The Christian Heritage Centre

Events Talks

The English Reformation & The European Renaissance [conference]

The English Reformation
& The European Renaissance

Saturday 28 March, 3:30 - 6:30pm

This event has been postponed due to Covid-19

An afternoon conference exploring the relationship between Reformation England and Renaissance Europe.

With Professors Peter Davidson (Oxford) and Gerard Kilroy (Academia Ignatium Krakow, U.C.L.)

The expulsion of Catholic scholars and the outlawing of Catholic education from Reformation England in the 1500s was intended to decisively detach England from the Catholic Faith. At the same time, the ongoing Renaissance on the continent was grounded in Europe’s profoundly Catholic roots. To what extent did Henry VIII’s reform succeed in severing English culture from Catholicism? And how far were the English removed from the influence of their Catholic European neighbours?

Professor Davidson will examine how the poetry of the famous Jesuit saint, Robert Southwell, reached and sustained not only its immediate and Catholic audience, but a rather more diverse section of English society.

Professor Kilroy will explore how English Catholicism was maintained and nurtured by exiles on the continent, and how a particular relationship between England and Europe continued as a result.

Conference schedule:

3:00pm Arrivals

3:30pm Prof. P. Davidson – Poetry and Fortress England: Southwell’s Literary Offerings to a Divided Nation

4:30pm Prof. G. Kilroy – Cosmopolitan Jesuits and a Culture of Catholic Exile

5:30pm Q & A session with Profs. Davidson and Kilroy

6:00pm Optional seminar: Practical Problems in the Study of the British Catholic Diaspora

Tea & coffee will be served throughout the afternoon, with breaks following each session.

About the speaker:

Peter Davidson is a Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, University of Oxford and a member of the English Faculty of Oxford University, formerly at Aberdeen, Warwick, Leiden. He was the general editor of the Oxford University Press Edition of the Complete Writings of St Robert Southwell. His writings include The Universal Baroque (MUP), The Last of the Light and The Idea of North (Reaktion), as well as editing early modern literature published by OUP. His general focus is on the exile and the culture of the British Catholic community after the Reformation.

About the speaker:

Gerard Kilroy is Professor of English Literature at the Akademia Ignatianum Krakow, and author of Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription (2005), editor of The Epigrams of Sir John Harington (2009), and author of Edmund Campion: A Scholarly Life (2015). He is currently editing Evelyn Waugh’s life of Edmund Campion (1935) for a 43-volume edition of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh (OUP). In 2018, the Polish Embassy in London published a collection of his Poems. He has been attached to University College London for over ten years, first as Honorary Visiting Professor from 2009–2019, and now as Honorary Senior Research Fellow; he gives seminars there on editing from manuscripts, manuscript circulation and the smuggling of subversive books in early modern England. He has been Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, Oxford since 2015. He was a Visiting Professor at Masaryk University, Brno for three years. Much of his research was done in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, where he has had four Fellowships, and in Marsh’s Library, Dublin, where he had a Fellowship, and libraries in Oxford, London, Krakow, Warsaw, Prague, Munich, Dillingen and Rome.


Conference ticket: £29

Conference ticket, student discount: £24*

Student special offer: 5 tickets for £100*

Conference and overnight B&B: £65

Conference and overnight B&B, student discount: £60*

*Valid student ID will be required at the door

Please register below:

This event has closed.

Articles Media

Stonyhurst yields its mystical treasures

Friday 4th May 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Stonyhurst yields its mysteries

Jonathan Luxmorre

Through the wide windows of a rambling but stately greystone building, the northern Lancashire countryside sweeps toward the Irish Sea in a maze of fields and woodlands. Inside, spring sunlight plays over shelves and glass cases, containing faded books and ancient artifacts amassed over four centuries.

When Stonyhurst College was founded at Saint-Omer in the Spanish Netherlands by the recusant Jesuit Fr Robert Persons in 1593, persecuted Catholic priests faced a mandatory death sentence if caught ministering in England.

More than four centuries later, Stonyhurst, the world’s oldest Jesuit school, houses a remarkable collection of relics relating to the country’s many martyrs. “Many things were being destroyed in Reformation England, so when Catholic boys came abroad to the school, they’d bring vestments, manuscripts and precious objects for safe keeping,” explained Jan Graffius, the collection’s curator. “This makes us part of the story Stonyhurst yields its mystical treasures and means we know what it was like to be targeted,” she said. “At a time when people know little about the struggles of the past, these relics provide a graphic reminder of what Catholics faced in upholding their faith.” 


