Nigel Palmer relates a case in which the seal of the confessional came in for questioning
On Tuesday 25 April 1865, just before four o’clock in the afternoon, a hansom cab drew up outside the Bow Street magistrates’ court in Covent Garden. From it stepped three figures: two ladies, and one gentleman. The gentleman wore clerical dress, the older woman something like it. The other younger woman was quietly but becomingly dressed, as befitted her station in life as the daughter of a successful and respectable government inspector, Samuel Kent, whose diligence and aptitude had secured for him a large house and grounds in Wiltshire. The party had set out that morning from Brighton, where the three of them, in their various avocations, had lived for a number of years. But their quiet and virtuous lives in Sussex were to be changed forever by what was to follow in the dingy atmosphere of the magistrates’ court.
Not that some of the party were actually unknown on the national stage. The Revd Arthur Douglas Wagner was a considerable figure in Brighton, as his clerical father had been before him. Arthur Wagner had been sent to Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, and his father, eager to keep his son by his side, had built a church for him in Brighton, and appointed him to the living where young Arthur remained vicar for the rest of his long life. He inherited his father’s passion for building churches in Brighton and added four more to the family collection, two of which had been built at the time of his visit to Bow Street. All the ‘Wagner churches’ were adorned with the finest materials and ornaments that a committed Tractarian could lavish upon them, and some of them remain intact to testify to this day of the devotion of Arthur Wagner. He was no mere aesthete, however; at the time of his death, he was rumoured to have spent some £70,000 of his own money in financing the building not just of churches but schools, and dwellings for the poor of his parishes. He had also, in the manner of one of his Tractarian heroes, Dr Pusey, established a sisterhood of nuns next to his church, the Community of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The elder of the two ladies in Bow Street, the Lady Superior of the Community, Katherine Gream, accompanied Wagner dressed in her nun’s garb and wearing a black cloak, trimmed with white.
It was the younger lady, however—Constance Emily Kent—who had already attracted much more lurid attention in the national press some five years earlier, in connection with the cruel death of her half-brother Saville. Not four years old, he had been taken from his room in the early hours of the morning, and found hours later, after a frantic search, dead, nearly decapitated, bearing other knife wounds, and showing signs of suffocation. To add to the horror of his death, his body had been messily concealed in a dilapidated privy in the grounds of the Kent family mansion. Suspicion had immediately fallen on one of the household as the murderer, and much had come out as to the dysfunctional life of the Kent family during the murder’s investigation. The first Mrs Kent had died young, and the second Mrs Kent had preferred and promoted the interests of her own children over those of her predecessor. It seems that she was fiercely resented by her stepchildren. There was even the suggestion that the roving eye of Samuel Kent had led to a scene of adulterous congress with the nursemaid, which had been witnessed by the young Saville, who was silenced to prevent him disclosing what he had seen.
Despite the best efforts of the first real ‘detective’ in the Metropolitan Police, Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher (the model for Dickens’ Mr Bucket in Bleak House), which had resulted in the arrest of Constance and, after Constance’s release, the nursemaid, the case had never been brought to trial and determined. Constance, finding it now difficult to continue life with her father and stepmother, had attached herself to the Community of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where she worked as a lay person for the reform and settlement of prostitutes. Mr Whicher, although still convinced of Constance’s guilt, had been forced to retire in ignominy and ill health.
His belief was, however, about to receive spectacular validation. It seems from a brief diary entry by one of Gladstone’s daughters that Arthur Wagner had sought Gladstone’s advice as to what to do. The Bow Street magistrates were told that Constance Kent wished to confess to the murder of her half-brother; she submitted a written statement to that effect. The subsequent exchanges between her and Sir Thomas Henry, the presiding magistrate, and him and Wagner, make it clear, at that point, that the principal concern of the judicial authority was that Constance Kent had taken the step of confessing to the murder ‘without’ as Henry put it, ‘any inducement from any quarter whatever to give [herself] up.’ ‘Do you say you did not persuade her?’ Wagner was asked. ‘I do say so’ was the reply. Henry even asked Wagner if he knew Miss Kent’s handwriting, which sounds like a trick question, to establish any part he may have played in composing her written statement. Wagner was too far wily for that, and said he did not know her handwriting, having never seen her write.
