We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Hedley, John Cuthbert (1837–1915), Roman Catholic bishop of Newport and Benedictine monk, was born on 15 April 1837 at Carlisle House, Morpeth, Northumberland, the son of Edward Astley Hedley, a physician, and Mary Ann Davison. He was educated at Mr Gibson's Grammar School in Morpeth and at Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, where he won numerous prizes and became an accomplished musician. In 1854 he joined the Benedictine community at Ampleforth, and studied philosophy and theology there under the direction of Dom Austin Bury, one of the first nineteenth-century English Benedictines to be sent abroad for theological studies. Hedley was ordained priest on 19 October 1862 and was then sent to Belmont, near Hereford, commonly the house of studies and noviciate for the English Benedictines, where he taught philosophy and theology and gained a reputation as ‘an inspirer and guide in all studious pursuits’ (Belmont Abbey Archives, MS 696, p. 5). He also set about the task of reforming the philosophy course in line with the recent continental revival of Thomism.

The 1860s, being the decade leading up to the First Vatican Council (1869–70), were years of controversy in the Catholic church, and it was during this period that Hedley made his first literary and theological contributions to the Dublin Review. His reputation as a preacher was considerable and he became the most sought-after speaker at almost every major English Benedictine event and every episcopal funeral. In 1873 he was consecrated auxiliary bishop of the see of Newport and in 1881 he succeeded to the see and moved the centre of the diocese from Hereford to Cardiff; he saw the Catholic population rise from 40,000 in 1881 to 80,000 in 1915. In 1895 he split the diocese, creating a northern see of Menevia. He advocated the elevation of Cardiff to the rank of archdiocese, with Menevia as the suffragan see, which took effect with the appointment, in 1916, of his successor, James Romanus Bilsborrow, as the first archbishop of Cardiff. Hedley was renowned for his care of his clergy and demonstrated particular concern to increase the number of diocesan priests and reduce dependence on the regular clergy; in 1881 there were only thirteen diocesan priests in Wales but by 1915 this number had risen to fifty-four.

Hedley was influential in reviving the practice of contemplative prayer, as taught by the seventeenth-century English Benedictine Father Augustine Baker, through an article entitled ‘Prayer and contemplation’, published in the Dublin Review in October 1876, which combined Baker's English Benedictine monastic spirituality with the pastoral spirituality of St Francis of Sales. The 1880s were turbulent years for the English Benedictines, with on the one hand a strong movement for monastic reform that sought greater emphasis on monastic life in the English houses, and on the other a desire for the continuation and consolidation of the missionary system, with monks continuing to live away from their monasteries in the Benedictine missions, many of which dated back to the seventeenth century. Hedley's work as a professor at Belmont in the 1860s had helped to provide intellectual breadth in the English Benedictine congregation and thereby sowed the seeds of a changed perception of the nature of English Benedictinism. He did not personally favour constitutional change, believing that the missions and the monasteries had different aims and should be kept apart. This view, however, was not shared by the Roman authorities, and in 1890 the missions were placed under the control of the monasteries, which, through the 1899 bull Diu quidem, became autonomous abbeys.

The 1880s and 1890s saw Hedley engaging with several major contemporary issues in the wider world. Articles he wrote for the Dublin Review on evolution, the authority of scripture, and faith were motivated by a determination to take seriously various developments in the modern world and their effect on religion. As editor of the Dublin Review he was credited for moving the journal away from the narrow, ultramontane concerns espoused by W. G. Ward; Bishop Ullathorne congratulated Hedley, commenting that ‘it is high time it became a Catholic rather than a party review’ (Wilson, 189). Wilfrid Ward, a later editor of the Dublin Review, noted that Hedley's gift was his ‘great unity and great mellowness of intellect’, which enabled him to be ‘keenly alive to modern needs … yet seeing that human nature is ever the same, and that much that is modern is a recurrence of older ways of thinking’ (Ward, 4–5). Hedley's pragmatic, steady judgement was also evident in his actions during the modernist crisis in the first decade of the twentieth century, when ‘he kept his head … and was no doubt the cause for others keeping their heads too’ (Beck, 221).

Hedley's determination to take the modern world seriously can also be seen in his involvement in the debate concerning Catholic higher education in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. He ‘understood above all, the needs of education. He could grapple with the spirit of the age. Hence he was found the fittest to be chosen in 1896 as President of the Catholic University Board’ (The Tablet, 13 Nov 1915). Despite the opposition of Cardinal Manning, Hedley advocated that Catholics be permitted to attend the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge; his efforts led to the ban's being lifted by Pope Leo XIII in 1895. It was therefore with some justification that one of Hedley's obituarists noted: ‘in his long episcopate, he had immense influence on Catholicism in this country’ (ibid.). His abilities did not go unrecognized in Rome, for in 1891 he was honoured by Pope Leo XIII with the title of assistant at the pontifical throne. Bishop Hedley died, of a heart attack, at Llanishen, near Cardiff, on 11 November 1915, and was buried on the 17th in Cardiff cemetery.

Alban Hood

Sources  

J. A. Wilson, The life of Bishop Hedley (1930) · G. A. Beck, ed., The English Catholics, 1850–1950 (1950), 217–22 · The Tablet (13 Nov 1915) · W. Ward, ‘Bishop Hedley’, Dublin Review, 158 (1916), 1–12 · I. Cummins, diaries, Belmont Abbey Archives, MS 696, 3 · G. Buisseret, history of Belmont, Belmont Abbey Archives, MS 673, 76 · G. Scott, ‘The English Benedictine mission and missions’, Benedict's disciples, ed. D. H. Farmer (1998) · B. Green, ‘Cuthbert Hedley, 1837–1915’, EBC symposium papers, 1987, 38–46 · J. E. Matthews, ‘Bishop Hedley as editor’, Dublin Review, 198 (1936), 253–66

Archives  

Ampleforth Abbey, Yorkshire, archives, MSS · Belmont Abbey, Hereford, archives, MSS · Douai Abbey, Woolhampton, Berkshire, archives, MSS · Downside Abbey, near Bath, archives, MSS · NL Wales, archives, corresp.


Likenesses  

oils, Ampleforth Abbey, Yorkshire