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

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

Fr John Parsons

This is the second part of a two-part study of the life of one of Britain's outstanding 19th century political figures, George Frederick Samuel Robinson, otherwise known as Lord Ripon. His political career provides a refreshing contrast to the standards set by many of our present-day politicians.

Fr John Parsons is a priest of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese and a regular contributor to "AD2000'.

Father Dalgairns received Lord Ripon into the Catholic Church at the Oratory on 8 September 1874, the Feast of the Birth of Our Lady, in whose honour he proceeded to erect, in thanksgiving, an altar in the Catholic Church at Ripon. When attending Benediction on Sunday afternoons in Ripon in later years he would always light a candle at that altar and pray there for ten minutes.

Shortly before his reception he discovered to his surprise that conversion would entail his resignation of the Grand Mastership of the English Freemasons, which he had held since 1870. From 1890 until his death he was President of the Society of St Vincent de Paul - surely a unique combination!

It really was all too much for the establishment. The Times printed an editorial denouncing him, saying his career was at an end, that "no man can become Rome's convert without renouncing his mental and moral freedom" and that henceforth Lord Ripon had "forfeited the right to the confidence of his countrymen."

Ripon busied himself in the Society of St Vincent de Paul, reconciled to the disappearance of his political future.

It was a moral issue that brought him back to the shadow cabinet in 1878. He was convinced of the wrongness of the attempts of Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India, and his patron Disraeli, then Prime Minister, to annex Afghanistan by provoking a war.

As former Secretary for India he had some standing in the matter. When Lytton's high-handed bungling had brought financial and military disaster, and when Gladstone had won the election of 1880, Ripon was sent to India as Viceroy to sort out the mess, (taking Fr Kerr SJ with him as his confessor). He withdrew the army from Afghanistan, neutralised the country, made some minor annexations, and recommended an arrangement with Russia to avoid mutual suspicions in future.

During his time in Calcutta from 1880 to 1884, he abolished the censorship of the vernacular press that Lytton had introduced, and took the initiative in creating local government councils all over British India, thus laying the practical foundations for parliamentary government at provincial and national levels later on.

Ripon's attempt to abolish all racial discrimination in the legal system turned out to be even more controversial. Because it would have put Europeans on trial before native Indian magistrates, there was an enormous backlash from the white residents of the subcontinent.

Ripon wrote to one cabinet minister: "The truth is that I am evidently in a great fight. The question at issue is not the passing of this particular bill, but the principles upon which India is to be governed. Is she to be ruled for the benefits of Indian people of all races, classes and creeds, or in the sole interest of a small body of Europeans? Is it England's duty in India to try to elevate the Indian people, to raise them socially, to train them politically, to promote their progress in material prosperity, in education and morality; or is it to be the be all and end all of her rule, to maintain a precarious power over what Mr Branson calls a subject race with a profound hatred of their subjection?"


A compromise was eventually reached in 1883 whereby the European could claim a jury at his trial, when tried by a native magistrate. Nonetheless, the honourable character of Ripon's policy was universally recognised by Indians. When he left Bombay late in 1884, he did so as the most popular Viceroy India was ever to see, and loaded with loyal addresses from Indian bodies.

At the end of 1885, Gladstone adopted the policy of creating an autonomous parliament in Dublin to deal with internal Irish affairs, while keeping Ireland within the United Kingdom, as the Irish politicians themselves then desired. This was known as the policy of Home Rule, and Ripon supported it firmly, taking office as First Lord of the Admiralty in the brief Liberal government of 1886.

Back in the 1850s he had supported Charles Gavan Duffy's attempts in the House of Commons to create an Irish parliamentary party. In the 1880s Duffy, having been Premier of Victoria, was living in retirement at Nice, and re-established contact with Ripon, suggesting schemes for Irish self government. He and Ripon frequently corresponded on the issue.

Though the Home Rule bill of 1886 was defeated, and the Liberal Party split on the question, Ripon remained permanently a strong and vocal advocate of the policy. In 1888 he and John Morley, a shadow cabinet colleague, were triumphantly received in Dublin and made freemen of the city. In June of that year he wrote: "My Irish work has been of peculiar interest to me, for, apart from the questions with which I have had to deal in India, I have never felt so strongly about any public question as I do about the Irish question. The policy of the government appears to me so blind, so cruel and so hopeless that I am ready to spend myself heartily in the effort to put an end to it."

