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The Medievalism of the Oxford Movement

by Joseph Cronin[1], Department of History, University of Durham



Tractarian attitudes towards the Middle Ages have frequently been overlooked or misinterpreted. They were not simply a product of the Romantic movement, nor were they restricted to the intellectual sphere. This article investigates the ways in which Tractarians engaged with the medieval past and how they used it for their own spiritual and social agendas. While the Oxford Movement never imbibed medieval theology, the efforts of lesser-known Tractarians to revive medieval social structures were more successful. Their espousal of philanthropic feudalism and gothic church architecture enabled Protestant Britain to reclaim its medieval past, which had previously been marred by its association with Catholicism.

Keywords: Oxford Movement, Tractarianism, Middle Ages, High Church, Catholicism, Protestantism, John Henry Newman



The Oxford Movement was ambivalent towards the Middle Ages. Its members virtually ignored medieval theology, drawing their intellectual inspiration instead from the ancient church. However, in terms of their social thought, the medieval church was paramount. Not only was its supremacy over the state seen as the ‘nearest approximation to the truth’ (Newman, 1888: 305), its pastoral role was reverenced as a model to which the Anglican church could aspire. Historians of the Oxford Movement have failed to recognise this dichotomy. Those focusing on the theological side of the movement have tended to ignore medievalism altogether, while those examining Tractarian social thought have invariably concluded that ‘the Oxford Movement was only part of a much wider phenomenon’ (Rowlands, 1989: 113), that is, the nineteenth-century Romantic movement. The Oxford Movement was rooted in primitive practice and the doctrine of apostolic succession, but as it ventured into the social domain, it looked back to medieval structures as the only tangible manifestation of catholicity in English history. Through this excursion, the Oxford Movement came into contact with Romanticism and Tory paternalism, even though its roots lay in a different source. By embracing the Middle Ages, however, certain Tractarians were undermining Edward Pusey’s famous dictum that the Oxford Movement would rejuvenate the Anglican church solely by ‘reference to the ancient church’ (cited in Chadwick, 1960: 51).

This paper will begin by examining a number of Tractarian figures who did study the Middle Ages. Their selection of medieval events and characters offers a compelling insight into their allegorical motives and the contemporary relevance of the issues about which they wrote. These gleanings from the medieval past provide the background for the second part of this paper, which will look in more detail at the social aspects of Tractarianism. What exactly did followers of the Oxford Movement hope to gain from medieval society, why was it so revered, and how did they intend to implement its structures in nineteenth-century England?

Medievalism is a broad and somewhat nebulous concept which can encompass a plethora of scholarly disciplines and areas of popular culture. However, for the purpose of clarity, this paper will concentrate primarily on theological attitudes to the medieval Church and the ramifications these had for society as a whole. Since these two strands are interrelated, they will be drawn together in the final section to argue that, while medieval thought was largely ignored by Tractarians, their investigation of medieval administrative and societal arrangements enriched their own thought substantially, and contributed to their conception of a revitalised Church of England, which was the movement’s raison d’être.


The Middle Ages in Tractarian Literature

It is impossible to assess the Oxford Movement without reference to John Henry Newman. However, of all the leading lights in the movement, Newman was perhaps the least interested in the Middle Ages. This is not to say that he was completely ignorant of the period: as Benjamin King’s recent study demonstrates, Newman studied the doctors of the medieval as well as the early Church. However, it is fair to say that his main interest lay almost entirely in the early centuries. Consequently, those aspects of the Middle Ages which Newman did show an interest in are significant. If the movement’s most patristic adherent made reference to a medieval paradigm, then we can safely conclude that it was deeply entrenched in the movement as a whole.