The collections at Stonyhurst College provide a fascinating insight into the sometimes bloody history of the struggles faced by Catholicism in England
Church vestments form a substantial part of the Stonyhurst Collections

In 1794, when the school was forced to flee the French Revolution, its collection was already extensive. It was lucky to have the current site donated by a former student, Thomas Weld, father of Cardinal Thomas Weld (1773-1837). The Stonyhurst Collection, now being opened to visitors, has continued expanding.

 Its earliest exhibits include a piece of jawbone, documented to early medieval times, said to come from St Stephen. Its most recent relic is a piece of the bloodied vestment worn by St Oscar Romero of El Salvador when he was assassinated on 24th March 1980, while celebrating Mass.

“The idea is to provide an accessible public resource with a narrative tracing back 2,000 years,” Graffius said. “These objects tell their own stories, and people engaging with them can feel uncomfortable, even revolted. But no-one remains indifferent and everyone has questions to ask,” she added.

England’s Catholic Church was effectively outlawed under Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), who implemented her father’s break with Rome while officially seeking a Protestantled compromise, or “middle way”.

 Persecution was stepped up after Pope Pius V declared the Queen excommunicated and deposed in 1570 and following the 1588 rout of the Spanish Armada invasion fleet. It intensified following the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot by Catholic militants against King James I, although Masses continued to be secretly celebrated at great personal risk by undercover Jesuit priests.

Choking off Catholic education was seen as key to stifling adherence to the traditional faith. It survived, but at a high price. In all, 23 Stonyhurst pupils were executed between 1610 and 1680; three have been canonised as martyrs and a dozen beatified.

The school’s Arundel Library includes works connected with the rebel Jacobite cause, as well as verses by the St Robert Southwell (1561-1595) and holographs by the 19th-century poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who trained as a priest at Stonyhurst.

The Stonyhurst Collection also contains some macabre items: a piece of the battered skull of the 12th-century martyr St Thomas Becket, preserved after his Canterbury shrine was smashed in 1539; the shoulder blade of a priest executed at Durham in 1590, still bearing knife slashes; and the eyeball of a beatified Jesuit, Fr Edward Oldcorne, brutally killed at Worcester for alleged complicity in the Gunpowder Plot.

Although religious restrictions began to be eased in England after the 1829 Catholic Relief Act, Catholic persecution victims were publicly commemorated only after the canonisation of 40 English and Welsh martyrs by St Paul VI in 1970. The keeping of relics, stamped out with the Reformation, has been much less common here than in continental Europe.

Where they survive, they provide a tangible link with past martyrs and faith witnesses and can be a challenging but valuable asset for the prayer life of Catholics, Graffius said. “For young people especially, without much awareness of history, they can also be a good teaching resource, evoking youngsters like themselves who made difficult choices and decisions,” she said. “Today, we still ask our children to do the right things in a world not very sympathetic to religious values. And though conditions are now quite different, Christians are still being persecuted. It isn’t just ancient history.”

Beyond the window, the Ribble Valley undulates toward Clitheroe over a landscape used by the visiting J.R.R. Tolkein as a setting for his monumental Lord of The Rings trilogy as the latest generation of Stonyhurst pupils returns from afternoon activities.

Having had barely a dozen pupils when it relocated here, the school quickly became one of England’s best, and now welcomes men and women students from around the world.

While a third of its students are non-Catholic, all must attend services in the college’s six churches and chapels and subscribe to the Jesuit ethos of prayer and service. That ethos has produced outstanding alumni, including seven Catholic archbishops, assorted government leaders, artists, missionaries, war heroes and revolutionaries.

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the sleuth Sherlock Holmes, studied here, as did Joseph Plunkett, executed for his part in Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, and Thomas Meagher, an Irish-born American Civil War general and later governor of Montana.

Stonyhurst College has called the stunning Ribble Valley home for over two hundred years.

So did Daniel Carroll, a signatory of the US Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution, and his brother John Carroll, founder of Georgetown University and the first American Catholic bishop, along with Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton and George Walker, greatgrandfather of US President George W. Bush.

 Yet it’s the collection of relics that lends the most poignancy. “A centre like this should be viewed as a cultural resource, an expression of everyone’s search for God,” Graffius said.

“Faith is a lifelong journey, which requires us to open up and ask profound questions – to follow hearts and consciences without fearing the consequences. Objects like these show us how previous generations approached this vital task.”

Articles Media

Fr John chose to die rather than yield to Protestantism

Friday 8th January 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Fr John chose to die, rather than yield to Protestantism

Br Samuel Burke, OP

“I am willing to die, and I had rather die than doubt of any point of faith taught by our holy mother, the Roman Catholic Church.” In his ‘last testament’, St John Plessington, a Catholic priest, foretold his own fate.