From 1892 to 1895 Ripon was Secretary of State for the Colonies. Believing equally strongly in the merits of the Empire as a force for good, and the demerits of a jingoistic policy of expanding it by force, he did his best to control the powerful influence wielded by Cecil Rhodes and other business magnates in South African affairs. He foresaw the dangers inherent in allowing British policy to be determined by the commercial interests of Rhodes and others.

The deterioration of relations with the Boers was the responsibility of his successor at the Colonial Office, Joseph Chamberlain. Had Ripon remained Colonial Secretary, the Boer War would certainly not have happened. In 1899, when the war was imminent, Ripon wrote a long and forceful letter to Campbell-Bannerman, the leader of the Opposition, with whom he was on close terms, analysing and denouncing the Government's policies. Since Campbell-Bannerman generally took his cue from Ripon on foreign and colonial questions, Ripon's influence on Liberal policy at this time was very great.

Meanwhile, in 1894, Ripon had bought Saint Clare's ancient convent of San Damiano, below the walls of Assisi, from the freemasonical Italian state which had confiscated it from the Franciscans. By dint of holding it in his own name, and giving the use of it back to the friars, the anti-clerical spoliation of Italy was, in this instance at least, frustrated.

A Latin inscription, still visible on the garden wall as one descends to the convent from Assisi, records the fact that the Marquis of Ripon restored the convent at his own expense in that year; and the road leading down from Assisi to San Damiano is called the "Via G.F.S. Robinson, Marchese di Ripon."

At 77 he entered the Cabinet for the last time, as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords, in December 1905. The election the following February gave the Liberals a landslide majority in the Commons, but they were outnumbered ten to one in the Lords, where Ripon led the government. His energy remained extraordinary, and he spoke on twenty bills and filled 120 columns of Hansard in the session of 1906. His wife died in February 1907 and he wished to retire, but at the request of his old friend Campbell-Bannerman, now Prime Minister, he stayed on as Leader in the upper house until Campbell-Bannerman himself retired in April 1908.

It was the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone's mishandling of the International Eucharistic Congress in London in 1908 that precipitated Ripon's resignation as Lord Privy Seal and thus his final retirement in October of that year.

Eucharistic procession

Permission had been given, weeks in advance, for a Eucharistic procession through the streets of London, with the Pope's Cardinal Legate participating.

A storm of Protestant protest descended on the Prime Minister and the King. As the only Catholic in the Cabinet, Ripon was asked by Asquith, the new Prime Minister, to convey the government's decision, only four days before the event, that a Catholic procession would be allowed, but that the Host and vestments must be eliminated.

Ripon did so, but submitted his resignation forthwith, telling Asquith, I can't totally desert my own people and be responsible for such treatment as they have received." He nonetheless allowed the announcement of his departure to be delayed a few weeks, and attributed it to his age and health.

At a dinner in his honour at the Eighty One Club in November he said: I started (in public life) at a high level of radicalism, and in 1852 I was considered to be a very dangerous young man. I am a radical still, just as much as I was then, but I am afraid that I am much more respectable ... What is the course that I have pursued? I took what I could get and waited to get more, believing that that was a wise and sound principle in public life."

He last spoke in the House of Lords in March 1909, having sat in Cabinet with Lord Palmerston at the beginning of his political career, and with Winston Churchill at its end.

But more than cabinets to him was the alarm clock at six each morning: mental prayer, the New Testament, the Imitation of Christ, and the Rosary, before his manservant appeared at seven. He heard Mass daily, though in London he was fifteen minutes distant from the church. He confessed every Saturday, and communicated often. His special devotion was to the Blessed Sacrament, and he loved to carry the canopy in Eucharistic processions.

Because of bad health, Ripon eventually got permission to have a private chapel and took pains to have it handsomely furnished, as was the splendid Gothic church he built at Studley as a memorial to his murdered brother-in- law, dedicating it to Our Lady of Fountains, as he wanted "Our Lady of Fountains to have something of her own again."

He always attended High Mass, at the London Oratory or at St Wilfred's in Ripon, and would return for Benediction and, in London, Vespers in the afternoon; although owing to his increasing deafness he could hear little of music and sermons. But, as his mentor Newman put it, Cor ad cor loquitur, heart speaks to heart.

He died at Studley Royal on 9 July 1909, having repeated during the anointing "Jesus, have mercy on me; Mary my protector, pray for me," and clasping in his hand the silver crucifix given to him by Pius IX.

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