Newman’s relative disinterest in the Middle Ages may be partially explained by the fact that he was definitely not a Romantic. He was, at least in terms of his theological orientations, a man of the head and not of the heart. Unlike Hurrell Froude, Newman turned to the Middle Ages primarily for administrative and liturgical guidance, not because he was inherently fascinated by the intricacies of medieval worship. However, as with any great and complex individual, Newman’s character betrayed a host of contradictions. His enthusiasm for the novels of Walter Scott may be seen as clear evidence that he did subscribe to the Romantic interpretation of the medieval past. He believed Scott had ‘turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages’ (Newman, 1864: 185), the implications of which Newman presumably considered to be positive. Why then, did he advocate the literary dissemination of medieval idealism when he himself held the primitive Church to be the only Christian ideal? The answer may be found in Newman’s attitude towards reserve in communicating religious knowledge. Like most of the Tractarians, Newman believed that religious truth could be understood without full knowledge of theological doctrine. In the appendix to his Apologia pro Vita Sua, Newman described this as the principle of ‘Economy’, and used the analogy of ‘milk which is necessary to one set of men, and the strong meat which is allowed to others’ (Newman, 1864: 69). It would be unrealistic to expect the majority of lay people to appreciate the subtle arguments of the patristic fathers. On the other hand, the medieval Church, with its colourful characters and its visible legacy on the English landscape, was much easier to relate to. While the Middle Ages did not provide the exemplar of Christian piety, it was better for Englishmen to form an attachment to this part of their heritage than say, the puritanical or Calvinistic aspects. To this end, Scott was the perfect exponent of an attractive and comprehensible form of catholicity. It is no wonder that Newman described him as ‘the poet of the Church’ (Newman, 1871: 20).

One of the most vexing deficiencies of Newman’s medievalism is that, whilst he evidently recognised some of the great medieval theologians, he failed to investigate their thought. He described ‘the intellectual handling of great minds, such as St Athanasius, St Augustine, and St Thomas’ (Newman, 1864: 390), yet there is no systematic analysis of the latter two figures anywhere in Newman’s work. Perhaps Newman’s aversion to medieval theology was because its practitioners questioned Catholic doctrine through use of reason, rather than accepting it unreservedly: ‘I sincerely think that St Bernard and St Thomas, who scrupled at it [Church doctrine] in their day, had they lived into this, would have rejoiced to accept it for its own sake’ (Newman, 1864: 395). According to Newman, the Middle Ages saw the birth of advanced theological speculation without the intellectual tools to support it. Medieval scholars lacked the ‘precision’, and presumably the authority, to reconcile the conflicting elements of divine revelation (Newman, 1864: 395). When confronted with the ‘august prerogative of the Catholic Church’, their use of reason faded into insignificance (Newman, 1864: 397). Newman therefore appears to have espoused a simple acquiescence in the revealed knowledge of the Church; a stance which was somewhat inconsistent with his own spiritual dilemmas.

Newman’s inner conflict between faith and reason is well demonstrated in the Lives of the English Saints, a series of volumes published between 1844 and 1845, which he initially edited. The project was designed to marry a love of the English national Church with its Catholic heritage. However, many of the accounts were based on hagiography and miracle stories, rather than firm historical evidence. The introduction to the life of St Neot, for example, stated that it would be ‘impossible, to attempt to determine any thing with any certainty […] how much is true, how much fiction’ (Newman, 1844, vol. 4: 73). Newman’s uncritical approach towards editing these lives reveals that he was prepared to place simple belief above critical analysis when the two diverged. ‘There is no room for the exercise of reason – we are in the region of faith,’ he wrote (Newman, 1844, vol. 3: 66). It is no surprise that the Lives have since undermined Newman’s reputation as a serious historical scholar.

The Reformation of the Eleventh Century, Newman’s 1841 paper on the investiture controversy, was his longest sustained analysis of a medieval phenomenon. It offers a compelling insight into Newman’s views on church-state relations; an issue of the utmost importance for the Oxford Movement as a whole. In the introduction, Newman emphasised the importance of studying ‘ecclesiastical history’ to complement scriptural and patristic studies (Newman, 1888: 249). Here he stated explicitly what the Middle Ages had to offer for the Tractarian, and by extension, for the contemporary Anglican Church. The ancient Church did occasionally have to deal with an aggressive temporal power, such as Ambrose’s stand against the civil power in fourth-century Milan, but it was only in the Middle Ages, when the two powers became clearly demarcated, that the blueprint for modern church-state relations was established.

