the baronets' ancestral homes
Country Houses with Catholic links — Leslie Brooks introduces a new series on survivals of past glories.
THE NICKEL-GILT sovereign which today admits, as to a museum, the Passing tourist to an English country house typifies the exhibit pate reflection of past glory.
Just five years short of a century ago an Act of Parliament inaugurated the transfer of control of rural England from the baronet to the bureaucrat. During the preceding centuries the house of the landowner on his estate was the citadel of local power and the basis for political domination of the whole country.
The country-house way of life, once the fulcrum of society, lingered on but did not survive two world wars. A thousand or more country-houses (out of a total of perhaps 5000) have disappeared in the last 100 years. Of those that still stand some 600 in Great Britain admit visitors on payment of a fee.
The Catholic visitor may recall that most of these estates were created from lands once held by the Church: their splendour evidence of privilege and power resting firmly on an Lstablishment in which Catholics were denied a place.
What is often forgotten is that for the original granting and continued tenure of the property a price had to he paid the price of total conformity social, political and religious. In the nation's greatest land transfer since the Conquest, the price was cheerfully paid by most of the grantees.
But in characteristically English evasive fashion there were among the new landowners those who gladly shared in the spoils and remained in possession while refusing to eon
form to the religion imposed by the State.
Ai Battle near Hastings the Abbey was granted by Henry VlIl three months after its dissolution to Anthony Browne %%Ito converted part of the buildings into a fine residence. His son Sir Anthony married a second wife Magdalen Daore whose father William Lord Daore (of the Cumbrian family) had stood up to Henry's presumption as head of the Church, rashly telling his Sovereign that "hereafter when Your Majesty offends, you may absolve yourself".
Nevertheless Sir Anthony, imprisoned for hearing Mass under Edward VI and created Viscount Montagu by Queen Mary, was greatly respected by Elizabeth "for his great prudence and wisdom though earnestly devoted to the Romish religion".
Throughout Elizabeth's reign Lady Magdalen kept the full ceremonial at Battle which was dubbed by the neighbours as "little Rome". A stream of priests were conducted from the Channel coast to her London house, many disguised in the Montagu livery.
The burnt-out chapel in the ruins of Cowdray, Midhurst, hears witness not only to the continuing Catholicism of the family but also to the fats which overwhelmed them at the end of the 18th century: fire burning down the great house just one
week after the drowning of the eighth Viscount, last in the direct line. A calamity foretold, it was said, by one of the ejected monks of Battle Abbey.
By, contrast, on land held since the middle ages Catholic nonconforming families remained in possession and many are still there. On the Berkshire Downs at East Hendred the Eystons have remained in quiet possession of their ancestral estate with a 12th century chapel still in use and a mortuary chapel remained in the village church.
Comfortably within a morning's ride lies Ufton Park where the Perkins family lived, also on their own long-held land, socially accepted by neighbours and in London society. Yet the three hiding-places for their priests still to be seen in their wide-spreading Tudor house tell of a long story of harassment, betrayal and heavy fines for their Catholic non-con formity.
On lands which march with the Eysions, an eighteenth century convert to Catholickm, court embroiderer to George II I; acquired Milton Manor. The Strawberry Hill Gothic chapel he built, frequently used by Bishop Challoner, has been the scene of marriage and other family occasions by the present owners who inherited after the last war.
At a steady trot from Milton Manor the horseman could thus reach two other houses providing some evidence of the tenacious hold on the ancient faith of their owners at one time or another since the breach with Rome.
Many were utterly ruined by fines and sequestrations: estates fell into decay through the absence of their owners held in prison for their refusal to conform. Those that remain, as truly typical as any of the unique artefact which is the English country house, retain a priceless heritage which the others have lost.
Leslie Brooks to Hon Secretary of the English Catholic Ancestor.