17 May 2016

‘O come, all ye faithful’ – the Christmas carol
with forgotten links with Lichfield Cathedral

Canon Frederick Oakeley, author of ‘O come, all ye faithful’

Patrick Comerford

One of the best-loved English Christmas carols, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, is sometimes known by its Latin name (Adeste Fideles) and is often described as a mediaeval hymn. But while the original author is unknown, the writer who made it popular in English was brought up in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield and was a canon of the Cathedral for many years.

The carol may have French or German origins, but the earliest version dates only from around 1743. The first four stanzas in Latin and the tune may have been written by John Francis Wade (1711-1786), an English Roman Catholic exile living in Douai in France. As early as 1797, the Latin hymn was sung in London at the Chapel of the Portuguese Embassy, where Vincent Novello was the organist. Novello claimed it was written a century earlier by John Reading, the organist of Winchester Cathedral (1675-1681). The carol was soon translated into English and then into many other languages. But the most popular version begins with the opening words by Canon Frederick Oakeley of Lichfield: O come, all ye faithful, joyfully triumphant or, O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880) is best known for this carol.

A childhood in Lichfield

Frederick was born at the Abbey House, Shrewsbury, on 5 September 1802, a son of Sir Charles Oakeley (1751-1826). Sir Charles was born in Forton, Staffordshire, where his father, the Revd William Oakeley (1717-1803), was the Rector of Forton before becoming the Vicar of Holy Cross, the Abbey Church in Shrewsbury. Both parishes are in the Diocese of Lichfield.

Charles Oakeley was a colonial administrator in India. He returned to England in 1789, was made a baronet the following year, and then returned to India as the Governor of Madras (1790-1794). When he returned to England once again, he moved into at the Abbey House, his father’s vicarage in Shrewsbury, and it was there the hymn-writer Frederick was born in 1802. A childhood accident in the Abbey House when he was three left Frederick disabled for many months, and for the rest of his life he was sickly and walked with a limp.

When Frederick was eight, the Oakeley family moved into the Bishop’s Palace in the Cathedral Close, Lichfield. Sir Charles was offered the Palace at a nominal rent on condition that he would restore the building, then in a sorry state. At the time, the Bishop of Lichfield was living at Eccleshall near Stafford. The Oakeley family moved into the Palace after the death in 1809 of the Lichfield poet, Anna Seward, who had continued to live there after the death of her father, Canon Thomas Seward, in 1790.

Frederick Oakeley by an unknown artist, ca 1817 (Collection of Balliol College, Oxford)

Each day, Sir Charles attended Morning Prayer in the Cathedral. His son later remembered him as pious, devout and humble, and the standard of music in the cathedral added to his pleasure in attending daily services. Frederick also recalled how as boy of eight the cathedral organist allowed him to play the organ to accompany the psalms at the daily services.

The Bishop’s Palace, Lichfield ... now a school and once the childhood home of Frederick Oakeley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Poor health often prevented Frederick from leaving home for school until the age of 14, when he had a late start at Lichfield Grammar School. A year after entering the school, Oakeley was sent from Lichfield in 1817 to Canon Charles Sumner for private tuition. Sumner was then the curate at Highclere, near Newbury, the home of the Earl of Carnarvon (best known now as the location for Downton Abbey). Frederick spent three years at Highclere, but returned for holidays with his parents in Lichfield and was often homesick for Lichfield when he returned to Highclere.

Lichfield Grammar School … now the offices of Lichfield District Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Early career in Oxford

He entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1820, graduated BA in 1824, and won prizes in Latin, English and Theology. But while he was still at Oxford, his father, Sir Charles Oakeley, died at the Palace in Lichfield in 1826. He was buried in Forton, and a monument by Sir Francis Chantrey was erected to him in the North Transept of Lichfield Cathedral.

Frederick was elected to a chaplain fellowship at Balliol College. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of London in the Chapel Royal in Whitehall in 1828 and ordained priest a week later in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, by his former tutor, Charles Sumner, then Bishop of Llandaff and Dean of Saint Paul’s. Oakeley remained a fellow of Balliol College until 1845, and was also tutor, Senior Dean, a lecturer, and one of the public examiners to Oxford University.

