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  Francis Neil Gasquet (1846–1929), by James Russell & Sons Francis Neil Gasquet (1846–1929), by James Russell & Sons
Gasquet, Francis Neil [name in religion Aidan] (1846–1929), cardinal and historian, was born on 5 October 1846 in Somers Town, north London, the third son of the six children of Raymond Gasquet, a physician whose family had emigrated from Toulon during the French Revolution, and his wife, Mary Apollonia, daughter of Thomas Kay of York. He was educated from 1862 at Downside School, Stratton on the Fosse, near Bath, a small Catholic boarding-school attached to the Benedictine priory of St Gregory the Great, which he entered as a monk in 1866. His ecclesiastical studies took place from 1866 to 1870 at Belmont Priory, Hereford, then the central noviciate of the English Benedictines. Before his ordination to the priesthood on 19 December 1874 he had established himself at Downside as an energetic and competent teacher of history and mathematics. He had no formal university education, but was an enthusiast for the learned tradition of Benedictinism, and in the 1870s worked on the first complete catalogue of the Downside Library. In 1878 he was elected prior of the Downside community, which made him both superior of the monastic community and headmaster of the school.

Gasquet's seven years as prior were crucial for Downside's future growth. The community, driven from Douai in France in 1794, had settled in reduced circumstances at Downside in 1814. By the 1870s its buildings and facilities, especially its church (a pastiche Gothic creation of 1823), seemed inadequate, and Gasquet, who combined a medievalist's romanticism with a Victorian love of progress, liked to think big. He began the construction of a new church, the transepts of which were opened in 1882. It was the beginning of a conventual church which was to become, by the time of its consecration in 1935, England's largest post-Reformation abbey church. He attempted to expand and improve the curriculum of the school and open both monastery and school to a wider world. In the Downside Review, which he co-founded in 1880, he hoped to inaugurate a tradition of scholarship.

In July 1885, after eighteen months of unsatisfactory health, Gasquet resigned the priorship, apparently a broken and exhausted man. In the years that followed, with the patronage of Cardinal Manning, to whom he was related by marriage, Gasquet (resident in London first with his mother and later in Great Ormond Street and Harpur Street), began a wide reading of monastic history and source material in the British Museum and the Public Record Office. He sought, from the personal perspective of a monk, to reassess the history of the English monasteries, especially in the crucial years before the Henrician dissolution. He also endeavoured to present his fellow English monks with a model of monastic life based on large resident communities under an abbot, which had not been possible during the years of persecution when monks spent most of their life on missionary work. His publications came fast and furious, beginning with the two-volume Henry VIII and the English Monasteries (1888–9), which became a historical best-seller. This was followed by Edward VI and the Book of Common Prayer (1890), which he produced in collaboration with Edmund Bishop, a scholar of deep erudition.

Gasquet was awarded a DD by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, but his reputation as a historian, based on a solid narrative style and an intuitive ability to discover new sources, was largely undermined by the Cambridge medievalist G. G. Coulton and, in a celebrated lecture after Gasquet's death, by his monastic confrère, Dom David Knowles. Coulton regarded Gasquet as doubly suspect, both as an unusually inaccurate scholar, and as a devious agent of Roman priestcraft. Knowles regarded Gasquet's capacity for carelessness as amounting almost to genius. Although later scholarship, in its revisionist way, endorsed some of Gasquet's findings about the more positive features of late medieval monasticism, his writings are flawed by the weaknesses his critics identified. His Lord Acton and his Circle (1906), though a useful introduction to that subject, is marred by misdatings and poor transcriptions. Nevertheless Gasquet was the first historian of the dissolution of the monasteries to explore methodically the papers of Thomas Cromwell and the court of augmentations, as well as the pension list of Cardinal Pole. He was also the first to appreciate the value of using medieval books as evidence of the tastes and interests of their scribes and to use medieval sermon notes.

