07 April 2024

Father Ignatius of Norwich
and his failed Benedictine
monastery on Elm Hill

Elm Hill is one of the more picturesque streets in Norwich with cobblestones and mediaeval timber-framed buildings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Elm Hill is one of the more picturesque streets in Norwich with its cobble stones and mediaeval jettied and timber-framed buildings. Behind each of those buildings, I imagine, is a story that is unusual and unique to Norwich.

Elm Hill was a thriving area at the height of the weaving trade. But when the industry fell into decline, the merchant houses were abandoned and Elm Hill soon became a slum. Elm Hill was set for demolition a century ago in 1926, but Norwich Society stepped in and saved it – by one vote – and the street was renovated.

Since its renovation, Elm Hill has been a location for a number of films, including Stardust (2007) and the Netflix film Jingle Jangle (2020). Elm Hill runs from the Church of Saint Peter Hungate, where the top of Elm Hill meets Princes Street, to the Church of Saint Simon and Saint Jude at the bottom of Elm Hill on the corner with Wensum Street. In the Victorian era, Elm Hill was also the location for a real-life ecclesiastical drama that is almost stranger than fiction and characters who are captivating and engaging.

‘Father Ignatius’ built his own church and monastery at 16 Elm Hill in the 1860s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Joseph Leycester Lyne, who was known as Father Ignatius, was a colourful and controversial character in Norwich in the 1860s. A preacher and a mystic, he lived at No 16 Elm Hill, where he built his own church and monastery, but who was forced to flee the city in 1866. He is remembered in Norwich as a keen street preacher who would reputedly curse those who refused to join him in prayer.

Within three years, however, his monastery was closed amid accusations of fraud and allegations of degenerate behaviour and brutality behind closed doors. Shady property deals and rent arrears brought about his eviction and Father Ignatius was hounded out of the city in 1866.

Father Ignatius was born Joseph Leycester Lyne at Trinity Square, in the parish of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, London, on 23 November 1837, four years after the Oxford Movement began. He was the second of seven children of Francis Lyne, a merchant whose father had been Welsh and whose mother was Italian; his mother was Louisa Genevieve (nee Leycester).

He was a fragile child and suffered ill health for most of his life, suffering repeated nervous breakdowns and bouts of what appears to have been nervous exhaustion. At Saint Paul’s School, he suffered a severe beating at the hands of ‘an elderly clerical pedagogue’ that resulted in a nervous breakdown and with the perpetrator being dismissed. He was known to the other boys as ‘saintly Lyne,’ and he became oppressed by a fear of hellfire that haunted him for 30 years until it vanished with a revelation of the saving power of Christ.

As a young man, he came into repeated conflict with his father, who disliked his High Church tendencies. But he was accepted as a theology student at Trinity College in Glenalmond in Scotland in 1856, and it appears his fees were paid by a female admirer after his father refused to find the money.

He left the college because of illness, and later held positions in churches in Scotland. His eccentricity and impatience of discipline during a year’s lay work as catechist in Inverness, brought him into collision with Bishop Robert Eden.

Lyne was ordained deacon in 1860, but with the express condition that he should remain a deacon, and refrain from preaching for three years.

He moved to Plymouth, where he became an unpaid curate to Canon George Rundle Prynne, Vicar of Saint Peter’s, Plymouth, a Tractarian and a friend of Edward Bouverie Pusey. There, Lyne had scruples over his baptism as an infant, and he was conditionally baptised by Prynne and took a vow of perpetual celibacy.

Lyne founded a monastic order he called the Society of the Love of Jesus, and called himself Father Joseph. His behaviour brought him into conflict with the church authorities and with some of the parishioners.

He received sympathy and encouragement from Pusey and Mother Priscilla Sellon, who re-established the religious life for women in the Anglican Communion. Pusey was frightened by his erratic ways, but Mother Priscilla made him his first habit. When this was intercepted and destroyed by his father, she made him a second.

The monument in Norwich Cathedral of Bishop John Thomas Pelham … he refused Father Ignatius a licence to preach and then inhibited him (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

His time in Plymouth ended following another bout of illness. He went to Bruges in Belgium to convalesce, and during that time studied the Rule of Saint Benedict. After his recovery, Lyne spent nine months in 1862 in a poor part of the East End of London, where he assisted Father Charles Lowder at the mission of Saint George-in-the-East. He got to know all the people who lived on the infamous Ratcliff Highway.

He was both fearless and tactless, and once confronted the customers in a rowdy public house in the East End, declaring: ‘We must all appear before the Judgement Seat of Christ.’

By then he was wearing a monk’s habit and that, along with his religious zeal, attracted opposition and support in equal measure. He threw away his chance of ordination to the priesthood by refusing to abandon the unusual habit that he wore on all occasions.

He moved to Claydon, near Ipswich, in 1862, where he established a Benedictine community in an unused wing of the rectory. Lyne was now calling himself Father Ignatius, and with his preaching and proselytising provoked strong local reaction, including threats of violence. Within a few months of arriving in Claydon, the Bishop of Norwich, John Thomas Pelham, refused him a licence to preach and then inhibited him, and the rector asked Father Ignatius to leave.

