The Vaughans of Courtfield: an appreciation

by Archbishop George Stack & Fr. Peter Wilson

The recent sudden death of Patrick Vaughan gives an opportunity to reflect on the significance of the Vaughan Family to the life and history of the Catholic Church in England and Wales-and beyond. Perhaps the best known name to us today is that of Cardinal Herbert Vaughan (1822-1903) the great uncle of Patrick Vaughan. The crowning achievement of Herbert Vaughan must surely be the building of Westminster Cathedral in 1903. The first great ceremony in that iconic place of worship was the funeral of its founder in 1903. He was also responsible for the establishment of other great institutions, including St Joseph’s Missionary Society, Mill Hill, which has been responsible for creating an indigenous clergy in many parts of Africa. The Catholic Truth Society, which continues to play such a significant part in the catholic life of our country, was formed at the instigation of Cardinal Vaughan. At the age of 36 and a Priest of the Diocese of Westminster, Herbert Vaughan purchased “The Tablet” for £900 in the summer of 1868. He wanted to ensure the voice of Catholic Journalism was heard and read.

Cardinal Vaughan came from an august family which had remained steadfast in their Catholic Faith, despite many years of persecution and hardship. Sometimes their loyalty to the Faith led to some reckless endeavours! The brother of his maternal grandmother was Cardinal Thomas Weld (1773-1837), the first Englishman to be a Cardinal since the Reformation. A convert and a widower,and a father with his chidren in tow ,he was affectionately described as “The Cardinal of the Seven Sacraments”. Through all of those tumultuous times, the Vaughan family managed to retain their family home, Courtfield in Monmouthshire. The name “Courtfield” was in deference to the fact that King Henry V (of Agincourt fame) had been raised there as a boy.

Herbert’s father, Lt Col John Francis Vaughan, was a devout man. After a time studying in France, he returned to Courtfield. Given the strong Catholic commitment of the Vaughans, it is surprising that he very soon chose to marry a non-Catholic from the neighbouring area. Her name was Eliza Rolls, and her family were described as “earnest Evangelicals”. Her nephew was Charles Rolls, who co-founded the famous Rolls Royce car manufacturers and also has the distinction of the first Briton to be killed in an airplane crash.

Much to the delight of her new husband Eliza became a Catholic, soon after their marriage. Her conversion was not just to membership of the Church, but to a deep attachment to the spiritual life in the Catholic tradition. At Courtfield she began the habit of a daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament in the house’s little chapel. Between 5pm and 6pm she would be before the Lord, and would take her children with her. She delighted in reading the lives of the saints, and teaching them how to follow the paths of these great heroes of the Faith.

One of her favourites was St Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard’s father Tescelin was a knight, and hoped that his sons would follow him into military service. Meanwhile their mother, Aleth, “sought to inspire them with a deep love of God and with sentiments of mutual esteem and charity”.  Aleth offered all her children to God, at the moment of their birth, with the prayer that he would call them to serve as priests or religious. And they all did each of them fulfilled her hopes. Tescelin, following the death of Aleth, followed his sons into the monastery at Clairvaux. Aleth’s prayer was answered even more profoundly, because not only is Bernard a Saint, all his brothers as well as his sister have been beatified , as has Aleth herself , now known as Blessed Aleth of  Montbard.

So inspired was Eliza Vaughan by this tale, that she soon decided that she would follow Aleth’s example and consecrate her children to God, with the prayer that he would choose them to serve him as priests or nuns. God answered her prayer mightily, and almost completely. The Vaughans had 14 children, one of whom died shortly after his birth. Of her remaining 8 sons all but two became a priest, and of her 5 daughters, all but 1 became a nun.

Her eldest, Herbert, is of course our celebrated Cardinal Vaughan.

Her second son, Roger Bede Vaughan, became the superior of Belmont Abbey and then Archbishop of Sydney. He was also instrumental in many Catholic projects in his diocese, including a leading part in the building of St Mary’s Cathedral, the magnificent mother church of Sydney Archdiocese where he is buried.

Kenelm joined the Cistercians, but had to leave due to ill health. He was, however, ordained a priest and bought from the Earl of Cadogan a property in Beaufort Street for the society he had founded, the Brotherhood of Expiation. It is now Allen Hall, the diocesan seminary of Westminster Kenelm travelled extensively in America to raise funds for the building of Westminster Cathedral which opened in 1903.

Joseph became a Benedictine monk and founded the Abbey at Fort Augustus in Scotland – sadly no longer a monastery.

Bernard became a Jesuit and a legendary preacher. It was said that he had preached to all the crowned heads of Europe! However, most of his time was spent with the poor in the East End of London, where his memory is still held in high regard.

Eliza died giving birth to John. He was a Canon of Westminster and a domestic prelate to Pope Leo XIII, before becoming the Auxiliary Bishop of Salford (where Herbert had been the Bishop before coming to Westminster).

Of the daughters, Gwladys entered the Visitation Order, Helen joined the Sisters of Mercy, Clare became a Poor Clare, while Mary was the Prioress of an Augustinian convent.  Margaret, the youngest, wanted to be a nun too, but her ill health prevented it.  She lived at Courtfield, consecrated to God, and lived her final years in a convent.

Two sons Francis and Reginald did not join the priesthood, but married and had distinguished careers and gave devoted lay service to the Church. Francis was appointed as Chamberlains to successive popes. From their children came further priests and nuns. Reginald’s son Herbert Vaughan, the Cardinal’s nephew, played a leading role in the life of the Catholic Missionary Society. Francis had three sons, two of whom became priests, including Francis John Vaughan (1877-1935), who became the Bishop of Menevia.

Courtfield was sold by the Vaughan family to the Mill Hill Missionaries in 1950. Given the remarkable story of vocations from the Vaughan family, the Archbishop of Cardiff in 1955 dedicated the Chapel as a Shrine of “Our Lady of Vocations”, a dedication renewed by Archbishop Ward in the Jubilee Year 2000. In the crypt, among other family members, John Francis Vaughan and Eliza are buried. Their prayers surely join those of our Lady of Vocations in praying for new vocations in the Church.

Given the changed membership of the St. Joseph’s Mill Hill Society with native clergy now serving the Church in their former mission territories, the Mill Hill Fathers decided to withdraw from their great college at Mill Hill. Part of that withdrawal included the exhumation of the body of their founder who had been buried there. I was privileged to be present on that occasion and, even more of a privilege, to re-inter the Cardinal’s remains at Westminster Cathedral in the presence of some of his descendants. By the same token, in 2009 the Mill Hill Fathers also decided to leave Courtfield which had been a House of Formation for so many of their priests and brothers. By good fortune, the great grandson of John and Elizabeth Vaughan, Patrick Vaughan, was able to purchase the estate from them. The ancient home is once more back in the bosom of the family and now being lovingly cared for by the next generation.

Photo: Mr. Patrick Vaughan courtesy of the Vaughan family
Photo: The Vaughan Family Crest