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Creighton: a man of romance and letters

Spring is in the air and has got us feeling wistful about historical romances – particularly the strong love between 19th century Bishop Mandell Creighton and his wife Louise. Here are two pieces about the Creightons, written by our volunteers.

The courting of the Creightons

by Susan Richards, front of house volunteer
black and white photo of 6 people lounging in a library
We believe this photograph may depict six of the seven Creighton children in Bishop Porteus's library.

This ghostly photo of (what we think is) the Creighton family reminded me of what I read about the competition for Louise’s favours involving Mr Humphry Ward and Mandell Creighton, in a biography of novelist and philanthropist Mrs Humphry Ward, written by Professor John Sutherland.

On 9 February 1871 Louise van Glehn, youngest daughter of a rich German banker from the Baltic provinces, came to Oxford to attend a lecture by John Ruskin. The lecture was on the virtues of monochrome in art.

portrait of louise creighton standing in front of pink flowers
Louise Creighton in 1878, aged 28. Louise is known for her advocation for womens’ rights, and for authoring many books about historical and socio-political issues of her time.

Louise was beautiful, cultured and rich. Her beauty comes through from a picture we have of her, enhanced by a Pre-Raphaelite setting of a trellis covered in roses. This style was very fashionable at the time but Louise was actually no wistful Pre-Raphaelite goddess and had very strong opinions which she expressed forcefully! Humphry Ward had his eye on her as a possible wife but when Mandell Creighton saw her talking to Humphry, he was instantly smitten. He was particularly struck by a bright yellow scarf she was wearing: yellow was his favourite colour. This was quite ironic because of the subject of the lecture! Mandell asked “Who is that girl who has the courage to wear yellow?”

He was not good looking but was considered to be the cleverest young man in Oxford. Humphry was probably better looking but didn’t have Mandell’s future prospects. Louise visited Mandell’s rather opulent college rooms and was charmed by his collection of photographs and blue willow pattern china. Even when he lectured her about something called “Entsagung”, which meant denial and was a fashionable idea at the time, she wasn’t put off. She liked his self-confidence and brilliant, witty conversation. She wrote to a friend “How dull everyone else has seemed to me in comparison!” Their relationship was passionate but stormy at times.

As you can see, Humphry Ward didn’t really stand a chance! He ended up marrying Mary Arnold who became a fashionable novelist and founder of the Mary Ward Centre and Somerville College. She remained friends with Louise all her life although they took opposite sides on the issue of women’s suffrage.

Further reading:

Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian (by John Sutherland, 1990)

Thank you to Susan for that wonderful look at the Creighton’s budding courtship! In the spirit of social distancing, many of you may be writing letters or postcards to your loved ones. Volunteer Cerys Williams writes about discovering the letters of Bishop Creighton at the Palace, which reflects the political nature of the role of the Bishop of London, but also provides a more personal insight into the relationships of the Bishop. These letters conjure up an image of how Fulham Palace appeared at the end of the nineteenth century.

Cerys Williams, volunteer

A couple of years ago I was presented with a packet of jumbled letters, documents and photographs. They had come from members of Bishop Creighton’s family. No one was certain whether they would remain in the Palace collection as they were not all related to the Palace history. It was also felt that they should perhaps be kept somewhere with better archive storage space. However, before anything could happen, they needed sorting and I was lucky enough to be given that job.

Mandell Creighton served as the Bishop of London from 1897 - 1901. This photograph was taken in 1891, the year he was consecrated as Bishop of Peterborough.

As you can imagine, someone in public life in the late Victorian period sent and received a lot of letters. Many of them were from the great and the good of the time – some even from the very great as it turned out. There was correspondence with Prime Minister Gladstone for example. Kaiser Wilhelm (the last German emperor and King of Prussia, 1859 – 1941) had heard Creighton preach while on a visit to Sandringham and wrote to ask for a copy of the sermon.

There were even a few letters written by Queen Victoria herself. It took me a while to register that that was what I was looking at – especially as she wrote in the third person and began “The Queen would like…” rather than “I” so it was as if the letter had been written by her secretary. But no. They were quite definitely written and signed in her own hand.

Creighton’s marriage was close and happy and when he travelled abroad he wrote daily to his wife Louise. Some are just a catalogue of the churches visited in European cities, but in 1896 Creighton was asked to represent the Church of England at the coronation of the last Tsar of Russia. There were letters written almost daily from Russia documenting the event in great detail on many sheets of fragile paper.

But perhaps my favourite letters were not these to famous people, but the series of letters he wrote to his young nephew who was away at school. In these you do find mention of important events – there are the preparations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Boer War is obviously important to a young boy at the height of the British Empire. But they were written to amuse, not as a formal record, and give a glimpse of the Bishop’s everyday life rather than his business self.

They talk about the “tedium of so many dinners” and were often written during boring meetings. One breaks off abruptly when someone at the meeting was taken ill because they had been poisoned! One talks about the having a “very fat” Russian princess to tea. Another jokes about the thousands of people at garden parties to be fed on strawberries and ices. They record the weather and the crowds walking across the palace grounds and the effect of this on the lawns – the current gardeners would probably sympathise – “not enough rain and the grass goes… too much rain and the grass goes soppy”!

The Life and Letters of Bishop Creighton was written by Louise Creighton in 1904, three years after the death of her husband. For those of you that feel up to some researching, the book has been fully digitised by the British Museum and can be read online for free.

If this blog has inspired you to write a letter, take a look at the Palace’s online shop for a beautiful selection of cards and postcards!