Julia Stapleton and Philip Williamson

In 1900, Henson was appointed as rector of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster and a canon of Westminster Abbey, through the patronage of the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, exercised on behalf of Queen Victoria.[1] Serving in these two positions until 1912, Henson was close to the heart of British national life. The church and the Abbey were adjacent to the houses of parliament and the government offices in Whitehall, and the Abbey had a national status of its own as the location for coronations and other ‘national services’, and as the place where many national figures were buried or memorialised.

St. Margaret’s, Westminster.

Henson was particularly conscious of the special position of St Margaret’s and the Abbey, as it fitted into his particular understandings of the truly ‘national’ character of the Church of England. One of his primary concerns was to maintain and advance their reputations as great centres for preaching. In a short introduction to three sermons he had bound for distribution among friends at Christmas 1910, he noted that during the previous decade he had delivered around seven hundred sermons in St Margaret’s and a hundred in the Abbey.[2] He invited other notable or particularly interesting preachers to give sermons in St Margaret’s, and sometimes used his own sermons to promote general issues in the Church or in national affairs. As an impressive preacher he attracted large congregations, reports in newspapers, and good sales of the collections of sermons which he chose to publish, giving him a reputation that brought many invitations to preach or lecture elsewhere, which further extended his national influence.

Henson returned briefly to Westminster as a canon from August 1940 at the instigation of Winston Churchill, who had admired his criticism of appeasement during the 1930s and hoped that he would provide stirring sermons in during the war crisis that followed the fall of France. Henson eventually retired in May 1941.  In the introduction to a collection of sermons that he preached during this period, he reflected on his long association with the Abbey and St Margaret’s.[3]

 St Margaret’s Church

St Margaret’s was the church of the ancient parish of Westminster (divided in 1727 by the creation of a parish of St John’s, Westminster, in the southern half of the earlier parish). It has always had close institutional ties with Westminster Abbey, and its rector was a residentiary canon of the Abbey. According to tradition, Edward the Confessor founded the church at the same time as he re-founded the Abbey as a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Peter; it was where the public could worship, served by the Abbey yet separate from the monastic community.

Interior of St. Margaret’s, Westminster. From Microcosm of London, 1810.

St Margaret’s had a distinguished congregation. Since the early seventeenth century it has been regarded as the ‘parish’ church of the House of Commons, as it was the place of worship where the speaker and MPs gathered formally for special services, and was used by MPs who were resident in the area during parliamentary sessions. Numerous peers also attended these services, although for the House of Lords in its corporate capacity the Abbey was its place of worship. Henson also referred to St Margaret’s as the ‘speaker’s church’ when dedicating a volume of sermons to the then speaker, James Lowther,[4] probably because the rector necessarily had close working relations with the speaker.

St Margaret’s also had Scottish associations. The Solemn League and Covenant against the royalists was signed in the church by the English parliament and the Scottish covenantors in 1643, guaranteeing the independence of the Scottish church, and into modern times numerous Scottish MPs and peers have attended services there when parliament was in session. Henson wrote that it was ‘often called the Scottish Church in London’[5] (though the term more appropriately referred to the Church of Scotland church of St Columba’s, in Pont Street).

The church also retained a parochial character in the traditional sense; with a substantial and mixed local population, of all classes. However, during Henson’s tenure, this population was declining because of slum clearance; and as more MPs increasingly tended to reside elsewhere in London, or to take weekends out of the city, the local members of his congregation began to decline. In compensation, Henson attracted Sunday evening congregations from neighbouring parishes.[6] Special mission services were held at Dartmouth Hall, Lewisham Street, for the poorest members of the parish.

Restoration work at St Margaret’s. Restoration work had last taken place in the 1870s, at a cost of £10,986, to which the House of Commons contributed £1,500. Henson reopened the fund in 1902, using part of the windfall he received as rector from rent of the parochial churchyard by the contractor who erected stands for the coronation of Edward VII.[7] No further grants were received from the House. Henson fell upon the generosity of members of the congregation, especially targeting wealthier ones. In one of his ‘begging letters’ – to Herbert Gladstone, then home secretary – he wrote:

You will understand that the rapid displacement of resident parishioners in my parish has greatly added to the difficulty of raising the money required to maintain the fabric and the services of St Margaret’s: and you will not resent my claiming a parishioner’s duty from you. It is not, perhaps, generally known that St Margaret’s is totally unendowed save for the Rector’s income, which amounts to about £450. The arrangement which unites the Rectory to a Canonry of the Abbey makes possible the Rector’s maintenance, but for the heavy expenditure of fabric and services the liberality of the congregation and of the few resident parishioners has to be drawn upon.

