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Reference group
Cambridge Camden Society [Ecclesiological Society] (act. 1839–1868) was a group of members of the University of Cambridge, soon swelled by others from outside the university, who came together to establish a society ‘to promote the study of Ecclesiastical Architecture and Antiquities, and the restoration of mutilated Architectural remains’ (Laws, 1). This suggests an uncontroversial antiquarian focus, but the society had a second purpose, less explicit but much more contentious. This was to push the church towards higher forms of Anglicanism by emphasizing the sacraments rather than preaching as the focus of worship and, significantly, by promoting an appropriate—essentially medieval—architectural setting. In short, the society claimed to be one thing but was, fundamentally, something else. In 1845 it moved to London and changed its name to the Ecclesiological late Cambridge Camden Society, and publications from 1856 used just Ecclesiological Society. Throughout its twenty-nine-year history members were referred to as ‘ecclesiologists’. It was the inspiration of two Trinity College undergraduates, John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb, who drove the society, gave it its unique focus, and either wrote or oversaw its many publications.

Membership and aims

The society grew rapidly. At the initial meeting in May 1839 there were thirty-nine founder members (listed in Boyce, 40), who included Harvey Goodwin, later bishop of Carlisle, and Edmund Venables, who became a clergyman and noted antiquary. Of the early members, most proceeded to uneventful clerical careers, although ones noted for their Tractarian leanings. Among the more successful were William Guillemard and Philip Freeman. By 1843 membership had risen to almost 700 for a society that boasted the patronage of the primates of England and Ireland, 16 bishops, 31 peers and MPs, 7 deans and diocesan chancellors, and 21 archdeacons and rural deans (Boyce, 10). Patrons included Henry Phillpotts, bishop of Exeter, John Kaye, bishop of Lincoln, Hugh Percy, third duke of Northumberland and chancellor of Cambridge University, and the master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, George Neville Grenville [see under Griffin, Richard, second Baron Braybrooke]. Brandwood's diligently compiled listing of the society's participants identifies—in total—1243 members and 60 patrons, and few omissions are likely (Brandwood, 359–434). It was a remarkable achievement for an organization that had started as an undergraduate club when Neale and Webb were only twenty-one and twenty respectively, ‘the most influential undergraduate society of all time’, according to David Watkin (Watkin, 70). Membership peaked at ‘nearer 900 than 800’ (Brandwood, 56) in 1845 and at this level the Cambridge group was almost twice the size of an equivalent Oxford association, the Oxford Architectural Society, which had been founded several months before Neale and Webb's first meeting in Cambridge. From 1841 the Cambridge society's principal means of communication was its journal, The Ecclesiologist, which ran continuously until its termination in December 1868. This effectively marked the end of the society, but its legacy was remarkable and it ‘succeeded in transforming the appearance of nearly every Anglican church in the world’ (Crook, 63).

The word ‘ecclesialogy’ first appeared in the British Critic in 1837 to describe ‘a science which may treat of the proper construction and operation of the Church’, and which might reasonably be paraphrased as the study of ecclesiastical architecture, decoration, and liturgy (21.218–20). The society modified the spelling although not the meaning, and in a lecture in 1846 Alexander Beresford Hope made it clear that ecclesiology involved the study of liturgical issues like ritual as well as architecture (Hope, 23). To be a student of the new science—an ecclesiologist—was not necessarily radical, and its apparently benign nature was reinforced by the law, quoted above, which was the only one to deal with the society's aims rather than its governance. It was often rehearsed as a useful defence when members were accused of Romanist tendencies. And while, among its leadership, the society was demonstrably a campaigning body, it was for many members merely a study group, a club that encouraged and informed their architectural excursions. Its innovative contribution to the church's move towards higher expressions of Anglicanism was to unite uncontentious antiquarianism with contentious high-church proselytizing, with novel results. It encouraged the study of medieval churches and provided a range of cheaply available pamphlets and books to guide and educate the visitor. How, argued the ecclesiologists, could anyone who had studied a well-preserved medieval church not come to venerate it; and if they were moved by such a building for its beauty, the piety of its builders, and the deep religious feelings it engendered, how could they not be motivated to condemn modern churches or modern innovations in medieval buildings? The graduation from an antiquarian hobby to a commitment to high-church principles was almost inevitable for many of the society's members.