In 1896, when his reputation for scholarship was at its height, Gasquet went to Rome as a member of the special commission to study the question of Anglican orders; its findings led to Apostolicae curae (13 September 1896), Pope Leo XIII's encyclical condemning Anglican orders as invalid. This was to usher in the final part of Gasquet's career, his time in the papal curia. He combined his activities in Rome with the position of abbot president of the English Benedictine congregation, which he held from 1900 to 1919. Following the papal bull Diu quidem (1899), the three priories of the congregation, including Downside, became independent abbeys. At this time he was also titular abbot of St Albans. In 1903 he came close to becoming fourth archbishop of Westminster in succession to Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, when his name appeared on the terna submitted to Rome. In 1907 he was made president of the Vulgate Commission by Pope Pius X; this body was charged with a revision of the text of the Vulgate Bible. In May 1914 he was created cardinal-deacon of San Giorgio in Velabro and, in December 1915, cardinal-deacon of Santa Maria in Campitelli. He became a cardinal-priest in 1924. He took part in the conclave of 1914 which elected Pope Benedict XV, an occasion overshadowed by the beginning of the First World War. Gasquet was fiercely anti-German; he pressed the British cause, fearing a German bias in Rome, and took a leading part in the negotiations which led to the appointment of a British minister to the Vatican in December 1914. The first minister, Sir Henry Howard, was a near contemporary of Gasquet's at Downside, and his appointment mitigated Gasquet's isolation as the only English high curial council official. Gasquet's years as a curial cardinal, resident in the Vulgate Commission at the Palazzo San Calisto in Trastevere, were dominated in the early years by the war, but later he was able to return to more congenial scholarly interests. In 1917 he became prefect of the archives of the Holy See, and in 1919 librarian of the Holy Roman church. Many practical improvements, including reshelving many of the books, were made in the organization of the library during his time. He played a full part in the Roman Congregations and was at the centre of English life and influence on Rome. In 1924 he received King George V and Queen Mary at the Vatican Library in great state.

Gasquet had an elegant courtly bearing, an upright carriage, and a handsome demeanour, which even Coulton, seeing him working at his books, acknowledged. He was of medium height, 5 feet 6 inches, and developed a full head of grey hair. His tendency to pomposity was ameliorated by his sense of humour. He particularly delighted in Irish jokes and was a skilled raconteur. He was, despite his paternal ancestry, John-Bullish in his manner and attitudes, patriotic, and bluff. During the First World War Cardinal Hartmann, archbishop of Cologne, reflected to Gasquet: ‘Eminence I will not insult you by talking of the war.’ ‘Eminence,’ replied Gasquet, ‘I will not mock you by talking about peace.’ He had a slight stroke shortly after his eightieth birthday from which he never fully recovered. He died at the Palazzo San Calisto, Rome, on 5 April 1929 from pneumonia, having suffered for many years from a weak heart. He was buried on 15 April in the abbey church at Downside, where a vast and exotic monument designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was erected to his memory.

Dominic Aidan Bellenger


The Times (6 April 1929) · Downside Review, 47 (1929), 124–56 · S. Leslie, Cardinal Gasquet: a memoir (1953) [incl. passages from Gasquet's unpubd autobiography] · D. Knowles, ‘Cardinal Gasquet as a historian’, in D. Knowles, The historian and character and other essays, ed. C. N. L. Brooke and G. Constable (1963), 240–63 · D. A. Bellenger, ‘Cardinal Gasquet's papers at Downside’, Catholic Archives, 4 (1984), 40–47 · N. J. Abercrombie, The life and work of Edmund Bishop (1959) · G. G. Coulton, Fourscore years: an autobiography (1943) · M. Anderson de Navarro, A few more memories (1936)


Downside Abbey, corresp. and papers |  CUL, corresp. with Lord Acton · NL Ire., letters to John Redmond · U. St Andr., corresp. with Wilfred Ward


J. Crealock, portrait, 1924, Downside Abbey · E. Carter Preston, tomb effigy, 1933, Downside Abbey · S. Elwes, charcoal drawing, Downside Abbey · J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · A. Savage, portrait, Downside School