The role of Pope Gregory VII during the investiture controversy was completely in accord with Newman’s preconceived opinions. By placing himself above the emperor and claiming the right of investiture, Gregory was ‘vindicating [...] an ecclesiastical principle essential to the independence and well-being of the Church’ (Newman, 1888: 306). In contrast, Henry IV’s ‘profligate life, his simoniacal appointments, and his cruelties and perfidities’ (Newman, 1888: 299) were hallmarks of corrupt secular authority, reminiscent of the supposedly debauched state of the Anglican Church in the eighteenth century. Indeed, Newman’s paper was a damning critique of the Erastianism of the contemporary Church of England. By its too-close relationship with the state, the Church was at risk of becoming as worldly and corrupt as secular leaders, be they Henry IV or Lord Melbourne. Newman was not so naive as to believe that the Church could reassert itself vis-à-vis the state, but through separation it could at least reclaim its apostolic role of spiritual leadership, free from the corruptions of the material world.

The only Tractarian advocate of church-state separation more vocal than Newman was Richard Hurrell Froude. It was he who coined the pithy axiom which summarised Tractarian thinking on the subject: ‘let us give up a national Church and have a real one’ (cited in Church, 1891: 47). However, compared to Newman, Froude’s relationship with the Middle Ages was instinctive, impulsive, and borderline fanatical. ‘He was powerfully drawn to the Medieval Church,’ Newman wrote, ‘but not to the Primitive’ (Newman, 1864: 86). This does not appear to have damaged their close friendship; Newman himself admitted that ‘from Froude I learned to admire the great medieval Pontiffs’ (Newman, 1864: 126). Yet there is no denying that these two men came from opposite ends of the Tractarian spectrum: Newman the austere theologian and Froude the Romantic idealist. One cannot imagine Newman writing with the same nostalgic fervour as Froude in his sonnet Farewell to Toryism: ‘The Feudal court, the Patriarchal sway / Of kings, the cheerful homage of a land / Unskill’d in treason, every social band / That taught to rule with sweetness, and obey’ (Froude, 1838, vol. 1: 429). Clearly, Froude had a deep emotional attachment to the Middle Ages, but he did not reinvent them purely to satisfy his own longings. More than any other member of the Oxford Movement, Froude believed that the Middle Ages could be used for a powerful didactic purpose.

Froude’s paper on the contest between Thomas Becket and Henry II was his most explicit avowal of the ideal society he envisaged. In many ways, it was a similar exercise to Newman’s Reformation of the Eleventh Century; both were studies of medieval church-state contests with undisguised bias in favour of the former. However, Froude went much further than Newman in his exposition of characters, in describing interactions between Church and state, and in his defence of a slighted individual. He encouraged the reader to view Becket with ‘unmixed pleasure and admiration’ (Froude, 1839, vol. 2: 9), as, while he was by no means perfect, ‘an excess of zeal in the cause of God, is infinitely less culpable than lukewarmness’ (Froude, 1839, vol. 2: 24). This was a potent attack on the present-day Anglican clergy, who Froude felt fell definitively into the latter category. He wanted to counteract the distaste for medieval religious ‘enthusiasm’ of which high churchmen were so suspicious.

Froude was even more scathing about the inexorable supremacy of the state, which he perceived in embryonic form in the twelfth century. Part of the blame for this development lay with the Church, which had gradually ceded its ecclesiastical obligations to secular hands, allowing the civil authority to impose harsher restrictions on its autonomy, and culminating in the ‘spoilation of the Church’ by Henry VIII. This encroachment into the ‘ancient Apostolical polity’ had emerged so stealthily that modern Anglicans could no longer ‘conceiv[e] the two societies as independent of one another’ (Froude, cited in Brendon, 1974: 112). Nonetheless, Froude believed that there was an alternative to the noxious alliance which had deprived the Church of its spiritual sovereignty. His paper on Becket was intended as a wake-up call for indolent Anglican bishops to reassert their natural rights against a sequestering government. Most importantly, this new ideal was inspired by a medieval archbishop who had the audacity to act independently of the state, and had died a martyr’s death.

