Lord Acton

Lord Acton

by Roland Hill


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“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”—Lord Acton, 1887

Lord Acton (1834–1902), numbered among the most esteemed Victorian historical thinkers, was much respected for his vast learning, his ideas on politics and religion, and his lifelong preoccupation with human freedom. Yet Acton was in many ways an outsider. He stood apart from his contemporaries, doubting the notion of unlimited progress and the blessings of nationalism and democracy. He differed from fellow members of the English upper class, holding to his Catholic faith. And he angered other Catholic believers by fiercely opposing the doctrine of papal infallibility. In this remarkable biography, Roland Hill is the first to make full use of the vast collection of books, documents, and private papers in the Acton archives to tell the story of the enigmatic Lord Acton.

The book describes Acton’s extended family of European aristocrats, his cosmopolitan upbringing, and his disrupted education. Drawing a lively picture of politics and religion at the time, Hill discusses Acton’s brief career as a Liberal member of Parliament, his work as editor and owner of learned Catholic journals, his battles for freedom for and in the Catholic Church, his friendship with William E. Gladstone, and his seven years as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. Though unable to complete The Cambridge Modern History series he envisaged, Acton transformed historical study and left a legacy of ideas that continues to influence historians today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300181272
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/31/2011
Pages: 616
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.37(d)

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Chapter One


At six in the evening on 10 January 1834, Marie Louisa, wife of Sir Ferdinand Richard Acton, gave birth to a son in their villa on the Riviera di Chiaja in Naples. The birth certificate, made out in Italian, described the father as Don Ferdinando Riccardo Acton, thirty-two years old, "Lord-in-Waiting to His Majesty Whom God preserve" and English Baronet. The mother was named as Baroness Donna Maria Luisa Pellina de Dalberg, twenty-one years old, domiciled with her husband in Naples at the Riviera di Chiaja.

    The baptism took place the next day. It is registered at St. Joseph's, the little parish church nearby on the Riviera. But it is more likely to have been held at the Villa Acton. The little chapel, situated in one of the porticoes through which carriages entered the Acton grounds, would not have held many guests. The child was christened John Emerich Edward Acton, the first two names after his paternal and maternal grandfathers, and Edward after a distinguished ancestor of the Aldenham Actons.

    The Villa Acton was somewhat set back from the busy and fashionable sea promenade of the Bay of Naples. One entered upon an English landscaped garden with palm trees on the lawn, and beyond, just visible from the road, was the elegant and luxurious villa designed in the Neoclassical style, which Sir Richard Acton had had built for himself. He had been fastidious about the plans, employing a leading Naples architect, Pietro Valente, pupil of Antonio Niccolini, the designer of the Teatro San Carlo. However, a classical purist like Henry Edward Fox,later the fourth Lord Holland (1802-1859), felt that not much else in the Chiaja was "surpassed in hideousness by the vulgar, staring, ill-placed dwelling erected for Sir Ferdinand Acton." And as we have Holland House to testify to his taste, his judgement is not to be disregarded lightly. There was some dispute in the Acton family over whether the palazzo should have been built at all. Richard's spirited younger sister, Elizabeth, implored him in her letters from England to put his money into the family seat at Aldenham, Shropshire, which had suffered from the owner's absence in Italy. Further to neglect it, she wrote, "would not only be wicked but mad. What would people say in seeing that beautiful property deserted, that old family mansion falling in ruins and to think that the money that ought to be spent on it is thrown away in foreign lands." But Sir Richard Acton was not interested in his English inheritance; even so, his sister's nagging had at least some effect, as her mother wrote to her from Aldenham: "Richard is thinking so seriously of the Hall that he is going to name an architect to design a roof and skylight."

    Like their sister, Richard and his younger brother, Charles Acton, had been privately educated in England. In 1819 the two young men went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, but, as Catholics, were barred from taking their degrees. Having no stamina for studies, Richard left after barely a year to return to Naples and enter into the service of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, following in the footsteps of his father, who had been the prime minister. Richard first served briefly as a diplomat in St. Petersburg. But, restless, sickly, and spoiled as he was, he turned into a gambler and spendthrift. He preferred to travel and indulge his tastes as a cultured young gentleman of leisure and money.

    Ferdinand II, the grandson of Ferdinand I and Queen Marie Caroline, inherited the throne in 1830, when he was just twenty and popular. Richard Acton was not as close to him as his father, General Sir John Francis Edward Acton, had been to the King's grandparents, but he was gratified to be made gentilhomme de la chambre de Roi (lord-in-waiting), as he wrote in a letter to his mother.

    Charles Acton had gone from Cambridge to the Roman Academia of young noblemen, where he studied for the priesthood and was grounded in papal diplomacy as Cardinal Luigi Lambruschini's secretary at the Paris nunciature; then he returned to Rome to the Rota, the supreme ecclesiastical court. When Richard's son was baptized, he came to Naples. At that time he was already a monsignor and, being close to Gregory XVI, was soon to receive the Roman purple, at the age of thirty-nine. He died when he was only forty-four.