Although several of those who would later become key figures in the society had, for some months, met informally to discuss their mutual interests, the formation of the society can be dated to 9 May 1839 when Neale gave a wine party for half a dozen friends: Edward Boyce (1814–1897), Charles Colson (1817/18–1901), William Henry Lewthwaite (1816/17–1892), John Fentiman Lingham (1816/17–1893), Mesac Thomas, and Benjamin Webb. Here they agreed that their society would be named after the noted antiquarian William Camden (1551–1623), Neale was confirmed as president, and Webb became its secretary and treasurer. Some two weeks later Neale, Webb, and Boyce went to see their tutor, Archdeacon Thomas Thorp, and invited him to become the president of a properly constituted society. The summer passed with visits and the exchange of ideas, but from the start of the new academic year campaigning began in earnest: influential figures within the university were enrolled as patrons and soon bishops began to endorse their activities. However, the carefully drafted constitution ensured that the society's authority—and from 1841 editorial control of The Ecclesiologist—was firmly retained by the youthful six-strong committee. Even its enemies cannot have failed to acknowledge the society's effectiveness as a pressure group. It was passionate, reasoned, and fearless, did not shrink from controversy, and in defending itself—as it often had to do—was robust and eloquent. Its opponents were mocked and when all else failed, it claimed a moral and Christian high ground over the subjectivity of aesthetic judgements. Campaigns were largely conducted through its publications.

From the start Neale and Webb shaped the society and its campaigns with some, but by no means all, of their passion moderated by Thorp. Beresford Hope, subsequently an architectural writer, MP, and president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, succeeded Neale as chairman in 1845 and became president in 1859 when Thorp stepped down, passing the chair to William Scott, vicar of St Olave Jewry in the City of London. The assiduous Webb remained as secretary to the end, assisted in the 1840s, when the society was at its most active, by others including Colson, the antiquary Sir Stephen Glynne, ninth baronet, and the classicist Frederick Paley.

The society's success was remarkable, but like many successful pressure groups it enjoyed the benefit of being able to build on the mood of the times and on earlier initiatives. Two in particular deserve attention. The first was the widespread interest in England's medieval past, evinced by the growing range of books on Gothic architecture and the popular pastime of visiting medieval remains, of which the most accessible were churches. The second was more contentious: contemporary theological revisions, notably those emanating from Oxford. According to the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the two fundamental principles that Anglicanism needed to reassert were ‘first, the Church's apostolic descent as the real ground of its authority, and second, the dependant principle that the sacraments, not preaching, are the covenanted sources of divine grace’ (Reardon, 97). This belief that worship had swung too far towards overt Calvinism enjoyed support among many Anglicans, but was violently opposed by others. In broad terms, the ecclesiologists adopted this line, but wisely avoided public pronouncements on the subject. Their vital contribution to higher expressions of Anglicanism concerned the physical setting for worship: how could decent, pious worship take place, and the sacraments be celebrated according to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, in a Georgian church built for preaching—and hence almost indistinguishable from a debating room or an auction house—or in a medieval church adapted for this form of service?

High-church architectural forms

Evangelical Anglicans saw the society's ambitions as an attempt to pervert the ‘true’ protestant faith of England. Among those who believed that every pointed arch or pinnacle was part of a subversive plot intended to promote papal domination, the most potent exponent was probably Francis Close, the evangelical rector of Cheltenham, whose pamphlet The ‘Restoration of Churches’ is the restoration of popery: proved and illustrated from the authenticated publications of the ‘Cambridge Camden Society’ appeared in 1844. Close's attack led briefly to the society's suspension, followed by its reconstitution in London in 1845 under its new name. Once it was clear that the society's agenda went beyond the purely antiquarian, the English bishops who had become patrons astutely withdrew. Charles Blomfield, bishop of London, resigned as early as 1841 and all had departed by 1845; even so several, including Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, and Charles Longley, archbishop of Canterbury, did join in the 1850s and 1860s and throughout there was support from a number of overseas bishops. However, the society was always careful to maintain a dignified distance from those who eventually ceded to Rome and, unlike the Oxford Architectural Society, members were required to belong to the Church of England, which explains Augustus Pugin's absence. Only after his death did the society feel able to acknowledge Pugin's importance: ‘now that we have lost him—we have no hesitation in pronouncing [him] the most eminent and original genius of his time’ (The Ecclesiologist, 13.352). The society might have been ‘guilty’ of pushing Anglicanism in a more Roman direction, but there was a discernible boundary it would not cross. Thus in setting out its ideals for new churches, the society urged building ‘in accordance with Catholicity and antiquity’ and, significantly, ‘the voice of the Anglican Church’ (Church Builders, 3). In seeking to silence its critics the society's solution was persuasive: it was fully committed to the Reformation but stressed the concept of post-Reformation ‘continuity’ by which traditional liturgical forms were maintained after the break with Rome. In Hierurgia Anglicana (1843–8), ‘edited by members of the Cambridge Camden Society’ (title page), the ecclesiastical historian John Fuller Russell similarly rehearsed ‘the ritual and liturgical ceremonies of our Church in the first years after the Reformation’ and set out to ‘convince’ readers that this largely pre-Reformation ceremonial, along with rood lofts, stone altars, processional crosses, and elaborate vestments, was ‘entirely compatible with the most dutiful allegiance to our own Communion’ (Hierurgia, i–ii).