He died a martyr’s death. He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Gallow’s Hill in Boughton Cross, Cheshire, overlooking the River Dee, on 19th July, 1679. His offence: taking Orders in the Church of Rome and returning to the realm as a Catholic priest contrary to Act 27 of Elizabeth, 1585.

For his troubles, for his fidelity, for his ultimate sacrifice, as Paul VI declared in 1970 along with 39 others, Plessington numbers among the Saints in heaven. But the story doesn’t end there because the question remains: how do we honour the memory of this Saint and others like him?

Our first task is to remember, which is easier said than done. At least in the case of recent Saints, remembering is not a matter of fabled legend, it is an historical exercise, which often requires diligent research. Good, accurate information is important because it bring us closer to the person; they serve to make their memory more real to us; the details matter.

John Plessington was born around 1637, the youngest of three children, at Dimples Hall near Garstang in Lancashire. His father, Robert, was a committed royalist and Governor of Greenhalgh Castle, which stood on a hill overlooking a boggy plain about a quarter of a mile from the family estate. The family were both Royalist and Catholic.

St John Plessington

During John’s childhood, Robert fought for the Crown in the Civil War, for which he was later imprisoned and forfeited his property. The Parliamentarians also destroyed Greenhalgh Hall and a lone western tower is all that now remains of the fortress. As Catholics, the family kept a priest and a chapel.

Their chaplain, the Venerable Thomas Whitaker, was captured and martyred in 1646. Perhaps this was one of John’s earliest memories, aged about nine. Did the martyrdom of the family priest inspire his own priesthood and martyrdom? 

Educated by the Society of Jesus, John left the family home first for Scarisbrick Hall, near Ormskirk, and subsequently leaving Lancashire for St Omers in France, a forerunner to Stonyhurst College. The Jesuits were famed not only as “the schoolmasters of Europe”, they have also been dubbed “the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation”, a glib remark that fails to do justice to valiant mission and unparalleled sacrifice which they made to the Greater Glory of God and for the preservation of the faith in England during penal times.

If our first task was to remember, our second task, I think, is to understand the human context. Part of this is speculative, of course, but we must seek to understand the motivations and challenges that the martyrs faced if we are to appreciate their witness in its fullness.

From France to Spain where John, taking the pseudonym ‘Scarisbrick’ — perhaps in tribute to his early educators — studied at the Royal College of St Alban, Valladolid, along with five other fellow seminarians in November 1660.

St Winefride's Well, at Holywell, in Flintshire, Wales, where Father Plessington ministered

As a welcome gesture, they were given a good supply of tobacco to help them settle in. Within a very short time, John was ordained a priest on 25th March in 1662 at Segovia. Not long after, ill-health curtailed his studies and, though a priest, he returned to England with his theological studies incomplete. Little is known about his early ministry in Lancashire. What is known is that he subsequently lived and ministered at the St Winefred’s Shrine at Holywell in North Wales. The area had a strong Catholic community supported by secular priests, including Plessington, based at a local Inn, Ye Cross Keyes, and a Jesuit mission based at another pub, Ye Old Star Inn, a pub which plays another role in Plessington’s tale to which I will return.

Some time before 1670, perhaps as early as 1665, Fr Plessington is to be found at Puddington Hall, home to the Massey family near Burton, on the Wirral. Officially, he was tutor to the Massey children but in reality he was the resident priest, supporting the family and Catholics in the surrounding area. For a brief time, there was relative toleration for Catholics and Fr Plessington would have probably gone about his ministry discretely but without too much trouble. This was not to last.

In 1678 Titus Oates’ feigned to reveal an elaborate conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother, James. Catholics, especially priests, were rounded upon by authorities.

They stood accused as conspirators in the ‘Popish Plot’. In all, some 45 Catholics were executed in this wave of persecutions. On the Wirral, directions came from the King’s Ministers in Whitehall for the local authorities to exercise great vigilance and near panic ensued.
It seems that Fr Plessington was targeted following the report of a Protestant landowner who was grieved at the refusal of a match between his son and a Catholic heiress. It was presumably on the basis that a Protestant husband would be unwilling to risk keeping a priest, and, as a consequence, such matches would inevitably result in the falling away from Church.

On 28th December 1678, the priest hunter Thomas Dutton raided the house at Puddington and, despite the house having a priest hole by the chimney, Fr Plessington was found and taken into custody. Dutton received a handsome reward of £20 for his troubles.
The trial of Plessington, which followed was defective in several respects. Three lapsed Catholics testified against him but their evidence was seemingly insufficient. The first witness was deranged, as confirmed by her father and neighbours, and the second Fr Plessington had never met. This left only a third valid witness, a man named Robert Wood.

