Lord Ripon (1828-1909) - I - How to base political life on Christian principles

Lord Ripon (1828-1909) - I - How to base political life on Christian principles

Fr John Parsons

Today the credibility of politicians seems to be at an all time low, with religious and moral principles increasingly excluded from public decision-making and personal conduct. It is refreshing therefore to be reminded of one very prominent 19th century politician who consistently based his political actions on his Christian faith.

This is the first of a two-part pen-portrait of George Frederick Samuel Robinson, better known as Lord Ripon, by Fr John Parsons, a priest of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese.

There are admirable Catholics from unlikely backgrounds, but not many were born at No 10 Downing Street. There are converts to the Church from improbable circles, but not many Grand Masters of the Freemasons of their country. Many Catholics have supported worker ownership of industries, but few did so decades before Rerum Novarum. There have been hundreds of Catholics in parliament, but few of them have gone straight from shadow cabinet meetings to meetings of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

Campaigns against racial discrimination and in favour of local self-government in the Third World are now commonplace, but not many were launched over a century ago by wealthy noblemen; and to bring a potentially interminable list of paradoxes to an end, the fame of many men is perpetuated in place-names, but only one name is attached to waterfalls in Africa, to streets in Australia and to Saint Clare's convent in Assisi. Yet all of these statements apply to one man: George Frederick Samuel Robinson 1st Marquis of Ripon.

Like Cardinal Newman, Father Faber and Mgr Ronald Knox, Lord Ripon acquired his fundamental Christian upbringing in a Calvinist Anglican Evangelical household.

The Calvinist revival in the Anglican Church in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the source of many, probably most, of the intellectual converts to Catholicism in Victorian and Edwardian England. Belief in a revealed and dogmatic religion and in humanity's need of a divine Saviour, was the Catholic element that Calvinism reinstilled into the Stoic moralising and social conformity of Hanoverian Anglicanism.

When this dogmatic and traditional core of Christianity was confronted with the facts of Church history, whether patristic or medieval, and with the need to take a more balanced view of human culture and human nature than Calvinism could integrate, many Evangelicals turned to a more Catholic vision of a continuous, visible and sacramental Church. The progression from a devout but historically narrow Evangelical family background, to some kind of High Church Anglicanism and then to Catholicism, was repeated in thousands of lives.

In Lord Ripon's case, it was the finding of a Breviary while browsing in a bookshop at seventeen that provided his first contact with the Church, and he began to say the Office daily until his parents objected.

Ripon never went to school or university, but read widely and eagerly in the library at Nocton, the country house in Lincolnshire where he grew up, largely under the influence of his Evangelical mother. His father had been, very briefly, Prime Minister in 1827, but later changed sides from Tory to Whig, and back again. This, plus the fact that Oliver Cromwell was among the branches of the family tree, meant that it was part of his political inheritance to be a wild card, though within a thoroughly conventional pack.

Social vision

Perhaps that is why he had become a Christian Socialist by the age of twenty. His thinking was greatly influenced by the workers' co-operatives set up in Paris in 1848, which he got to know during a visit the following year. He never believed in state socialism or the abolition of private property, and indeed after 1859 was one of the greatest landowners in the country; but producers' co-operatives in particular, and worker ownership in general, inspired his social vision throughout his life.

In the short term, workers needed to improve their conditions, and Ripon felt the wealthy classes had a duty to provide it. He helped trades unions in various ways, most memorably by sending the Amalgamated Society of Engineers a total of about one thousand pounds for their strike fund during a lock out in 1852.

In the longer term, he believed a wider distribution of productive property would make for a more stable and happy society. For sixty years he supported worker ownership: by parliamentary legislation in 1862 when he was a junior minister, by taking a leading role in schemes for co-partnership, profit sharing or ownership, by his presidency of the Guild of Co-operators from 1884 to 1886 and again from 1889 to 1894, by his vice presidency of the International Cooperative Alliance from 1895, of the Labour Co-Partnership Association from 1905 to 1908, and by personal involvement in a number of co-operative factories in his home county of Yorkshire. In 1853 he even considered rebuilding the ruins of Fountains Abbey, which stand in the grounds of his now vanished house at Studley Royal near Ripon, as a working men's university.

In 1851 he married Henrietta Vyner, and their son Lord de Grey, born the following year, grew up to be the best shot in England.

In 1852 Ripon was elected to the House of Commons. As in economics, so in politics, Ripon's activity was inspired by the desire to "bind men together" and to make society more stable and healthy by involving as many people as possible in responsible social activity: "self government is the highest and noblest principle of politics, the safest foundation on which the State can rest," but it was something for which people must gain a practical feel.

Ripon believed in a gradualist, pragmatic approach, not in insistence upon impracticable ideals: "We are laughed at by our versatile neighbours for our matter of fact character, but I think ... we manage our affairs rather better than our more spiritual neighbours the French" - who at that time combined manhood suffrage with dictatorship, while England had neither.