Among the society's more specific objectives, it was not enough that a new church should merely take on a Gothic veneer. Publications dealt earnestly with the importance of symbolism in church architecture, a subject that gained historical legitimacy with Neale and Webb's 1843 translation of the thirteenth-century architectural treatise of Durandus, Rationale divinorum officiorum. Thus in building a church with a nave and an aisle at each side ‘we … gain another important symbolism for our church plan, the doctrine of the MOST HOLY AND UNDIVIDED TRINITY, as set forth by the three parallel divisions’ (Church Builders, 7). A substantial chancel ‘expressly appropriated to the more solemn rites of our religion’ (ibid., 5) was to be free of seating for the laity, but complete with such traditional features as a piscina and sedilia. If God's house was to be made less worldly, appropriate behaviour was also essential. Workmen were to refrain from profane language while carrying out repairs; parishioners were reminded not to hang washing in the churchyard and sextons to prevent dogs from entering a church, while wardens were urged to respect the ancient buildings of which they were temporary guardians. In this campaign a central issue was seating. This might not seem to be an obvious subject for the society, but its members hated Georgian box pews and galleries. Not only did these lack medieval precedent and disfigure a church, they also wasted space that could be given over to free seating for the poor, were socially divisive, and encouraged self-satisfaction. Significantly, ecclesiologists argued persuasively that ‘private’ pews had no place in God's house. Their development was nothing other than ‘the history of the intrusion of human pride, and selfishness, and indolence, into the worship of God’ (History of Pews, 1). Despite their privileged education, the society's membership could never be accused of élitism. Ideally, all worshippers were to be accommodated on uniform, open benches, neatly arranged to face east so that prayers could be offered to God, unlike the arrangements in box pews which so often precluded it. Church music was also a concern, with members—most notably Thomas Helmore—encouraging the revival of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plainsong and polyphony.

Projects and publications

In its early days the society's activities included excursions to churches around Cambridge and there were monthly meetings during term-time to hear papers. In 1841 the society raised the money to embark on its first restoration, of the Round Church in Cambridge. Although the project was well intentioned, the new stone altar—a radical alternative to the usual wooden communion table—proved to be highly controversial and discouraged further endeavours of this type. Members concluded that more could be achieved by encouraging others to fund and manage sound restorations or new churches, and provided useful publications as guidance.

The Ecclesiologist (vol. 1, 1841, issued in parts, usually bi-monthly), annual Reports (from 1840), and Transactions (from 1841) were especially valuable once the first tranche of members had graduated and left Cambridge, and as the membership expanded to include those who had not studied there, for instance the antiquary Matthew Holbeche Bloxam and most of the architect members. For those outside the society a series of cheap and easily available pamphlets, many written by Neale, first appeared in 1839. These were carefully drafted to appeal to particular constituencies, including Advice to Workmen in Restoring a Church (undated, but before 1845) and A Few Words to the Parish Clerks and Sextons of Country Parishes (1843). A Few Words to Churchwardens (1841) addressed a more elevated stratum; a staggering 5000 copies were sold in just six weeks at 3d. each. For those with the wealth to embark on building, the society offered A Few Words to Church Builders (1841), and for the amateur archaeologist there was A Few Hints on the Practical Study of Archaeology (1st edn 1839). In these and other titles authors took great care to adapt the society's message to the level of their likely readership.

