Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 28 February 2021

Hume, George Haliburton [name in religion Basil Hume]free

  • Clifford Longley

George Haliburton Hume (1923–1999)

by Jeff Stultiens, 1986–7

Hume, George Haliburton [name in religion Basil Hume] (1923–1999), cardinal and Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, was born on 2 March 1923 at 4 Ellison Place, Newcastle upon Tyne, the elder son and third of the five children of a distinguished cardiologist from the borders, Sir William Errington Hume (1879–1960), professor of medicine at Durham University and consulting physician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, and his French wife, Marie Elisabeth, known as Mimi (b. c.1896), eldest daughter of Colonel J. R. Tisseyre, army officer and sometime military attaché in Madrid. He was named after his paternal grandfather, George Haliburton Hume, also a distinguished doctor, and the historian of the Newcastle Infirmary, though—like his siblings, Madeleine, Frances, Christine, and John—he was given a first name which could be rendered equally well in French or English.

Family and education

Hume's parents met during the First World War in Wimereux, near Boulogne, where William Hume was consulting physician to the First Army (where he was noted for his work on poison gas) and Marie Elisabeth Tisseyre had been evacuated from Lille. Despite initial opposition from her parents—she was seventeen years younger than her husband—they were married in France in 1918, before setting up home in Newcastle. Theirs was a happy, lively, occasionally volatile household; French was the domestic language and the children were expected to be bilingual. The domestic religion was Roman Catholicism, though their father was an Anglican, and the children were also expected to be ecumenical. At the time of their parents' marriage such ‘mixed marriages’ were strongly discouraged by the Catholic authorities and were disliked almost as much by the Church of England, not least because of the requirement—to which the non-Catholic party was obliged to consent—to bring up the children in the Catholic faith. Having an Anglican father appeared to endow Hume with an instinctive respect for that faith, though he seems never to have contemplated joining it.

Hume was brought up in Newcastle in a comfortable environment; at one point his parents employed half a dozen domestic servants, as well as a governess for the children. He developed an early interest in sport, especially football, and his lifelong support for Newcastle United originated in his being taken to matches at St James's Park by his father (who also instilled in him a lifelong love of fishing). He was educated at Newcastle preparatory school (1931–3) and at Gilling Castle (1933–4), the preparatory school for Ampleforth College (the public school run by Benedictine monks), which he entered in 1934. At Ampleforth he excelled at sport—he was captain of the rugby first fifteen, and according to a contemporary, 'captain of more or less everything' (The Tablet)—was active in the drama and debating societies, and also thrived as a scholar, especially in languages and history, though with characteristic modesty he later put himself as being about average among the brighter boys. He was also noted for a sense of mischief, which went with an ability not to take himself too seriously. But he had heart: what he saw of the great depression as a boy, especially in the Shieldfield and Byker districts of Newcastle (where he was taken by a Dominican priest who had befriended him), gave him a lasting sense of indignation at social injustice and solidarity with its victims. Even at an early age he translated such feelings into a desire to serve his fellow men by means of a religious vocation.


Hume left Ampleforth College in 1941, but returned after the summer to enter the monastery there as a Benedictine novice, taking the name Basil. The choice of Benedictine monasticism must have seemed almost too obvious for him, though his father was disappointed, having hoped that (like his younger brother, John) Hume would follow him into medicine. It was wartime, therefore, when he first sought admission to the Benedictine order, half expecting, even hoping, that the role of Catholic priest in such a violent world could include some form of martyrdom. (His mother was convinced that the Germans would successfully invade England.) Ordinands and clerics were exempt from the wartime obligations of military service, though he later declared that had he joined up, his preference would have been for the Royal Navy. He had no particular pacifist leanings. He made his simple profession as a monk in September 1942, after one year's novitiate, and took solemn vows in 1945. Meanwhile he studied history at St Benet's Hall, Oxford, from 1944 to 1947 (graduating with a second-class degree in the latter year), and then theology (in Latin) at the Catholic University of Fribourg, Switzerland, from 1947 to 1951, when he obtained his licentiate in theology. He was ordained priest on 23 July 1950 at Ampleforth, by Bishop Brunner of Middlesbrough.