There is more than a whisper here of the old Protestant concern of the undue influence of ‘Romish’ clergy over their penitents, and especially over vulnerable and young women, which subverted the proper influence which father or husband (or both) should have over them. These were reflected in the excitement caused by John Chambers’ manual for confession, The Priest in Absolution, twenty years later when the then Lord Redesdale made public objection, in the House of Lords no less, to the advice given as to probing methods to bring penitents to a good confession. It was even suggested by some that Wagner was using the case of Constance Kent to advertize the virtues of confession as a regular devotional practice within the Church of England. And the seal of the confessional was also specifically raised by Wagner with the magistrate, making it clear that he referred in court to her public statement, not to anything she had said in private to him.
Henry remitted the preliminary hearing to the magistrates in Wiltshire, where the crime had taken place, and the sad party that had arrived that afternoon in Bow Street journeyed on to Wiltshire. Kent was confined to Devizes prison, but appeared before the presiding magistrate at Trowbridge police court, Henry Ludlow, a week later. He was the same magistrate that had presided over an unsuccessful attempt to assemble sufficient evidence to send her to trial some five years earlier. Many of the witnesses were also the same, but significantly Katherine Gream, the Superior of the Community of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was subjected to the same stern enquiry as to whether or not she had exerted any pressure on Kent to give herself up. ‘Never, never,’ she replied. But Wagner chose his own appearance in the box to put all his cards unmistakably on the table. ‘All the communication I have had with Miss Constance Kent was made to me under the seal of confession, and therefore I must decline to answer any question that would involve a breach of that secrecy… My duty to God forbids me to divulge received anything in confession.’
The magistrate did not pursue the point (despite rather feebly reminding Wagner that he had sworn to tell the whole truth) before remitting Kent to trial, but the public did. Wagner’s statements in Trowbridge, confronting the public and the press with a High vision of the sacrament of confession, a far cry from the gentle rubrics of the visitation of the sick, were greeted with hissing from the public galleries. The national press and the members of both Houses of Parliament criticized him as the self-appointed guardian of Kent’s conscience. He suffered assaults in the streets of Brighton, and notices advertising confession outside his churches were torn down.
In the event, Kent’s repeated plea of guilty at her trial in Salisbury three months later meant that Wagner’s stirring declarations were never quite put to the test. Given that plea, the judge, Sir James Willes, was forced to pronounce the death penalty, his eyes brimming with tears as he did so. He later told Kent’s defence counsel (John Duke Coleridge, a future Lord Chief Justice and memorialist of John Keble) that he would have ruled in favour of the legal privilege of a priest to withhold disclosure of anything said in confession. It may be that Wagner’s establishment, Gladstonian connections, money and position protected him here to some extent, where later less fortunate men were attacked more directly for their determination. But Willes’ opinion must also have been based on the proviso to Canon 113 of 1603, valid then, as now: ‘Provided always that if any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the minister, for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him: we do not in any way bind the said minister by this our Constitution, but do straitly charge and admonish him, that he do not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy…’ Being lawyers, both Willes and Coleridge would also have understood the principles which had established client confidentiality, not only in the legal system, but also as they were to evolve in both banking and medical practices, and their importance in the polity of church and state.
Kent’s death sentence was eventually commuted to imprisonment, where Wagner and Gream visited her; as part of her work in prison, she worked on mosaics which ultimately adorned the floor of the crypt of St Paul’s. She was released in 1885. Full of years, and refusing to resign his living with superb Etonian assurance, despite ill health and some mental confusion, Wagner died in 1904. He left part of his remaining fortune to maintain the magnificent churches he had built. Kent has been identified as the Emilie Kaye who ultimately ran a nurses’ home north of Sydney, Australia until her retirement, and who died in 1944, aged over 100. It has been argued, too, that she confessed to the murder of Saville Kent in order to protect the true murderer, William Kent, her beloved brother, whom she seems to have joined in Australia after her release from prison. Perhaps it is not inappropriate to speculate that this, the wish to protect her brother, by confessing to a murder she did not commit, is the real secret of the confession she made to Wagner in 1865. If it was, it may be thought that that was her secret alone, and it was not for her priest to betray it.
Fr Nigel Palmer is the Assistant Curate of St Benet, Kentish Town