Simon Cotton traces the history of a rare book and the life of its eighteenth-century owner
It was just an old book I spotted on a bookseller’s list. What caught my eye was the fact that it contained a bookplate of an eighteenth-century Norfolk country parson whose name I recognized (1: portrait of Blomefield in Fersfield church). Now, over the years I have found all sorts of books in second-hand bookshops, sometimes with nice surprises, like the letter from Frank Weston tucked into the back of a copy of The One Christ (Hay on Wye, 1977) or a hardback copy of the SSPP production of Ronald Knox’s The Church in Bondage (Felixstowe, 1990). But this was different, so I got on the phone and ordered it; it arrived a few days later, and sure enough, inside the front cover was the bookplate of ‘Francis Blomefield, Rector of Fersfield in Norfolk, 1736’ (2).
A child of local farmers, Francis Blomefield was born at Fersfield, between Diss and Thetford, on 23 July 1705. He was educated at local grammar schools and, apart from four years at Caius College, Cambridge (1724–8), spent his whole life in his native county. He became Rector of Fersfield (3: Fersfield church) in 1729 and, as an antiquary from his youth, commenced compiling what was to be published as An Essay towards a Topographical History of Norfolk. He printed this himself at Fersfield Rectory, the volumes appearing in parts, the first part appearing in 1736. This volume was complete in 1739; a second volume was published in 1741– 5, and he was deep into the third volume when on a visit to London to consult documents in the Rolls chapel, in December 1751, he caught smallpox, the disease which had killed his father Henry some 20 years before. Francis Blomefield died at Fersfield on 17 January 1752.
Blomefield had been fortunate in 1732 when he got access to the antiquarian collections of the late Peter le Neve, Norroy King of Arms, but he also corresponded widely and, importantly, did a great deal of his own research in documents, discovering many of the Paston Letters.
Anyone who has researched at all deeply among the episcopal registers or registers of medieval wills of Norfolk will have encountered in the back of a volume the mark and inscription O ext. F. B. He set himself high standards, too high to have completed the work within a normal span of years; he had access to printed sources which have since disappeared, and he also recorded things that his successor did not use.
Blomefield died heavily in debt, as he had undervalued the cost of his publishing venture, and another Norfolk antiquary, Charles Parkin, the Rector of Oxborough (1689–1765) took over the project, though in less expansive form. Parkin completed the task in around 1763, but did not survive to publish it. In the end, a Kings Lynn bookseller named William Whittingham published the remainder of the third volume and also the fourth and fifth volumes between 1769 and 1775. Even in its partly unfulfilled state, it is an outstanding work and a first port of call to Norfolk historians. Blomefield’s own library was sold soon after his death by Mary, his widow, to raise much-needed funds. It went to the Norwich bookseller William Chase the younger, and was auctioned on 28 July 1752.
And the book, you ask? It is a copy of Corneille’s translation of Thomas à Kempis, L’Imitation de Jesus-Christ, the 1704 edition. From an inscription in an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century hand, one can see it passed at some time to the French Benedictine Convent of NotreDame-des -Anges at Montargis, in France. This community of 40 nuns escaped from under the shadow of the guillotine in 1792 and under their formidable Superior Mother Benedict came to England. On arriving at Shoreham they were welcomed by the Prince of Wales, for his wife, Mrs Fitzherbert, was a Catholic and godmother to one of the nuns. They successively moved via Bodney (Norfolk), Old Heath Hall in Wakefield and Orrell Mount (Lancs) to Princethorpe near Rugby, where they settled for over a century and where the book acquired a violet library stamp for BM de Angelis Princethorpe.
In fact, The Imitation of Christ was a Christocentric book with a very wide readership. John Wesley read it in the year of his ordination; it influenced the converted slaver John Newton, while a century later General Gordon carried it on the battlefield. The Imitation of Christ is divided into four ‘books’, commencing with the withdrawal from an outside world of vanity and illusion and with directives for the inward life. Book Three, entitled ‘On Interior Consolation’, contrasts the desire for the passing things of the world with the eternal values of Christ. The final Book is a dialogue between the soul and Christ about the Blessed Sacrament.
A black hole?