As a young monk Hume was assistant priest in Ampleforth village and taught history and modern languages (he was fluent in German as well as French) at Ampleforth College. He became head of the modern languages department in 1952, and in 1955 he became housemaster of St Bede's and professor of dogmatic theology (responsible for teaching the novices and young monks). In 1957 he was elected the Ampleforth monks' delegate to the general chapter of the English Benedictine congregation, which in turn elected him magister scholarum of the congregation. He was re-elected to the post in 1961. He also coached Ampleforth College's rugby first fifteen. A characteristic anecdote dates from about this time. He decided to gatecrash an open day for parents at the school, and dressed up as a captain in the army, complete with false moustache. He was chatting to the guest-master when the moustache fell into the teacup he was holding. Hume never quite let go of his adolescence, then or later.

Being a housemaster brought Hume the happiest years of his life—he said later that he was starting to worry at that time that his life was 'too good to last'. Despite the uproar from the music, the truth of one of Thomas Aquinas's 'proofs for the existence of God' came to him while he was allowing boys from his house to watch television (Six-Five Special, an early pop-music programme) in his study. The portrait that emerges from his time at Ampleforth is of a man who was relaxed and unstuffy in his relationships, even when he held a position of authority. It was then that he learned a trick which he applied throughout his life, even as a cardinal archbishop: that to have a button missing or undone, or something else slightly askew about his formal clerical attire, was a good way of signalling to someone who might otherwise be intimidated by him that he was a human being just like them. But it was not an affectation: in early life or later, he was not what might be termed a buttoned-up person. On rising to his feet to make a speech to a distinguished audience of lawyers many years later, he began: 'I feel like an alley-cat who has strayed into Crufts' (Cardinal Basil Hume, 14). He had a particular affection for the ‘honest rogue’ type of character, people who did not pretend to be better than they seemed to be. What was completely lacking from his make-up—a powerful advantage in dealing with those who had it—was personal ambition.

Hume admitted that the one thing he missed from his life was marriage. But he saw priestly celibacy as God's gift to the church, enabling the clergy to be 'there for others' at all times of the day and night. It was, nevertheless, a permanent psychological cross to bear, giving him the sense of openness and vulnerability that made him so attractive. People often said there was a particular chemistry between him and young women, and he could have been a gifted flirt. He was no prude. He knew the language of the locker-room, even if he rarely used it.


On 17 April 1963 Hume was elected abbot of Ampleforth Abbey, in succession to Abbot Herbert Byrne. As such he became head of a community of more than 150 monks, whose pastoral work included not only the education of boys in Ampleforth College but also the running of some twenty parishes, mostly in the inner cities of northern England. It was a difficult time to take over as abbot: the reforms and updating of the Catholic church brought in by the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) were beginning to make themselves felt, and many religious houses were rent by division. 'One man's renewal is another man's betrayal', he was told by one of his older monks (The Independent, 18 June 1999). It needed all his skill to navigate a way through the opposing currents of opinion, doing what he knew had to be done without alienating those opposed to the changes. Such was his success that he was frequently called upon by the abbot primate of the Benedictines, from 1967 his friend the American Rembert Weakland, to visit other monasteries and advise on the resolution of disputes.

'I decided that what unites people has to be very deep. It is the life of prayer. Get that right and much else falls into place', Hume later said of his time as abbot (The Times, 18 June 1999). He took his responsibilities as spiritual leader of his community very seriously, and his weekly talks (conferences) to his brethren frequently took some point from the rule of St Benedict as the starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of spiritual values in the modern age. A selection of these talks was later published as Searching for God (1977). He kept in close touch with the abbey's various parish missions and became not only a superior but a friend to the mostly older priests working in the parishes. He suffered a rare setback in his attempts to persuade priests to live together in one monastic family where there were reasonably adjoining parishes, though his policy was later taken forward by his successors as abbot. He also played a key role in the development of the priory community at St Louis, Missouri, which had been started in 1955 in order to provide a Catholic day school in the city; he took the decision to allow the priory to have its own novitiate and training, a key stage in transforming the priory into a fully fledged abbey under the leadership of Abbot Luke Rigby, in 1989. Closer to home, Hume continued to take a keen interest in the growth and development of Ampleforth College, and was responsible for the inspired appointment as headmaster of Father Patrick Barry, who led the school successfully through a period of change and consolidation.

Hume played an important role in the wider Benedictine community as chairman of the ecumenical commission and of the commission ‘de re monastica’, both set up by the confederation of Benedictines in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. His concern for ecumenism was symbolized by his decision to allow a dozen Greek, Serbian, and Russian Orthodox boys to attend Ampleforth College and to live in their own house under the care of a Serbian Orthodox priest. He was also an active member of the ecumenical Council of Churches in Rydale. Through this and other initiatives he gradually became better known in the region, coming to the attention of the archbishop of York, Donald Coggan, with whom he soon developed a close personal friendship.

