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John Mason Neale

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.


JOHN MASON NEALE was born on January 24, 1818, in London. His father, Cornelius Neale, Senior Wrangler in 1812, a strong Evangelical, was ordained priest in 1822, but died in the next year at Chiswick. His widow moved to the village of Shepperton. When he was eleven, John Mason was sent to a school at Blackheath, and writes to his former tutor at Shepperton to thank him 'for the very pretty Greek Testament,' out of which, he informs him, 'we have learnt a verse every day,' an early beginning indeed! At fifteen he went to Sherborne. There ' a tall, shy, sallow-faced boy, with thick, dusky hair tumbled above a broad forehead, and dark blue, short-sighted eyes, he moved a solitary figure among the young, happy herd.' He was no athlete, and had no qualifications for schoolboy popularity. But all his life he was an indefatigable walker, and acquired later a great love for mountains; he was also a fearless horseman. Sherborne introduced him to the real country, which, Cockney-born, he was to inhabit for the greater part of his life.

From Sherborne Neale went to Trinity College, Cambridge. Here, again, he remained largely a solitary, though recognized as the most gifted undergraduate of his time, as Keble was at Oxford. A friend and contemporary says of him: 'He was soon marked out as the cleverest man of his year, but neither his father's powers nor his teachers' instructions ever influenced him so as to give him the slightest taste for mathematics. He had through life a rooted dislike to that study. This dislike proved disastrous to his hope of graduating with distinction, for the iron rule (since obsolete), which compelled all candidates for the Classical Tripos to take mathematical honours first, resulted in his being unable to secure the prize which was universally adjudged to him by those who knew his powers.' Yet he won the Members' Prize in 1838, and soon after taking his degree was appointed assistant tutor at Downing College. Always gifted with a talent for poetry, he won the Seatonian Prize for a sacred poem no less than eleven times. He read very widely, and steeped himself in the classics and in mediaeval Latin, which laid the sure foundation for his subsequent fame as a hymnologist. Dr. Overton, in the Dictionary of Hymnology, says of him: 'It is in this species of composition that Dr. Neale's success was pre-eminent, one might almost say unique. He had all the qualifications of a good translator. He was not only an excellent classical scholar in the ordinary sense of the term, but he was positively steeped in mediaeval Latin.' Again, 'Dr. Neale's exquisite ear for melody prevented him from spoiling the rhythm by a too servile imitation of the original; while the spiritedness, which is a marked feature of all his poetry, preserved that spring and dash which is so often wanting in a translation. Unfortunately, his translations have suffered from frequent 'improvements.' But the English Hymnal, which contains a large number of them, preserves them intact.

Neale also read much modern English literature, and most of the earlier English dramatists. In later years he writes to a friend: 'You know what an inveterate devourer of novels I used to be.'

While at Cambridge he formed a lifelong friendship with Benjamin Webb, also a Trinity man, and to this we owe a large number of letters written by Neale to Webb, and collected and published by one of his daughters, which throw a strong and intimate light upon his character and his aims.

Neale and Webb had at least two strong ties which bound them together: a desire to serve the Church Revival, and a strong love for archaeology, specially for ancient architecture. In the words of the Guardian, they were in the front rank of those 'who discovered that they had a mission to help the Church Revival on the side where Oxford left it weakest, that of religious art, notably architecture, and of worship treated in reciprocal dependence.' Mrs. Towle, in her Memoir of Neale, remarks: 'It is a noticeable and significant fact that the early Tractarians were more concerned about doctrine than about modes of expression, more intent upon formulating ecclesiastical systems than upon regulating worship; fearless and uncompromising in principle, cautious and restrained in act. Neale, though deeply versed in theological learning and rash and unskilled in controversy upon the burning questions of the day, was possessed by a desire to bring home to the Church at large, by type and allegory and illustration, the same truths impressed by historical research and serious investigation of the records, in creed, and formulary, and definition, upon the understanding of the wise and scholarly.' In one of his Letters he writes: 'It is clear to me that the Tractarian writers missed one great principle--namely, the influence of aesthetics.'