A plaque at No 14 Elm Hill remembers Father Ignatius and his Benedictine monastery in Norwich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

His next venture was setting up a Benedictine community in a monastery in Norwich l. No 14 Elm Hill was bought for £500 with money raised by Father Ignatius in a speaking tour across England and Wales. A deposit of £50 was paid and the balance was to be paid in small instalments.

The property on Elm Hill was in poor condition and needed much work to make it habitable. The house became known as the Priory of Saint Mary and Saint Dunstan and opened in January 1863. The first residents were Father Ignatius, one of his colleagues and a dog. Money was short and at first they seem to have lived on a diet of bread and potatoes.

Through his preaching, Father Ignatius soon attracted support and the donations kept, fed and clothed him and his colleagues. He also attracted opposition, particularly when he and his supporters processed to special Masses arranged for them on Saint Laurence’s Church on Saint Benedict’s Street, and services at the monastery were often disrupted by protesters.

Miracles were attributed to him in Norwich, including a reported curing of an epileptic, of toothache and insomnia, and the restoration of hair to a young boy. The less benevolent side to these ‘miraculous events’ included the sudden and unexplained death of a woman who allegedly blasphemed Father Ignatius as he passed by in the street.

The Benedictine community in Elm Hill held a procession through Norwich on Ascension Day 1864 followed by a service on Saint Andrew’s Plain and a pilgrimage of 400 people to Saint Walstan’s Well outside Norwich.

Father Ignatius or Joseph Leycester Lyne (1837-1908) set up a Benedictine community in a monastery in Norwich at the end of 1862

Work began on a new church building to accommodate these worshippers and a building known as the Monastery Hall. However, progress soon ground to a halt. Newspaper reports of a ‘Norwich Scandal’ in 1865 spoke of an inappropriate relationship between a novice monk and a young boy in the care of the monastery. James Barrett Hughes, known as Brother Stanislaus, rebelled against Lyne’s authority, and then fled with a boy, Francis George Nobbs, who eventually became known as ‘ex-monk Widdows’.

Both men were charged with of drunkenness and public disorder, and the magistrate heard that when they both lived at Elm Hill Priory they had a sexual relationship.

Two Norwich youths ‘made frightful charges, utterly unfit for publication, against a monk’ who was identified as Brother Augustine.

At times, the priory was surrounded by angry mobs. Police and armed supporters would camp around it. One day he set out for Rome, in search of health, with a quaint retinue that included Brother Philip, Sister Ambrosia who came along to nurse him and a small four-year-old child he had adopted as an oblate to the order.

Part of the monastery buildings behind Elm Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

When Father Ignatius returned to England in 1866, he found his community at Norwich was dispersed and his priory had been put up for sale. Some accounts refer to a flaw in the title deeds, but his ‘official’ biography by Baroness Bertouch calls it fraud. He struggled in vain for 12 years in legal actions and spent his inheritance of £12,000 trying to recover the property.

He also took more direct action, twice taking possession of the building, once gaining access by what he described as ‘miraculous intervention’. But his actions proved fruitless and he was ejected on both occasions.

Dr Pusey invited the broken-down and lonely monk to stay with him in the Isle of Wight. Father Ignatius set up another Benedictine convent in a house at Laleham, near Staines, but the women soon seceded to the Roman Catholic Church.

A caricature of Joseph Leycester Lyne (1837-1908) aka Father Ignatius, in ‘Vanity Fair’ in 1887 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Within three years, Father Ignatius bought land in south Wales in 1869 and built Llanthony Abbey, paid for by his supporters and the proceeds of his speaking tours.

His abbey attracted pilgrims. But he would vanish on preaching tours for months while his monks and nuns were inadequately provided for, spiritually and materially. He was summoned before the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Richard Malins, in 1873 for detaining Richard Alfred Todd, a ward in chancery, as a novice at Llanthony, and was ordered to release the young man.

His difficulties were increased by family quarrels. His father, who had persistently opposed his son’s extreme religious practices, repudiated him altogether after his mother died in 1877, and publicly denounced his conduct and doctrines.

There were claims of an apparition or vision of the Virgin Mary in August and September 1880, and a statue of ‘Our Lady of Llanthony’ was erected in memory of the vision.

Father Ignatius accepted ordination to the priesthood on 27 July 1898 by a wandering Old Catholic bishop, Joseph René Villatte, who described himself as Mar Timotheus, Syrian Archbishop and Metropolitan for the Old Catholics of America. This finally discredited him in the eyes of the Church that denied him the priesthood and ignored his appeals for the sacraments for his followers.

Throughout these years, Father Ignatius retained some support in Norwich and returned to speak on several occasions. He held a mission service at the Agricultural Hall in March 1890, before preaching to ‘a crowded congregation at the Church of St John de Sepulchre’ in Ber Street. His last known public visit to Norwich was in March 1894, when he spoke to ‘a crowded audience’ at the Agricultural Hall.