Coggan was at Canterbury by the time the archbishopric of Westminster became vacant on the death of Cardinal John Carmel Heenan, on 7 November 1975. He put word about that he knew an abbot who would make an excellent candidate. By then Hume had also come to the attention of several prominent Catholic lay people, such as William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times, Norman St John Stevas MP, and the duke of Norfolk, all of whom perceived the need for a change of style after Heenan. They and others lobbied the apostolic delegate in London, Archbishop Bruno Heim, whose job it was to make up the terna (the list of three names from which Rome makes episcopal appointments). Their suggestions fell on fertile ground, since Heim was himself already convinced of the need for a change in style, and was (like the pope, Paul VI) deeply interested in the Benedictine tradition. Hume's name duly headed the list. He had been flattered to be asked his opinion of other potential candidates, but when asked to fill the post himself he was 'rather shattered, rather distressed'. He eventually accepted only 'out of a monk's obedience' (The Times, 18 June 1999); 'the gap between what is thought and expected of me, and what I know myself to be, is considerable and frightening', he declared (Cardinal Basil Hume, 15). His appointment was announced on 17 February 1976, he was ordained archbishop by Heim on 25 March, and on 24 May he was created a cardinal by the pope, with the titular church of San Silvestro in Capite.

Cardinal archbishop

At the time of his surprise appointment in 1976, Hume was (apart from his unusual facility with languages) the archetypal public school, Oxford-educated English gentleman—charming, decent, self-deprecating, with a rounded culture, a passion for sport, a sense of fun, and a modicum of eccentricity. In politics he was more a one-nation tory than anything else, though by no means a party man. This English-gentleman side of Hume was a key asset in dealing with Vatican prelates, for he was able to present himself to them as one who understood the complex national character and culture of the English far better than they. 'That is not the way we do things in England' became a trade mark of his, to ward off policies and approaches which were unlikely to endear themselves to the Catholic church at home. At Westminster he was cautious towards the ultra-conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei, and conscious that it had tried to cultivate his support. When reports came to his attention that the organization was recruiting young people without letting their parents know, he issued firm advice discouraging such cult-like practices. He remarked that Opus Dei was too Spanish, not particularly suited to an English culture of understatement and of moderation in all things. He never seemed to take Vatican officials as seriously as they took themselves, though he had a profound reverence for the pope.

Hume sought by such tactics to manage the sensitive relationship between the fears of the papacy and Roman curia that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were running out of control, and the eagerness of many English priests and lay people to complete the council's vision as fully and as effectively as possible. The fact that the two forces were held together, and that the Catholic community remained united while managing, overall, to be both liberal in style and orthodox in faith, testified to his patient, wise, and good-humoured leadership. The contrast with so many other local churches was striking. It had a price, however. The mild liberalism reached in his early years at Westminster never became a springboard for anything more ambitious, and towards the end there were even signs that some aspects of the life of his archdiocese suffered from neglect. For all the public alarm about paedophilia among a small number of Catholic priests, for instance, he never appointed a child-protection officer for Westminster as he was supposed to do.

That Hume was not an outsider to the British establishment was demonstrated by the fact that Sir John Hunt, secretary to the British cabinet and head of the home civil service, was married to Hume's sister Madeleine. Thus a ready-made network of contacts and influence was in place for him, both through family connections and through the Ampleforth old boys who had known and grown fond of him in his days as housemaster and abbot. For one of such a background, he was remarkably successful at transcending class divisions, and there was never a Hume clique or kitchen cabinet drawn from such upper-crust circles. One of his closest friends and advisers was Mgr George Leonard, a rough-hewn northerner from Shrewsbury diocese, who kept Hume's thinking in touch with the feelings and opinions of ordinary parish clergy. These were not always the easiest of men to deal with. They had reservations about having a monk, unused to running parishes, as archbishop of Westminster. But they warmed to his enthusiasm for the Catholic school system in the archdiocese, though his major regrouping of the school system at sixth-form level led to some untidy and untimely confrontations with certain school governors and the government. They admired his devotion to the poorest of the poor on his own doorstep, especially to the down-and-outs who clustered round (and even inside) Westminster Cathedral. He held regular meetings with the clergy which were filled with good humour; and he supplied them all with an ex-directory telephone number straight to his own desk. But the Catholic priesthood had been losing some of its brighter and more adventurous representatives under Heenan, and Hume never found the secret of reversing that trend, though he slowed it.