However, for a capital offence, at least two witnesses were required for a conviction, as Fr Plessington pleaded in the court. Nevertheless, the jury still convicted him. Such was the ill-feeling at the conviction that the judge granted a reprieve only to have this overturned by Whitehall.
Though awaiting death for nine weeks in a damp underground cell at Chester gaol, Fr Plessington maintained a lively sense of humour. When his friend, Sir James Poole visited him at the same time as an undertaker who was apparently measuring him for a coffin, Fr Plessington joked that he was giving orders for his last suit!

Dragged on a hurdle through the city of Chester from the Castle to Gallow’s Hill, overlooking the River Dee, Fr Plessington was hanged, drawn and quartered on 19th July 1679. His body was later committed to Puddington Hall, where it was ordered that the body parts be displayed on the four corners of the property. In open defiance of this charge, the Massey family laid out Plessington’s dismembered body on an oak table.

Where the martyr’s remains are is a matter of some debate. 140 years after Plessington’s death, a collection of bones bearing fractures consistent with his death, wrapped in children’s clothes of the period were discovered in a trunk in Ye Olde Star Inn. There is good, albeit circumstantial, evidence to suggest these are the bones of St. John Plessington.

A few years ago, an appeal was made by the Bishop of Shrewsbury to conduct DNA tests on the bones. Let us hope that will happen soon so we can honour the relics and memory of this martyr.

This brings me finally to our third task in honouring the martyrs: learning the lessons of history. It is to this third task especially that the new Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst is committed.

Painting by Daphne Pollen (1904-86) commissioned for the 1970 canonization of the forty martyrs of England Wales.

This special museum is housed at the very school at which Plessington was educated, no longer in exile on the continent but in his native Lancashire. We will strive not simply to retell his story, important though that is, and not only to understand the human context, but crucially to ask also what lessons we can draw from the witness of martyrdom, even as they are made today.

Bloodshed, oppression and discrimination against Christians takes place the world over. One thinks particularly of the genocide of Christians in the Middle East.

There is much to learn from the life and death of St John Plessington about the importance of Catholic education; the mentality of the mob and scare-mongering; about the importance of legal process; about maintaining a sense of humour in the face of adversity; about faith and, yes, about Christian heroism – if we can learn some of that, we will have truly honoured the memory of the martyrs.

Br Samuel Burke, OP, is a Trustee of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst.

Articles Media

Relics reveal rich tapestry of England’s Catholic past

Friday 3rd February 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Relics reveal rich tapestry of England’s Catholic past

The Pedlar's Chest, used to smugle vestments during the Reformation

Stonyhurst College cares for a spectacular and rich array of historic vestments in its collections, many of which were smuggled across the Channel to the school during the time it was based in St Omers near Calais, between 1593 and 1762.

Vestments were particularly singled out for destruction in Reformation England. In the eyes of the Elizabethan government, they represented priestly authority and the celebration of the forbidden Mass.

From the onset of the Dissolution of the Monasteries until the late 17th century, vestments in England and Wales were systematically sought out and destroyed by government agents, keen to suppress all signs of Catholic worship. Ironically a good many which survived the reign of Protestant Edward VI and were brought out in the reign of his Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor, were subsequently seized and destroyed in the reign of Elizabeth I.

There are numerous examples of Catholic families and communities hiding precious pre-Reformation vestments from the searchers, storing them in attics, in hidden compartments and even burying them, in an attempt to preserve them. Very few survived, and many of these were sent abroad for safekeeping, to the English seminaries and Colleges in Rome, Valladolid, Douai and St Omers.

Many pre-Reformation vestments were richly embroidered with the intricate needlework known as opus anglicanum. The embroideries were removed from the chasubles and dalmatics to make them easier to hide and transport abroad. Once at St Omers, they were re-attached to new, rich fabrics and used in the celebration of Mass for the young boys attending the college. They symbolised England’s Catholic past and were a sign of hope for the restoration of the Catholic faith in England in the future.

The Lamb Chasuble, which is still used on special occasions at Stonyhurst

 Medieval examples such as the beautiful St Dunstan’s Chasuble survive at Stonyhurst today, smuggled from Canterbury to St Omers, and then brought back to England when the college moved to its present location in 1794. The Dunstan Chasuble is the property of the British Jesuit Province, and is cared for at Stonyhurst. It features highly intricate embroidered 14th century images of saints associated with Canterbury, and probably once adorned a cope, or copes. Thomas Becket features in four scenes, as might be expected for Canterbury’s most famous saint and martyr. The panel depicting his martyrdom is spectacularly fine, and has retained much of its colour and freshness. When these embroideries arrived at St Omers they were re-shaped into their present form on a Roman chasuble, which takes its name from a delightful image of St Dunstan of Canterbury pinching the nose of the devil with tongs.

