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A Victorian might-have-been

12 August 2016

Geoffrey Rowell on the man Manning pipped to Westminster and a cardinal’s hat

George Errington and Roman Catholic Identity in Nineteenth-Century England

Serenhedd James

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THE name of George Errington is not a generally familiar one, except to those who study the history of the Roman Catholic Church in 19th-century England. They will be familiar with the changed situation consequent on Catholic Emancipation and the abolition of the penal laws, and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in the later 1820s; the restoration of the hierarchy in 1851; the flamboyant pastoral letter of Nicholas Wiseman, From out of the Flaminian Gate, provoking cries of “Papal Aggression” and the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill; and the significant appointment of Henry Manning, a former Anglican archdeacon, as Wiseman’s successor as Archbishop of Westminster in 1865.

This last fact could have been otherwise; for it was Errington who was Wiseman’s co-adjutor with right of succession. The centrepiece of this careful and considered study, drawing on extensive archives of primary correspondence, is how Errington was moved aside, and Manning became Archbishop of Westminster and subsequently Cardinal, exercising strong and shaping influence for a definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.

The received view has been that Errington, from an old RC family, represented the moderate, even “Gallican”, tradition of English Catholics, and Manning, by contrast, the Romanist emphasis. James convincingly shows that it was a much more complex story. Errington was as shaped as Wiseman by his training in Rome. The two worked together as Rector and Vice-Rector at the English College, where Wiseman valued Errington’s complementarity on matters financial and canonical.

Errington had formidable intellectual as well as pastoral gifts, which Wiseman recognised when he pressed Rome to appoint Errington, then Bishop of Plymouth, as his co-adjutor in 1855. But the emotional Wiseman was not always easy to work with for someone like Errington, with his canonist’s training and temperament, which could not easily be deflected by parti pris. Sharing the same cramped house at York Place did not make it easy, and some of this story reads like a storm in a cardinalatial teacup — “but if you are in the teacup it is still a storm,” as the late Bishop Colin James once wisely reminded me about a parochial spat.

As co-adjutor, Errington had the exotic title of Archbishop of Trebizond, in partibus infidelium, which meant later that he was summoned to Vatican I, where he, together with William Clifford, Bishop of Clifton, led strongly from the inopportunist side against Manning and the neo-ultramontanes in the critical matter of the formal definition of papal infallibility.

Had they won the day, things would now be ecumenically easier, and a blow would have been dealt to many future instances of creeping infallibility up to Vatican II. In understanding Manning’s ardent advocacy of a definition of infallibility, we should not forget that what took him to Rome from the Church of England was the Erastian Gorham judgment, whereby a secular court ruled on Christian doctrine.

Errington was not a man for turning. He would accept a papal directive, but would not ask for release from a position that he knew canonically was justifiably his. A later attempt to make him first Apostolic Administrator and then (possibly but not immediately) Primate of a restored hierarchy in Scotland foundered on memories of the failure of Rome to support him earlier.

Ecclesiastical appointments and ecclesiastical power are always the opportunities for intrigue as well as for misunderstanding. Manning emerges from this story as less manipulative that his first acerbic biographer, E. S. Purcell, maintained. In Rome, Mgr George Talbot was ever the meddlesome puppeteer; his manoeuvring correspondence flutters in and out of this story.

Serenhedd James clearly demolishes many of the old characterisations of Errington, contributes notably to our understanding of the history of the RC Church in 19th-century England, and shows why John Henry Newman was able to say of Errington, “There is no one whose approbation, whose sympathy, I have more desired than yours.”


The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell is a former Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.

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