Similarly the advance of the Catholic laity into the middle class, largely a success story for the Catholic education system, seemed to go hand in hand with a decline in baptisms, marriages, and habitual mass-going, and hence a steady drop in church numbers. Europe-wide forces were at work, well beyond Hume's control. But he understood the need for a new accommodation between the officers of the church and an articulate and sometimes critical laity. He encouraged adult educational and catechetical initiatives, and gave his full support to the national pastoral congress in Liverpool in 1980, despite rumblings from some conservatives. Far from blocking discussion of the papal encyclical banning contraception, Humanae vitae (1968), at the congress, he listened to the debates with open-minded attention. When the congress resolved to ask Rome for some 'development' in that teaching, Hume took the message to the synod on the family in Rome later that year. In a private meeting with the pope he laid the report of the congress before him, open at the two pages on contraception, and asked him to read at least that part of it. The pope took it from him, but put it aside. In the synod hall Hume made a memorable contribution, saying that in a dream he had seen that the church was like a pilgrim, searching for the way. There were signposts to help it.

The right signs point the way, but signposts become weather-beaten and new paint is needed … My dream became a nightmare, for I saw the wrong paint being put upon the signposts, and the last state was worse than the first

The Tablet

Derek Worlock, archbishop of Liverpool, for his part attempted to raise the question of the pastoral treatment of divorced people who remarried. Hume, like Worlock, felt that ways should be found to lift the canonical ban on such people receiving holy communion, a ban neither took steps to enforce.

Hume did not feel afterwards that the concerns the Catholic community of England and Wales had collectively aired at Liverpool had been given a fair hearing or an adequate response. A more defensive approach in his leadership of the church in England and Wales dated from this time. It was his aim to protect it from disruptive intervention by Rome, particularly in the appointment of bishops. In this he was very successful. But there was a cost: many of the proposals for reform advanced with such enthusiasm by the national pastoral congress were shelved. A sense of disappointment and disillusion lingered for long afterwards.

Nevertheless the papal visit of 1982, at the height of the Falklands conflict, was a triumph for Hume's style and an endorsement of it. He saw that the pope was properly briefed and the people properly prepared; and the pope subsequently talked of this visit as a model never quite matched elsewhere. But the situation in the south Atlantic almost meant that it never happened, because the pope and his Vatican advisers feared giving offence to Argentina. The proposed solution—to add an extra papal visit to Argentina soon afterwards—at first left Hume unhappy, and there were angry words between him and Archbishop Worlock (who favoured and had helped to engineer the arrangement). Hume was convinced that the invasion of the Falklands was an outrage, and did not want to agree to anything that seemed to imply moral equivalence between the two parties to the conflict. A supreme diplomatic effort by the Vatican overcame his objections and calmed his temper. The subsequent success of the visit was one of the many fruits of his productive—though sometimes difficult—relationship with Worlock, upon whom he came to rely and whom he admired but with whom he was never completely at ease. These two led the bishops' conference of England and Wales, Hume supplying the inspiration and directing the broad thrust, Worlock running the machine.

In an age no longer automatically respectful towards senior clergy, Hume was always listened to and only rarely wrong. He quickly learned that submissions to government ministers had to be well researched, and this even discouraged him from raising certain matters that bothered him. He stood up for the family, seeking to strengthen divorce law in favour of marriage stability; he deplored the excesses of the press; and he took the national stage on such occasions as the Gulf War in 1991 and the death of Princess Diana in 1997, with whom he had been photographed on more than one occasion. He fought long and hard to overturn two of the major miscarriages of justice of the twentieth century: the imprisonment of the Guildford four and the Maguire seven following the Guildford IRA bombing in 1974. His successful campaign, for which he recruited two law lords, lords Scarman and Devlin, and two former home secretaries, Roy Jenkins and Merlyn Rees, led not only to freedom for those wrongly convicted (except one, who died in prison) but directly to the appointment of the royal commission on criminal justice, which in turn, led to a major overhaul of the criminal justice system in England and Wales, through the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Hume once said that he was not a prophet. Yet he was an early campaigner for the relief of third world debt; he saw the arms trade as a major international evil; and he repeatedly urged the diminution, pending complete elimination, of nuclear weapons. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development throughout his term of office, but more especially after he visited Ethiopia at the height of the famine in 1984. 'You cannot look into the eyes of a starving child and remain the same', he then said (Cardinal Basil Hume, 19). Closer to home, he launched various initiatives to help the homeless, young people at risk, people with AIDS, and refugees, including founding the Passage Day Centre for the homeless in Westminster, and the Cardinal Hume Centre for young people at risk. He wrote frequently to ministers and officials to urge action on these and other issues. Yet he stood apart from the politicians of the day, even if tempted, without succumbing, by efforts to lure him into the House of Lords.

