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Alexander Penrose Forbes:
Bishop of Brechin, the Scottish Pusey
by William Perry

London: SPCK, 1939.


WHEN Alexander Penrose Forbes, second son of John Hay Forbes, was born on June 6, 1817, in York Place, old Edinburgh was no more. The new town then extended from Picardy Place in a westerly direction to Charlotte Square; the church of which his father was a prominent member was nearing completion only a few yards away. The "nor loch" still occupied the hollow which is now Princes Street Gardens. Gas was rapidly displacing the paraffin lamp, and water was laid on in the new town. The journey to London was an adventure by stage-coach, and took three days and two nights to complete. The victory of Waterloo was still fresh in the memory of the citizens, and the national monument commemorating that victory was rising on the Calton Hill. The old City Guard, composed of sixty-year-old soldiers, had just come to an end. The first issue of the Scotsman appeared and Blackwood's Magazine was begun.


At his baptism he received the name of Alexander, which had been a family name since the fifteenth century, when it was borne by the first Lord Forbes, and the Cornish name of Penrose from his grandfather on the mother's side, Sir Alexander Penrose Gordon Cumming, whose ancestor in the eighteenth century had married an heiress of that name in Cornwall. As a child of four, Alexander found himself surrounded by six sisters and two brothers, William, the eldest of the family, and George; a year later the family circle was completed by a seventh sister. It was indeed a "bustly household", as they called it, in which Alexander spent his childhood, the sisters endowed with much of their mother's liveliness and candour, the brothers taking after their father, more quiet and thoughtful. The two younger brothers were delicate children, George being a cripple from infancy. Yet both were strong in the independence, self-reliance, and industry which distinguished their father and grandfather. Sir Walter Scott was a frequent visitor to the house, and it was Alexander's boast in afterlife that he had sat more than once on the knee of the author of Waverley. A few years after Alexander was born, the family moved farther west to a house in Ainslie Place, one of the fine crescents which are still a feature of the north-west part of the city.

A few hundred yards away the building of the new Edinburgh Academy had just been completed by the enterprise of Lord Cockburn, Sir Walter Scott, and other leading men of the city, who rightly or wrongly believed that the High School under the management of the Town Council was not providing the liberal classical education they desired. The new school was formally opened in October 1824 with a fine speech by Sir Walter Scott, and in the following year Alexander was enrolled there at the age of eight, one of the youngest of its eighty pupils. In the following year he passed on to Class II, when Archibald Tait, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, eight years his senior, was dux of the Academy.

Alexander went steadily up the school till he left it in 1832 with a thorough grounding in English, Latin, Greek, and mathematics, a sound foundation for the theological and liturgical works in which he won a distinction which none of his schoolfellows, including Tait himself, ever achieved. It is remarkable that Tait and Forbes, though they belonged to the same city and the same school, and later on were in Oxford together, never appear to have exchanged even a letter, so completely did their interests and paths diverge; the fact is that Tait was at heart an Erastian, and throughout his career never manifested the slightest interest in the disestablished Scottish Church.

Forbes left the Academy with no fixed preference for a career, but with an idea that he might obtain a nomination for service in the East India Company; there was no hurry, he was only fifteen. To prepare for this possibility he was sent to a noted coach in Beckenham, Kent, the Rev. Thomas Dale, who had John Ruskin and others of distinction among his pupils. There a fruitful and in every sense an emancipating time was spent with nineteen other boys in the large country house in which Mr. Dale lived. Forbes' health also was so much improved that he was able to join a rowing club, the only sport, except polo for a short time in India, for which he was ever fit.

Returning home in the summer of 1843, and no sign of the nomination to the East India Company appearing, he was advised to enter Glasgow University for a short time and study philosophy and logic under Professor Robert Buchanan. But before the autumn term the nomination arrived, and at the end of that term he returned home to prepare for his departure to "The Honourable East India Company's College at Haileybury", nineteen miles north of London, which was then the training-school for all who sought service in India.