    The two brothers' own baptisms, in 1801 and 1803, had been conducted in splendour in the Royal Chapel. King Ferdinand I and Queen Caroline, whom their father had served as prime minister for nearly thirty years, were the godparents of Richard and Charles, respectively. The brothers were therefore given royal names and extravagant gifts. Sir Ferdinand Richard, however, dropped his "Ferdinand" and remained Richard, though not for any lack of political sympathy. The two Acton brothers were wholly on the side of legitimacy and restoration, and Charles, who had been held over the font by the turbulent Queen Caroline and whose second Christian name was Januarius (Gennaro), represented the spirit of calm and pious conservatism in the Church in the age of Gregory XVI (1831-1846).

    Sir Richard Acton's baby son was perhaps fortunate in being spared a similar royal and Bourbon baptism. For the future historian of liberty and friend of the British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, the scourge of Neapolitan autocracy, that would have been even worse than being the descendant of the Bourbon King's most loyal English servant. It was left to another, later descendant of the Acton family, Sir Harold Acton, to vindicate the Bourbons of Naples from the calumnies to which Queen Caroline's prime minister was particularly prone, from his Italian and French revolutionary detractors.

    Baby John Emerich Edward was doted on by his parents, who called him their petit chou ("little cabbage," a common endearment for children). Writing to his mother in England, Sir Richard noted proudly that people said the baby looked more like him every day, "almost a Richard III," which was not perhaps as complimentary to the petit chou as it was meant to be. But soon after the birth, Sir Richard already felt the pull of the great world and the need to pursue his "projects," as he called them. He had been made a director of the newly funded Academy of Naples, a position that required him to travel abroad, and he wondered whether it would not be better for his mother to return to Naples to help look after Marie and the baby, rather than to take Marie and the baby abroad with him or leave them with his mother in England.

    In a letter to her mother-in-law, Marie praised her husband for his gentle ways with the baby. Marie's mother, the Duchess of Dalberg, was helping to look after him, but she tired easily. The baby was putting on weight and seemed to be getting black hair, Marie noted in her next letter, and was taken out on the balcony for the first time on a springlike day at the end of January. He was "magnificent," amazing visitors with his "embon point" (tummy) and strength and looking like a two-month-old baby rather than one of three weeks. Meanwhile, Richard, accompanied by Marie's aunt (Maria Brignole-Sale), was again claimed by the carnival season, "six balls a week." Their own house theatre was getting ready, and they were planning to put on Le mariage de raison.

    Three weeks after his birth, the baby was taken on his first outing, dressed in "a frock coat of white wool with blue piping and a small white hat." At the time, Richard was absorbed by preparations for a big ball with theatricals given by the Roman Academia. The King and Queen were expected, and Richard, who was going to open the ball by dancing with Queen Caroline, added a note to the letter hoping that it would be successful. Marie, for her part, was not sorry to see the dawn of Ash Wednesday, for "this year my carnival was my Lent," and she would go out again for the first time that Sunday.

    The ball was a success even though the King and Queen did not attend, although, as Richard and Marie later wrote to Nonna (as the infant's grandmother was called), the King showed Sir Richard much bonté (goodwill) and was to come to their next soirée. Among all rise talk of preparations for this event, the doting references to le petit, increasingly left to the care of servants, took second place. Marie was preparing to play a small part in an Italian comedy they were rehearsing and was also taking part in Le mariage de raison. Weakened and thin after the difficult birth, she returned gradually to the social round.

    The Actons' big reception took place on 1 March 1834. The whole of the Riviera di Chiaja was illuminated by fires placed in iron baskets on poles, with cavalry assembled and two military bands playing, one in the Acton garden, the other in the entrance hall. It was St. David's Day (honoring the patron saint of Wales), and John Orlando Parry, the Victorian entertainer and a patriotic Welshman, recorded the occasion as "one of the grandest parties I ever was at.... Oh! what a magnificent house and what splendid style everything was in. The walls were covered with crimson and gold papers, every door was covered with gold leaf and the most splendid carving all embossed with gold! All the ottomans were white satin with gold embroidery! Looking glasses down to the magnificent carpets, chandeliers of the most exquisite forms and shapes, candlebras [sic] with wax lights in such profusion that it was as light as day!"

    At nine in the evening a flourish of trumpets and drums announced the arrival of the King and Queen and all the royal family. Parry's enthusiastic description continued: "They were recd by Sir [Richard] Acton at the street door and ushered into the splendid room." In the ballroom the other guests, Neapolitan nobility and English residents, were already assembled. The performance consisted of three pieces, all French vaudeville, "most excellently done indeed. The King amused many persons by his looking and touching the lamps in front of the stage to see how they were made.... What a splendid sight the ball-room presented—one sea of turbans, feathers, diamonds and jewels, etc."

    The host himself was less happy, particularly because of hordes of uninvited guests, of whom Parry may have been one. "It was far too crowded, five hundred people came ... although we hoped there would be no more than three hundred. No one could move an inch. It was terribly hot and the strong wind prevented the opening of windows. Marie stayed with the royal family and I joined them in the interval." One might well wonder how the Villa Acton—today a much dilapidated site of concerts and exhibitions, known (after its later owners) as the Museo Pignatelli—could seat even three hundred guests in any comfort. "But ... our guests stayed until two in the morning and enjoyed little hot pastries, cakes, ices, tea and hot soup. Naples had never seen a like concourse of carriages in the Chiaja." No doubt, the baby in Isis nursery took little notice of the commotion.

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