Hume was also a heavyweight internationally, one of the most senior and respected cardinals of the international church. Three times he visited Patriarch Alexis of Moscow, twice with Cardinal Danneels of Belgium, once on his own, and their conversations undoubtedly eased tensions between the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Russia. During his time as president of the conferences of the Council of European Bishops (1978–87) he was able to play a role as a representative of European Catholicism with a different style from the Vatican. In that capacity he organized and presided over two European symposia on evangelization.

Hume shared completely Pope John Paul II's stress on human rights, never failing to include the unborn among those needing to be safeguarded. It was in this area that he had his one serious misgiving about the statement The Common Good and the Catholic Church's Social Teaching, an influential intervention in British political life before the general election of 1997 which marked a coming of age of the Catholic church in England and Wales. It was published in 1996 with a foreword by Hume and launched by a televised press conference which he handled with his usual stylishness. But on reflection, he said afterwards, he wished it had been tougher over abortion.

In another connection, when asked if he 'regretted' the British government's reliance on condoms in its strategy to resist the spread of AIDS, Hume replied that he 'regretted it was thought necessary' (The Tablet). He could be wily and noncommittal when the occasion demanded it. Such questions he often described, with a slightly archaic manner, as 'googlies'. Nevertheless he came close to a reconciliation of his office with the Catholic homosexual community. His 'Observations on the Catholic church's teaching concerning homosexual people' (1993) was a classic example of a pastor going as far as possible to interpret Catholic doctrine creatively without denying it. In whatever context it arises, and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of different sexes is to be 'treasured and respected', he wrote. 'When two persons love, they experience in a limited manner in this world what will be their unending delight when one with God in the next'. But he was equally clear that physical expression of homosexual love was ruled out by the teaching of the church, which no one could change because it was 'God given'.

Hume supported the admission of the Catholic church to the new ecumenical instruments which superseded the British Council of Churches in the late 1980s, but only after he was satisfied that his own church would receive equality of treatment and due respect for its principles. In 1987 he stated that the time had come for the Catholic church in England and Wales to move from co-operation to commitment in its relations with other churches. After that point there was a sense that he had become common property, a source of great strength for all the churches in Britain. His commitment was real, though he insisted it was not a commitment to compromise. He preached in several Anglican cathedrals, churches, and chapels, and attended the enthronements in Canterbury Cathedral of Archbishop Robert Runcie in 1980 and Archbishop George Carey in 1991. (He had also attended the enthronement of Archbishop Coggan in 1974, while abbot of Ampleforth.)

A crisis which could have done serious damage to all Hume's work broke after the decision to ordain women in the Church of England in 1992. He sought and gained special dispensation from Rome to allow the ordination of married convert clergy. He gave a series of talks, open to any Anglican clergyman interested enough to attend. He did not entirely overcome the reluctance of some of his diocesan clergy to share his eagerness to admit former Anglican clergy to the Catholic priesthood. When he urged them on, saying in an interview published in The Tablet in March 1993 that this could be the 'conversion of England' they had all been praying for, he was perceived as striking an uncharacteristic note of Catholic triumphalism, and he had to withdraw his remark quickly. He was usually extremely tactful towards the Church of England, though careful to manoeuvre so as not to have to play second fiddle to the resident of Lambeth Palace.

That the transfer of Anglican clergy was managed without greatly harming the Catholic church's good relations with the Church of England was largely due to the trust and respect in which he was held inside that 'sister Church'. At awkward moments the archbishop of Canterbury could confide in him. He continued with George Carey the sort of public partnership he had developed first with Donald Coggan and then with Robert Runcie, though Hume did not always feel obliged to fall in with all Carey's wishes. Attempts to make mischief between them were given short shrift, as when he rebuffed the Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who had left the Church of England and joined the Church of Rome, for saying that he privately regarded Carey with 'contempt'.

