CONVERSION TO Catholicism was rare and unpopular in the century where attempts in its second half to foster Emancipation were met with the Gordon Riots. Yet in 1764 a country house in Berkshire was bought by a convert, Bryant Barrett, and he built a chapel at the house in which the first Mass was said by Bishop Challoner.
Bryant Barrett of 479 The Strand, London. held the important post of lace-maker and embroiderer to King George Ill. His manor house at Milton, near Abingdon was inherited after the 1939 war by his descendant, Marjorie Mockler (nee Barrett). It has been her delight to create a family home and to keep open its doors to visitors appreciative of its historical beauty.
The mother of Richard Challoner the future Bishop, widowed in her early twenties with an only son, was taken into service at Firle Place near Lewes, Sussex, by Sir John Gage. Since the Gages came to Sussex in the 15th century, the family adhered to the ancient Faith through the changes in religion for two-and-a-half centuries.
But Sir William, Sir John Gage's third son, shaken by the failure of the 1715 Rising, changed his religion, was made a Knight of the Bath and entered Parliament as NIP for Seaford. He died in 1744 and Fide passed to his first cousin, Thomas Gage, who had already conformed to the Church of England, rewarded for so doing by a Viscountcy in the peerage of Ireland.
Whet her t he widow Challoner and her son at Firle were Catholics is not known. The household remained unshaken in Faith while Sir John was alive. He died in 1744, by which date Richard Challoner'~ mother had been dead 13 sears and her son, 18 years a priest, Vicar-General to Bishop Petre and working clandestinely in London under threat of life imprisonment for his priesthood, harassed continuously by informers.
The present mansion of Firle presents an unmistakably Georgian exterior: either Sir William or the first Viscount were responsible for the very extensive alterations. Little remains of the Early Tudor house of Sir John to which Mrs. Challoner mem with her son. .A I udor gable can be seen in the South Front. There arc Tudor fireplaces in two rooms.
The original hammer-beam roof of Sir John's Great Hall remains above an 18th century ceiling. His detailed inventors lists chalice and paten, vestments etc. and "a great bell to hang in the chapel."
Destroyed by fire in 1781, the great mansion had been the home of the Montagu family for seven generations. With smokeblackened wall, the roofless chapel bears witness to the continuing Catholicism of the family line which ended within a week of the fire, with the death by drowning of the eighth and last Viscount Montagu.
Both events were said to be the fulfilment of a "curse" laid by the last monk ejected from Battle Abbey which Henry VIII had granted to Sir Anthony Browne, father of the first Viscount.
At Battle Abbey the Viscount's second wife, I ady Magdalen had created a "Little Rome" in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Three priests were kept by her, one a greatgrandchild of Thomas More. On solemn feasts "the Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated with singing and musical instruments, sometimes 120 Catholics were together and 60 communicants."
Lady Montagu's husband, Anthony Browne, first Viscount, was highly esteemed by Queen Elizabeth "for his great prudence and wisdom, though earnestly devoted to the Romish relieion."
She spent nearly a week at Cowdray in August 1591 when incidentally, she knighted John Caryll, member of one of the ereat Sussex families, who, with the Shelley, and Gages kept Catholicism alive — priests were smuggled from the coast to London disguised in Mongatu
Mass had continued illegally, in the Caryll's first house, now a farm, at Bentons near Grinstead Park. A cottage on the estate was built onto by the Carylis as a residence for the priest: its quite imposing Georgian facade contrasting with the simpler work behind. The attic chapel and hiding place in the old cottage is an impressive relic preserved in what is perhaps the oldest presbytery still in England.