When Forbes entered the College early in 1834 as one of about 100 students, John Lawrence (afterwards Lord Lawrence) had left it only five years before with most of its medals and prizes in his possession. Forbes equalled, if he did not surpass, that brilliant academic career. With improved health, all subjects seemed to come easy. He ended his first term by heading the list of those commended for English composition, and in the following session gained prizes in classics, mathematics, political economy, Sanskrit, and Arabic, and "great credit in the only remaining department". In his last year he won the medal in four of these subjects and a prize in the fifth; it is no surprise to learn that the son of a Scottish Judge should take the medal also in law and be regarded by the Professor of Law as the best student he had ever taught. The official Testamur which he received on leaving the College ends with these words: "The College Council, in consideration of his Industry, Proficiency and Conduct, place him in the First Class of Merit, and assign him the rank of First on the list of Students now leaving College for the Presidency of Fort St. George." Among his contemporaries were Sir John Ochterlony, Bart., a member of an old Scottish family of Angus, whose father had attained high rank in the service of the East India Company, and William Muir, who was afterwards knighted for his services in India, compiled a notable work in twenty-six volumes, entitled The Gazetteer of India, and ended a brilliant career as Principal of Edinburgh University. Forbes left Haileybury at the age of nineteen, a tall, slimly built young man with dark curly hair, the dreamy, penetrating eyes of his ancestor, Lord Pitsligo, a nose with the faintest of bridges upon it, a smiling mouth with lips which could be firm and determined at will, and a dimple in his chin. Before he sailed for India his portrait was painted by John Hayter, a notable artist in London. This picture has fortunately been preserved, and is in the possession of Mrs. Deane, wife of the Bishop of Aberdeen, by whose kind permission it is here reproduced.


Posted to the Madras Presidency, he sailed for India in the early autumn, and landed at Fort St. George on January 27, 1837. On the long voyage by sailing-ship round the Cape he wrote many letters to his people at home, but not one of them has been preserved. All his letters from India have also disappeared. A diligent search has discovered nothing more than a note-book containing on the first page the names of his horses and some items of expenditure to Indian servants. Had even a few of his letters to his father survived, much might be explained which can now only be surmised. Of his spiritual development and his religious opinions during this period we know nothing, though in later life stories were current that the Odes of Horace and the Fathers of the Church were his recreations, and Indian languages child's play because he had a Scotch tongue. For his movements in India we are dependent on the records of the East India Company, and even in these there are gaps which cannot now be filled.

He remained at Headquarters in Fort St. George for some five months, learning the duties of a civil servant, and was then sent, according to the official phrase, "to prosecute his studies under the acting collector of Rajahmundry". In that subordinate position he continued till the end of the year, when he was gazetted as Assistant to the Collector and Magistrate of the District. But before he had been a month in this responsible position he was laid low by fever; one attack followed another with alarming frequency, till he was reduced to a shadow. There was nothing for it but to apply for sick leave. In those days hill stations for invalid civil servants were unknown. The nearest health resort was the Cape, 4000 miles away, which involved a journey of some two months; the voyage itself was as beneficial to invalids as the climate of South Africa. Forbes set sail in a small ship about the beginning of February, and some six weeks later he wrote the following letter to his brother George, which is endorsed in the handwriting of the latter, "written at sea between March and April 8, 1838, Received I9th June 1838 ". Here is this, the earliest of Forbes' letters which have survived :--


I take the opportunity of writing a few lines to you. You must not think my silence to you in particular a proof that I think less of you but the fact is it is impossible to write to everybody as my incidents are few and far between. Our passage here was prosperous, tho' we lost by death a member of our small community, which threw a gloom over us all. We buried him in the sea and I can assure you that the ceremony was most impressive and the splash with which the waters closed over his remains still remains fixed in my memory. One night I was roused by a terrible noise. I at first thought we were taken aback but I was soon undeceived when I heard the cry of " man overboard "; in a moment we were up in the wind and the boats lowered and by the favour of Providence, although the wind was strong, his voice was heard, "Here, quick, I am sinking" and they just got there in time to save him from a watery grave : a most miraculous escape, for it was midnight and the sea rough and the ship going very fast at the time. We had another man over but he also was saved. No other happening of interest occurs to me except my poor friend's accident but he is getting rapidly well.

