In a quiet Sussex churchyard near the South Downs, a weather-beaten stone cross bears a faded inscription: “Caroline, wife of Henry Edward Manning”. To the right, along the flint boundary wall, the small red-tiled church of St Peter’s stands on a low embankment, overlooked by a Georgian mansion, now part of Seaford College.

When an exhibition on Cardinal Manning was staged this March at the Jesuit Farm Street Church in London, the fate of his wife was acknowledged in an opening address by Fr Nicholas Schofield, archivist of Westminster archdiocese.

Even today, however, this tragic aspect of Manning’s life remains little known. The cardinal’s love for Caroline offers us, as the late historian Owen Chadwick once told me, a reminder of the “softer side of history”. But it may also, in crucial ways, have influenced Manning’s thinking as a Church leader.

Caroline was the fourth of seven children of the Rev John Sargent, a Cambridge University Fellow who was Anglican rector of Lavington in the early 19th century. A contemporary described the Sargent daughters as having “beauty of no ordinary kind”.

Manning and Caroline became engaged in April 1833, when Manning, then an Anglican, arrived as a curate shortly after his ordination. By the time they were married at St Peter’s that November – by Samuel Wilberforce, son of the great abolitionist, and Caroline’s brother-in-law – Manning had taken over the parish after John Sargent’s sudden death.

Evidence suggests that the union was blissfully happy. But it was also tragically short. By early 1837, the frail Caroline was stricken with “consumption”, or pulmonary TB, a Sargent family weakness.

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