In 1843, Christina Rossetti, along with her sister and mother, began attending the newly established Christ Church, on Albany Street in London. This was an active high Anglican church and was considered the leading church of the Tractarian movement. With an emphasis on the importance of ritual and ceremony, it followed the celebration of festivals included in the Book of Common Prayer and drew attention to the sacraments.

Tractarianism, or the Oxford Movement, was an affiliation of high church Anglicans who wanted to re-invigorate the church by aligning it with the model of Church created in the first few centuries following Christ's crucifixion and ascension. The name Tractarianism comes from the series, Tracts for the Times that the leaders of the group, including John Keble and Edward Pusey, published between 1833 and 1841.

Typically, high church Anglicans or Tractarians put a great stress on:

  • Ritual in worship
  • Observing the seasons of the church year
  • Saints' days
  • Ornate robes worn by the clergy and choir
  • Candles, incense and other aesthetic considerations.

John Henry Newman

John Henry NewmanThroughout the 1820s, 1830s and early 1840s, John Henry Newman served as an Anglican preacher. He emphasised the significance of the early church Fathers. As he was such a prominent figure in the Church of England it came as a shock to many when he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845.

Rossetti wrote a sonnet about Newman following his death in 1890. She remembers him as a ‘weary Champion of the Cross' who ‘Chose love not in the shallows but the deep' (Cardinal Newman, lines 1, 6). Bearing in mind that she continued to honour him as a ‘Champion' in spite of his conversion to Roman Catholicism, suggests that she considered him, like herself, a pilgrim in search of the true church.

Convent life

In 1845, the first Anglican convent since the Reformation was established, in the parish of Christ Church where Rossetti worshipped each week. Since they were prohibited from entering full time ministry in the Church, many nineteenth-century women wished to devote their entire lives to God in other ways. The first Anglican convents that were established encouraged the nuns who entered to take part in work in the community with children, the poor and the sick.

Women chose to become nuns because they wished to dedicate their lives to God. When many roles in the church were denied to them because of their gender, becoming a nun was one way in which a woman could remain single, serve the community and belong to a larger, positive and affirming female network. However, because they adopted Roman Catholic customs and practices, early Anglican convents received a lot of ridicule from the Victorian public. It was believed by many that the convents were a threat to a male-run society and suspicion of Roman Catholicism was widespread.

Rossetti's depiction of nuns

Rossetti includes the figure of a nun in several of her poems and contemplates the benefits of the cloistered life. In 1873, her sister Maria joined the nearby convent of All Saints and Rossetti herself became closely involved with this order. It was an active order which emphasised the importance of education and helping the downtrodden.

In her ‘convent poems', Rossetti repeatedly depicts the contemplative rather than the active life of nuns. She articulates their spiritual struggles and their understanding of their own identity as being a part of the Bride of Christ.

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