Hume was a member of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and the work of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission in overcoming differences both pleased and surprised him. The ordination of women by the Church of England seemed to him an insuperable obstacle, however (though he once said that he had no personal objection to it, and that his opposition was based entirely on canonical law and papal authority). He was keen to be seen as an ally of the Jewish community (and was indeed a personal friend of successive chief rabbis), and spoke sincerely and profoundly about the experience of visiting the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland, in 1986.

English Catholics traditionally had little time for English royalty, except when they showed signs of ‘coming over’—as indeed the duchess of Kent did, influenced by Hume himself: he received the duchess into communion with the Catholic church at a service in his chapel at Archbishop's House in 1994. But he saw improving relations with Buckingham Palace as an important part of his programme for reacquainting the English with the more positive side of Catholicism. Very few of his co-religionists would have seen it that way, but he thought that one of the highest points of his time at Westminster was the visit of the queen to a service of vespers in November 1995, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Westminster Cathedral. The award of the Order of Merit, which he received from the queen at Buckingham Palace in June 1999 (despite being by then extremely ill) was an extraordinary tribute, seen against the background of English history.

If one skill defined Hume's ministry, it was his management of extremes and the overcoming of splits and divisions. That undoubtedly reflected his background as a Benedictine abbot, for he regarded the rule of St Benedict as the rule of his life. Though they were less abrasive than in some other Western countries, Britain had its relatively small band of ultra-conservative Catholic dissenters ready to attack their bishops publicly or denounce them secretly to Rome. A crucial test of Hume's leadership came in 1996, therefore, when he accepted an invitation to address a meeting called by conservative Catholic campaigners in London, the other main speaker being the American television evangelist, traditionalist crowd-puller, and thorn in many an episcopal hide, Mother Angelica. His carefully prepared remarks on that occasion amounted to a set of sure signposts for the safe and successful navigation of the minefield that modern Catholicism had become; and therefore they summed up his approach in general. First, there was no going back on the Second Vatican Council: he quoted Pope John Paul II forcefully to that effect. Hence, contrary to the ultra-conservative case, loyalty to the pope was incompatible with rejection of the council's reforms. Second, there was no loyalty to the pope that was not also expressed in loyalty to the bishops. They too were 'vicars of Christ'. Third, Catholics had a right to explore the mysteries of faith and they had no obligation to agree with each other about everything, though it was vital to 'remain in communion with the successor of St Peter' and there would come a point where obedience was required. Fourth, it was important never to damage another's good name, never to be rude or insulting, or seek to exclude people from the church. He enjoined tolerance and charity. Those who made mistakes needed help and guidance, not public condemnation.

Above all, as Hume said time and again in speech after speech, what mattered was the cultivation of a personal relationship with the Lord. One of the chief ways to achieve this was through taking part fittingly in the celebration of mass—though he felt appropriate dignity and reverence were sometimes missing from the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council. His concern for excellence in the work of God translated itself into the world renown that the cathedral choir achieved while he was at Westminster, after he had rescued it from closure at the outset. But he also talked constantly and convincingly of the need for private prayer. It was clear to everyone that he spoke from profound personal knowledge.

By exercising these simple principles with such transparent sincerity, even at times verging on a kind of unselfconscious gaucheness, Hume gradually conditioned the spiritual life of the Catholic community of England and Wales towards the goals set forth in the Second Vatican Council. He was a man of instinct and intuition rather than of strategy and policy. It was his intention, he said at the time of his installation as the archbishop of Westminster, to animate rather than to dominate.

Hume gave many interviews and appeared in many radio and television programmes, most notably the Channel 4 film Return of the Saints (1984), which he wrote and presented. His books—mainly collections of sermons and addresses, though Basil in Blunderland (1997) was a fantasy—included In Praise of Benedict (1981), To be a Pilgrim (1984), Towards a Civilisation of Love (1988), Light in the Lord (1991), Remaking Europe (1994), and The Mystery of the Cross (1998). He received numerous public honours, including honorary doctorates from a dozen universities in Britain and the United States. He was made an honorary bencher of the Inner Temple in 1976, and an honorary freeman of the City of London and Newcastle upon Tyne, both in 1980. (On the latter occasion he was thrilled to meet and to obtain the autograph of the Newcastle United footballer Jackie Milburn, who was created a freeman of the city at the same time.)