The St Norbert Cope, made from the umbrella of an Indian maharajah’s elephant

Another rare medieval chasuble was commissioned in the 1490s by King Henry VII for use in Westminster Abbey. It was originally part of a massively expensive and prestigious matching set of twenty-nine copes, a chasuble, dalmatic and tunicle. These were woven in Florence from cloth of gold and red silk velvet damask, with interloped threads of gold, in a technique known as riccio sopra riccio, or richness upon richness. The design features red rose of the House of Lancaster, the portcullis badge of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort (the Tudor’s main claim to royalty came through Margaret) and embroideries showing the Good Shepherd and angels incensing a monstrance. Of the set (which was taken to the Field of Cloth of Gold by Henry VIII), only two pieces remain; this chasuble and a cope.

Both arrived at St Omers early in its history and were known to have been used in ceremonies at the college as early as 1609. 

A poignant reminder of the personal cost paid by Catherine of Aragon for refusing to fall in with her husband’s desire to annul her marriage, can be seen in a set of chasuble, dalmatic and tunicles bearing rich embroidery of grapes and vines. This set is said to have been embroidered by Catherine and her two ladies-in-waiting during her incarceration at Kimbolton in the fifteen months before her death. The set was restored on arrival at St Omers in the late 17th century, and then again in the 1850s, but much of the original embroidery and design remains.

The college also commissioned new chasubles for use in its three chapels. There were many communities of English nuns in the Low Countries in the 17th century, exiled from home because of their faith. It is likely that some of the exquisite Flemish embroideries at Stonyhurst originated in English convents in places like Bruges, Louvain, Antwerp and St Omers. The Lamb Chasuble features rich gold scrolls, laid out like a formal garden parterre, and in between are brilliantly coloured tulips, roses, lilies, violas and honeysuckle, which symbolise different aspects of Mary’s virtues. On the back is a solid panel of silk embroidery with silver and gold thread showing the Lamb of the Apocalypse, lying on the Book with Seven Seals. This chasuble is in remarkably original condition, and is used on special occasions at Stonyhurst.

Missionary priests in 17th century England found it difficult to minister the sacraments to the Catholic communities they visited, as many houses had no place to hide the vessels, books and vestments necessary. It was dangerous for priests to carry these items with them as they were proof that the owner was a priest, which carried the death penalty. Many, however, took that risk as there was no alternative. 

In the container known as the Pedlar’s Chest, at Stonyhurst, there is a unique collection of simple vestments made from ladies’ dresses, along with a travelling altar stone, pewter chalice, alb, rosary ring and a quantity of church linen including altar frontals, chalice veils, burses and amices. These were used by priests travelling the Lancashire countryside, visiting remote Catholic farmhouses, manors and hamlets.

The chest itself is made from pine and is covered with ponyskin. The interior is lined with crudely printed wallpaper of hunting scenes. It is exactly the sort of container used by travelling salesmen, or chapmen, using fell ponies over the rough packhorse routes of rural England, and it was this persona that the priests adopted, travelling in disguise.


The St Dunstan Chasuble, featuring scenes from the murder of St Thomas Becket

The packhorse trails had the advantage of bypassing villages with their government-paid ‘watchers’ waiting to interrogate travelling strangers. The paths were rugged and uncomfortable, but they linked Catholic houses, and allowed priests disguised as pedlars to arrive at the back door offering threads and patterns, thimbles and pins. Secret signs and words were exchanged with the lady of the house and the priest was taken to a discreet room to unpack the vestments and celebrate Mass.

A later vestment tells the story of the changing situation for Catholics in the early 19th century. The Arundell Cope is a sumptuous robe, made from rich, dark red velvet, embroidered with jewels, pearls, gold and silver thread. The velvet was originally used for the coronation robes of James Everard, 10th Baron Arundell of Wardour, who wore them to Westminster Abbey for the crowning of George IV in 1821. His attendance at the coronation was an indication that Catholics were becoming accepted after centuries of exclusion. 

There is a final, intriguing item worth looking at. Known as the St Norbert Cope, it has a hood decorated with rich 17th century embroidery showing that saint holding aloft a monstrance. The fabric of the cope is bizarre; deep purple, gold and silver asymmetric designs, fringed with silk and paisley motifs. It was originally the umbrella of an Indian Maharajah’s elephant