Admiration for medieval clergy within the Oxford Movement was by no means unanimous. One of the most divisive figures was Anselm of Canterbury, who was the subject of two separate accounts by latter-day Tractarians. Anselm should have embodied everything the Oxford Movement wanted from Anglican clerics; he was godly, ascetic, single-minded, and detached from the workings of the state. Yet, as we shall see, Anselm’s devotion to the Church was too great for some Tractarians to tolerate. Newman’s conversion had instilled a profound distaste of ultramontanism amongst high churchmen. The following studies, written several decades after this event, reflect two sides of a lingering conflict between catholicity and allegiance to the national Church.

Walter Farquhar Hook, Tractarian vicar of Leeds, positively loathed Anselm. His contempt was barely disguised beneath a veil of scholarly prose and the desire to appeal to a readership possibly more sympathetic than himself. Nonetheless, the sentiment is obvious. Anselm was ‘absolutely ignorant’ both of Church politics and human nature, his principles ‘as an ecclesiastic, were radically wrong’, he was ‘utterly devoid of political sagacity or genius’ (Hook, 1862, vol. 2: 183). In short, Anselm was ‘simply a papist’ (Hook, 1862, vol. 2: 183). This vitriolic attack can be understood in the context of Hook’s own theological opinions. While he was a strong defender of the viewpoint that the Church of England had ‘existed from the time of Augustine to the present hour’ (Hook, 1860, vol. 1: 2), he played down the implications this had for association with a wider catholic body. In his mind, the Church of England had always been an independent institution. Since the reign of Henry III, the ecclesiastical authorities had been ‘resolute in resisting the unlawful requirements of the pope’ (Hook, 1865, vol. 3: 18). For Hook, this was the hallmark of the English character: kings and clerics united against foreign despotism. The Church of England may have been catholic, but it was also resolutely separate. Anselm meanwhile, as befitted his nationality, was strongly inclined towards deference to the papacy. Not only was he a cosmopolitan outsider, but he actively invited papal interference into the affairs of the English state. ‘No one laboured more consistently than he to enslave the Church of England, and to bring it under the dominion of the pope’ (Hook, 1862, vol. 2: 266). By placing the pontiff above his king, Anselm committed an act of treachery for which Hook could never forgive him.

R. W. Church’s biography of Anselm could not be more different from Hook’s. Indeed, he acknowledged in the preface that his account was ‘an entirely different estimate of Anselm’s character’ from that ‘to be found in Dean Hook’s’ (Church, 1870: ix). Church began by describing Anselm as ‘one of the most remarkable and most attractive characters of the Middle Ages’, ‘a great teacher, a great thinker, a great kindler of thought in others’ (Church, 1870: v), and, particularly significant in relation to Hook’s appraisal, ‘an example of gallant and unselfish public service’ (Church, 1870: 7). How could two committed Tractarians form such divergent opinions of the same character? The crucial difference is that, unlike Hook, Church did not judge Anselm’s conduct by the standards of his own day. He readily admitted that Anselm ‘began that system of appeals to Rome [...] which grew to such a mischievous and scandalous height’ (Church, 1870: 223). Yet these actions were entirely defensible in the context of the times. Even Hook recognised that William Rufus ‘was a bad man’ (Hook, 1862, vol. 2: 186). Thus, Church argued, by appealing to papal authority over the demands of a despotic monarch, Anselm was simply defending ‘spiritual truth’ against ‘brutal irresistible force’ (Church, 1870: 226). Of course, the subordination of national interests to those of wider Europe in the nineteenth century would have been unthinkable to both Hook and Church. However, only Church realised that the quarrel between William Rufus and Anselm was symptomatic of an underdeveloped national polity, and under these circumstances, Anselm’s only option was recourse to a more civilised foreign entity.

