Cloud of Witnesses: Robert Francis Wilberforce

It was through his brother-in-law, Louis Bancel Warren, that I got to know Robert Francis Wilberforce (1887-1988), and none too soon, for he was closing in on his 100th birth-day—a genetic habit of the family, for his mother died in her 100th year, and his father was 91 in a time of rudimentary medicine. Louis and his sister were descendants of the American Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler; and in Oxford at Balliol, Louis had become fast friends with Robert (generally known as “Bath Bob” because of his association with that ancient spa, the Anglo-Saxon Venice).

Bath Bob married Hope Elizabeth Warren, author of a book on Persian rugs, of which she had many, three days after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the change of the world. During the Great War he worked with the War Trade Intelligence Department and was an attache of His Majesty’s Legation to the Holy See. As a prominent English Catholic he tried hard to convince the Vatican that Catholicism in England was not an exotic orchid, while also representing to the Crown that the armada and Gunpowder Plot were long past. He wrote from Rome in 1918 to the novelist Shane Leslie: “Great changes have taken place here during the last year in views and prejudices at headquarters. The realization of the Anglo-Saxon element in Catholicism and its loyalty to the Holy See is growing strong. Everyone is looking West now . . .”

He was a great-grandson of the “Liberator,” William Wilberforce. In 1814 Madame de Stael was surprised that “the most religious man in England” was also “the wittiest man in England,” and Bath Bob inherited much of that spark. The family was of Wilberfoss in Yorkshire, tracing itself to the Saxon LIlgar of Eggleston, whose father fought in 1066 at Stanford Bridge. Grandfather Henry became a Catholic as an unanticipated consequence of the Oxford Movement and edited the Catholic Standard. He had married a sister of Emily Sargent, wife of the Anglican bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. “Soapy Sam” was famous for his frail debate with Huxley on Darwinism. Yet another daughter of the Rev. John Sargent of Lavington was married to an Anglican archdeacon later known as Cardinal Manning, and so Bath Bob liked to say that he was the cardinal’s great-nephew. Bob’s grandfather Henry and another great- uncle, Robert, had been close friends of Newman at Oriel College where Newman told Henry that “there is no medium between Pantheism and the Church of Rome.” His grandson told me that during a typhoid epidemic Henry and his wife nursed dying immigrant Irish hops pickers, and his grandfather was sure that their final blessings had greased his slide into Catholicism.

After the Great War, Bob directed the British Library of Information in New York, undertook several diplomatic missions, and became a barrister-at-law in the Inner Temple. As his branch of Wilberforces reveled in the ancient Faith, his father studied at the Oratory School under Newman and at Stonyhurst. Before going on to Balliol, Bob was educated in turn at Beaumont College in Old Windsor. Years before that, while not yet three years old, his father took him to see John Henry Cardinal Newman, months before the cardinal’s final illness in 1890. “At so early an age I did not appreciate the significance of the man, but I remember him arriving in a carriage and being helped up the steps, all in red.” The priest assisting him was Father Neville, and I have a volume of Verses on Various Occasions inscribed by Newman to him. But in Bath Bob I knew probably the last living person actually to have heard the Voice that Matthew Arnold remembered “breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were religious music—subtle, sweet, mournful . . .”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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