Visitors to Dorset’s historic Lulworth Castle should look out for one painting in particular hanging on a wall. The work of Cornelius Jansen, the picture is especially significant, for it is a portrait of the man who saw the building of the castle to its completion: the second Sir Humphrey Weld, Governor of Portland. Two generations later Lulworth was in the possession of Humphrey’s grandson, Thomas Weld the elder, who in 1786 was responsible for the first freestanding post-Reformation Catholic chapel to be built in England, within the grounds of the castle. However, it was his son, also called Thomas, who was to leave his own outstanding mark upon the estate – and upon the Catholic cause. This Thomas is the subject of this summary biography.
Something should be mentioned at this point of the condition of church and state in the realm at the time. The England of the 18th century, into which the younger Thomas was born, had not long begun to emerge from a Protestant supremacy in which Catholics could not hold or inherit property, vote at elections, or take an oath of Allegiance to the Crown. The Test Acts, which enforced these privations upon dissenters, were repealed by an Act in 1729, and in 1791 the Catholic Relief Act was passed, though it would be another 38 years before full emancipation was achieved. The Welds appear to have been an influential part of 17th and 18th century aristocracy with family or property associations in other counties, particularly Berkshire and Staffordshire, before acquiring their entail in Dorset.
The younger Thomas Weld was born in January 1773, not in Dorset but London, where his parents were staying, apparently for the occasion of the birth. His paternal grandparents were Sir Edward Weld and Mary Theresia Vaughan, while his mother was Mary Massey, a daughter of the Massey-Stanley family of Hooton Hall at Puddington, Cheshire. Young Thomas was one of six children but as he was the eldest son the estate would revert to him upon his father’s death.
When Thomas was only three years old in 1776 his father inherited the Lulworth estate upon the death of his elder brother Edward, eventually taking up his residence at the castle in July of that year. Within two weeks Thomas senior had employed contractors to transform the castle into a grand 18th century country house.
Together with his younger brothers Thomas was educated by a Jesuit tutor employed at Lulworth. However, he would remain at home for longer than either his father or uncle, but is thought likely to have rounded off his education studying for a year at the Jesuit Academy in Liege. But France was then convulsed by the Revolution, and so because of the danger Thomas was not able to travel freely around Europe.
When Thomas came of age at 21 his proud father was prompted to write, in a letter to Bishop Walmsley, that his heir”…was all that one could wish for in a son…”. Generous, creative, and kind, Thomas developed keen interests in art and music, learning the cello, French horn and flageolet and filling sketchbooks with pencil drawings of scenes from life and nature. Indeed, in one early portrait he is portrayed with sketchbook and pencil in hand.
That same year, 1794, a company of Trappist monks, having already fled the French Revolution were invited to Lulworth and resettled in a small house near the castle. Them move was part of an ambitious plan by the elder Thomas Weld to build a small cob-walled monastery on the estate for the monks, though this was intended to be just an interim measure towards a plan to restore and re-consecrate the ‘dissolved’ Cistercian Abbey at nearby Bindon. The Order was originally designated the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, though for a reason not clear this was later altered to St. Susan. This event, possibly more than any other, may have winged young Thomas’s faith. And determined that he should study for the priesthood.
But within the next two years, another development arose in Thomas’s life that would normally have been irreconcilable for one in hold orders. He had fallen in love with Lucy Clifford of Tixall and in 1796 they married. The time would come when Thomas’s infringement of the Church’s vow of celibacy would earn him the title “Cardinal of the Seven Sacraments,” though by the time he reached that exalted position he was a widower. For the next 14 years the Weld’s had a home – Westbrook House – at Upwey, where their daughter Mary Lucy was born in 1799. Here, Thomas and Lucy could pursue their interests of music and regular visits to London and Paris, though Thomas, in the company of Bishop Milner, also attended the consecration of the new cathedral in Cork in 1808.
In 1810 Thomas senior died from a stroke following a year of declining health. This event brought a greater burden of responsibility on his eldest son. Thomas the elder was a wealthy man who had left his affairs in good order, but his younger sons were not so financially responsible. Thomas found himself having to pay off his younger brother’s debts and provide a jointure for his mother. This came at a time when rising bread prices and depreciating land values due to the recession in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars affected the Weld fortune as it affected everyone else’s. The Welds moved to a more modest residence in the resort of Clifton, and Thomas closed Lulworth Castle for about three years. With his three younger brothers Thomas became a subscribing member of the Catholic Board in 1812.
But in the Waterloo year of 1815 Lucy Weld fell ill and died. To support her grief-stricken brother-in-law Lucy’s Sister Constatia Clifford took her place as a surrogate mother to care for Mary Lucy until she came of age or married. Thomas then came under pressure from the Church authorities to close the provisional monastery at Lulworth, and eventually the St. Susan’s monks were repatriated in 1817. Mary Lucy, Thomas’s daughter, married Hugh, son of the 6th Lord Clifford in 1818. Soon after Thomas sold the Clifton home, finally leaving to study for ordination under the Abbe Carron at a seminary in Paris.
From then on, Thomas Weld’s rise through the Catholic hierarchy was steady and sure. After three years he was bestowed with minor orders from the Archbishop of Chartres, being ordained Priest and returning to England in 1821. Back home his first appointments were at the Chelsea Chapel and as assistant Priest at St Mary’s in Cadogan Street. During this time Lulworth was being managed through his agent, Thomas Billet who sub-let the castle three times: to a Mr Baring in 1817, to Robert Peel in 1820 and the Duke of Gloucester in 1824.
In 1826 Thomas Weld was consecrated as Bishop of Lower Canada, although he remained based in London as Co-adjutor to Bishop MacDonell of Upper Canada. Two years later he signed over Lulworth Castle to his younger brother Joseph, who was noted for his standing in the yachting world. By this time, however, through his daughter the Bishop had six grandchildren.
The Duke of Wellington managed to pass the Catholic Emancipation Bill in 1829, and proposed that Thomas should be appointed Bishop of Waterford. But the Duke was over-ruled by the Vatican, which instead conferred upon him the first Cardinal’s Hat any Englishman had worn since the Reformation and summoned Bishop Weld to Rome, for which he departed with his family. Once there, Thomas was made Priest-Cardinal of San Marcello in 1830.
But in 1831 Hugh Clifford’s father and Mary Lucy died within a few weeks of each other. Hugh then succeeded to the title but returned to England only briefly before re-joining his father-in-law in Rome. The Cardinal had been much attached to his only child, as he would now be to his grandchildren, and is said to have taken one with him whenever he left Rome.
Little is known about Cardinal Weld’s affairs in Rome after 1831. He would have presided over commissions, and his great friend Cardinal Wiseman considered him a business-like chairman. Thomas made his will in 1828. The winter of 1837 was a severe one and led to the Cardinal contracting bronchitis, and after twenty years as a senior cleric in the Roman Church, he died.
There is however, a touching little addendum to this story. One of the Cardinal’s present living descendants, Sally, was clearing out an attic in the castle house in 2003, when she discovered a Harrods hatbox bearing a label reading: “Cardinal’s Robes.” The robes have been placed on display in St. Mary Chapel in the Castle grounds – the church the Cardinal’s father built.