Kindred spirits in Cambridge and Hurrell Froude in Oxford helped to found the Camden Society in May, 1839. The Archdeacon of Bristol, Fellow of Trinity, was amiably rushed into giving it respectability as its first President. In four years it had secured the patronage of two archbishops, sixteen bishops, thirty-one peers, ten architects, and had a membership of 700. The members went about 'collecting' churches, tabling their special features, rubbing brasses, and writing articles for the Ecclesiologist, a monthly publication first issued in 1841, to which Neale and Webb were the chief contributors. They made a considerable impression. Mr. Beresford Hope records that 'the spirit of church restoration and church building leapt from county to county and from parish to parish. . . . One cathedral after another has shaken off sleep and has arrayed itself in the glorious apparel of the King's daughter, and the spiritual works of the Church in vigorous life have followed the outward adorning of the sanctuary.' The C.C.S., after suffering from its very success in shaking up the old bones, and thereby provoking official fears--as always--afterwards became the Ecclesiological Society, with its headquarters in London. It supplied the needed complement, so unduly underrated, to the theological work of the Oxford scholars.


Neale was ordained deacon in 1841, and preached his first sermon at Shepperton the week after. He returned to Downing as chaplain, but was anxious for parochial work, and so went almost immediately to St. Nicolas', Guildford. He had hardly arrived there before Sumner, Bishop of Winchester, refused to license him, being alarmed at his connection with the Camden Society. Neale returned to Cambridge, and waited for another curacy.

He also got his engagement to Miss Sarah Norman, daughter of the rector of St. Botolph's, Cambridge, confirmed. They were married in 1842. He also wrote Herbert Tresham: A Story of the Great Rebellion, the first of his delightful stories for children. He had, then, plenty to occupy him. It was said of him that 'he was never content to do one thing at a time.' The story was begun on March 5 and finished on June 2. In the meantime he was ordained priest on May 22. The very next day he accepted the small living of Crawley in Sussex. There, armed with a hatchet and the churchwardens' consent, he set himself to hack down pews, as representing worldly distinctions in the house of God. He was there for a year only, during which he did much to improve both church and people. He then had to resign this brief charge, as his lungs were seriously affected. He retired to Penzance, and then to Madeira for three years, the latter event having a great effect on his life. He returned to England in 1845, the year of Newman's secession, and went to live at Reigate. In 1846 he was offered the Wardenship of Sackville College at the princely stipend of £24 a year, and accepted it. Ambition had never been one of his failings, and he was attracted by the antiquity of the foundation and the chance of quiet leisure.

The foundation, an almshouse for old people dating from 1608, had suffered severely from lawsuits. When Neale arrived the buildings were in a state of decay, the great hall in so bad a condition as to be barely safe, the chapel scarcely fit for use. Neale spent £100 of his own money in putting the chapel into order. It was the scene of his ministry till the end of his life. The sole piece of preferment which he was offered, the Deanery of Perth in 1850, was declined. America, not Cambridge, recognized his abilities as a theologian. In 1860 Hartford College, in Connecticut, gave him his D.D. In accepting it he honoured the college more than it honoured him. There are three volumes of Sermons in Sackville College. They form 'the strongest evidence of the sympathetic knowledge of the spiritual needs of the poor and ignorant, and of the insight he displayed into the workings of untutored minds.' His work at Sackville College is indeed the most remarkable of all that he did. It, together with his lifelong sympathy with and understanding of children, showed that this great scholar had the first qualification for entrance into the Kingdom of God, inasmuch as he had ' become as a little child.' The material with which he started at the college was not very promising. Thus one old lady, requested to attend chapel, replied: 'Well, sir, I wish to oblige you; and I'm sure I wish to oblige Almighty God whenever I can!'

