Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

So Like an Angel

The Gay Love Letters of Brother Augustine

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

In 1864 in Norwich, Norfolk (England), Samuel Hase, a fifteen-year-old boy apprenticed to a printer, became attracted to the order of Benedictine monks to whose monastery on Elm Hill he delivered print orders. He was a good singer, a member of the choir of St Saviour's Church, and soon he was attending services at the monastery and singing in its choir. The Superior, Father Ignatius, was said by another boy to be "sweet" on Samuel, and often gave him gifts of fruit and asked him to take tea with him after the services. One day in September the boy took home a hymn book presented to him by Father Ignatius, and showed it to his widowed stepmother. She promptly returned it with an indignant note, and subsequently met with the Superior and refused her consent for her stepson to enter the order. Samuel (who had lied to Ignatius about obtaining his stepmother's approval) nevertheless continued to serve as a singing boy at the monastery, sometimes slept there, wore the gown and hood, and became baptized. He even asked his master to cancel is indenture so he could devote himself entirely to the monks, but the printer refused. His stepmother, a Protestant anti-papist, one day intercepted a letter sent to him from Brother Augustine, the second-in-command at the monastery, which is printed below. She sent the letter to the Norfolk News, which had been conducting a campaign against popery aimed specifically against the monastery at Elm Hill, and they published it. As a result, Brother Augustine fled the monastery and disappeared. Father Ignatius wrote to the paper from Newcastle (he was on a northern tour to collect money for his mission) that it was a very foolish letter and Augustine had been expelled for violating the order's rule against secret communications; before leaving on his trip he had begged Augustine not to spoil the boy, but nothing untoward ever took place in the monastery and they were not ashamed of inviting young people to join their order. The Norfolk News continued its attack, asserting that the letter revealed that the sham monks (for they were not really Roman Catholics, but very "high" Anglicans) were kidnapping and mesmerizing the sons of Protestant families: "The system is essentially unnatural, and nothing can come of it but mischief, disorder, and monstrosities, either ridiculous or frightful. . . . these Monasteries are for the most part cages for unclean birds." Every issue of the Norfolk News through December continued the attack on these "mad" and "unnatural" monks. In October Ignatius (real name Joseph Leycester Lyne, of Brighton) spoke at the Bristol Church Congress and was shouted down; he argued that collegiate churches should be established in all large towns to reach the masses, that they should follow the Rule of St Benedict, and that it was contrary to nature for their priests to be married and shackled to a family. He appeared at this meeting in full Benedictine garb, and the following speaker derided him as a "startling apparition." Later that month the Norwich Young Men's Church of England Association called for Ignatius to be expelled from the church. A year later Brother Stanislaus tried to overthrow Ignatius's authority, but failed, and fled with a boy from its associated Guild of St William. In 1868 ex-Brother Stanislaus spoke at Protestant meetings, revealing the scandalous "semi-Popish and improper practices" established by Ignatius; at a meeting in London two lads charged Brother Augustine with homosexual practices. In 1869 another boy alleged that he (the boy) had lived at the monastery in a sexual relationship with Stanislaus, with the encouragement of Ignatius. The continuing scandals are part of the history of the Anglo-Catholic brotherhoods that attracted gay men in the mid-nineteenth century, and also part of the history of homophobia and anti-Catholic hysteria in Protestant Britain. The letter that stirred it all up is really nothing worse than a very touching love letter, not utterly different from a letter that could have been written by Saint Anselm eight centuries earlier.


[Elm Hill Monastery]
Feast Sancti Crucis, 1864

My Darling Child –
          I want you to promise me that during the Superior's absence you will strive as much as possible to keep from doing wrong, and that you will daily pray for God's grace and help to fulfil the same.
          You will not be allowed to be here much, if at all, as I rather expected you would, so that I am obliged to write that which I should have preferred saying to you in person, but oh! my dearest one! you will never realize how much I really love you, and how wretched I feel all day without seeing you. My love for you is so deep, so tender, that I cannot bear even to be separated from you, and when I do see you I have such a heavy weight at my heart, and you seem so careless and light-hearted and so taken up with others, and all this makes me worse.
          Then the Superior, who is always having fresh favourites and likings, seems so dreadfully afraid even of one's looking at you, that I am perfectly obliged to look calm and indifferent when my heart is literally burning for you.
          This love I NEVER felt for a living creature beside yourself, it seems to consume me, and it is quite a comfort to write it down to you.
          Sometimes I think you know your power over me, you give me such searching looks, and what do you meet with in return? What but the most earnest, burning, tender look of love, as pure as that of angels.
          Were I and you in the world [rather than a religious order] I would lavish every care, every affection upon you that money or time could procure, every wish should be gratified if possible.
          Sometimes on Sundays you have sat in your cassock and cotta looking so like an angel I could have worshipped you.
          I have striven to collect my thoughts to the solemn service on which I was engaged, but no! you happen to look my way whilst I am at the lectern, and then I grow quite confused and my breath even seems to fail, and I wonder if you have ever seen it and guessed the cause.
          Morning, noon, and night, nothing haunts me but your sweet darling face; in my very dreams I see it; in a word, I am infatuated and wretched and wish sometimes I had never seen you. I feel I could clasp you in my arms and never unfold them whilst I looked into the depths of those sweet eyes.
          It is very weak, perhaps wicked, to write like this, but I scarcely know what I am doing, and feel forced to write and tell you all this.
          Suppose I were to go away from here (as they want me at home) when my noviciate is up in February, I feel hat leaving you would make me intensely miserable and perhaps break my heart. I know you will only laugh at me.
          Is there anyone here loves you like this? No! I am sure of it. Why do you avoid me, or content yourself with a passing glance?
          What I am now going to say must be a secret to everyone if you don't wish me to be troubled. I want you one day (I will tell you the time) to go to [the photographer] Mason's, S. Giles', to have your portrait taken. Dear mama shall send the postage stamps to you so that it will not be with any money from here.
          I will manage your having a cotta and cassock without anyone's knowing here what you want it for.
          Burn this. I would not have anyone know anything about it for the world, and if you have the slightest respect for me you will do so. I do not ask it out of love, for I know and feel you have none for me, and this, indeed, is the reason of my misery. Good bye, dear, sweet child, and my prayers shall ever be for your peace and happiness.
                    Your affectionate brother in Xt.,
                              † Augustine, O.S.B.

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.
SOURCE: Norfolk News (England), September 17, 1864.

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