The Cecils

Julia Stapleton and Philip Williamson

Robert Cecil, 3rd marquess of Salisbury.

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]

Henson’s career would not have taken the course it did if it had not been for his association with the Cecil family, as well as with All Souls College. Indeed, the two were intertwined as his chief benefactor, the 3rd marquess, had been a fellow of All Souls, 1853-60. This shared bond with Henson – as well as recognition of his talents and respect for his independence of mind – may have enhanced Salisbury’s concern to assist his career.

The Old Palace, Hatfield House.

Henson was first introduced to Lord 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, Henson stayed there as the guest of Salisbury’s second son, Lord William (‘Fish’) and his wife, Lady Florence Cecil. Henson and Cecil had been ordained together at Cuddesdon in 1887. During the following year Cecil became rector of Hatfield parish church (St Etheldreda), and Henson was appointed to St Margaret’s parish church, Barking. Henson’s living 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 maintained the anglo-catholic identity he had nurtured before his ordination. At a meeting with Henson in May 1889, Cecil suggested a plan for ‘uniting in the bonds of help his parish of Hatfield with Barking’.[2] In order to seal the connection, he invited Henson to Hatfield. Henson gave a full account of the visit two months later in his Journal. As well as the vivid impressions that the house and park made on him (‘Elizabeth is everywhere’), his comments expressed his keen sense of detachment, religious as well as social. 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. The Marchioness, & Lady Cranborne were there: and the Dean of Windsor.

Henson preached at a chapel associated with the church that evening, and then dined at the House in distinguished company. Again, his carefully maintained outsider status is evident, expressed as ever in a refusal of deference:

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.[3]

Henson continued to visit the parish of Hatfield, as he expressed it in the Retrospect, ‘to explain the character and extent of my parochial needs’[4] in doing so, he became acquainted with other members of the Cecil family at the House.

Barking Henson subsequently wrote periodically to Lord Salisbury, in order to solicit 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, to accommodate the marked rise in the parish’s church-going population since Henson’s arrival. In 1894, he requested the regular contribution of £50 that the marquess was accustomed to make towards the upkeep of his staff. He wrote of the additional burden placed on the parish by the Board of Education’s requirement that a new building be provided to house the infant school, replacing its current dilapidated accommodation, emphasising the adverse consequences for the junior schools maintained by the church should the infant school close, and the sharp increase in the rates that local landowners could expect should the church schools fail.[5]

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.[6] 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’.[7]

Westminster Salisbury was wholly 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.[8] Henson’s connections with the family did not pass without public 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.[9]

In reality, Henson was not a great friend of the two men. 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 prayerbook in 1927–8, their shared outrage brought them closer together; but differences remained, with Cecil continuing to support the established church while Henson advocating 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 far-flung influence they exerted within it.

From the 1900s The Cecils played a central role in the advance of high churchmanship and anglo-catholicism in the years before the First World War. 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.[10]

The ‘subtle cohesion of family and class’ that had soldered these alliances was the target 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![11]

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’.[12] 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 kept his distance.

[1] Adrian Hastings, A history of English Christianity 1920-1990 (1991), p. 252.
[2] Journal, 29 May 1889.
[3] Journal, 28 July 1889.
[4] Retrospect, I, 37.
[5] Henson to Lord Salisbury, 3 Jan. 1894, HHA, 3M/H4.
[6] Retrospect, I, 43–4.
[7] Henson to Lord Salisbury, 31 Dec. 1897, ibid.
[8] Journal, 30 Nov. 1900.
[9] Quoted in Retrospect, I, 55.
[10] Ibid.,156.
[11] Journal, 23 Nov. 1918.
[12] Journal, 6 Dec. 1886.