (WPR/1/3)
The tone of Pusey’s final letter is verging towards the sneering, including the remark: ‘I cannot, of course, tell whether contempt is a part of yr. character.’ (WPR/1/6)
It is clear that most of the writers found the correspondence extremely frustrating. The stress felt by Wegg-Prosser at the time surrounding his conversion can be more easily understood on reading the final two letters of the collection. These are anonymous poison pen letters making threats of eternal damnation and temporal legal action against Wegg-Prosser for his conversion to Rome. The unknown writer claims to have known Wegg-Prosser since childhood, yet takes steps to disguise his handwriting. The venom and spite in these notes bring to life the very real difficulties and prejudice still faced by Roman Catholics in the 1850s.
The thing about the collection which pleased me most, however, is the first line of the first letter I read from Dr. Pusey:
‘My Dear WP
Being among my books again…’
Pusey House WPR 1/2 f1.
A catalogue of the Wegg-Prosser papers is being prepared, and will shortly appear online at http://puseyarchives.blogspot.co.uk/.
Anna James is the Librarian and Archivist of Pusey House.