His combination of reforming radicalism with a conviction of the positive role of the state in fostering a more participatory and cohesive society, inspired by a Christian ethic, made him unsound from a party point of view. As he wrote to a friend in 1852, "I feel every day how widely I differ from all existing parliamentary parties, and on what utterly different grounds my faith rests."

Nevertheless, he wanted to join in the politics of his day. In 1859 the deaths of his father and uncle removed him to the House of Lords through the inheritance of two earldoms. He entered the government as Under Secretary for War 1859-1861, Under Secretary for India 1861, and for War again 1861-1863. Then he entered the Cabinet: Secretary for War 1863-1865 and for India 1865-1866. In Gladstone's first government he was Lord President of the Council 1868-1873, and as such, much of his effort went to the passage of the Education Act of 1870, which established universal elementary education in Britain and Ireland while supporting the existing voluntary church schools.

During the same period Ripon also played a crucial role in establishing the international law governing neutrality, and in averting what looked like an imminent war with the United States. From March to May 1871 he was in Washington as head of a delegation handling a series of contentious issues between the two countries, most crucially the American claims to compensation regarding the outfitting of the Alabama and other Confederate warships in British ports during the War between the States.

Ripon was a good choice for the task, as he had never had any time for the kind of American democrats who talked about freedom, equality and brotherhood "with the whip of the slave driver in their hands, and the blood of the negro crying out for vengeance against them," and had spoken in the House of Commons in 1858 in favour of British efforts to restrict slavery in America.

In Washington Ripon befriended Hamilton Fish, the American Secretary of State, and they agreed to abandon the usual diplomatic protocols and discuss their problems in private. Ripon told the Foreign Secretary, "we derive great advantage from this arrangement as there is no bunkum talking, and many unpleasant things are left unsaid or not pressed, which, if our proceedings were ever likely to come out, would be inevitable."

The principles of neutrality they thrashed out have been of great long term significance, and were, for example, what prevented Germany from using American ports to build, repair or equip ships during the two world wars. In recognition of his services, Ripon, already a Knight of the Garter, was made a marquis.


Then came the great surprise. In August 1873 he resigned from the government on a rather secondary matter, joined with personal motives he did not explain. He retired to Studley Royal and devoted himself to reading. He had always been a practising Anglican, but in April 1870 he had been shocked by the murder of his brother-in-law by brigands in Greece. The following Sunday he attended Mass for the first time in England, at St George's Cathedral, Southwark, and the attraction he had felt to the Catholic Church as a boy of seventeen returned.

Over the next four years he read Newman, to whom, as he put it later, "under God, I owe that greatest of all blessings, the blessing of belonging to the Catholic Church." Ripon and the Duke of Norfolk, as the leading Catholic Liberal and Tory laymen respectively, were later to play a part in getting Newman a cardinal's hat. Ripon's cousin, Lady Amabel Kerr, herself a highly intelligent convert and writer, was his main source of strength and advice on religious matters.

The struggle was long and hard. At times the force of the Catholic position would strike him, and then fade as new objections arose. In a state of uncertainty he went to Brittany so that in quiet communion with God he could obtain help in his difficulty, but his prayers seemed of no use and he felt dry and desolate.

Lady Amabel urged him not to depend on his feelings or look for a miracle in the way of some special manifestation of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, but to ask for light and guidance, and be ready to receive that light in the way God sees best. He was not attracted to the Church by Catholic ceremonial, which struck him as new and strange. He was afraid that conversion must necessarily mean the end of his public career. He wondered whether the Syllabus of Errors was compatible with his political convictions, until Father Dalgairns of the London Oratory explained it to him satisfactorily. He was con fused by the Ultramontane claims to the effect that almost every official papal utterance was infallible, until Lady Amabel told him the Ultramontanes were merely a party within the Church and one did not have to agree with them. By 19 August 1874 his mind was made up.

He wrote to Father Dalgairns: "Since your letter arrived I have prayed to God to guide me and have very earnestly considered my position, and I can come to no other conclusion than that the Catholic Church is the only true Church of Christ on earth, that it is to her that God has been leading me these last four or five years, and that I have nothing now to do but humbly to ask to be received into her fold. In order that you may be better able to judge how far I am fit, I ought perhaps to tell you that though I think my intellectual conviction of the claims of the Catholic Church is complete, I feel as if my faith were very cold; though I have deliberately made up my mind to take a step fraught with serious worldly consequences to myself, I have not at this moment any feeling of enthusiasm, and the question often rises in my mind whether I really believe anything at all. My answer is that I cannot help believing that God has been leading me very wonderfully during the last few years, and that it is the same Hand which has been guiding me up to this time which is now beckoning me to enter the Catholic Church."

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