Nineteenth Century Salons Were the “Greenhouses” Where British Catholicism and the Ultramontanes Germinated and Flourished

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Nineteenth Century Salons Were the “Greenhouses” Where British Catholicism and the Ultramontanes Germinated and Flourished
Nineteenth Century Salons Were the “Greenhouses” Where British Catholicism and the Ultramontanes Germinated and Flourished

Many Catholics today are unaware of the immense contributions of the Ultramontanes of the nineteenth century to the resurgence of Catholicism worldwide. Prof. Fernando Furquim de Almeida (1913-1981) studied the movement and produced dozens of articles detailing the movement’s work. We have edited these articles and will be featuring them. They highlight the actions of ultramontane leaders in England, Spain, Italy, France and Ireland.

In nineteenth-century England, frequent lunches, dinners and other social gatherings served as pretexts for discussing the hot topics of the moment. The ladies of the nobility dominated this intense social life in the salons that they maintained. They received the nation’s representative aristocrats, politicians and writers in their London homes on fixed days of the week. One outstanding example was the salon of Elizabeth Fox, Baroness Holland, whose husband was a Liberal Party leader. Lady Holland only received “Whig” politicians and those who were not their declared enemies. Her rival was Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington, a great lady of Irish descent, who welcomed at Gore House all those Lady Holland would not receive because of their political convictions.

The Gore House salon had a more literary tone. Eminent politicians like Lord Durham and young Disraeli frequented Lady Blessington’s salon, as did famous dandies like the Count d’Orsay and fashionable writers. A snapshot of an evening at Lady Blessington’s house gives a good idea of ​​the atmosphere: “There were French people impatient with their little practice of the English language. One of them, however, was never impatient, understood everything, and calmly ran his keenly observant eye around the salon. He was a very unheroic-looking man, Prince Louis Bonaparte.”

Combining Religion and Politics with Genial Conversation

In the salons, luxury and elegance came together with serious conversations. Indeed, the most serious political problems were often resolved at these meetings. Therefore, religious questions naturally arose.

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After his noisy election, Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell brought to the House of Commons, a brilliant group of his countrymen who provoked endless arguments concerning Ireland and the freedom of the Catholic Church. Given the interest O’Connell’s movement aroused across England, these discussions soon dominated the conversation. One of these Members of Parliament, Edward Sheill, O’Connell’s lieutenant, challenged those present to a debate on the question of Ireland after lunch at Lord Milnes’ house, during which Catholicism had already been discussed at length.

The Irish also had their salon, where they cultivated their country’s traditions. It was that of Lady Fingall [Elizabeth Mary “May” Plunkett, née Burke]. François Rio described it in a letter to his wife: “If I were in a better mood, I would give an enthusiastic account of a reception where I met many Irish people, Sheill among others. Thomas Moore sang some of his national tunes with such success and exaltation that I could not resist. I felt very emotional and went to shake his hand, declaring it was undeniably the most beautiful evening I had spent in London.”

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The patrons of many of these English salons had attended the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Aristocratic society reflected the intense intellectual life of these two centers of culture. The Oxford Movement had made theology fashionable, and everyone had an opinion about the most intricate theological and philosophical subjects. One cannot imagine the extent to which English social life contributed to the remarkable progress of Catholicism during the nineteenth century. This environment was favorable to the apostolate, and numerous aristocratic conversions gave witness to ​​the valuable and excellent work that English Catholics carried out.

A Distinguished French Émigré

Alexis-François Rio (1797-1874) was one of the great apostles of this milieu. An admirable causeur, he arrived in England, bringing the enthusiasm that the French religious renewal had already aroused. The son of a “Chouan,” as a child, Rio had led his little colleagues at the College of Vannes to resist Napoleon’s Empire. During the One Hundred Days, he organized a battalion of boys who fled their homes and presented themselves to the royalist army fighting the usurper. They were assigned to positions where they presumably would not be attacked. However, the children faced a rude onslaught and bravely repulsed the attackers.

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This episode, known as the “Little Chouannerie,” earned Rio the Legion of Honor granted by Louis XVIII. Later in his youth, he was influenced by Count Charles Montalembert, a close friend who directed him to study religious art. In this area, he distinguished himself to the point of becoming an initiator of the revival of Medieval art. He married Apollonia Jones, an Englishwoman from a traditionally Catholic family, and British high society welcomed him with open arms. His admirable role within the London salons merits additional study.

In 1883, a French priest asked Henry Cardinal Manning if Rio was known in England. Cardinal Manning answered: “You call him a countryman, and indeed he is because of his origin and his first struggles, but his influence was greater in England than in France. We are wont to regard him as one of our own, and he is certainly better liked among us today than among you. He was a fine soul, both as an artist and a Christian.”

This atmosphere of intense intellectual discussion was the greenhouse that led to the revival of Catholicism in Britain and helped the Ultramontane leaders gain influence.

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