Archbishops are required to submit their resignations to the pope at seventy-five, but Hume had been warned that his was unlikely to be accepted (and indeed it was not). In April 1999 he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. 'It is not in its early stages', he said in his last letter to the clergy of Westminster. 'Above all, no fuss' (The Tablet). He endured his last days with characteristic serenity and cheerfulness. He died on 17 June 1999 at the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, Westminster, and was buried in St Gregory's Chapel, Westminster Cathedral, on 25 June. Requiem masses were held at Westminster, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Ampleforth, Oxford, and numerous other places.


The belief that it was possible to be totally English and totally Catholic had been dimmed during what some saw as the ‘ghetto years’ in the first half of the twentieth century. This was a time when, under indifferent leadership (with the possible exception of that of Cardinal Arthur Hinsley), English and Welsh Catholicism had been allowed to become obsessively inward looking. The remarkable boldness of Pope Paul VI's appointment of the abbot of a Benedictine monastery in north Yorkshire, whose name was associated with one of the best independent boarding-schools in the land, had the power to transform both this image and the reality it represented. It revealed Vatican shrewdness at its best.

Hume's cultural and religious origins were deeply Benedictine. Of all forms of Catholicism, it is one of the most gentle and least fanatical. The Benedictine spirit ran differently from the mood of the Counter-Reformation, which still cast its dwindling shadow over the Catholic church in the 1940s and 1950s. The uncompromising Counter-Reformation style was what the English were used to in their Roman Catholic neighbours: a social and spiritual snobbery that meant no truck with protestantism and very little with the Church of England. This stiff manner was greatly relaxed by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council but it still needed a Hume to carry the message home.

Hume never forgot, nor let anyone else forget, that he was first of all a Benedictine monk, a member of an ancient religious order whose communities once dotted the English landscape and which built, among many other glories of the Gothic style, Westminster Abbey. There is nobody more English than an English Benedictine: the rule of St Benedict seems to overflow with English common sense. Although the founders of the Church of England were reluctant to admit their debt to previous generations of English churchmen, who were of course Catholics, the pervasive influence of medieval English monasticism on English spirituality was more and more recognized in the twentieth century. One Anglican commentator, Esther de Waal, has written: 'It is hardly too much to claim that the Benedictine spirit is at the root of the Anglican way of prayer.' It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the English at some deep level recognized Hume as one of their own—or that he became, in Hugo Young's words, 'part of the furniture of English life' (Castle, 148).

It was among his greatest achievements that in an increasingly secular age and in a predominantly Anglican culture, Hume cut through cultural and religious prejudice to show the more human face of the Roman Catholic faith. This made it seem less alien and anachronistic to the English, more credible and attractive than it had been for a very long time. His achievement was not so much to have changed it as to have presented it differently. By such means he was able to operate sufficiently close to the high moral ground of public life to inject into national affairs a convincing set of principles.


  • T. Castle, Basil Hume: a portrait (1986)
  • S. J. Costello, Basil Hume: builder of community (1988)
  • C. Butler, Basil Hume: by his friends (1999)
  • Cardinal Basil Hume OSB OM: in memoriam, 1923–1999 (2000)
  • K. Nichols, Pilgrimage of grace: Cardinal Basil Hume, 1923–1999 (2000)
  • The Times (18 June 1999)
  • Daily Telegraph (18 June 1999)
  • The Guardian (18 June 1999)
  • The Independent (18 June 1999)
  • The Scotsman (18 June 1999)
  • The Tablet (26 June 1999)
  • ‘Cardinal Basil Hume OSB OM’, Ampleforth Journal (2000), 1–13
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)



  • D. Clarke, oils, 1970–74, Ampleforth Abbey
  • M. Boxer, ink drawing, 1970–1979, NPG
  • photographs, 1976–87, Hult. Arch.
  • A. Newman, bromide print, 1978, NPG
  • M. Noakes, oils, 1985, Archbishop's House, Westminster
  • J. Stultiens, oils, 1986–7, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs (various dates), repro. in The Times
  • photographs (various dates), repro. in Daily Telegraph
  • photographs (various dates), repro. in The Guardian
  • photographs (various dates), repro. in The Independent
  • photographs (various dates), repro. in The Scotsman
  • photographs (various dates), repro. in The Tablet
  • photographs (various dates), repro. in Castle, Basil Hume

Wealth at Death

£13,000: The Times (12 Dec 2002)

Westminster Diocesan Archives, London
National Portrait Gallery, London
Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London