J&F 100: A fine friend

Maurice Whitehead of the University of Wales, remembers Thomas Weld of Lulworth and the restoration of the English Jesuits.

Since the arrival of the first Jesuits in the British Isles in the 1580s, the support of lay friends of  the   Society  has  been crucial in the success of missionary and educational activity. Thomas Weld (l 750-18 l 0) of Lulworth Castle, Dorset, must surely rank as one of the most significant lay friends of the Province.

At the age of nine Thomas Weld was sent to the English Jesuit preparatory school at Watten, near St Omers and was there at the time of the famous 'long walk' of the scholars and masters of St Omers to Bruges in 1762 when all Jesuits were expelled from northern France. 
Thomas continued his education at Bruges and at the age of 15, was sent to the college of the French Jesuits at Pont­ a-Mousson in the Duchy of Lorraine. Founded in 1574, less than 20 years after the death of St Ignatius Loyola, the university and the college at Pont-a –Mousson, which was also the headquarters of the Champagne Province of the Jesuits, was situated in a magnificent location on the banks of the Moselle. A truly international educational foundation, its first rector had been the famous Scots Jesuit, Edmund Hay (+1594).
Thomas Weld quickly became absorbed in his new environment. The heart of the college and university was the quickly became absorbed in his new environment. The heart of the college and university was the quickly became absorbed in his new environment. The heart of the college and university was the Salle des Actes, a grand assembly hall with tiered seating where many performances and prize-giving ceremonies were held.  Behind the large collegiate church stood a monumental library, a real symbol of the seriousness given to education al learning at Pont-a -Mousson. The vitality of the Jesuit presence was enhanced in the 1760s by the visibility of some forty young Jesuit scholastics who studied alongside their lay counterparts.

The Jesuit community was a particularly distinguished and talented one

During Thomas's time there the Jesuit community was a particularly distinguished and talented one.  Jean-Nicholas Grou (1731-1803) the professor of Greek, was one of Thomas’s masters. As well as  becoming a distinguished figure In the history of Jesuit spirituality, Grou became a lifelong friend of Th omas Weld, ending his days at Lulworth, where he wrote some of his finest work .

Jean-Nicolas Beauregard, (l733-1804), who was at Pont-a-Mousson in 1767 and 1768, was one of the foremost preachers of eighteenth century France, eventually becoming court preacher to Louis XVI at Versa illes. Two other members of the Pont-a –Mousson community, Francois Bourgeois and Jean-Paul Louis Collas, a professor of mathematlcs at the college, were both posted to China around 1767,  Bourgeois ending his days as superior of the French Jesuit mission in Peking, and Collas dying as court mathematician at the imperial Palace in Peking in 1781. Contact with  these  impressive men left an indelible mark on the young Thomas Weld.

Isolated from his family. Thomas began to lose his fluency in English. In 1768, at the end of his first year studying ' phylosophy', he wrote home, proudly announcing that he had graduated at a “Batchelor of Arts” (sic).

However, the storm clouds were again gathering  for the Society of Jesus and, in the summer of 1768, after 194 years of existence at Pont-a-Mousson, the Jesuits were expelled from Lorraine by the French authorities.

Thomas Weld next fled to Colmar in Alsace, where he entered his second year of philosophy at the College Royal. The Society of Jesus had been suppressed in Alsace four years earlier and the college, now under the jurisdiction of the local bishop, was staffed by a number of ex­Jesuit professors. Under their tutelage, Thomas continued his studies, as well as further developing his musical talents on the harpsichord. By the summer of l769, with eleven years of education in continental Europe behind him, the nineteen-year­ old Thomas was a mature and accomplished young man, ready to return home and take his place in British society.

In 1772 Thomas Weld married Mary, daughter of Sir John Massey Stanley of Hooton Hall, Cheshire, and their first child, Thomas, the future cardinal, was born in 1773: fourteen more children of the marriage were to follow.  On the sudden death of hs brother Edward in 1775, Thomas inherited all the Weld estates, including Lulworth in Dorset and Stonyhurst in Lancashire. Still aged only 25, he was now an exceedingly wealthy young man.

Thomas was saddened in 1773 suppression of the Society at the hands of Pope Clement XIV, and was outraged by particularly savage and vindictive manner in which the English Jesuits were treated when their two colleges in Bruges were closed. He was, however, determined to provide his own children with the best education he could manage. In the early l790s, Thomas and Mary went to live in Liege, sending their sons to the English Academy there, the lineal successor to the English Jesuit colleges of St Omers and Bruges and the only educational institution in the world to have survived the suppression of 1773 exclusively in the hands of ex­ Jesuits.

One of the most extraordinary phenomena in British educational history

Early in 1794, Thomas Weld mooted with Fr Marmaduke Stone, president of the Liege Academy, the possibility of that institution migrating to his Lancashire seat at Stonyhurst, which had itself been served by Jesuit chaplains for generations. In July 1794, as the French revolutionary armies marched on Liege, the English ex-Jesuits and their students had no option but to flee from the Academy and head for Stonyhurst. Despite all their privations en route to England, they survived the ordeals of their forced migration and classes began again at Stonyhurst in September 1794. The unbroken continuity of the educational work of the English Jesuits from 1593 down to the present day, via St Omers, Bruges, Liege and Stonyhurst, in the face of repeated adversity and the almost total loss of their possessions in 1762, 1773, and again in 1794, must constitute one of the most extraordinary phenomena in British educational history.

The role of Thomas Weld in assuring that continuity is significant. By allowing the new foundation at Stonyhurst, Thomas Weld provided a springboard for the long hoped­ for restoration of the English Province of the Society of Jesus and for an eventual expansion of English Jesuit education. The new enterprise at Stonyhurst in 1794 was no less than an embryonic English equivalent of the College and University at Pont-a-Mousson, by then suppressed and destroyed.  The most important moments of Thomas Weld's educational experience as a young man had taken place in the presence of the entire educational community at Pont-a-Mousson in the Salle des Actes of the university and college.

Appropriately, his last public appearance was on a visit to Stonyhurst, at a major celebration in his very own Salle des Actes, the main hall of the ancient collegium - the oldest in the English-speaking world - which he had newly re-founded. It took place in the presence of
his sons, the 187 scholars then in attendance and the whole Jesuit community, with Thomas Weld singing his favourite song for their entertainment but collapsing at the end of it and dying shortly thereafter.  Fittingly for a man of such lifelong devotion to the Society of Jesus, the date of his death was 31st July 1810, the feast day of St Ignatius Loyola.