A hotel group is seeking to convert an historic Catholic home into a luxury hotel.
But a group of prominent Catholics is mobilising to stop the plans from going ahead.
David V Barrett reports ONE OF ENGLAND’S most significant Catholic houses of the Reformation period could be changed into a luxury hotel if an action group fails in its last-minute attempt to block the plans.
Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire is considered one of the most important Catholic “safe houses” of the 16th and 17th centuries and was closely associated with the martyrs St Nicholas Owen and St John Rigby.
Now a planning application has been submitted to South Cambridgeshire District Council by the Sawston Hotel Group to convert the Grade I listed building into a luxury hotel with en-suite bathrooms.
An action group including Sir Roy Strong, former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Jack Scarisbrick, Professor of History at the University of Warwick, has been formed to try to preserve the hall as a Catholic heritage centre.
Others in the group include emeritus Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville of Birmingham, formerly chaplain at Cambridge University, and Jesuit Fr Anthony Symondson.
The group is keen to block the application because of the building’s strong Catholic historic associations. Mary Tudor stayed one night in 1553 with the owners, the Huddleston family, when she was resisting the Duke of Northumberland’s plot to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne. While fleeing in disguise the next morning, she turned and saw the house in flames, burnt down by Northumberland’s troops, and promised to rebuild it when she became Queen. She kept her word and the present Hall was built with stones from Cambridge Castle. She also made John Huddleston vice-chamberlain to her husband, Philip of Spain.
It has even been said that the ghost of a smiling Mary Tudor has been seen walking the Hall, and that ghostly music has been heard there.
The rebuilding of the Hall was completed by 1584, but by then Elizabeth was Queen, and the Catholic religion was banned.
One of the last Catholics to be executed in her reign, St John Rigby, was a steward to the Huddleston family for many years. Lady Huddleston was summoned to London to explain why she did not attend Protestant services. Being ill, she sent St John as her representative. He revealed himself to be a practising Catholic and was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1600.
By that time several “priest’s holes” had been incorporated into the building as hiding places for Catholic priests. In the 1600s there were usually three priests hiding in the hall. St Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit brother and carpenter, constructed what Reformation experts regard as his cleverest “hide” in the roofspace of the hall. He was tortured to death in the Tower of London in 1606. The chapel at Sawston Hall later became the mother church for Cambridge right up until the Catholic Emancipation Act.
The Hall belonged to the Huddleston family for four centuries. In the 1940s it was used by the US Eighth Air Force. In 1980 the family had to sell up. “The trauma of the Second World War, and the First, caused the family to face problems, and the Hall went,” said Canon Timothy Russ, parish priest of Great Missenden, Bucks, who ministers to the Prime Minister’s family when they are at Chequers, and whose mother was an Eyre-Huddleston.
The hall later became a language school, the Cambridge Centre for Languages but, according to Prof Scarisbrick, it went bust. “It was on the market for a while, but we didn’t know about it. Then we heard the Hall was on the market, and the next thing we heard was that a hotelier was buying it.” Sawston Hotel Group has submitted its plans to English Heritage for approval.
According to Prof Scarisbrick, this gives his action group about eight weeks to come up with about £8 million. “We have to get a lot of money together,” he said. “Then we need to per suade either the hotel group to sell, or English Heritage to veto their plan for altering a listed building.” He said the money was needed to buy it, and renovate it for visitors, providing ramps for disabled access, for example, and an endowment to keep it going.
Because the Hall is listed, any purchaser needs to show that any changes they make will not do major damage to the building. “The hotelier who has bought it promises to respect its special character. But that may not mean much in practice,” said Prof Scarisbrick. “His plans include turning the Long Gallery into a family bed room, en suite!” The action group also need to convince English Heritage that it has a convincing, viable alternative purpose for the hall. Prof Scarisbrick is thinking in terms of a Catholic Heritage Centre. “We’re looking for someone to buy it as an asset or investment — maybe a rich religious order,” he said.
Canon Russ wants to turn the hall into a Catholic university, promoting “the truth and wisdom of the Church”. He said:“This would give it a purpose beyond it just being a Catholic tourist centre.” The Sawston Hotel Group was unavailable for comment.