I long to hear how you are getting on in your studies and especially in my old favourites, the classics. You will find them a real treat if you imbibe a taste for them. How often do I in a foreign land rhyme over lines of Catullus? I would advise you to get into the habit of committing pretty bits of Horace etc. to memory, you will find it a great amusement afterwards though the trouble is no doubt great. The earlier you begin the better, as I find the memory is less ductile every year. Write me a long account of what you do with yourself and your studies and don't neglect your English reading. A knowledge of history is as indispensable to a gentleman as a pair of breeches, and a taste for poetry and criticism a greater ornament than a fine waistcoat! Give my kind regards to Christy. [Christy was a maid in the Medwyn family]. Tell her I have not forgot the old Cruachan lass. Her fine braces are still as good as new and will last a long time yet.

Believe me, your loving brother,


George was then a boy of seventeen, a cripple from his infancy, destined to become, in the words of Edmund Bishop, the greatest liturgist since Mabillon. [George Hay Forbes, a Romance in Scholarship, 1927 (S.P.C.K.)].

So rapid was Forbes' recovery at the Cape that he was able to report himself fit for duty in six months. Before he sailed for India he began to keep records of his income and expenditure in a stout notebook bound in red morocco. On the fly-leaf appears his name, "A. Penrose Forbes, Cape of Good Hope, February 7th, 1839", and in the first page "List of my horses", eight in all, from "Delight" in January 1837 to "Banby Brute" in May 1839. This notebook contains also summaries of his annual expenditure right on till 1873. The names of horses stop abruptly at May 1839, and no reason is given. The omission is eloquent of the misfortune which destroyed Forbes' Indian career.

In the spring of 1839 he returned to Madras, to learn that he had been appointed chief assistant at Sudderand Foujdarry in that Presidency. Before setting out for that station he was specially commissioned to prepare a digest of the laws for the guidance of civil servants--proof of the reputation which Forbes had established for himself in spite of his poor health.

Such spare time as he had was devoted to a study of the Brahman religion, its literature and rites. He was specially interested in the Sect of the Sactyi, and in the course of his investigations got possession of the Sanskrit manuscript of a legendary poem of which he says, "No other copy has been brought from India." The poem was then a sacred book of this sect, and in it are to be found "passages which for their sublimity are comparable with the best Indian poetry".

No sooner had he settled down in his new station than he was again stricken with fever. He held on for several months, but the attacks of fever kept recurring with increasing force until he could only move to and from his office on crutches, or be carried by bearers when called away on duty to villages on his station. He struggled on, hoping that the cool weather would bring relief, but when in November the attacks of fever became even worse, he was compelled to apply for a long furlough in England. His request was granted, and he sailed for England in January 1840. Once out of India and on the high seas his health at once improved, and before he reached England he was well enough to believe that at least he need not spend his two years furlough in idleness. He never forgot his youthful experience in India, and quite late in life nothing pleased him better than to meet old servant of "John Company", though that Company disappeared in 1858, when the Indian civil service was entirely reconstituted. Nor should the reader forget that, when Forbes became a bishop, the ermine of a possible Judge lay beneath the purple.

When, however, Forbes reached Scotland, no thought of a change of career seems to have entered his mind. All that he craved at the time was some method of spending his furlough profitably in the interest of the East India Company as well as in his own. He believed he could serve both purposes best by going to Oxford University. He seems to have matriculated immediately after he reached home, for his name in the College Register appears as early as May 23, 1840. After a short stay in Edinburgh, where he saw the preparations for the erection of the Scott Monument going on in Princes Street, he was advised by his doctor to spend the autumn in Italy, from which, a fluent Italian speaker, he returned in time to keep his first term at Brasenose College as a gentleman commoner.