The restored chapel was furnished with open benches, the altar was duly vested and provided with cross and two candles, and a great rood was set up on a screen. These seemly innovations caused Neale to be inhibited by the Bishop of Chichester. Neale resisted, as his chapel was not a parish church, and the bishop declared that he felt it to be his duty 'to stop Mr. Neale from continuing to debase the minds of the poor people with his spiritual haberdashery.' The case was taken by the bishop to the Court of Arches, and given against Neale. His friend Webb wrote: 'Neither the advocate nor the judge got up the case. I never heard such astounding ignorance on all sides, such a mockery of justice.' The sentence was pronounced in 1847, and remained in force till 1860. Thus for thirteen years the poor people of the college were deprived of the Sacraments in their own chapel. In 1851 they wrote a pathetic appeal to the bishop, which was answered most unsympathetically. It is related that when Neale received the news that the case had gone against him, he shut himself up alone in the chapel for hours. Writing to a friend who had been asked to give up certain services, he says: 'If I must give up a principle, I would rather do it for the sake of keeping people in the Church than of submitting to the tyranny of an heretic. I would rather satisfy the public than an episcopal bully.' After the inhibition was finally withdrawn in 1863 he writes: 'It is really providential that now the Bishop formally, as he did three years ago virtually, withdrew his inhibition; so, I hope, ends a battle of more than sixteen years. I have withdrawn not a single word, nor altered a single practice (except in a few instances by way of going further).' With the gracefulness of a saint he dedicated his two volumes of collected Seatonian poems to the bishop who had persecuted him so long.


From the study of Sackville College there flowed forth a constant stream of books and pamphlets. The number of his publications, taken from the catalogue of the British Museum, is no less than 140, ranging from his great History of the Holy Eastern Church in two volumes to A History of Pews and stories for children. His close friend, Dr. Littledale, writes: 'The vast stores of Dr. Neale's learning were hardly less remarkable than the readiness and certainty with which he could draw upon them, the ease with which he could illustrate every subject he treated with apt classical allusions, parallels lying hid in history or legend, hymn or song, of ancient or modern times.' This vast knowledge was put entirely at the disposal of the Church, whether in the provision of numerous commentaries on Holy Scripture, or histories, or hymns and poems, or tales to bring the Faith home to children and simple-minded souls, or polemical pamphlets to defend it. Naturally, his correspondence was immense, and touched on a great variety of topics. It may be a comfort to record his daughter's remark on 'the extreme difficulty of my father's handwriting,' and a story is told that a printer once rendered his 'sampling a house by a brick' as 'sampling a horse by a kick!' In 1851 Neale became leader-writer for the Morning Chronicle, and for several years he contributed three articles a week on a variety of subjects.

It is as a hymnologist and controversialist that Neale has mostly been remembered. But his work for reunion was of the first importance. The word 'Catholic' was one he treasured deeply, and he would even apply it as a term of approbation to such things as woods and fields which struck him as being perfect.

Neale's three years in Madeira gave him the opportunity to start his great History of the Holy Eastern Church. To equip himself for this, he added Russian to his already profound knowledge of Greek. He also added Syriac and Georgian. While in Madeira he acquired a fluent proficiency in Portuguese. By the end of his life he had gained a knowledge of no less than twenty languages. A distinguished contemporary scholar once startled an audience with the remark: 'I'm afraid my Armenian is rather rusty!' It is just the sort of remark Neale might have made. In Madeira he became closely acquainted with Montalembert, the great Catholic writer. Besides his History Neale introduced us to the magnificent hymns of the Eastern Church by his unique translations, as also to its liturgies. His work brought him an appreciative message from the then Tsar, together with a present of £100. It also brought him into touch with Philaret, the famous Metropolitan of Moscow, as also with several Oriental scholars. In his correspondence were discovered letters from France, Russia, Holland, and Spain. In 1860, on receipt of a magnificent present of Icons, he writes: ' I had no idea until now how big a man I was in Russia.' Philaret sent him a rare book, and wrote in it: ' God's blessing and help to those who investigate the truth in the ancient books and traditions of the Church, for the peace and ultimate union of the Churches of God.' This work, so ably helped on by Neale, has indeed made great strides, and we shall not easily forget the man who so early aided them to realization.

