Dear fellow travellers
Christmas 1816 was an uncertain time in the Newman household in London. John Newman had endured a terrible year. The bank with which he had worked for years had folded in the spring - financial crises and bank failures, you'll observe, are nothing new. So his family had lost a measure of financial security. John Newman was now managing a brewery. John and his wife had six children, of whom the eldest was a son, John Henry, who was born in 1801.
John Henry was 15 years old at Christmas 1816, and life was looking good for the young man. The fact that he was at boarding school in Ealing had given him an escape from the turmoil and anxiety of life at home over the preceding months. He had thought a lot and had over the autumn experienced a dramatic conversion to radical Calvinism, the unlikely first step in a remarkable religious pilgrimage which was to culminate almost three decades later with Newman being received into the Roman Catholic Church.
One day, a learned and able writer will surely pen a spiritual geography of England, looking at the relationship between faith and landscape in that country. It is a book that just waits to be written. The story of John Henry Newman should figure centrally in that volume, for his extraordinary biography captures something of the English spirit. And no city more precisely captures the story of religion in England than Oxford.
Just prior to Christmas 1816, John Henry Newman had made his first visit to Oxford. On 14 December 1816, he met with the President of Trinity College who admitted Newman on the understanding that he would only take up his studies the following summer (and even then Newman was still very much younger than most undergraduates). That December 1816 visit to Oxford marked the start of an engagement by Newman with the university city which turned out to be exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure. Who ever could have foreseen in December 1816 that this newcomer to Trinity would ferment such turmoil in the university and the entire Anglican Church?
It was not just the Newman family who had mixed feelings about 1816. More widely across Europe, and beyond, there had been crop failures and financial crises. Food prices had risen sharply. Today, with the benefit of a better understanding of climatology, many scientists blame the sunless and cool summer of 1816 on the eruption the previous year of Mount Tambora in the East Indies. That eruption threw vast quantities of dust and ash into the atmosphere. No other eruption in the last 200 years has come close to matching the Mount Tambora event in its explosive energy.
Writers and artists had revelled in 1816 in a new-found freedom to travel across Europe in the post-Napoleonic order - think of Byron and Turner, both of whose travels we have written about in recent months in Letter from Europe. So there was much to be pleased about, even if majority opinion saw 1816 as an annus horribilis, the passing of which few would have mourned.
Two hundred years on, the ripples of Newman's faith still inflect thinking about religion and identity in England and more widely. Two hundred years on, there are still bank failures and worries about harvests and food security. Uncertainty and worry are often framed as very modern pieties, yet it is too easy to forget that past Christmases were often laced with very real fears about what the future might hold.
Whatever your frame of mind this Christmas, we wish you well. Thank you for reading Letter from Europe over the past months. Whatever your faith or station in life, enjoy the holiday.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)