Born 5 May 1852, the elder son of the then Austrian minister to Tuscany, Friedrich Maria Aloys Franz Karl Freiherr von Hgel came to England when his father retired in 1867. His mother, Elizabeth Farquharson, was a convert to Roman Catholicism and he was brought up in this faith, marrying Mary Catherine Herbert and settling first in Hampstead and then in Kensington. A frequent visitor to Rome, a self taught biblical scholar, with a fluency in French, German and Italian as well as his adopted English, his willingness to consider the possible advantages of new approaches in biblical criticism, allied to a sharp rejection of much of the immanentism in contemporary theology, brought him into contact with a wide group of Catholic scholars who wished to see the Vatican permit a greater degree of freedom of exploration in subjects thus far seen as the exclusive preserve of the dogmatic theologians.
As the influence of historical and scientific methods grew in the academic world and the implications of the new social and psychological sciences impinged on traditional academic disciplines, Roman Catholic scholars in the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the new century began, hesitantly, to propose that their own communion should adopt what was best in the new disciplines to enhance the presentation of their faith to the contemporary world. In this they enjoyed the sympathy of many fellow Christians, not of their communion, who nonetheless sought to sustain them by example, by encouragement and by mutual support. Von Hgel played a central role in this Roman Catholic Modernist movement.
Rome, under the elderly Leo XIII (1878-1903), seemed tolerant of such initiatives, but his successor Pius X (1903-1914), prompted by Cardinal Merry del Val, reacted fiercely, condemning many of the leading figures. In the personal and religious turmoil which followed, von Hgel did much to restrain the impetuous while holding firm to what he considered inalienable truth.
Impressed by the work of Eucken and Troeltsch, von Hgel did much to bring it to the attention of the English speaking world, despite the widespread hostility during and after the First World War to all things German.
A man of prayer, an authority on the great mystical writers, sensitive to the emotional and spiritual burdens of human kind, von Hgel was much sought out as a counsellor, a guide and a spiritual master. He was familiar with suffering, with grief, most especially at the loss of his closest daughter Gertrude, and with the constant toil of spiritual advancement, and it was as much for the loss of these qualities as for his gifts as a scholar that so many mourned at the news of his death on 27 January 1925.