In his commerce with the Eastern Church he became friends with Father Popoff, the chaplain of the Russian Embassy in London, and had much correspondence with him. An excerpt from one of these letters will be of present interest. 'I have had a curious correspondence with Father Popoff about Transubstantiation. ... I confess it seems to me nonsense to say, "We believe in metousiosis, but we say nothing of the mode, and we use the word in a sense of our own, distinct from the Latin meaning." And the Slavonic word presuchchestvlenie, is almost stronger, means-were there such a word-transapparentiation. Again, in another letter: 'If metousiosis be not transubstantiation, how is homoousios consubstantial? ... I can't see the distinction between worshipping the Host and Jesus Christ in the Host, except with a kind of metaphysical nicety, which can hardly enter into one's devotions.'

Neale's interest in reunion was not confined to the East. He made himself well acquainted with the Church of Holland, with which we are now happily once more in communion. He refers to it as 'Jansenist,' using the epithet usually applied to it at that time, though without reason. He writes: 'Of course, there are weak points in the Jansenists, but their weakest point is strength compared with the Ultramontanes. Granting all that their adversaries said, it comes to this that, in times of great difficulty, one or two proceedings were a little irregular; whereas the Dutch Jesuits are bound to lay down the principle that, where there is not a Catholic monarch, there cannot be diocesan bishops. Is not this Erastianism of the worst kind?'

He wrote a History of the Jansenist Church, and went to Holland to collect materials for it. He speaks of it thus: 'A taunt and a byword to the rampant Ultramontanes, she has calmly and trustfully held her own, proclaimed her immovable attachment to Catholic Union and the Catholic Faith, and awaits in patience and hope the brighter days when her isolation shall be removed.' He writes his history ' not only to interest, but also to console those members of our Church who lament our isolation from the rest of Christendom.'


Neale was so strongly convinced of the Catholicity of the English Church that he was inclined to be anti-Roman. His experience of the Church in Madeira did not tend to impress him, and he writes in a letter from there in 1844: 'I cannot make, as Montalembert does, visible union, or as the British Critic sometimes seems to wish to do, the desire for visible union with the Chair of St. Peter the keystone, as it were, of the Church, at least not in the sense in which the Western Church has sometimes done. We Orientals take a more general view. The Rock on which the Church is built is St. Peter, but it is a Triple Rock: Antioch where he sat, Alexandria which he superintended, Rome where he suffered. You would be astounded at the weight of evidence in the Doctors of the Western Church.' When Newman left the English Church, Neale regarded it as a reaction from his former strong bias against Rome. He writes on the eve of this departure: 'I hope and believe that Newman will not leave us, but I should not despair if he did. My sheet anchor of hope for the English Church is that you cannot point out a single instance of an heretical or schismatical body which after apparent death awoke to life. The Donatists might have done it, the Copts might have done it, the Nestorians might have done it, but they have not. Why should there be such a startling anomaly to all past experience first of all exhibited in the nineteenth century?' Let us remember that the Donatists were Newman's undoing. In a letter in which Neale speaks of meeting Pusey he remarks: 'He is just the man I fancied. ... I could not wish a man to be more aesthetic than he is. How different from Newman!' Neale believed profoundly in the words of one of his poems that 'England's Church is Catholic, though England's self is not,' and he shows the bright hope of the Catholic Movement in the words: 'I am sure that, in spite of three hundred years' be-calvinization of England, there is yet a chord in most people's hearts that vibrates to Catholic truth.' He had an affectionate correspondence with Ambrose de Lisle, who strove for reunion, as also with Father Tiernay, chaplain to the Duke of Norfolk, of whom he relates: 'He is much opposed to the Jesuits, and believes that, but for them, we should now have been in communion with Rome.' Thus the Jesuits have appeared as 'Devil's Advocates' both with regard to us and to the Church of Holland.