John William Bowden was another ecclesiastical writer who attempted to set out a Tractarian view of Church history in his Life of Gregory VII (1840). The introduction to this work deals mostly with the Reformation, its legacy, and the Catholic heritage of the English Church. Bowden immediately stressed that the schism of the Anglican Church, however beneficial, was accompanied by a host of ‘incidental evils’ (Bowden, 1840: 1). The most pernicious of these, he believed, was the theological and socio-cultural separation of English churchmen from their Catholic heritage. Centuries of anti-Catholic historiography had encouraged people to believe that the Catholic Church was a fundamentally corrupt institution ‘from an epoch virtually immemorial’ (Bowden, 1840: 2). Bowden therefore attempted to rectify the misconception of the English Church’s ‘recent origin’, claiming instead that the Church reformers, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, merely remodelled the English Church, rather than creating it anew (Bowden, 1840: 2). All of this seems far removed from Pope Gregory, but in fact Bowden’s choice of subject was significant. By writing a more nuanced appraisal of this notorious medieval pontiff, he could draw his readers’ attention to the positive qualities of medieval Catholicism which had previously been ignored. While Bowden did not deny the corruptions of Gregory’s pontificate, he viewed these in the context of the age. The eleventh-century Catholic Church was under threat and in need of reinvigoration. Gregory addressed these issues successfully, but doing so also served to strengthen the corruptions and erroneous doctrines which would ultimately lead to the Reformation. However, Bowden emphasised that Gregory did not profess his corrupt doctrine against a purer creed (there was none at the time), but against dangers which ‘threatened the destruction of Christianity itself’ (Bowden, 1840: 11). While no apologist for the pre-Reformation church, Bowden at least wanted to make clear that the seeds of the Reformation were not sown always with evil intent; that on the contrary, some were necessary in order to save the Church from an earlier and much more comprehensive demise.

To summarise this section on the intellectual mainsprings of Tractarianism with regard to the Middle Ages, we can draw three main conclusions. Firstly, all of the aforementioned Tractarians held the belief that the English Church did not begin in the sixteenth century. They believed it was a perennial institution which had always maintained its independence from the Roman see. Secondly, with the exception of Froude, Tractarians did not consider the medieval Church to be the ideal Church, yet they espoused it because it appealed to the lay conscience. It could also provide solutions for the problems faced by the Anglican Church, particularly concerning the correct way to deal with a usurping state authority. Finally, the effort that the Tractarians devoted to studying administrative issues meant that they completely overlooked medieval thought. Reasons for this ranged from Newman’s well-articulated (but inaccurate) argument that medieval theologians lacked the intellectual acumen to deal with complex theological issues, to Hook’s, who simply distrusted the product of an institution infected with ‘priestcraft’ and popery (Hook, 1860, vol. 1: 530).


Medievalism in Tractarian Social Thought

The social thought of the Oxford Movement has only recently begun to be investigated by historians. There still appears to be a residual denial that the Tractarians had any interest in social questions. One recent study posits that, with the exception of Pusey, Tractarians were ‘never elaborate social thinkers’ (Faught, 2003: 101). The following paragraphs aim to challenge this common misconception and will argue that, not only did the Tractarians have a strong social conscience, but that this offers one of the most revealing insights into their medievalism. Two broad strands of Tractarian social thought will be examined: firstly, the concept of ‘ecclesiastical welfare’, that is, the pastoral duties incumbent on any national Church. This role was considered to have been exemplified by the medieval Church and provided a model for the organic, hierarchical and paternalistic society which the Tractarians hoped to re-establish, or at least draw attention to, in an attempt to counteract social atomisation. The second and interrelated strand is the coincidence of the gothic revival with first-generation Tractarianism. This physical reconstruction of the Middle Ages was more than just a desire for aesthetic beauty in architecture; it was a tactile expression of the Tractarian social ideal. The buildings themselves and the manner of their use were profound theological statements; a rejection of the liturgical minimalism of the early Protestants and the reinstatement of those medieval ‘accretions’ which had for so long been the scorn of every good Anglican.