On 11 February 1832, Oakeley was installed as the Prebendary of Dassett Parva in Lichfield Cathedral on the nomination of Bishop Henry Ryder, whose kneeling statue by Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey is in the north transept in Lichfield Cathedral.

As a canon, Oakeley dutifully returned to Lichfield Cathedral each year to preach on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany and he remained a canon of Lichfield Cathedral until 1845.

While Frederick Oakeley was a fellow of Balliol College, he helped secure the election to a fellowship of his lifelong friend and former pupil Archibald Campbell Tait, later Archbishop of Canterbury. At Balliol, he also became a close friend of William George Ward, and they both joined the Tractarian Movement. The Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, appointed Oakeley Whitehall Preacher in 1837. In the preface to his first volume of Whitehall Sermons (1837) he declared himself a member of the Oxford Movement. In 1839 he became the incumbent of the Margaret Chapel, the predecessor of All Saints’, Margaret Street, London. In his six years there, Oakeley introduced High Church liturgical practices, and his friends there included the future Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and Sir Alexander Beresford-Hope, who supervised William Butterfield’s building of All Saints’ Church.

Tractarian and hymn writer

Oakeley translated O Come All Ye Faithful for his congregation in London in 1840, while he was still a canon of Lichfield Cathedral. His original translation began Ye faithful, approach ye, but in 1845 he rewrote the opening words as O Come, All Ye Faithful, Joyfully Triumphant. Its inclusion in Francis H Murray’s Hymnal in 1852 gave Oakley a permanent place in the history of hymnology.

The monument to Sir Charles Oakeley in the North Transept of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Oakeley stood by his Tractarian friend, Charles Lloyd, Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford, when he was condemned in 1845. In two pamphlets published in London and Oxford, Oakeley defended Tract XC and asserted that he held, as distinct from teaching, all Roman doctrine. He was brought before the Court of Arches by Bishop Blomfield, and in July 1845 he was suspended until he retracted his errors. He resigned as a canon of Lichfield and from all his other appointments in the Church of England on 28 October 1845 and moved into Cardinal Newman’s community at Littlemore in Oxford. The following day, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and on 31 October he was confirmed in Birmingham by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest by Cardinal Wiseman in 1847 and he returned to Lichfield to celebrate his first Mass in Holy Cross Church, Upper St John Street with the 86-year-old scholarly Dr John Kirk who had been Parish Priest of Lichfield when Oakeley was still a child in the Close. Oakeley joined the staff of Saint George’s, Southwark, took charge of Saint John’s, Islington, and was made a canon of Westminster Cathedral. For many years, he worked among the poor in his diocese. In the last years of his life, he remembered with fondness his childhood days in Lichfield. He died in Islington on 29 January 1880 and was buried in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green.

Family in Lichfield

Oakeley’s widowed mother, Helena, continued living in the Bishop’s Palace in Lichfield until her death in 1838. His brother, Sir Herbert Oakeley (1791-1845), who succeeded to the family title, was Archdeacon of Colchester. When the Bishopric of Gibraltar was founded in 1842, it was offered to Archdeacon Oakeley, but he declined it.

Henrietta Mott, wife of John Mott (1787–1869), Mayor of Lichfield in 1850, and sister of Frederick Oakeley

Their sister, Henrietta, married John Mott (1787-1869) of No 20, The Close, Lichfield, who was Deputy Diocesan Registrar of Lichfield and Mayor of Lichfield in 1850. Another sister, Amelia, married Chappel Wodehouse, only son of Chappel Wodehouse (1749-1833) who was Dean of Lichfield Cathedral when Frederick was installed a canon.

Sadly, Frederick Oakeley has no monument in Lichfield apart from a misspelled street name (Oakley Close) erected in 1977. Perhaps it is time to at least rectify this error!

Oakely Close is misspelled but is Lichfield’s only tribute to Frederick Oakeley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This paper was published in the ‘Friends of Lichfield Cathedral Seventy Ninth Annual Report 2016’ (Lichfield, 2016, editor, David Wallington), pp 42-48)