Strongholds of Catholic Recusancy in Oxfordshire

An article written in 2004 for Oxfordshire Family Historian

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, those who resolutely refused to attend Anglican church services were known as recusants. Most were Roman Catholics. Despite draconian legislation, Roman Catholicism survived in England because of a deliberate national strategy, formulated near the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border.

In July 1586, a secret conference at Harleyford Manor, a few miles down the Thames from Henley, determined that priests would be based in the homes of the recusant gentry. A network of Catholic missions based in manor houses would keep an ember of the ‘Old Faith’ glowing, in the hope that at some time in the future, the situation might improve.

Harbouring a priest could incur the death penalty and merely being a priest constituted high treason. Nonetheless, the Harleyford strategy worked well in several parts of Oxfordshire. Various factors contributed to this:

  1. Recusancy among the gentry was relatively strong, especially in the south Oxfordshire Chilterns, along the Thames between Henley and Oxford, and in parts of north Oxfordshire.
  2. Most conforming gentry did not invoke anti-Catholic legislation against their recusant neighbours, who were not only their peers but also often their relatives.
  3. Until the reign of Charles I, there was a steady supply of local martyrs to provide spiritual inspiration: Sir Adrian FORTESCUE, Fr Edmund CAMPION, Thomas BELSON, Fr George NAPPER (NAPIER) and many more.
  4. The presence of the STONOR family, based at Stonor House near Henley-on-Thames provided a strong focus for respectable recusancy, generally untainted by connections with extremist plots against the Crown. The martyred Sir Adrian FORTESCUE was a kinsman of the STONORS and Fr CAMPION’S secret printing press was at Stonor.

Hence, after two centuries of repression, when Roman Catholicism was at its lowest ebb in England, there were still about 750 RCs known to the authorities in Oxfordshire. The Catholic Relief Act of 1778 put a formal end to the prosecution of priests by informers and allowed RCs legally to purchase and inherit land. Thirteen years later, a second act re-opened the professions to RCs and permitted the legalisation of Catholic chapels.

The government’s 1767 Returns of Papists was a census of Catholics, long before a similar level of detail was sought for the population as a whole. Although the Oxfordshire entries follow the official instruction not to record names, they provide a fascinating snapshot of Catholic demographics. In most cases, the age, sex, rank, occupation and length of residence is given. It is sometimes possible to deduce who certain individuals were, especially if they were gentry.

During the recusancy period, RCs could not officially be buried in Anglican churchyards. In practice, recusant gentry were still interred in family vaults and commemorated by memorials in parish churches. A good example is the Catholic-owned Bardolph aisle in Mapledurham’s parish church. Lesser mortals would be buried in the churchyard at night, usually with a blind eye turned by the authorities. In the absence of civil registration, RCs often had their children baptised by the vicar as well as by the clandestine Catholic priest. Similarly, even when the law did not require an Anglican wedding, RCs might undergo one to provide confirmation of legitimacy.

Occasional conformity to the Church of England was practised by some RCs (particularly the male heads of families) as a means of sheltering themselves and their families from fines, sequestration and worse. The term ‘Church Papist’ was used to describe those who outwardly fully conformed to Anglicanism but who were secretly convinced Roman Catholics.

Let us now look closer at some of old Oxfordshire’s bigger and more enduring recusant enclaves:

These more or less contiguous parishes in the north of the county had, according to the government’s Returns of Papists of 1767, a combined RC population of about 170. The dominant Catholic gentry family here was FERMOR. They had a chapel at Hethe House, Tusmore (1612 to 1828), which was served at least some of the time by Jesuits. The FERMORS had another chapel at Somerton. The DAY family had a chapel at Hardwick Manor Farm from 1768 to 1830. At Souldern House, recusant families included STUTSBURY and WEEDON. The chapel there closed in 1781. At Fritwell the LONGUEVILLE family had a chapel, which closed in 1729.

This cluster of parishes lies only a few miles west of the Souldern & Tusmore cluster. The BROWNE (later BROWNE-MOSTYN) family had a chapel at Kiddington, served by Jesuits and later Benedictines, from the 17th century until 1825. At Heythrop, from 1717, the dominant RC family was TALBOT (Earls of Shrewsbury). The combined RC population of this cluster in 1767 was 126.

The GREENWOOD family had a domestic chapel, served by Benedictines, which closed in 1769. Two years earlier, according to government figures, there were 25 RCs in the parish. Via Tadpole Bridge, there was easy communication between the recusants of Brize Norton and those of Buckland in Berkshire, with only one other parish (Bampton) between them.

This was the home of the CURSON family, whose domestic chapel was served primarily by Jesuits. There were 32 RCs in the parish in 1767. This mission is the ‘ancestor’ of the present Oxford Oratory Church (St Aloysius) in Woodstock Road.