Once again we must begin with Newman as the anomaly. Newman’s conception of what the Oxford Movement was about reflected his own spiritual priorities; it was ultimately an idiosyncratic conception, and it is unfortunate that subsequent historians have deemed it to be authoritative. For Newman, social and political questions were inconsequential in comparison to the overbearing weight of theological concerns. ‘The noblest aspect of man is not the social, but the intellectual,’ Newman wrote (cited in Kenny, 1954: 252), and by this supposition, he perhaps believed that the social problems of the Victorian era could be solved by intellectual effort alone. Yet there was more to Newman than a myopic interpretation of the efficacy of social welfare. In fact, Newman’s view of the social question, limited though it may have been, was distinctly medieval.

His opposition to the 1834 Poor Law was driven by a sense that the state was not only appropriating the prerogatives of the Church, but that it was also trying to encourage social mobility, thereby interfering with that divinely-ordained hierarchy which had been the pervading characteristic of the English Church. Newman believed that the poor were an inevitable feature of society and should be treated with compassion and mercy, not mechanical attempts to improve their station. ‘Every one has his place in society,’ Newman remarked in 1834, ‘there is a difference of duties, and of persons fitted for them’ (cited in Skinner, 2004: 282). This statement is virtually indistinguishable from those issued by the Tory paternalists, or even the Whiggish noblesse oblige. It was not specifically anti-state, and could just as easily have been appealing to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century social structure, in which the landed aristocracy presided over a calcified, statist hierarchy. However, with our knowledge of Newman’s strong anti-Erastianism, he could only have been invoking the Middle Ages, when social stability was maintained through welfare provision, and the benevolent treatment of pauperes Christi.

Having said this, Simon Skinner is correct to assert that ‘it was especially the lesser men of the [Oxford] movement who saw the Middle Ages by moonlight’ (Skinner, 2004: 203). The neglect of lesser-known Tractarian sources has led historians to marginalise the significance of their social thought, and consequently, to underestimate the pervasiveness of their medieval inclinations. Men such as Thomas Mozley, Frederick Oakeley, and Samuel Bosanquet were vociferous in their avocation of a remodelled social structure based on the Middle Ages. The British Critic, a Tractarian journal edited by Newman between 1838 and 1841, was a hotbed for antediluvian polemic about ‘sociable and merry England’, the ‘misery and depression’ of the present age, and the woeful consequences of the commercial spirit established by the Reformation (Skinner, 2004: 191). Oakeley wrote explicitly that the ‘frightful state of the population in our large towns [...] comes directly of our Protestantism’ (cited in Skinner, 2004: 204). Had it been noticed, this kind of vicious anti-Reformation rhetoric would have caused more of a stir than the comparatively mild Tract 90, but the select readership of the Critic meant that its contributors could give full force to their pro-Catholic arguments without fear of reproach. The Tractarian novels shared this sentiment, although in an understandably watered-down form. Like most Romantic novels, they were saturated with nostalgic medievalism, but with a specific focus on the ecclesiastical heritage which had been so shamelessly discarded. ‘Has the most indefatigable man of business [...] any right to sneer at the habits of the old monks?’ thundered William Gresley in The Forest of Arden (Gresley, 1843: 76). The benefits of laissez-faire capitalism were clearly subordinate to the close-knit pastoral community provided by the medieval Church. ‘Her convents furnished, in the name of God, food to the hungry, shelter to the afflicted, and rest to the weary’ (Gresley, 1843: 14). Compared to the state alternative, those barren and dehumanising workhouses, there really was no contest. The state simply lacked the paternal conscientiousness to truly understand the plight of the poor, or the measures necessary to alleviate the worst extremes of their poverty, whilst ensuring their continued dependency on Church welfare.