Yet, not accepting thejpapacy in the terms at present offered, Neale had no doubts as regards the value of Roman practice and devotion. Thus: 'I have read Ward, and think that all the part touching on the present Roman system of devotion both edifying and beautiful.' In a Calendar he drew up in 1852 'on Sarum principles' he provides for Compline, Reserved Sacrament, Dedication of an Altar and Altar Plate, Mass (sic) at Funerals and Marriages. The Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the convent he founded at East Grinstead from the start, and Benediction with it regularly given. On Good Friday, 1857, Neale records that 'The Sisters kept the Devotion of the Forty Hours with great edification.' Two sayings of his bearing on the services of the Church are interesting, in view of present controversies. When he suffered at Crawley from loss of voice, he writes: 'I shall hope to administer the Holy Communion, when we need not speak louder than in an ordinary room'; and commenting on the Scottish Office, he remarks: 'The Liturgy is now nearly what one could wish. Indeed, there is but to substitute an Introit for the part that precedes the Collect, and to put the "Gloria in Excelsis" into its right place, and I know not that we want much more.'


We have already recorded Dr. Overton's tribute to Neale as a translator of ancient hymns. The Hymnal Noted, the first of the revived hymnals, owed practically everything to him. In the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern 61 out of 473 (one-eighth) and in the English Hymnal 72 out of 626 (one-tenth) are original or translated hymns from his pen. Only a few examples can be given, but they include The Royal Banners; Blessed city, heavenly Salem; Day of Wrath; Art thou weary?; For thee, O dear, dear country, The Day of Resurrection. Neale wrote several carols, and it will be a surprise to many to learn that Good King Wenceslas is one of them.

Neale was the first of the Anglo-Catholic novelists. His tales are still very interesting, and are full of arresting and accurate history. His description of places he had never visited, except in imagination, are of extraordinary fidelity. Among his many tales may be quoted Theodora Phranza; The Egyptian Wanderers; The Quay of the Dioscuri, a story of the time of Arius; Lucia's Marriage; The Sea Tigers; Herbert Tresham; Agnes de Tracy.

Neale was so many-sided that it is difficult to cram him into a pint pot. He lived in the stirring times of the Gorham Judgment and the Jerusalem bishopric question, the question that settled Manning. He wrote vigorous and telling pamphlets, but he made it a rule never to let them be sullied by lack of Christian charity. The occasions were ephemeral, but the pamphlets contain, of course, really solid and permanent matter. We have not the space to deal with them in detail. One saying of his on an important question still current may be quoted: 'Depend upon it, you are not wrong in resisting laydom. I believe with you that it will come in; but the more we resist, the less obnoxiously shall we be infested with it. ... I doubt if it is not a greater departure from discipline than the denial of the Chalice. If we are to give up everything in which we seem likely to be beaten, where shall we stop?'


There now remains all too short a space in which to deal with one of the lasting gifts Neale left to the Church, the Community of St. Margaret, East Grinstead. Like the Sisterhood at Plymouth, it arose out of the necessities of the sick. The rule was founded on the original rule of the Visitation of St. Francis de Sales, before that order became enclosed. Neale deliberately chose a grey rather than a black habit, as being more cheerful for sick people. St. Vincent de Paul provided much inspiration. Carter of Clewer and his famous Sisterhood, together with Butler of Wantage and his, supplied encouragement and example, as also did Father Benson of Cowley. Butler writes with regard to rules: 'My impression is that you have too many, especially for a beginning. Rules should shape themselves as the work grows and need occurs. With good people, such as Sisters of Mercy are likely to be, one can risk a little, and wait to buy experience.' The community started with two Sisters in 1854. They did not live in community till the next year. In June, 1856, a house close to Sackville College was taken, and the Sisters moved into it. Dr. Neale's daughter is still the Rev. Mother of the community, which now has three daughter houses (one of which is St. Saviour's Priory, Haggerston) and sixteen dependencies, including the Free Home for the Dying at Clapham, a college, school, and orphanage in Ceylon, and a house at Johannesburg. Naturally, this venture of faith added greatly to Neale's work. He writes to a Sister saying that he now gets up at five, and hopes to manage four!

Excessive work killed this remarkably gifted son of the Church at the early age of forty-eight, in 1866, very shortly after the death of Keble. The following lines, dictated on his death-bed, form a fitting last message to the Church:

Ye, who are fighting the battle for England's Church and her glory.
Time there will be, there will be, though we never shall see it in this world,
When, by the hands of men that come after us, God shall upraise her;
She whom we fight for now be no more despised and rejected,
But an eternal praise, and a joy for all generations.

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