The most contentious opinions appeared in The Ecclesiologist, which accordingly became a target for critics. Here members covered a wide range of topics, but reviews of newly built or recently restored churches generally gave the greatest offence while, arguably, achieving the greatest practical influence in bringing about ecclesiologists' aims. Given the society's practical focus on building and restoration, it is not surprising that its membership included a number of architects. Among the most committed were Richard Cromwell Carpenter, who was introduced to the society by Pugin, and William Butterfield, who was elected a member in 1844. The architect of more than 100 churches, Butterfield's masterpiece was All Saints, Margaret Street, London, the realization of the society's plan, formulated in 1841, to construct a ‘model church’ in the style of early fourteenth-century Gothic and subsequently overseen and financed by Beresford Hope. However, many architects probably subscribed in the hope of securing valuable church commissions and some, like Robert Chantrell and Anthony Salvin, were soon disillusioned. Within the wider architectural profession the society made numerous enemies. Opponents focused on what they regarded as the society's interference in professional matters, with attacks led by those who, by implication, had been pilloried in The Ecclesiologist for failing to follow the new imperatives. Such commentaries were often severe in their review of recently completed buildings; one typical assessment claimed in 1847 ‘It … has not a shadow, in any one point of view, of a redeeming quality’ (The Ecclesiologist, 7.117). Some promoted ecclesiology as a means of blending architectural and liturgical interests: ‘This church, though not without merit of a certain kind in its architectural features, is a miserable specimen of bad ritual arrangements’ (ibid., 1853, 14.455). Counter-attacks ran in professional architectural journals, including The Builder (2, 1844, 403) and Weale's Quarterly Papers in Architecture (1844, 2.2).

Despite these criticisms, and sharply divided opinion within the architectural profession, the society had a huge influence on churches, their decoration, and the services they hosted. Even the design of churches suitable for the climate in the British colonies was a topic regularly discussed in The Ecclesiologist (for example 1841, 1.4). One major legacy was a series of regional—sometimes called ‘diocesan’—societies which had similar aims and a predominantly clerical membership, and tended to oversee building and restoration in their own areas. Most of these regional networks, such as the Yorkshire Architectural Society (founded in 1842) and the Worcester Diocesan Architectural Society (founded in 1854), continued well into the twentieth century. The Ecclesiological Society, however, did not. Neale died aged forty-eight in August 1866. Two years later Webb, who had shouldered much of the work for almost thirty years, ended publication of The Ecclesiologist and in doing so effectively brought the society to a close—claiming, not unreasonably, ‘the satisfaction of retiring from the field as victors’ (The Ecclesiologist, 1868, 29.315–16).

Christopher Webster


Laws &c., Cambridge Camden Society (1839) · J. M. Neale, diary, LPL, MS 3107 · E. J. Boyce, A memorial of the Cambridge Camden Society (1888) · G. Brandwood, ‘The establishment of the [Cambridge Camden] Society’ and ‘A Camdenian roll-call’, ‘A church as it should be’: the Cambridge Camden Society and its influence, ed. C. Webster and J. Elliott (2000), 45–61; 359–454 · J. F. White, The Cambridge movement: the ecclesiologists and the Gothic revival (1962) · A. J. B. Hope, ‘The present state of ecclesiological art in England’, Proceedings of the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture (1846), 19–32 · B. M. G. Reardon, Religious thought in the Victorian age: a survey from Coleridge to Gore, 2nd edn (1995) · C. Webster, ed., ‘Temples ... worthy of His presence’: the early publications of the Cambridge Camden Society (2003) · The Ecclesiologist, 1–29 (1841–68) · A few hints on the practical study of ecclesiastical antiquities (1839) · A few words to church builders (1841) · A few words to churchwardens on churches and church ornaments, 1: Suited to country parishes (1841) · A few words to churchwardens on churches and church ornaments, 2: Suited to town and manufacturing parishes (1841) · A few words to the parish clerks and sextons of country parishes (1843) · Church enlargement and church arrangement (1843) · The history of pews (1841) · A handbook of English ecclesiology (1847) · J. M. Neale and B. Webb, eds. and trans., The symbolism of churches and church ornaments: a translation of the first book of the Rationale divinorum officiorum written by William Durandus (1843) · J. F. Russell, ed., Hierurgia Anglicana, or, Documents and extracts illustrative of the ritual of the church in England after the Reformation (1848) · D. Watkin, The rise of architectural history (1983) · J. M. Crook, The dilemma of style (1987)