Thursday, August 16, 2007

Catholic and Protestant Sussex

I don’t like to assume too freely that providence is on my side, but the arrival of the St Catherine’s Trust Summer School in Sussex, south of London, two years ago goes beyond ordinary serendipity. Having managed to book a venue in Somerset thanks to a cancellation in 2005 for our first Summer School, we were back at the drawing board for 2006, since the first venue couldn’t accommodate us again. English Schools who let out space in the Summer holidays get booked year after year by the same clients, mostly language schools, so breaking in is not easy.

We ended up, by sheer chance, in a remarkable High Anglican establishment, with an enormous Chapel and breathtaking views, in Sussex. And as chance would have it, this place is a short drive from the diocesan Shrine, Our Lady of West Grinstead, the guardian of which, Fr David Goddard, a convert Anglican clergyman, is the father the FSSP seminarian, Matthew Goddard, who joined our staff that year. (Goddard father (centre) and son (left) are pictured, with our Chaplain Fr Andrew Southwell (right).) Now, how likely was that? Naturally, we have made a visit to this shrine an annual event.

Sussex was one of those English counties which until that year I simply did not know. It was the long-term home of Hillaire Belloc, where he fulfilled his desire to grow old:

A lost thing could I never find,
Nor a broken thing mend:
And I fear I shall be all alone
When I get towards the end.
Who will there be to comfort me
Or who will be my friend?

I will gather and carefully make my friends
Of the men of the Sussex Weald;
They watch the stars from silent folds,
They stiffly plough the field.
By them and the God of the South Country
My poor soul shall be healed.

Belloc is buried in the graveyard at West Grinstead (see picture), which was an important ‘safe house’ for Catholic priests in penal times, and became the first church in England to have a solemnly crowned statue of Our Lady, when the present fine church was built and it was established as a shrine. So in addition to the Shrine of ‘Our Lady of Consolation’, a title established in Turin, Fr Goddard looks after a ‘Secret Chapel’ (see picture), once concealed in a hay loft, and a number of relics of the English martyrs, including a letter written by Blessed Francis Bell, before his capture and execution in 1643.

The other famous, or infamous, fact about Sussex’s religious history, is that the town of Lewes keeps up the tradition of burning an effigy of the Pope on November 5th. Since Lewes is also a short distance from our Summer School, we made a visit there this year as well, and I thought I’d better read up about the place. The Lewes Pope-burners will tell you, with some pride, that Lewes was the scene of no fewer than seventeen executions of Protestants under Queen Mary Tudor. (Or rather, as they would say, ‘Bloody Mary’).

The reason so many were burnt there is not easy to reconstruct, but there does seem to have been greater enthusiasm for the religious changes under the previous reigns in the area, than in many parts of England. (Oxford, naturally, was staunchly opposed!) This in turn may have been related to a legal peculiarity: although Lewes is well inside the diocese of Chichester, a swathe of Sussex, including part of the outskirts of Lewes, had been given to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was known as the Archbishop’s ‘Peculiar’. So by crossing the bridge, in Lewes, it was possible to leave the jurisdiction of Chichester and enter that of Canterbury, a fact which may have made the place popular with Lollards trying to escape the authorities of either diocese in the fifteenth Century.

The enthusiasm of hard-core Protestants for the holy men of past centuries, like the enthusiasm of evangelicals for miracles, is an historically recent phenomenon. Alongside the Reformation polemic against ‘feigned miracles’, there was an attack on the cult of saints, especially non-Biblical saints. A Protestant worthy of the name may admire and imitate his predecessors, but he can’t ask them to pray for him, think that God will grant favours to those who keep alive their memory, or regard the place of their death—or any other place—as one to be especially honoured. But, somehow, the cult of the martyrs has crept into the Protestants of Lewes, the most extreme of whom have joined Ian Paisley’s form of Presbyterianism, and who remember the Protestants of Queen Mary’s time by burning Pope Paul IV in effigy.

This tradition does not date back to the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558, or the ill-fated attempt by some hair-brained Catholic desperados (encouraged by some very sane Government agents) to blow up Parliament on 5th November 1605, but only to 1850. And although the restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in that year inflamed the passions of many Protestants, Catholics were still almost invisible in Lewes at that time. The greatest irritant to the ‘Bonfire Boys’ was High Anglicanism, exemplified by the very establishment which provides our Summer School venue, Ardingly College, which was founded in 1858. (See picture of the college chapel.)

A particular victim of their ire was the Anglican hymn-writer John Mason Neale. Neale’s daughter had joined a nearby Anglican order of nuns, and died young, and Neale and his remaining children organised an elaborate High Church funeral for her in Lewes. The enraged local populace not only brought proceedings to a halt and flung Neale into the gutter, but besieged the funeral party in a public house for more than an hour. Neale eventually escaped over a garden wall.

The more I read about the religious history of Lewes, in a fascinating book called ‘Burn Holy Fire’, the more it seems to be a series of persecutions, mostly of one form of Protestantism by another. After Queen Mary died, Lewes was in the grip of Calvinists so strict that the they routinely left out parts of the Book of Common Prayer, much to the distress of some of their flocks. Having rejected Romish vestments, ministers refused to wear even a surplice. Having rejected Romish ritual, they refused to make the sign of the cross, even once, at baptisms. Under James I and Charles I this got clergy and like-minded laity into trouble—a man was prosecuted for wearing a hat in church on Easter day; a woman for eating ‘the Sacrament’ with a piece of cheese. Communion tables in the naves were moved back to the East end wall, and altar rails were installed to keep dogs out of the sanctuary. In 1642, when the town passed into the hands of the Parliamentarians in the Civil War, the chief High Churchman of the place, Anthony Hugget, Rector of Cliffe, had to flee and hide under a bed, to escape the townsmen’s retribution. But Quakers continued to disrupt the services of any denomination so under the spell of Popery as to use what might be thought of as a consecrated church (‘spire houses’); and the local ‘Independents’ returned the favour by breaking up a Quaker meeting with pikes and guns.

Huggett’s church in Cliffe, Lewes, St Thomas a Beckett, is still a bastion of the High Anglican tradition, and the Cliffe Bonfire Society still carry on their annual celebrations, and Catholics still find succour at West Grinstead down the road, as has been the case for four centuries. Sussex is indeed a good place for a history lesson.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: