The Cecils

Julia Stapleton and Philip Williamson

The Cecils were at the heart of a tightly-knit aristocratic family connexion with considerable influence in public life during the early twentieth century, straddling the worlds of politics, government and the Church. The 3rd marquess of Salisbury was three times prime minister.  Of his five sons, Lord Cranborne (from 1903 the 4th marquess), Lord Robert Cecil (from 1923 Lord Cecil of Chelwood) and Lord Hugh Cecil (Lord Quickswood from 1941) were Conservative politicians, Lord William Cecil was bishop of Exeter, and Lord Edward Cecil a senior civil servant in Egypt. His eldest daughter, Lady Maud, a prominent suffragist, was married to William, 2nd earl of Selborne: he and their eldest son, viscount Wolmer (from 1942 the 3rd earl), were Liberal Unionist politicians. The extended cousinhood was similarly powerful: Arthur Balfour, the prime minister, was the 3rd marquess’s nephew, and Charles, 5th earl Grey, a long-term chairman of the Church’s central board of finance, was Selborne’s son-in-law. Many of these were prominent lay church people, and served as members of the Church’s representative bodies. It has been noted of the interwar Church of England that ‘the effective control of business in the House of Laity’ was in the hands of ‘the Cecil family and their relatives’.[1]

The course of Henson’s career would have been very different had it not been for his association with the Cecil family. As a Fellow of All Souls, he had come to the attention of Lord Salisbury, a fellow of the college from 1853 to 1860. Through Salisbury’s recommendation to the Crown of his appointment to a canonry at Westminster, he was able to establish himself as a major figure in the Church, though independently, as he later recalled with marked insistency: ‘… and [from] there I may be said to have made my own way’.[2]

As well as at All Souls, Henson also became known to Salisbury at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, an early residence of Queen Elizabeth I before being rebuilt by Robert Cecil, secretary of state to the queen and later to James I. In 1889, he stayed there as the guest of Salisbury’s second son, Lord William (‘Fish’) Cecil and his wife, Lady Florence.

Henson and Cecil had been ordained together at Cuddesdon in 1887. In the following year Cecil became rector of Hatfield parish church (St Etheldreda), and Henson became rector of St Margaret’s parish church, Barking. The living of St Margaret’s was in the gift of All Souls, and the church was located in an area in which the marquess owned much of the land. There, Henson generally maintained anglo-catholic identity he had nurtured before his ordination.

At a meeting with Henson in May 1889, Cecil suggested a plan – in Henson’s words – for ‘uniting in the bonds of help his parish of Hatfield with Barking’.[3] In order to seal the connection once Henson had agreed to the plan, Cecil invited his friend to Hatfield. The visit took place two months later and Henson gave a full account of it in his Journal. As well as the vivid impressions that the house and park made on him (‘Elizabeth is everywhere’), his carefully maintained sense of detachment, both religious and social, is also clear. Of the Sunday morning after his arrival he wrote:

I regaled the leisure of my semi-waking period by reflecting on the strange chances which had brought me under the rooftree of the Marquis of Salisbury.  Then I went to the Parish church of S. Etheldreda for Holy Communion, and that ended breakfasted with Lady Florence & the Rector: after which visit to the schools and talk until Mattins. The church was fairly full, but the people looked awfully respectable, and my Catholic soul revolted against the Salisbury Chapel.[4] The Marchioness, & Lady Cranborne were there: and the Dean of Windsor.

That evening, Henson preached at a local chapel associated with St Etheldreda’s, and then dined at the House, determined to maintain his independence:

I reflected on my parish as I ate my dinner: and wondered how Hatfield and Heath Street [St Margaret’s, Barking] could be squared. Therewith inspired, I bore witness (somewhat to his astonishment) against Sir John Willoughby on the subject of Total Abstinence.

The Marquis was at dinner and gave Wm. Cecil £5 to add to the Offertory. I saw nothing of him except to shake hands, and listen awhile to his conversation with others, which was entertaining.[5]

Henson continued to visit the parish of Hatfield and Hatfield House, as he expressed it in the Retrospect, ‘to explain the character and extent of my parochial needs’.[6] In doing so, he became acquainted with other members of the Cecil family.

