Archives sometimes contain unusual and unconventional things, which – precisely because they are unusual – can be difficult to categorise and house. A lock of hair, preserved in the archive of Trinity College, Oxford, offers a prime example of just such an object and of the remarkable challenges that unconventional items of this kind can pose.
The hair was found when reordering and rehousing Trinity’s archive in the 1980s. It was in a modern envelope, wrapped in an older sheet of paper bearing the following inscription: “Cardinal Newman’s hair obtained by me in 1875, Charles Henry Poole”. It is a mystery how exactly the hair entered the Trinity archive, nor indeed can it be established beyond doubt how Mr Poole obtained this precious lock – although he almost certainly asked Newman for it, after receiving a kind letter from the cardinal in response to a poem that Poole had sent him (this letter is also in Trinity archive).
Newman had been an undergraduate at Trinity (1816–19), a time he expressed great affection for in later life. On leaving the college, he became a highly influential Anglican priest and academic within the wider university, prominent in the high-church “Oxford Movement”, before converting to Roman Catholicism in 1845, to the scandal of his former Anglican friends. In his life as a Catholic he served as a cardinal, as a strong defender of Catholicism in Britain, and as a major spiritual writer. He died, respected and revered, in 1890.
Newman’s hair reposed undisturbed in Trinity archive for many decades, as “memorabilia”– the kind of curiosity that no-one was particularly interested in, but which archivists are expected to house. After all, where else would the College keep it?
Five years ago, all of this changed. The then pope, Benedict XVI, had made it clear that he intended to “beatify” Newman – raising him to the status of the “Blessed” John Henry Newman, one step below canonisation and full sainthood – and intimating that this was likely to happen during the papal visit to Britain in 2010. In March 2009 Cardinal George Pell visited Trinity, and was shown the hair, along with some important possessions and letters of John Henry Newman, also held in the archive (for instance, his first prayer book and his parents’ family bible). One of the Cardinal’s party was Father Paul Chavasse, Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, who was wearing, as his other hat, that of Newman’s postulator (the Church official deputed to prepare and present the cause for canonisation). We noticed that our lock of hair was viewed with deeper reverence, not to say a greater degree of excitement, than was merited by mere “memorabilia” – it was becoming a holy “relic”.
This transformation was confirmed by the news of the discovery made in Birmingham on 2 October 2008, when Newman’s grave had been opened, in order to move his bones to a more venerable site within the church of the Birmingham Oratory. No bones were left. Trinity’s hair, from being a relatively minor corporeal relic, had become one of the few bodily remains of the cardinal that have survived.
What to do with it? Leaving the hair in a brown envelope in the archive would have been disrespectful to those who saw it as a holy relic; but Trinity is not a Catholic institution (though it was founded as one). In the end a satisfactory compromise solution was reached – the hair was deposited on long-term loan at the Oxford Oratory, and the Oratory commissioned a splendid silver reliquary in which to display it to the faithful: the hair is still Trinity’s; the reliquary is the Oratory’s. Having shaken off its paper housing, and replaced it with silver, our lock of hair now resides with other relics in the Oxford Oratory. On 19 September 2010, it featured prominently at the solemn beatification of John Henry Newman, carried out in Birmingham by Benedict XVI. Its transformation from memorabilia to relic was complete.
Bryan Ward-Perkins is a Fellow in History at Trinity College, Oxford and Director of the university’s Ertegun Graduate Programme.