Much of Froude’s admiration for Becket derived from the latter’s participation in what Froude described as the twelfth-century ‘high-church party’ (Froude, 1839, vol. 2: 31). Unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts, these churchmen ‘endeavoured as much as possible to make common cause with the poor and the defenceless’ (Froude, 1839, vol. 2: 31). Instead of being haughty and aloof from ordinary lives, they maintained ‘the affections of a common people against a united aristocracy’ (Froude, 1839, vol. 2: 30). By making this connection, Froude was attempting to formulate a new definition of high churchmanship, to rescue the term from the sullied hands of the eighteenth-century aristocracy, by reference to a medieval form which predated the orthodox definition. Thus, the Oxford Movement could still claim to be high church, but with its pastoral and anti-aristocratic denotations re-established, it was a badge to be worn with pride.

Followers of the Oxford Movement needed vessels in which to pour their retromedieval theology. Whether by coincidence, or as part of the wider Romantic milieu with which the Oxford Movement was associated, the second quarter of the nineteenth century saw a marked resurgence in the popularity of high medieval or gothic architecture. The revival was as much a positive espousal of gothic design as it was a negative rejection of ‘debased’ antiquarian styles imitated from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. A. W. N. Pugin, the father of the nineteenth-century English gothic revival, claimed that all architecture was a reflection of the society which produced it, or as he put it, ‘The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised’ (Pugin, 1843: 4). Hence the stark, angular styles of pagan antiquity were indicative of cultural sparseness, alienation and fragmentation. In contrast, the fullness and intricacy of the gothic style bore witness to a society which was integrated and organic. By drawing attention to these dissimilarities, Pugin was not just comparing two types of architecture, but two types of society. Following his logic through to its inevitable conclusion, Pugin asserted that if society shaped architecture, then architecture could change society. By building more in the gothic style, the fractured society of Britain could make tentative steps back to its glorious medieval past.

Why the Tractarians subscribed wholeheartedly to this movement is therefore plain to see. Pugin was a Catholic, but his ideas were shared by many high-church Anglicans as a necessary corrective to society’s putrefied moral tissue. Gothic architecture was not a subversive Catholic fixation, but an ideal which would benefit the nation as a whole. It conformed perfectly with the Oxford Movement’s desire for a reinvigorated national identity and catholicity. Indeed, as Michael Lewis (2002) points out, the Tractarians’ theological requirements for Church construction could only be fulfilled using gothic design. The separation of nave and chancel by a rood screen to represent the spiritual distinction between clergy and laity was an architectural feature simply not found in earlier Protestant churches founded on the ‘priesthood of all believers’ doctrine. Elements such as these revealed the theological intentions behind gothicism. It was a revival not just of medieval aesthetics, but of medieval ritual and ceremony, the latter of which some Anglicans found particularly disquieting. Elaborate new churches would inevitably be filled with elaborate things: altar candles, vestments, chalices, incense, and so on. To the Oxford Movement, these were simply manifestations of an elevated form of worship; to the mass of broad churchmen, however, they were ‘mediæval superstitions’ and ‘Popish inventions’ (Close, 1844: 44, 29).

Gothic ecclesiastical buildings were effectively a reaffirmation of the Church’s medieval authority. Churches were no longer empty shells where people would congregate to worship. Their ornamentation, both internal and external, was intended to manipulate the senses, to inspire awe, and to place the faithful firmly under the Church’s control. When Hook and Pusey collaborated to rebuild the church of St Peter’s in Leeds to the designs of R. D. Chantrell, their choice of location was deliberate. Leeds was a Methodist town when Hook arrived in 1837, and the construction of a church which has been described as ‘perhaps the most thoroughgoing work of revived ecclesiastical gothic of its date’ (Brooks, 1999: 232), was intended to woo nonconformists back to the Anglican fold, in all its renewed gothic splendour. By all accounts, the ploy worked. As W. R. W. Stephens recounted in his father-in-law’s biography, Hook found Leeds ‘a stronghold of Dissent’ and left it in 1859 ‘a stronghold of the Church’ (Stephens, 1885: 520).