Gladstone duly contributed £20, as Henson reminded him the following year when requesting a further donation.[8] Work was commissioned from 1905 onwards, with movement of the East Wall and extension of the chancel by six feet.[9] In pursuit of further funds, Henson lectured in July 1906 on the history of restoration at St Margaret’s, emphasising the generosity of benefactors, parishioners and ‘brotherhoods’ which had made possible an earlier phase of  crucial restoration work, from 1489 to 1524. This lecture was, he recorded, ‘largely attended, and … subsequently printed as a pamphlet had a wide circulation’.[10]

St Margaret’s records. Recognising the value of the rich, surviving registers and churchwardens’ accounts at St Margaret’s from the early modern period, Henson arranged for their publication. To this end, he employed an editor – Arthur Meredyth Burke – and a secretary. The costs of publication, which Henson underwrote, meant that an end date of 1603 was agreed for the accounts and 1660 for the registers. Even so, the costs far outstripped Henson’s initial estimate, and he was left substantially in debt to the publisher.[11]

 Dean’s Yard

Dean’s Yard and the Abbey.

As rector, Henson lived in Dean’s Yard, the close adjoining the Abbey which housed some of the clergy and officials associated with the Abbey, together with the Abbey offices. Dean’s Yard also includes the entrance to Westminster School, where Henson served as a member of the governing body. When Henson went into residence, the Dean and Chapter enjoyed considerable authority within the Yard, which they defended following changes to local government in 1899 (see below). Henson – and his wife Ella following his marriage in 1902 – lived at St Margaret’s rectory, which was then 17, Dean’s Yard, a large house that enabled him to entertain his many visitors.  For further information, especially concerning Henson’s neighbours, search ‘Dean’s Yard’ under ‘Places’.

Westminster Abbey

The Abbey is a ‘royal peculiar’, exempt from diocesan jurisdiction and governed by its dean and chapter, subject only to the sovereign.

Fees. When Henson was appointed to the canonry in Westminster Abbey, he was required to pay various fees. These included fees to the Abbey, usually amounting to just over £6, which were distributed to the various Abbey officers in a strict way. Much more substantial were the fees to the Crown office and the Home office. These were to cover the cost of the paperwork relating to his installation, the mandamus and the warrant (and associated stamp duty). The fees were substantial because the two documents were written on vellum, with a seal and skippet attached.[12] Henson’s mandamuses and warrants have survived,[13] although they are among the last to do so, suggesting that vellum and seals ceased to be used shortly after his appointment. The costs involved were an obvious reason.  Writing to the Abbey chapter clerk on 1 December 1900, Henson stated: ‘I enclose a cheque for the fees.  As to the rest, I have paid all that I have been asked to pay viz £7.13.6 to the Home Office and £20.2.0 to the Crown Office.  Whether there is more to come I know not.  I suppose I shall hear. Yours faithfully, Herbert Hensley Henson’. Henson’s fees were paid by his aunt: see Journal, 22 Jan. 1912.

The borough of Westminster.  Westminster was created a metropolitan borough by the Local Government Act of 1899. In 1900, the local commissioners gave notice of their intention to hold a public inquiry at Westminster town hall on 12 December, into the ‘powers of Local Government exercisable by the Dean and Chapter … or their officers within the City of Westminster, and the Court of Burgesses of the Ancient City of Westminster … with a view to a scheme being drawn up under the … Act’.[14]  Under the terms of the freehold of the site, these powers included the appointment of the coroner of Westminster, which the dean and chapter were willing to surrender. However, they resisted any diminution of their authority within Dean’s Yard.[15] They seem to have been successful, and the power of appointing the coroner duly passed to the local authority. Their last nominee, John Troutbeck, was re-appointed by the borough council in 1901.

Tensions between dean and chapter.  In his autobiography, Henson described the persistent tension during his time at Westminster between Armitage Robinson (dean 1902-11), and the canons at Westminster. He wrote of Robinson’s fine-tuned scholarship and the ‘superciliousness’ with which it was associated, reflecting his Cambridge cast of mind and isolating him from his Oxonian canons, and also of his ‘faults of temperament’ which made him ‘unfitted to work with colleagues’.[16]  With his lack of collegiality, Robinson was clearly the target of Henson’s reference to ‘Pharaoh’ in his Journal entry for 23 July 1906.  Writing to Lady Frances Balfour three years later, he referred to ‘the present unconstitutional autocracy’ at the Abbey, which meant that on some issues ‘the canons must be absolved from responsibility for the Dean’s decision’.[17] Henson wrote warmly of the effect of Robinson’s successor, Herbert Ryle, in ‘restoring peace and harmony to the Westminster Chapter’.[18]

The Abbey pulpit.

Liberal theology in the Abbey. Notwithstanding the anglo-catholic influence of Charles Gore as a canon of Westminster from 1894 to 1902, Westminster attracted Henson for the ‘national’ and ‘tolerant’ tradition of Anglicanism that was well established there at the turn of the twentieth century.[19] The liberal theology that underpinned that tradition is captured in a spoof poem written by Henson’s friend Henry Beeching (a canon of Westminster, 1902-11) which he gave to Ernest Fox, a housemaster at Westminster School. The text has survived in the journal of a pupil, Lawrence [Lawrie] Tanner.[20] It has annotations (by Beeching or Tanner) in the margins: these are given here in footnotes.