At first sight, though, this is not at all the kind of book you would expect an eighteenth- century antiquarian parson to be reading. The eighteenth century has come to be seen as a black hole of Anglican church life. The Victorians, especially the Tractarians and their successors, gave it a bad
name, implying that everyone pretty much went through the motions. History, of course, is written by the winners and it suited the nineteenth-century writers to paint a dark picture of the eighteenth-century Church of England.
There was a neglected side of it and abuses, no one doubts that. Yet before the Tractarians, there was the Hackney Phalanx of Robert and Joshua Watson, together with their brother-in-law Henry Handley Norris, and before the Hackney Phalanx, a century after the Caroline divines, there were the spiritual disciples of John Hutchinson, the best known Hutchinsonian probably being William Jones of Nayland (1726–1800). These men would have termed themselves High Church, meaning they held a high doctrine of the Church and Her Sacraments, but without reference to liturgical practice.
High Church tradition
Keble and Pusey got their spirituality from eighteenth-century sources. Pusey’s mother was the redoubtable Lady Lucy Pusey (née Sherard), daughter and favourite child of the Revd Robert Sherard, fourth Earl of Harborough (1719–99). In 1879, shortly before he died, Dr Pusey wrote: ‘All that I know about religious truth I learnt, at least in principle, from my dear mother.’ ‘But
then,’ he added, ‘behind my mother, though of course I did not know it at the time, was the Catholic Church.’
Her teaching was based upon the Gospels and the Church Catechism. To quote Dr Pusey again, ‘The doctrine of the Real Presence I learnt from my mother’s explanation of the Catechism which she had learnt to understand from older clergy.’
As Nigel Aston has commented, ‘there was not so great difference in outlook between the undemonstrative religion of this conservative squarson and his grandson, one of the leading luminaries in the Oxford Movement’.
In the words of Dean Church about the successors of the eighteenth-century High Church tradition:
‘There was nothing effeminate about it, as there was nothing fanatical; there was nothing extreme or foolish about it; it was a manly school, distrustful of high-wrought feelings and professions, cultivating self-command and shy of display, and setting up as its mark, in contrast to what seemed to it sentimental weakness, a reasonable and serious idea of duty. The divinity which it propounded, though it rested on learning, was rather that of strong common sense than of the schools of erudition. Its better members were highly cultivated, benevolent men, intolerant of irregularities both of doctrine and life, whose lives were governed by an unostentatious but solid and unfaltering piety, ready to burst forth on occasion into fervid devotion.’
‘Diligent and exemplary’
Church goes on to comment: ‘The custom of daily service and even of fasting was kept up more widely than is commonly supposed. The Eucharist, though sparingly administered, and though it had been profaned by the operation of the Test Acts, was approached by religious people with deep reverence.’
But surely Parson Blomefield was so tied up with his great work of history that he skimped his duties, only attending to them superficially? Not at all. R.W. Ketton-Cremer, that great twentieth-century Norfolk historian, read through the parish registers of Fersfield as well as its churchwardens’ and overseers’ accounts to see what he could find out about Blomefield (4: the John Flamstead portrait, esteemed as a good likeness of Blomefield). He wrote: ‘Even a superficial glance at the Fersfield registers and accounts will prove that he was a diligent and exemplary parish priest all his days. From his institution in 1729 until less than three months before his death at the beginning of 1752, the entries in the registers are continuously in his hand, and every page is signed by him as rector.’
Within these pages, Blomefield paid warm-hearted tribute to his predecessor and moving tributes to his parents and to his deceased churchwarden, William Flowerdew. He himself carefully set out the accounts for his churchwardens, and the overseer’s accounts show his solicitous care for the welfare of the parishioners of Fersfield. So perhaps it is not too much to imagine this country parson pondering and meditating over the words of à Kempis in the third chapter of Book Four:
My soul longs for Your Body; my heart desires to be united with You. Give me Yourself – it is enough; for without You there is no consolation. Without You I cannot exist, without Your visitation I cannot live. I must often come to You, therefore, and receive the strength of my salvation lest, deprived of this heavenly food, I grow weak on the way.
It is indeed necessary for me, who fall and sin so often, who so quickly become lax and weak, to renew, cleanse, and inflame myself through frequent prayer, confession, and the holy reception of Your Body, lest perhaps by abstaining too long, I fall away from my holy purpose. For from the days of his youth the senses of man are prone to evil, and unless divine aid strengthens him, he quickly falls deeper. But Holy Communion removes him from evil and confirms him in good. ND