Prophet or pious lunatic?

by
18 November 2016

Serenhedd James on an overdue life of a monastic eccentric

New Llanthony Abbey: Father Ignatius’s monastery at Capel-y-ffin
Hugh Allen
Peterscourt Press £18.50*
(978-1-9117-523-0)

 

IN THE midst of the burgeoning religious fervour of 19th-century Britain, the tragi-comic figure of Joseph Leycester Lyne must surely represent the epitome of what Michael Hill, in The Religious Order (Heinemann, 1973), called the “virtuoso religion” of some of its more enthusiastic and eccentric characters. As such, a book like Hugh Allen’s has been lacking for a very long time.

In 1863, Lyne clothed himself as a monk, both figuratively and literally, and gave himself the name “Ignatius of Jesus”. Then, when he was satisfied that he had gathered enough young men and boys around him (the youngest, “the Infant Oblate”, was not quite three years old when his destitute mother handed him over to the community), he made himself abbot, all the while sweeping about in a habit of his own design, partly drawn from the Franciscans, the Benedictines, and his own fertile imagination.

After beginnings in Suffolk and Norwich, he and his brethren eventually settled at Capel-y-ffin in the Llanthony valley, near Abergavenny, where numbers ebbed and flowed until his death, after which the monastery folded, and most of the remaining members threw in their lot with Aeldred Carlyle at Caldey.

Ignatius’s preaching was captivating, and his piety fervent. Nevertheless, he was naïve to the point of silliness, and his own child-like trustfulness was frequently taken advantage of by an unpleasant succession of swindlers, liars, and pederasts. As an extreme neo-medieval Ritualist, he was often a figure of revulsion and derision; and he never found a Church of England bishop willing to advance him to the priesthood, having to settle for vagans orders instead. This compromised his scheme considerably, as did his inability (or unwillingness) to keep the Rule he imposed on his own monks; but to many people he remained attractive, and giants of the Victorian Church flit in and out of Allen’s arresting narrative.

The community at New Llanthony — the putative church was meant to succeed the evocative ruin just along the valley — eventually included nuns as well as monks; but numbers were never large, and Allen introduces us to each member in turn. In this way we are brought into contact with the human aspect of the idiosyncrasies of such a curious cloistered life — with all its inevitable tensions, and frequent expulsions. Nevertheless, a steady trickle of people continued to test their vocations to the monastic life on that often uninviting Monmouthshire hillside: to many, Ignatius and his ultimately doomed project were utterly irresistible.

The miraculous apparitions that are said to have happened at Capel-y-ffin in August and September 1880 fostered the first regular Marian pilgrimage in the Church of England, decades before Hope Patten went to Walsingham. Allen’s treatment of them is particularly rigorous and helpful. Wisely, he does not attempt to persuade one way or the other, but presents the evidence dispassionately, and without prejudice. The whole work is forensically researched, meticulously referenced, and fluently written — a winning combination that makes it as enjoyable as it is useful — and the footnotes are often as interesting and informative as the main body of the text.

Joseph Leycester Lyne was either a faithful thwarted prophet, or a volatile pious lunatic. Perhaps he was a heady combination of both; but Hugh Allen also leaves that judgement to the reader, and does so in a masterly fashion.This book has been well worth the wait.

 

Dr Serenhedd James is Director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

 

*(Peterscourt Press, 3 St Peter’s Court, Tiverton, Devon EX16 6NZ; 01884 258031)

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