The Cornhill Magazine
November 1899

Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman (1802-1865) from Harper's Weekly 25 March 1865


I cannot leave this subject without recalling an anecdote Wilkie Collins once told me.  At the time when the excitement against the Papal aggression was at its height, a Catholic friend offered to take him to one of Cardinal Wiseman’s receptions.  Wilkie Collins accepted eagerly, and a few days later found himself ascending the stairs of the Cardinal’s modest house in York Place. He soon noticed that the men in front of him, as they arrived near their host, bent their knee and kissed his episcopal ring.  As a good Protestant Wilkie Collins could not do likewise; ‘so it ended in our shaking hands and having a most pleasant talk after the crowd had passed.’ The remark which most struck him was when the Cardinal said that the best thing which could happen for his cause would be some fanatical attack upon himself.  ‘If any one were to fire a shot at me, I know the innate justice of the English character too well not to feel certain that there would be so great a revulsion of feeling that all this agitation would cease, and my cause would be won.’

The Cornhill Magazine, New Series vol. VII, November 1899, p. 628.

The paragraph is taken from 'Links with the Past' by a person, almost certainly a woman, under the initials M.H. No further information about her has come to light.

On 30 September 1850 Wiseman was appointed Cardinal and sent to England as the first Archbishop of Westminster when the Roman Catholic hierarchy was re-established in England. He arrived on 11 November. There were demonstrations, newspaper editorials and political action against what many Protestants saw as ‘Papal aggression’ – an attempt to re-establish the Catholic Church in England as the main religion.  The Papal Aggression was at its height in 1850/51.

In the 1851 Census (30 March 1851) and in the 1851/52 Electoral Roll Wiseman is recorded as living at 35 Golden Square (HO107/1485/336/14). By 7 April 1861 (Census RG9/73/3/4) he was at 8 York Place. So it is likely that Wilkie's meeting with him was later 1851 or early 1852 after he removed to York Place. It is not known who was the 'catholic friend' of Wilkie's who arranged the event. Wiseman died in London in 1865.

It is not clear when the anecdote was told to M.H. though it seems to have been some years later when Collins was famous. Her identity remains unknown but the context of the story indicates she was herself a Catholic.

Wilkie saw the Pope in 1853 on a trip to Rome and showed similar politeness without deference.  He wrote to his brother Charles

“As I was walking along the street which leads from the Ponte S. Angelo to St Peter’s, two dragoons dashed past me, clearing the road at full gallop, two carriages came after, with cardinals inside -- and next came a state coach with the Pope himself.  Every creature near me fell on his or her knees.  I stood up, of course, but pulled off my hat.  The Pope (I suppose, seeing me the only erect figure out of a group of 30 or 40 people), looked straight at me as he passed -- and bowed as he saw me with my hat in my hand.” (To Charles Collins, [0159] 13 November 1853)


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