Forbes must have been one of the oldest undergraduates in the University. He was a freshman at an age when the great majority had taken their degree and gone down. On that account he could appreciate the great spiritual movement which, under the influence of Keble and Newman, had begun first to astonish and then to alarm the authorities both of Church and University. But the heart of Forbes was still in India, his mind wondering how much he would remember of the vivid phrases of Eastern speech when his furlough was over. He heard of a University scholarship for Sanskrit called the Boden, from the name of its founder. Here was something in his own line. The work would at least justify his existence as a modest pensioner upon the bounty of the East India Company. It would also give him something to do, since he had been forbidden on medical grounds to read for Honours, and a pass degree was nearly as easy as keeping terms. He resolved to enter for the scholarship while Sanskrit was still fresh in his mind. So once more he returned to the textbooks of Haileybury, though these must have now had a somewhat old-fashioned look. He worked on through the Hilary term in Oxford and the Christmas vacation in Edinburgh, and next year won the scholarship. Dr. Pusey, the Professor of Hebrew, was a member of the examination Board for this scholarship, and the lifelong friendship between Pusey and Forbes doubtless began with the winning of the Boden.

In March of that year, 1842, Oxford was ringing with the condemnation of Tract 90, which Newman had written to prove that the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, reasonably interpreted, were Catholic and not Protestant. Forbes read the Tract, and was convinced that Newman was right and his judges wrong, though he never imagined that it would fall to him twenty-six years later to write a fully documented treatise on the same subject from a similar point of view. Like many others, he was drawn to St. Mary's Church, where Newman was still preaching those sermons which so deeply moved listeners as different in outlook as R. W. Church, afterwards Dean of St. Paul's, and the Presbyterian, John Campbell Shairp, afterwards Principal of St. Andrews University. Forbes never came to know Newman well, for by the end of 1841, "I was", says the writer of Tract 90, "on my deathbed as regards my membership with the Anglican Church". But when Newman retired to Littlemore, which, though four miles distant, was within the parish of St. Mary's, Oxford, Forbes sometimes visited him there. Indeed, as late as 1844, when George, his brother, came to Oxford on a visit, he wrote him a letter of introduction to Newman, little imagining that in a few months Newman's secession to Rome, with all its distressing consequences, would be an accomplished fact. But this is to anticipate.

In 1842, with plenty of leisure on his hands, he was free to cultivate friendships outside his own College, and by the end of the year his social circle widened out to include dons and undergraduates of Colleges other than his own. He was acquainted with the aged President of Magdalen College, Dr. Routh, who in 1783 had persuaded Dr. Seabury to seek Consecration from the Scottish Episcopate as the first Bishop of Connecticut. He knew "ideal Ward" before W. G. Ward earned that sobriquet, and was on intimate terms with Charles Marriott, and other leading Tractarians, so far as a young man could be with his seniors. But it was to Dr. Pusey of Christ Church that he was specially drawn. The two men had much in common. Pusey would welcome a younger man who knew as much Arabic as himself, though in a different way, especially one as modest about his attainments as Forbes was. On the other hand, the younger man possessed enough of the scholar's instinct to recognize learning when he saw it, and Pusey was not only a Hebrew Professor, but a theologian as well, perhaps more familiar than any man in England with the writings of Schleiermacher, Neander, and Tholuck, and at the same time a close student of patristic literature. Further, Pusey's devotion to the Church kindled into a flame the early loyalty of Forbes to the same cause, while the fervent piety of the "mirific doctor" stirred his young friend's soul to that combination of restrained emotion and spiritual practice which distinguished him throughout his life. Soon the two men were on the footing of disciple and master, and by the time Forbes left Oxford their relations had begun to ripen into a friendship which grew more intimate with every year that passed. Forbes became a "Puseyite" in a deeper sense than the word connoted in Oxford at the time, but a Puseyite with a sense of humour and proportion, who could poke fun at the pious attitudes which the Oxford Movement produced in some of its less balanced undergraduates. Christ Church became a second home to him, and until his death Forbes never allowed a year to pass without a visit to Oxford, when his tall figure could be seen walking across Tom Quad to Pusey's house in Christ Church.