Once again, Newman is our man of paradox. On the one hand, he frequently declared his admiration for the gothic style, describing it as ‘extremely superior to Grecian as a matter of art’ (cited in Patrick, 1981: 190). He was also one of the Oxford scholars who in 1839 founded the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture. Nonetheless, Newman’s positive attitude towards the revival wavered during his latter Anglican years. By the time he wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine just prior to his conversion in 1845, Newman’s love affair with the Middle Ages was over. He wrote that ‘it [gothic] was once the perfect expression of the Church’s ritual [...] it is not the perfect expression now’ (cited in Patrick, 1981: 200). What had caused Newman’s ultimate rejection of the architectural style he once considered the solution to the Anglican Church’s spiritual and cultural malaise? To answer this question, we must return to the deeper currents of Tractarian thought.

Newman embodied two conflicting ideals within the Oxford Movement. The desire for national rejuvenation by invoking the medieval past became incompatible with the appeal to catholicity and the ancient (that is, continental European) Church. After a protracted spiritual struggle, Newman came down in favour of the latter. His belief in the use of historical paradigms to legitimate the Anglican Church was shattered by his conversion. This included advocating the medieval English Church in order to justify Anglican independence, to establish some kind of historical lineage which would reinforce its claims to apostolicity. Newman came to regard gothic architecture as too nationalistic, too rooted in English tradition, as opposed to the true internationalism of the Catholic Church. While Protestants would forever be forced to look to the past in order to justify themselves, Newman believed that, since history was inherent to Catholicism, it could afford to move on. Hence, when it came to devising plans for his oratory in 1848, Newman stipulated that it was to have ‘no open roof, no skreen [sic],’ and that ‘it need not have many windows’ (cited in Patrick, 1981: 198). He no longer had to pay lip-service to the gothic tradition. The duty of the Catholic Church was rather to ‘adapt’, to ‘vary her discipline and ritual, according to the times’ (cited in Patrick, 1981: 200).

Back in Oxford, however, the defenders of the Anglican flame had profited greatly from their dalliance with the medieval past. Their ignorance of medieval thought and subsequent overemphasis on the societal and administrative aspects of the medieval Church actually worked to their advantage. One only needs to look at the legacy of the Oxford Movement to see how this has been borne out. In terms of its intellectual thought, the movement was almost a complete failure. Its remaining practitioners soon retracted their claims to catholicity and began instead to stress the uniqueness of the Anglican Church, its doctrinal and ecclesiological differences from the Church of Rome. The liberalising trends of secular governments could not be thwarted, and by the end of the nineteenth century, it appeared that the Tractarian battle with modernism had been decisively lost. What the Oxford Movement had achieved, though, was the inculcation of certain medieval customs and devotional practices which had hitherto been rejected, even by high churchmen, as superstitious or ‘papistical’. The speed with which the tactile attributes of the medieval Church were absorbed into Anglican Church practice was astonishing. By the late nineteenth century, the wearing of vestments, the administering of sacraments, and luxurious decorative elements were common sights in many Anglican churches. Despite some critical voices, these developments had been accepted without irrevocably dividing the Church. The notion that this could have occurred before the Oxford Movement is impossible to substantiate.

The Anglican and Catholic Churches were theologically as different as they ever had been, but in terms of their practice, they had never looked more similar. While the changes therefore appear to be superficial, they served an important function in enabling the Anglican Church to reclaim its medieval heritage. The Oxford Movement helped to redraw the lines of continuity between what it considered to be two variants of the same institution, and in doing so, had wrested England’s medieval past from the arms of the Catholics.




I would like to thank Dr Giles Gasper for inspiring this project and for his continued support and advice.



[1] Joseph Cronin studied History and Politics at the University of Durham and has recently begun an MA in Modern History at the same university.



Primary Sources

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