Acton, Charles Januarius Edward 1803-1847, cardinal, was second son of Sir John Francis Acton [qv.], the sixth baronet, of Aldenham Hall, near Bridgnorth, Shropshire, who became commander-in-chief of the land and sea forces of the kingdom of Naples and prime minister. The father married, by papal dispensation, Mary Anne, daughter of his brother, Joseph Edward Acton, a lieutenant-general in the service of the Two Sicilies, and governor of Gaeta. The family had long been connected with Naples. Charles, born at Naples 6 March 1803, was sent, on the death of his father in 1811, with his elder brother Sir Richard to England for education. First he was placed at a school kept by the abbé Quégné at Parsons Green, near London, from which he was removed to a protestant school at Isleworth. Next he was sent to Westminster School, which he was soon obliged to quit on religious grounds. He subsequently resided with a protestant clergyman in Kent, the Rev. Mr. Jones, as a private pupil. After this, in 1819, he proceeded to the university of Cambridge, and became, under Dr. Neville, an inmate of Magdalene College, where he finished his secular education in 1823. This was indeed, as Cardinal Wiseman observes, a strange preparation for the Roman purple. However, young Acton, having a strong vocation to the ecclesiastical state, entered the college of the Accademia Ecclesiastica in Rome, which he left with the rank of prelate. Leo XII made him one of his chamberlains, and in 1828 appointed him secretary to Monsignor (afterwards Cardinal) Lambruschini, the nuncio at Paris. Shortly afterwards he was nominated vice-legate or governor of Bologna. He was removed, however, from this arduous situation before the revolution which, soon after the death of Pius VIII, broke out there and in the neighbouring provinces. On the accession of Gregory XVI he was made secretary to the congregation entitled the Disciplina Regolare, the duties of which are to prevent and correct all violations or relaxations of discipline in religious communities. Next he was nominated auditor of the apostolic chamber, or first judge of the Roman civil courts, and on 24 Jan. 1842 he was proclaimed cardinal-priest of the title of Santa Maria della Pace. He was also protector of the English college at Rome. Cardinal Acton was the interpreter and only witness of Gregory XVI in the important interview which took place in 1845 between that pontiff and the emperor Nicholas I of Russia. Immediately after the conference the cardinal wrote down, at the pope's request, a minute account of it; but he never allowed it to be seen. Every affair of consequence relating to England and its dependencies was referred by the pope to Cardinal Acton, and to his zeal, previously to his elevation to the sacred college, was mainly due the division of this country (in 1840) into eight catholic districts or vicariates apostolic. Previously there had been only four vicariates created by Innocent XI in 1688; and it may be mentioned that the increase in their number was the prelude to the restoration of the Roman catholic hierarchy by Pius IX in 1850. Cardinal Acton's health, never very strong, began to decline, and he sought refuge first at Palermo and then at Naples, where he died in the Jesuits' convent 23 June 1847.
Catholic Directory (1843), 149 (with portrait)
Card. Wiseman's Recollections of the last four Popes (1858), 475-480
Ferdinando Amarante, Sonnetti dedicati a Miledi Marianna Acton, madre del Cardinale
British Catholicity, its Position and Wants, addressed to Cardinal Acton (Edinb. 1844)
Gent. Mag. N. S. xxviii. 670
Foster's Peerage (1881), 9
Lodge's Genealogy of the Peerage and Baronetage (1859), 592.
Contributor: T. C. [Thompson Cooper]