He died on 16 October 1908, murmuring, ‘Praised be Jesus for ever and ever.’ He was buried in the abbey grounds in Llanthony.

Llanthony Abbey was left to the few remaining monks, subject to the right of an adopted son, William Leycester Lyne. It passed into the hands of the Anglican Benedictine community of Caldey Island in 1911.  At one point, an Anglican priest, Father Richard Courtier-Forster was appointed to succeed Father Ignatius as Abbot, but following the ordination of Father Ignatius’s designated prior, Asaph Harris, by Vilatte, the Abbot-designate resigned and all real hope of regularising the Llanthony Benedictines as an Anglican foundation ended.

Father Asaph Harris lived on until 1960. The Benedictines in Caldey collectively submitted to Rome in 1913 and the Llanthony monastery eventually passed into the hands of Eric Gill, the sculptor and typographer.

The Church of Saint Simon and Saint Jude at the bottom of Elm Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Father Ignatius is little more than a footnote in histories of the Oxford Movement. He has been described as ‘a fool like Saint Francis, a hero like Saint Benedict, a revivalist like Moody, a lover of souls like General Booth, an ascetic like Saint Anthony the hermit, an orator as golden as Lacordaire, but withal a poor theologian, and as simple as a child.’

Norwich Society worked hard to save Elm Hill from the deterioration it had suffered by the 1930s.

Today Elm Hill is a picturesque mixture of private dwellings, offices, shops, restaurants and cafés and its old-worldly character. It is a famous Norwich landmark and features the Briton’s Arms coffee house, the Stranger’s Club, Pettus House (Elm Hill Collectables), the Tea House (in Wright’s Court) and the Dormouse Bookshop.

The buildings of Father Ignatius’s Monastery Hall still stand today, between the Norwich School of Art and Design and the Monastery car park.

The buildings of Father Ignatius’s Monastery Hall still stand today, between the Norwich School of Art and Design and the Monastery car park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
8, 7 April 2024

‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ (1601-1602), Caravaggio, in the Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam

Patrick Comerford

This is the Second Sunday of Easter (Easter II), traditionally known as Low Sunday – perhaps because the liturgical observanceson this Sunday have a much lower pitch than those on Easter Day last Sunday. In the past, this Sunday has also been known as Saint Thomas Sunday, because the Gospel reading recalls the story of ‘Doubting Thomas, and as ‘Quasimodo Sunday’ or Quasimodogeniti.

The name Quasimodo comes from the Latin, quasi modo (‘as if in [this] manner’) and the text of the traditional Introit for this day, which begins: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite, ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus, ‘As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile, Rejoice to God our helper. Sing aloud to the God of Jacob’ (see I Peter 2: 2).

Quasimodo, the poor hunchback who gives his name to the English title of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) was found abandoned on the doorsteps of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on this Sunday in 1467.

Later this morning, I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

Saint Thomas and the Risen Christ depicted in a fresco in a church in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 20: 19-31 (NRSVA):

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27 Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28 Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29 Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Saint Thomas … an icon in the chapel of Saint Columba House retreat centre in Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 7 April 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is the ‘Certificate in Youth Leadership Programme in the West Indies.’ This theme is introduced today by the Right Revd Michael B St J Maxwell, Bishop of the Diocese of Barbados, who writes:

‘The Certificate in Youth Leadership Programme is geared towards equipping youth leaders, and those exploring the call to work with and among youth, with the competencies for youth leadership within the Church in the Province of the West Indies.

‘The course offers modules in the fundamentals of faith and spiritual development; personal and interpersonal development; introduction and approaches to youth ministry; liturgy and creative arts in worship; introduction to Christian Education; and introduction to counselling. The participants in this course will benefit by having their knowledge and skills upgraded, and their confidence and capacity enriched to enable them to function more effectively in their roles as youth leaders.

‘They will also be able to assist the dioceses in the Province to improve the programming for young people and assist local parishes with their youth ministry. The lecturers for the modules will be Caribbean-based academics and experts in the various fields, and will share their knowledge and invite participants to deeply reflect on their known culture and context within their West Indian islands. Arising out of this course, the Province as a whole will benefit from having a bigger pool of high-quality youth leaders for engagement by parochial, diocesan, and provincial structures in shaping and articulating the Province’s priorities, and subsequently developing targeted initiatives in pursuit of these agreed objectives.’

The USPG Prayer Diary today (7 April 2024) invites us to pray:

Almighty Lord,
as Jesus laid down his life for us,
may we devote our lives to you.
Let us rejoice in the promise of a new life.

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God our Father,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
you have assured your children of eternal life
and in baptism have made us one with him:
deliver us from the death of sin
and raise us to new life in your love,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Additional Collect:

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father.

Collect on the Eve of the Annunciation:

We beseech you, O Lord,
pour your grace into our hearts,
that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

‘The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear’ (John 20: 19) … locked doors at Easter in the side streets of Panormos, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org