Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Catholic Houses in Oxfordshire

One of the features of Catholicism in Oxfordshire, as in many parts of England, is the role of the Catholic gentry in sustaining the Church through the long years between the death of Queen Mary Tudor and the final lifting of the penal laws. Astonishingly, although the hierarchy was re-established in 1850, so we had bishops and dioceses, formal parishes were not set up until after the First World War. Until then, the sacramental life of the Church was maintained through 'mission' churches, some long established, others rapidly being built. Among the oldest, of course, were the chapels of private Catholic houses, many of which are happily still extant and still have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in them, with Masses said in them at least once a month.

Three Catholic houses in Oxfordshire have long had regular Traditional Masses said in them: Mapledurham, Hendred House, and Milton Manor. I have recently been involved in a Missa Cantata in the first and last of these.

Each of these houses, and its chapel, has a unique history. Mapledurham and Hendred House were Catholic houses from a very early stage; Milton Manor was bought by a Catholic family in the 17th Century.

Mapledurham was the home of Sir Richard Blount, the Warden of the Tower of London whose ill-treatment of St Philip Howard led to the latter's eventual death. St Philip's dying forgiveness of his gaoler seems to have a profound effect on him, however, and when his son married a Catholic, and became one himself, he apparently raised no objections. On the contrary, there followed a building campaign at Mapledurham to make it fit for a Catholic family determined to sit out the difficult time ahead: a secret chapel in the attics, and more than one ingenious hiding places for priests and the 'popish trash' (such as sacred vessels) sought by the Elizabethan authorities which could incriminate them.

The Blount family's fortunes were severely undermined by their maintenance of the faith, but their descendants are still there, in the form of John Eyston, whose mother was the last of the Blounts, and his family. Mr Eyston has done a superb job, over many years, of restoration, after a period of neglect, even retrieving and restoring important furniture which had been sold off years before.

One of the most unusual features of Mapledurham is the existence of the 'Bardolf aisle', a family chapel in the nearby medieval Anglican parish church. Since the Blounts, successors of the Bardolfs, and their own successors have been Catholic almost since the Reformation, this is a Catholic chapel in an Anglican church. The closest parallel to this is the ownership by the Dukes of Norfolk of what was originally the chancel of the Anglican parish church next to Arundel Castle. In both cases the ownership of these chapels was disputed in the 19th Century, but a court case between the Duke of Norfolk and the neighbouring vicar was decided in favour of the Duke, and these chapels remain in Catholic hands. The Bardolf aisle, unfortunately, is not in good repair, and is not publicly accessible; it has served, however, to preserve the Bardolf family monuments from vandalism by Protestant iconoclasts.

In Mapledurham House itself, the present chapel was built immediately after the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 (it was dedicated in 1797) which allowed public chapels 'without bell or steeple'. Naturally, it has neither. Indeed, it is extremely discreet, blending in with the rest of the building, with a subtle cross in the brickwork over the door. It has an entrance from the house, for the family, and a door directly to the outside. In this form it was the the de facto parish church of the area for many years.

The interior of the chapel is not lavish, but of the interesting late-18th C. 'gothick' style, light years, of couse, from the authentic gothic revival style championed by Pugin and others a generation later. The photographs were taken at a traditional Missa Cantata, which was sung by Fr John Saward on the feast of the Queenship of Our Lady (for this Mass see here).

Hendred House chapel is a restored 13th Century chapel, dedicated to St Amand, brought into use by the Catholic Eyston family (the family which inherited Mapledurham: there are now branches in each house). This was done rather rapidly when James II came to the throne. It was rededicated on Christmas Eve 1687. William of Orange's troops vandalised it and celebrated a mockery of the Mass as they marched through the area to impose the Protestant Ascendancy once more on the country.

It contains the walking stick of St John Fisher, acquired by inheritance from Fisher's successor as bishop, and other important historical artifacts.

It is not surprising, of course, that the local Catholic families should be related to each other. Also related to the Eystons is the Barrett (now Mockler-Barrett) family of Milton Manor. The house was bought by the Barrett family in 1763 and extensively remodelled, to include a charming chapel. This was before the Relief Act, and so the chapel is hidden inside the house; it was consecrated in 1771 by Bishop Challoner, a close friend of Bryan Barrett. Challoner was buried in the village church of St. Blaise, until in 1946 his remains were transferred to Westminster Cathedral. His vestments, missal and chalice are still kept in the Chapel, and are indeed still used.

I include photographs of the two most recent Masses there, one last Sunday (green vestments) and one in May this year (white). Both were celebrated by Fr Andrew Southwell of St Bede's, Clapham Park, London.

All three chapels are quite small; the largest, at Mapledurham, couldn't hold more than fifty or so people. They are, however, of great importance in the Catholic history of England.

For more on the history, I recommend a book written by a local historian, Tony Hadland, 'Thames Valley Papists'. It is available from the Mapledurham shop as hard copy, but it is also on his website. I would also encourage visitors to England to make time to see these houses, which may not be as spectacular as Blenheim Palace but are steeped in Catholic history. The families which live in them and maintain them also deserve our thanks and support, for what is a truly heroic dedication to the maintenance of our Catholic heritage on usually very limited means.

T.S. Eliot once said 'It is easier for the Church of England to become Catholic than for the Roman Church to become English.' How mistaken the first part has become clear as time has gone on. The suggestion of the second half has always been absurd. In these chapels, 'History is now, and England.'

Pictures: the top three are of Mapledurham; the middle three of the chapel of St Amand, at Hendred House; then there are two of the chapel at Milton Manor. The final picture, right, is of Bishop Challoner.

Prayer for the Beatification of Richard Challoner:
O God who made your servant Richard a true and faithful pastor of your little flock in England, raise him, we beseech you, to the altars of thy Church, that we who have been taught by his word and example may invoke his name in heaven, for the return of our country to belief in the Gospel, and to the unity of all Christians in the one Chruch of Jesus Christ. We ask this through the same Christ our Lord.

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