Instructions for the Morning Preacher at Westminster Abbey

As soon as little Benjamin has struck a note of ten
The scarlet-cassocked boys march in, in stroll the white robed men
The tonsur’d priests they follow next; then verged along are seen
You with the Residentiary and, and last of all, the Dean.[21]

When you have reached the pulpit, say a collect; do not bawl;
And keep your face religiously towards the decenal stall;
Be short and pithy; and though ‘up-to-date’ to please the town,
Kindly supply a skeleton for H—-K to take down.[22]

Now when you preach at Westminster, the first thing you must say
Is that miracles and prophecy have vanished clean away,
With Balaam’s ass and Satan, up the empyrean vault
And the relics must be swallowed with a largish pinch of salt[23]

If you’re a scholar you may talk of J and E and P;
And make Leviticus yield place to Deuteronomy
Quote Schmiedel of S. Paul; and for the Psalms let Cheque tell
They’re a buried-word enigma on the name Jerahmeel[24]

Then you must say about the Creeds that every honest man
Believes as many articles as honest persons can
And that the clever hymn that goes by Althanasius’ name
Is a very (something*) picture in a very (something*) frame[25]

But when you preach at Westminster be sure and never tell
The cultured congregation there of things like ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’
And if you have to mention God – to show that you’re well-bred
Say “th’ unconditioned intellect” or “absolute” instead*[26]

Last, should you be ambitious to be asked to preach again
Omit not to apostrophise “the venerable fame”
“The long-drawn aisle and fretted vault” and other handsome things
And make that fine quotation about “ruin’d sides of Kings”[27]

Returning through the cloister home, the music you must praise, –
It never was so wonderful in Blow’s or Purcell’s days, –
From Sir Frederick’s “echo” rendering of some new-discovered “Op”
To the little hushy solo with the vox humana stop[28]

O ’tis a very pleasant thing at Westminster to preach
To see the Dean and the Sub Dean, the Archdeacon, all and each
The Angel-Bishop up aloft, and Henson bold and bland
And poor old Beeching fast asleep, his beard upon his band.[29]

[1] Henson reproduced the letter from Salisbury offering him the positions in his Journal, 30 Oct. 1900. For Henson’s connection with the Salisbury family, see the essay on ‘The Cecils and the Selbornes’.
[2] Ecclesiastica: a triplet of ‘old sermons’ (1910) [BL, X.208/7710].
[3] Henson, Last words in Westminster Abbey (London, 1941).
[4] The creed in the pulpit (1912).
[5] Retrospect, I, 68.
[6] Retrospect, I, 129-30, 132.
[7] Retrospect, I, 130.
[8] Henson to Herbert Gladstone, 14 Jan. 1907, 27 Jan. 1908, BL, Add. Mss 46064/132, 46065/119.
[9] H.F Westlake, St. Margaret’s, Westminster: the Church of the House of Commons (1914), 116-17.
[10] Retrospect, I, 142; and see St Margaret’s, Westminster: the story of the fabric. A Lecture (London, 1906).
[11] See Journal, 23 May, 1911; 11 July, 1911; 13 Aug. 1914; 29 Dec. 1914.
[12] Westminster Abbey Muniments, CH/01/10/001.
[13] Ibid., CH/01/07/001.
[14] Minutes of the meeting of the Dean and Chapter, 5 Dec. 1900.
[15] ‘The City of Westminster Local Acts’, Evening Standard, 12 Dec. 1900, 1.
[16] Retrospect, I, 68-9.
[17] Henson to Lady Frances Balfour, 9 June 1909, NRS, GD433/2/338.  For a similar assessment to Henson’s, see Jocelyn Perkins, Sixty years at Westminster Abbey (1960), 51-3.
[18] Retrospect, I, 70.
[19] Retrospect, I, 51, 54.
[20] Lawrence Tanner’s Journal, 15 Feb. 1909. Reproduced by kind permission of the Governing Body of Westminster School.
[21] The first of the nine marginal notes reads: ‘The preacher must arrive before 10 o’clock and walk with the Canon in Residence’.
[22] ‘Of the Collect before the Sermon and the manner of Preaching.’
[23] ‘What the Preacher must say of the Bible.’
[24] ‘If a Doctor or Bachelor of Divinity.’
[25] ‘Of the Creeds.’
[26] ‘The Preacher supplies epithets at his discretion.  What he must not tell.’
[27] ‘He must praise the architecture of the Abbey.’
[28] ‘And the music.’
[29] ‘The joy of preaching in the Abbey is increased by the sight of the Chapter.’