Barking In addition to the representations he made at Hatfield, Henson wrote periodically to Lord Salisbury requesting financial support for his church at Barking. In 1893 the marquess donated the site for a new chapel-of-ease attached to St Margaret’s; this was to accommodate the substantial increase in the parish’s church-going population since Henson’s arrival. In a letter of 1894, Henson mentioned an additional burden: the Board of Education’s requirement that the dilapidated building which housed the infant school be replaced. Pointedly, he emphasised the adverse consequences for the two junior schools maintained by St Margaret’s should the infant school close, and the sharp increase in the rates that local landowners could expect as a result.[7]

Ilford Unable to sustain the energy he had poured into parochial duties at Barking and frequently ill because of overwork, Henson moved to the chaplaincy of St Mary’s Hospital, Ilford, in 1895. The bishop of St Alban’s, Alfred Blomfield, played an instrumental role in the appointment by recommending him to Lord Salisbury, who was the hospital’s master and patron. Salisbury readily concurred, even agreeing to the terms that Henson attached to his acceptance of the appointment: more time for his scholarly and literary pursuits than he had enjoyed at Barking.[8] Salisbury continued to assist Henson financially, for example, responding to requests for money to support the almsfolk in order to ensure that they were relieved of the necessity of falling on the Poor Law guardians, described by Henson as ‘a most undesirable method of providing maintenance’.[9]

Westminster As mentioned above, Salisbury was also responsible for Henson’s translation to the vacant canonry at Westminster in 1900. In the letter offering him the position, Salisbury – then prime minister – pointed to the ‘wider and more influential audience’ that Westminster would provide for him as a preacher.[10] Henson’s connections with the family did not pass without comment. One religious newspaper, Truth, accused Salisbury of rank favouritism:

The new prebend…is described as ‘a great personal friend of Lord Cranborne and Lord Hugh Cecil’ … The appointment, indeed, has excited extreme surprise and severe criticism, being regarded simply as an audacious job.[11]

In reality, Henson was not a great friend of either. While on cordial terms with both, his relationship with Lord Hugh became increasingly strained as they broke apart, often publicly, on almost all ecclesiastical issues, notwithstanding their common accord on political questions fuelled by a shared anti-socialism. Cecil, an ally of Gore, campaigned against Henson’s ‘heretical’ views before and during the controversy over his appointment to Hereford, as did the wider family network. After Parliament’s rejection of the revised prayer book in 1927–8, their shared outrage brought them closer together; but differences remained, with Cecil continuing to support the established church while Henson advocated disestablishment.

Surprisingly, Henson made no mention in his Journal of Lord Salisbury’s death in 1902. In the previous year, he had ‘crossed the Rubicon’, embracing interdenominational communion and reunion as the basis of a national church. This was the antithesis of all that the extended Cecil family represented in upholding a state church that was grounded in episcopacy. Increasingly, Henson came to resent their proprietary attitude towards the church and the influence they wielded within it.

From the 1900s the Cecils played a central role in the advance of high churchmanship and Anglo-catholicism within the Church. Henson opposed this development vigorously; in the Retrospect, he wrote with much bitterness of its sectarian and class nature:

The leaders of the Neo-Tractarians were closely linked together by personal friendship, by common experiences as theological teachers, by the enthusiasm of comradeship in a single venture; and, to a remarkable degree, by family alliances… Talbots, Cecils, Lytteltons, Palmers, Pagets, Gladstones – a notable collection of families distinguished in the national life and mostly blessed with large and variously gifted families.[12]

The ‘subtle cohesion of family and class’ that had soldered these alliances was the subject of many passages in Henson’s Journal. For example, when Lord Robert Cecil resigned from government office in 1918 because of his opposition to Welsh church disestablishment, he commented that:

He is no doubt a sincere man, none the less the devotion of the Cecils & their relations is one of the principal causes of the decline of the National Church. The Nation wearies of a Church which has shrivelled to the dimensions of a family interest! [13]

Henson too opposed Welsh church disestablishment, no less than the disestablishment of the Church of England before 1927-8. As a young man, he had read A defence of the Church of England against disestablishment (1886) by Roundell Palmer, 1st earl of Selborne, and declared it ‘excellent beyond my expectation’.[14] But the ‘national’ perspective from which he opposed disestablishment before 1927-8 became increasingly pronounced, and differed significantly from what he came to perceive as the ancestral perspective of the Cecil family networks.

Henson’s debt to the Cecils was substantial, but while acknowledging it, he resolutely kept his distance from them.

[1] Adrian Hastings, A history of English Christianity 1920-1990 (1991), p. 252.

[2] Journal, 2 Nov. 1934.
[3] Journal, 29 May 1889.
[4] The Salisbury chapel in St Etheldreda’s Church, Hatfield, houses the ornate tomb of Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury.
[5] Journal, 28 July 1889; for a further account of his visit, see also Henson to Anson, 29 July 1889, William Anson Papers, All Souls Coll., Oxford.
[6] Retrospect, I, 37.
[7] Henson to Lord Salisbury, 3 Jan. 1894, HHA, 3M/H4.
[8] Retrospect, I, 43–4.
[9] Henson to Lord Salisbury, 31 Dec. 1897, HHA, 3M/H4.
[10] Journal, 30 Nov. 1900.
[11] Quoted in Retrospect, I, 55.
[12] Ibid.,156.
[13] Journal, 23 Nov. 1918.

[14] Journal, 6 Dec. 1886.