Robert Francis Wilberforce


It was through his brother-in-law, Louis Bancel Warren, that I got to know Robert Francis Wilberforce (1887–1988), and none too soon, for he was closing in on his 100th birthday – a genetic habit of the family, . . .

Henry William Wilberforce

. . . for his mother died in her 100th year, and his father was 91 in a time of rudimentary medicine. Louis and his sister were descendants of the American Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler; and in Oxford at Balliol, Louis had become fast friends with Robert (generally known as "Bath Bob" because of his association with that ancient spa, the Anglo-Saxon Venice).

Bath Bob married Hope Elizabeth Warren, author of a book on Persian rugs, of which she had many, three days after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the change of the world. During the Great War he worked with the War Trade Intelligence Department and was an attaché of His Majesty"s Legation to the Holy See. As a prominent English Catholic he tried hard to convince the Vatican that Catholicism in England was not an exotic orchid, while also representing to the Crown that the armada and Gunpowder Plot were long past. He wrote from Rome in 1918 to the novelist Shane Leslie: "Great changes have taken place here during the last year in views and prejudices at headquarters. The realization of the Anglo-Saxon element in Catholicism and its loyalty to the Holy See is growing strong. Everyone is looking West now… ."

He was a great-grandson of the "Liberator," William Wilberforce. In 1814 Madame de Staël was surprised that "the most religious man in England" was also "the wittiest man in England," and Bath Bob inherited much of that spark. The family was of Wilberfoss in Yorkshire, tracing itself to the Saxon Ulgar of Eggleston, whose father fought in 1066 at Stanford Bridge. Grandfather Henry became a Catholic as an unanticipated consequence of the Oxford Movement and edited the Catholic Standard. He had married a sister of Emily Sargent, wife of the Anglican bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. "Soapy Sam" was famous for his frail debate with Huxley on Darwinism. Yet another daughter of the Rev. John Sargent of Lavington was married to an Anglican archdeacon later known as Cardinal Manning, and so Bath Bob liked to say that he was the cardinal"s great-nephew. Bob"s grandfather Henry and another great-uncle, Robert, had been close friends of Newman at Oriel College where Newman told Henry that "there is no medium between Pantheism and the Church of Rome." His grandson told me that during a typhoid epidemic Henry and his wife nursed dying immigrant Irish hops pickers, and his grandfather was sure that their final blessings had greased his slide into Catholicism.

After the Great War, Bob directed the British Library of Information in New York, undertook several diplomatic missions, and became a barrister-at-law in the Inner Temple. As his branch of Wilberforces reveled in the ancient Faith, his father studied at the Oratory School under Newman and at Stonyhurst. Before going on to Balliol, Bob was educated in turn at Beaumont College in Old Windsor. Years before that, while not yet three years old, his father took him to see John Henry Cardinal Newman, months before the cardinal"s final illness in 1890. "At so early an age I did not appreciate the significance of the man, but I remember him arriving in a carriage and being helped up the steps, all in red." The priest assisting him was Father Neville, and I have a volume of Verses on Various Occasions inscribed by Newman to him. But in Bath Bob I knew probably the last living person actually to have heard the Voice that Matthew Arnold remembered "breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were religious music — subtle, sweet, mournful… ."



Father George William Rutler. "Robert Francis Wilberforce." excerpt from Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (New York: Scepter Publishers Inc., 2010): 104-106.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Scepter Publishers Inc.

This article appeared first as one of the "Cloud of Witnesses" columns Father Rutler wrote for Crisis. It is included in his book, Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive.


Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Born in 1945 and reared in the Episcopal tradition, Father Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1979 and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. Father Rutler graduated from Dartmouth, where he was a Rufus Choate Scholar, and took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1989 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Cardinal Egan appointed him Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, effective September 17, 2001.

Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has published 17 books, including: Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2010 Father George W. Rutler

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