We would give much for even a few letters of Forbes during this critical period of his life, but only one has been preserved, dated April 15, which shows how keen was his interest in the Church of his fathers. In this letter he reports that the scheme for the establishment of the public school known as Trinity College, Glenalmond, was exciting much interest in Oxford. Two of the Colleges, Magdalen and Jesus, had already subscribed £100 each, friendly and zealous on behalf of the scheme, although somewhat apprehensive that it would meet with "opposition from that party in the University who, on the ground of supporting establishments, are unwilling to do anything that might in any way injure the established religion". At that time there was a feeling in Scotland that the Scottish bishops should put forth a disclaimer to the effect that Trinity College had no connection with the controversy which the Tracts for the Times had aroused in Oxford. "Any such disclaimer", Forbes writes, "might tend greatly to alienate those whose sympathy and good wishes we are most anxious to retain, namely, the High Church party, who are ready to come forward on our behalf, and only withhold their names on the ground that their giving them might create a feeling against us by identifying the College with their views"; caution and delay should therefore he observed.

His furlough ended in 1842, but he was still far from well, and he had serious thoughts of abandoning his work in India. His father, however, advised him to apply to the East India Company for an extension of leave in the hope that another year or two at home might rid him of the feverish attacks to which he was subject. But when the next year passed with no better result, he began to think in earnest of another career. No doubt Dr. Pusey's was the decisive voice which set his feet on the path to Holy Orders; but even when his mind was made up, he was still prepared to go back to his post if he were pronounced fit for service in India. In fact his resignation was accepted only a few days before he was ordained. As he said to his father, a living curate in England would be more useful than a dead judge in India. He took his degree in 1844, having in the previous year been awarded a fourth in classics, an honour not infrequently bestowed in those days on men who, for one reason or another, had been unable to read for the Honours School. Sometime in that year he founded a small religious brotherhood for undergraduates, among whom was H. P. Liddon; later on, this became the Brotherhood of the Holy Trinity. One of his last acts before leaving Oxford was to hand over to his college his Sanskrit manuscript, to which he attached a Latin summary, an appropriate symbol of his final break with India and its tongues. The University, however, would have meant little to Forbes had it not given birth to the Catholic Revival. He was in it and of it almost from the beginning; he remained loyal to its principles for more than thirty years, and towards the close of his life he wrote this dispassionate judgment upon it and its results, dwelling especially on the service rendered by the Movement to learning in general and historical scholarship in particular:--

Never, perhaps, was Oxford, than in the ninth lustre of the present century, inhabited by a more remarkable company of students. The great ecclesiastical movement, which has since made itself felt through the breadth and length of the land, was then at its height in the seat of its birth. Thwarted and persecuted by the purblind authorities, the very disabilities under which it rested, gave it an additional charm to the young and enthusiastic minds which threw themselves into it. The great leader shewed no external signs of the coming defection. On the afternoon sermons at St. Mary's men hung in rapt attention. Young men from the manor-houses and parsonages of the country, from the streets and squares of the city (for Oxford then was still the privileged seat of education of the upper classes), came term by term under the charm of Oxford, and, in many cases, to Oxford owed their immortal souls. Boys tainted by the precocious vices of the public schools were won by a real conversion to God; while those more fortunate ones, who left an innocent home to enter on their University career, were kept pure and unspotted to the end. Real earnest self-denial shewed itself in the lives of the undergraduates. Not that they were without their foibles. The manners and dress of the great leaders of the movement were imitated to the pitch of absurdity, and a great movement among young men could not be without its side of unreality. Still, with every abatement, there was much to edify. If they assembled in each other's rooms to sing the Canonical Hours in Latin during the season of Lent, it was not a mere exhibition of religious dilettantism. It was the outcome of a real devotion, which made itself felt in many other and tangible ways--in abstinence from Hall on fasting-days, in conscientious attendance at Chapel, in personal assistance at the evening sittings of the Mendicity Society, in regular frequentation of the early Communion at St. Mary's (then the only accessible service of the kind), in conscientious study, in plenteous alms-deeds.

The colleges varied a good deal in tone. At Balliol, the reaction against Dr. Arnold's teaching, where it took the Catholic form, tended rather to theory than to the careful reading of facts: hence it became the centre of the Romanizing school in the movement. It was the college of Canon Oakeley and Dr. Ward. At Trinity, owing very much to the influence of Isaac Williams and Mr. Copeland, the Churchmanship was of a much more Anglican type; and on it was founded that historical school which has since been adorned by such men as Basil Jones, Freeman, Stubbs, and Haddan.

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