A concrete reminder of how quickly things can go wrong: an English Catholic “recusant” house

I would like to redirect your attention to a fascinating post over at Damian Thompson’s place.

He has written about a … well… here is the first part as a tease to get you to go over there and read the rest.

Mapledurham House, an imposing Elizabethan mansion in south Oxfordshire, is one of Catholic England’s best-kept secrets. Which is appropriate, in a way – for it went to enormous trouble to keep its Catholic allegiance secret during times of persecution, when it was a safe house for fugitive priests.

That said, I think it’s high time that Mapledurham was better known: by rights it ought to attract thousands more visitors than it does. We live in an age when fans of The Da Vinci Code and other thrillers rush to historic locations to stare at “clues” to bogus mysteries. In contrast, the owners of Mapledurham House kept a genuine secret during the Tudor persecution and for decades afterwards: their fidelity to the Roman faith. But the clues had to be subtle – to the extent that, even now, its current owners, John and Lady Anne Eyston, are still making discoveries.

The most recent priest hole, for example, lay undiscovered until 2002 – though it’s in such an inaccessible upper bedroom that it can’t accommodate crowds of tourists. The hole is hidden underneath a sliding hearth, and it might better be described as an elaborate escape shaft.

“Family legend had it that there was a priest hole in the bedroom fireplace – but we didn’t realise that for years we were looking at the wrong fireplace, not the hidden original,” says Jack Eyston, a descendent of the Blount family who were guardians of the house for most of its history. “Nothing was ever committed to writing, for obvious reasons.”

Mapledurham is next to the Thames at a point where the river can’t be crossed. As Richard Williams observes in his guide to the estate, this means that “the village, clustered round the manor houses, the church, the mill and the almshouses, remains a peaceful and secluded oasis, beloved of artists and visitors”.

The river was crucial for some of those early visitors – Catholic priests. Mr Eyston explains: “This was an ideal safe house because you could get here without riding a horse and being spotted as a stranger.” But how would they know their boat had reached safety? “All recusant houses had a sign, and this was ours,” he says, pointing to a gable covered with oyster shells visible from the river. The shells may represent the biblical “pearl of great price” – the Catholic faith, whose Mass was celebrated in an attic.


Read the rest there.

In a time when Pope Benedict is talking about a “New Evangelization”, I often wonder if we should not start thinking about making “priest holes” again.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Just Too Cool, New Evangelization, Our Catholic Identity, The future and our choices, The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. JPManning says:

    “I often wonder if we should not start thinking about making “priest holes” again.”

    I had exactly the same thought as I was reading that piece.

  2. DisturbedMary says:

    How about a laity nitch as well.

  3. JackintheVox says:

    Someone really must make a movie about the recusant families and the heroic martyr priests like St. Edmund Campion.

    All the elements of a good film in the “heist” or spy thriller genre are there… a powerful, oppressive State, elaborate secret hideaways, chases, smugglings, concealed identities, dramatic speeches at the gallows.

    Catholic screenwriters and directors, please take note of the book “Come Rack, Come Rope!” for ideas.

  4. Laura R. says:

    The same thought occurred to me; let’s hope it won’t happen anytime soon. Meanwhile, Mapledurham sounds like a wonderful place to plan on visiting during a trip to England.

  5. amsjj1002 says:

    For a movie, a book to be considered could be “The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest” by John Gerard. Some of the scenes were just so intense; trying to imagine myself in his place, I experienced great terror. I fear I could not be as strong.

    When we went to England last year, we visited Tyburn, certainly a place that shouldn’t be forgotten.

  6. AnAmericanMother says:

    This could be a wonderful screenplay. So much material to draw on.

    St. Edmund Campion’s defense before the Privy Council, after torture, would make a splendid, moving scene.

    Throw William Byrd in there too, for the music, even though he managed to dodge the persecutors. He set Henry Walpole’s elegy for Campion – Why do I use my paper, ink and pen? (the album is “The Caged Byrd – music from a time of persecution”.)

    Imagine that sung as background music to a solemn scene of Tyburn Tree silhouetted against a dark red sunset.

  7. John Nolan says:

    Just as the French and the Americans, with regard to their revolutions, prefer myth to historical fact, so it is with the English and the Tudors. England would have been great (arguably greater) without those Welsh usurpers – the 15th century, not the 16th, is seen by many historians as a golden age – and the genius of Tallis, Byrd and Shakespeare, all Catholics, would still have flourished in the Dowry of Mary. The so-called Reformation was a disaster, both culturally and politically, and the downside of that otherwise excellent institution the British Empire was that it was instrumental in spreading heresy (look at the USA, the Empire’s most enduring legacy).

    I can’t really celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada; had Philip won, we would have cheap booze and afternoon siestas.

Comments are closed.