DAVID AUGUSTINE BAKER (1575-1641) was one of the earliest members of the newly restored English Benedictine Congregation. He has three claims on our attention.
* He supervised the link between Sigebert Buckley of Westminster and the old English Congregation and the new English monks from Italy.
* He collected a huge amount of historical material to support the claim (against newer orders) that the conversion of England was from the beginning essentially Benedictine.
* He explored deep into the spiritual world of prayer, teaching many, especially among our nuns, the fruitful realities of the life of prayer. In this his influence is incalculable, and is still with us today. Apart from the language in which it is set out, which is, not unreasonably, a little dated, it is a spirituality which sits well on the more recent columns of the church's inner structure. It grew in the Counter- Reformation world, but has older roots and survives when some of the more enthusiastic accretions of the seventeenth century have largely evaporated.
It is helpful first to be clear about the pattern of his life. His parents were what are known as church-papists, as were many of the survivors of Queen Mary's time. They were so named because although they outwardly conformed, they remained Catholic at heart, and often returned to full practice if a chance arose. He was born as David Baker 9 December 1575 in Abergavenny (since 1858 a Benedictine parish: but people in his childhood would easily remember their parish church when it was the priory church of Benedictine monks).
Baker's father was a lawyer, and young David was trained for the law, and was a very highly thought of in his early practice. He was at Christ's Hospital, then in London, and at Oxford by 1590. He studied law, first with his father and then in the Inner Temple: in 1598 he was made Recorder of Abergavenny. He had by now become almost an atheist, and as morally casual as any of his generation.
But at twenty-five he had what seemed to him a miraculous escape from death when crossing a dangerous bridge, and promised that if there were a Being who could rescue him from this peril he would devote his life to seeking him. He did; so he did. Beginning to suspect that Catholicism held the key, he was received in 1603, and while in London met and assisted with his legal knowledge some of the monks from Italy, including Fr Thomas Preston (who met and looked after Buckley in 1603): with Preston he went to Italy, where Preston had become a monk, and Baker was clothed as a novice in the Abbey of St Justina in Padua on 27 May 1605, Whitsun eve and the day after St Augustine of Canterbury's feast.
Ill health affected him all his life, so that he was able to say that in the end he perceived it as a gift and an advantage, since it prevented him from being involved in active ministry, practical affairs or constant distraction. It meant that he could not finish his novitiate, but was sent back home, which enabled him to supervise his father's return to the faith before he died. He made his profession somewhere in London, but as a monk of the Cassinese (Italian) congregation, not Buckley's: it was before the great link-up was made. Baker was however one of the first to join the renewed English group, and when later there were allocated to particular houses, Baker opted for St Laurence's. effectively, you chose between St Gregory's and St Laurence's: at that time there was no other community.
Instead of going to Dieulouard, however, he retired to a quiet house mission at Cook Hill, Worcestershire, but this was not a success so he returned to London and lived a rather withdrawn life so as to find his way into prayer, but at the same time he made himself useful to those in need of legal help, and the better-off clients enabled him to live. At some point not known, but probably in 1613, he went to Rheims and was there ordained priest. Thus he differed somewhat from the beginning from the other monks in England, since they were priests sent to the Mission as a sort of concession, whereas he initially was trying to be a monk-prayer. His view of things differed from the start: or he is evidence that there was a tradition very early in our history other than the purely missionary.
After a visit to Abergavenny to see his family and settle property, he returned to London, lodging in Grays Inn Lane, a lawyers' district and having many Catholics. It was at this time that he was asked to do much research in archives and libraries to assemble material later used in the book Apostolatus Benedictinorum in Anglia (1625). Though others contributed and his name is not on the title-page, the Bodleian library in Oxford lists David Baker as the author. The general thrust of this work was the large part played by the monks in the original conversion of England.
In 1624 there was an anti-Catholic outburst (when the projected marriage of Prince Charles to the Infanta of Spain collapsed in the last year of James I's reign). Many missioners left England for a time, among them Baker, and while he was at Douai he was asked to go and help to teach the nuns at the new convent just started at Cambrai, which is now Stanbrook. He was there for nine years, and this was the most fruitful period of his life, not only in benefit to nuns (and monks) but also in the production of written guidance for others. His own prayer life at this time was not on a very high level, or at least not taking a lot of his time, and writing about it may have been in part a substitute spiritual activity. It was certainly rich in effect.
However, Baker was no exception to the rule that, if you do something good in the church, there will shortly come along someone giving good and holy reasons why things should not be done thus, and there were complaints, certainly to some extent the product of unhappiness at many nuns gathering round one director rather than another: the problem is a perennial one in all communities. After much searching, learned men pronounced his doctrine orthodox, but for peace he was asked to return to Douai. Here something similar happened, but after about five years Baker was indiscreet in allowing his annoyance at others' criticisms to overflow into barely concealed polemics, and the President had little choice but to move him. He was sent to London again, although he was not well. This was considered at the time a bit harsh, but everyone was impressed with his obedience in simply going and settling down to a few years of rather harassed recusant life in central London. On one occasion passers- by stopped the pursuivants arresting him in a house where he was, asking them what they would have there, in a house where nobody did live nor durst (the plague being suspected of having been lately in the house) but one poor woman, who was at that time gone abroad [Prichard 284] He died on 9 August 1641, and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's, Holborn. (Presumably he now lies somewhere under Holborn Viaduct)
M A I N D A T E S
1575 – Born, Abergavenny, Wales; brought up as Protestant
1590 – Oxford; then law in London (Inner Temple)
1598 – Recorder of Abergavenny
1600 – Experienced escape from death on a bridge
1603 – Became Catholic
1605 – Became monk at St Justina, Padua (Italy)
1606 – Seriously ill after some months: returned to England before profession
1607 – Took vows London, with English monks of the Italian Congregation
1613 – Ordained priest at Rheims
1613-24 – Missioner in England, then collecting historical material which edited by CLement Reyner) formed Apostolatus Benedictinorum in Anglia (1626)
1624-33 – Cambrai (NE France) with the English Benedictine nuns
1633-38 – At Douai, St Gregory's
1638 – Returned to English Mission
1641 – Died in London (9 August). Buried in Holborn, London (St Andrew'
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