Archbishop of Westminster joins campaign to turn Tudor-era mansion into Catholic heritage centre BY MARK GREAVES CARDINAL COrmac MurphyO'Connor has become a patron of a campaign to save one of Britain's most historic Catholic houses from being sold to developers.
Sawston Hall, near Cambridge, a crucial "safe house" for Catholics during the 16th and 17th centuries, is on the market for £6 million after plans to convert it into a luxury hotel were put on hold.
A group of campaigners backed by the Cardinal are now trying to raise enough money to buy the hall and turn it into a Catholic heritage centre.
The hall can be restored to its former glory, they say, because its archives, portraits and other treasures have been inherited by a local priest — a descendent of the Huddleston family which owned the hall for hundreds of years. It was re-built in the 16th century after the original building was torched by Protestant soldiers in pursuit of Mary Tudor, who had used the hall as a refuge.
Priests' holes are crafted into the structure of the building, including what experts regard as the "cleverestpriests' hole in England. made by the Jesuit St Nicholas Owen.
Its history is bound up closely with another of England's martyrs, St John Rigby. A steward of the Huddleston family for many years, he was hanged, drawn and quartered in Tyburn after revealing that he was Catholic.
The Huddleston family owned the hall until the 1980s when fmancial trouble meant that they could no longer afford to keep it up. Since then it has been used as a language school but more recently it was bought by Adrian Critchlow, an intemet entrepeneur who wanted to turn it into a luxury hotel with en-suite bathrooms.
However. Mr Critchlow is now prepared to sell the property unless he can find financial partners to help him develop plans for a hotel.
Campaigners say that St Nicholas's priests' hole has started to fall apart and needs to be mended. They believe that the building can be restored to its former condition and turned into a "trail" museum in which visitors can trace the history of the hall as they pass through it.
Canon Timothy Russ, a Buckinghamshire priest who inherited the artefacts and furnishings of Sawston Hall from his mother, said the Cardinal's support for the campaign was "a wonderful step forward".
He said that a Catholic heritage centre at the hall would give people "a sense of Christian England".
The liuddleston family, he explained, was thought to have descended from Athelstan. the grandson of Alfred the Great, and so "in its mythology it goes back to the kings who made England and defended it from the Danes". The family remained powerful after the Norman Conquest and was prominent during the Crusades. It has remained Catholic for its entire history.
Canon Russ, a parish priest in Great Missenden who used to minister to the Blair family when they stayed at Chequers, their country residence in Buckinghamshire, said: "I've somehow ended up owning all this gear but also having a priestly vocation, which is a bit awkward."
The archives. which are stored at County Hall, Cambridge, go back to the 14th century and include proceedings at the manor court, the lowest court of law in England, which ruled on the fields that would be given to each tenant fanner.
The hall's paintings are held at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, and include a portrait of Queen Mary. There is also a portrait of Lord Hardwick, who, according to Fr Russ, fell in love with a Lady Huddleston but could not many her because he was not Catholic. He asked for his portrait to hang in the hall to demonstrate his love for her.
Some of the hall's furniture — including chairs and a 17thcentury pin-cushion — is held at Stonor, an 800-year-old manor house in Oxfordshire.
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