The STONOR family of Stonor Park dominated this cluster. They were one of the most influential Catholic families in England throughout the recusancy period and thereafter. The chapel at Stonor House is unusual in that it still operates under a pre-Reformation papal licence. Watlington Park, where there was another chapel, was home of the clandestine Bishop STONOR in the 18th century. Another STONOR residence was Blounts Court in Rotherfield Peppard. At Hazeley Court, home of the HUDDLESTON and WOLFE families, there was a chapel, which closed in 1768. An RC branch of the SIMEON family held the manor at Britwell Salome, which later passed to the WELD family of Lulworth, Dorset. The SIMEONS had Jesuit chaplains. The 1767 ‘census’ of Catholics shows only 8 RCs at Britwell Salome but this is because the house was being rebuilt and the SIMEON household had moved temporarily to nearby Newington, where we find the baronet, his chaplain and 13 other RCs. At Swyncombe lived an RC branch of the FETTIPLACE family until the early 18th century. This cluster of parishes had a Catholic population of nearly 140 in 1767.

The Thames was the major route between Oxford and London. There was a string of Catholic houses along the Oxfordshire bank, of which those in the above parishes were the most enduring. Shiplake Court was a home of the PLOWDEN family until sold in the aftermath of the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Mapledurham, home of the BLOUNT family, remains a Catholic house to this day. It was served by Jesuits and later by Franciscans and, in 1767, had an RC population of 29. The HILDESLEY family owned a Thameside manor at Littlestoke in Checkendon parish. Whereas most RC enclaves were based in gentry homes, the Catholic survival around Dorchester was primarily due to the loyalty of several local yeoman families. Chief among these was the DAVEY family, who had a chapel at Overy. There were 19 RCs in Dorchester in 1767. The POWELL family lived at Sandford until 1760, by which time the male line had failed.


The above listing is by no means exhaustive but highlights most of the major RC recusant clusters in Oxfordshire. (For coverage of those parts of the present county that were formerly in Berkshire, see my article at Although we know most about the gentry families on whom recusancy depended, there is increasing interest in recusants of lower rank whose names are harder to trace. Apart from servants and estate workers, these included the relatively independent self-employed, such as innkeepers, shoemakers, paper makers, wig makers, tailors and blacksmiths. The ‘census’ of 1767 gives an all too rare insight into these people and their families, even if it is left to us to work out what their names were.

© Tony Hadland, 2004

Principal Sources
Hadland, T. Thames Valley Papists (revised edition), Mapledurham Trust, 2004.
Gandy, M. Catholic Missions and Registers, Volume 2, Gandy, 1993.
Worrall, E.S. (ed.) Returns of Papists 1767, Volume 2, Catholic Record Society, 1989.

Lady Anastasia Moore’s letter

Dr Chris Grant is a British scientist now living in California. He has a great interest in postal history and owns a rare letter dated Feb 2nd 1724/3. It is from Lady Anastasia Moore of Fawley, near Wantage, and was sent from that town to her sister Mrs Howard in London. The images below show the letter text and the letter cover – folded and unfolded.

In February 2006, Chris wrote: “On the cover reverse you will see a straight-line unframed WANTAGE receiving strike with the W on one edge of the folded paper and the ANTAGE on the other side (obviously the letter was folded and sealed for posting). One dealer I have shared this letter with says the WANTAGE strike is quite rare and use was only recorded for a 3 year period.”

“The red wax seal on back is not of high image quality but does show a rooster design – something I find mildly incongruous with the letter content. Also on reverse is an excellent 16mm Bishopmark 3/FE struck when the letter reached London. The charge for carriage of the letter is the handwritten 7 (pence) on the cover front – this amount was (of course) charged to the recipient (Mrs Howard). The charge is twice the usual rate for the time and implies the letter contained an enclosure. Obviously the letter would have travelled by horseback to Abingdon and from there via Maidenhead and Hounslow. Abingdon was recorded as a horse mail by-post in 1677.”

In my book Thames Valley Papists, the full text of which is on this website, you can read about Lady Anastasia and the stormy relationship she had with her husband, the Sir Richard to whom she refers. The bath which she mentions is the then highly fashionable spa city of Bath and ‘parris’ is, of course, Paris, where many English Catholics lived – and near which was the exiled Jacobite court. Fawley is near the old London to Bath coaching road, now the A4. Notice some archaic spellings, such as ‘att’ and ‘goe’.

My thanks to Chris for allowing us to share this rare example of recusant correspondence.

Thames Valley Papists – get the book!


Thames Valley Papists: 2nd edition

The 240 page A5 format paperback second edition of Tony Hadland’s book can be bought here. It tells the story of how Roman Catholicism survived in Berkshire and southern Oxfordshire during the nearly 300 years between Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. This edition has a full-colour laminated cover, five maps, additional illustrations and improved typography.

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