Catholics in England: a long journey from outlaws to rejoining the Establishment

STONOR, England (AP) — For nearly three centuries after the Reformation, Catholics in England were outlaws.

But in the turmoil and persecution that followed the break between King Henry VIII and Rome, noble families such as the Stonors clung to their faith, "in spite of dungeon, fire and sword," as the Victorian hymn "Faith of our Fathers" put it.

"We're just stubborn, really," says Ralph Thomas Campion Stonor, the seventh Lord Camoys, a title bestowed on an ancestor for valor in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Pope Benedict XVI will recall the years of persecution during his upcoming tour of Britain Sept. 16-19. He will visit Westminster Hall, the medieval chamber within the Houses of Parliament where the Catholic Thomas More was tried and convicted of treason in 1535. More refused to swear an oath accepting the annulment of King Henry's marriage, thus becoming one of the first of the legion of English Catholic martyrs.

The Stonor family's history mirrors the vicissitudes of Catholics, both noble and humble, who defied the law and risked death to preserve their faith through times of persecution until they regained full legal rights in the 19th century.

The Stonors were among those described as respectable "recusants," people who refused to attend Church of England services; respectable because they did not join in any plots to overthrow the monarchy.

It was possible, even in the turbulent times of Queen Elizabeth I, to be openly Catholic and still enjoy royal favor. A notable case was the composer William Byrd, who wrote music for the Chapel Royal and for the Catholic Mass.

The Stonor family sheltered another famous martyr, the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion. Campion's printing press was discovered at the Stonor house after Campion was arrested in 1581. Dame Cecily Stonor, who had already been paying yearly fines equivalent to 50,000 pounds ($77,000) in today's money, and her son John were arrested as well,

She stoutly refused to renounce her faith in which, she declared, she found "nothing taught in it but great virtue and sanctity, and so by the grace of God I will live and die in it."

The heavy fines and confiscation of Catholic lands depleted the wealth of the Stonors, who by the 14th century had owned 22 manors in eight counties plus 60 acres (24 hectares) of land in the center of London.

Various post-Reformation laws barred Catholics from entering London, traveling more than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from home or owning horses worth more than 10 pounds, but the Stonor family continued to live in some comfort in their grand house, nestled between hills in the countryside 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of London.

Camoys pointed out a painting from the more relaxed time of King James II, a Catholic who reigned from 1685 to 1688. The painting shows a large number of horses — clearly worth more than allowed — outside the house, along with a fine carriage.

Persecution ran both ways. Queen Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII, vigorously sought to uproot the Church of England; Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer, and Bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were among scores burned at the stake during her reign from 1553 to 1558. Mary also bestowed a knighthood on Francis Stonor.

Pope Pius V fueled official paranoia in 1570 by publishing a bull pronouncing the Protestant Queen Elizabeth to be excommunicated and deposed. Nonetheless, Elizabeth knighted the second Francis Stonor as a gesture of reconciliation.

Pope Sixtus V supported the Spanish Armada and promised financial support for the invasion which never came, because the English navy repulsed the Spanish fleet in 1588.

Though officially suppressed, Catholics developed an organization in the following century with four Vicars Apostolic acting much like bishops, overseeing districts. One of the vicars was John Talbot Stonor, who died in 1756; it helped that he had support from a relative, the Duke of Shrewsbury, who was Lord Chamberlain, Camoys said.

Camoys, an investment banker, in 1998 became the first Catholic since the Reformation to be appointed Lord Chamberlain, a senior royal official, and he is a financial adviser to the Vatican.

The family chapel, still open under a license granted by King Edward III in 1349, is a touchstone of his faith, he says.

"It's the chapel, the existence of the chapel, the continuity of that chapel — that is the thing that is foremost in our minds and keeps us going," Camoys said.

"It is an amazing fact that only about three Catholic chapels survived through it all."

The chapel boasts a Stations of the Cross carved from wood and presented to Camoys' parents by Graham Greene, the late Catholic novelist.

Laws restricting Catholic rights were enacted in every reign from Elizabeth I to George II, who died in 1760. In 1832, Catholics won the right to vote, and one of the first to benefit was Thomas Stonor. He moved easily into the establishment, serving Queen Victoria as Lord-in-Waiting for 28 years.

For ordinary Catholics, the most significant date was 1791, when they were allowed to celebrate Mass openly.

The ban on Catholics entering Oxford or Cambridge universities remained in force until the 1870s, during the lifetime of Cardinal Newman, the convert from the Church of England who is to be beatified by Benedict on Sept. 19.

Newman, born in 1801, saw the early years of the 19th century as a dark time for the faith, reduced in his eyes to "but a few adherents of the old religion, moving silently and sorrowfully about, as memorials of what had been."

In contrast, Camoys pointed to a portrait of an 18th century ancestor, his proud, almost haughty face framed in a long wig. "They don't look downtrodden, do they?" Camoys said.

Other Catholic noble families survived, including the Dukes of Norfolk who are the pre-eminent nobles of England, though the fourth duke was beheaded for plotting against Queen Elizabeth.

Ordinary Catholics shared in the suffering. Margaret Clitherow, a butcher's wife from York, was executed in 1586 by being pressed to death with heavy weights. A convert to Catholicism during Elizabeth's reign, Clitherow sheltered priests in her home.

The faithful risked prison to gather up relics, or even a scrap of bloody fabric, after the execution of a Catholic, she said.

After it emerged from the shadows, the English Catholic Church grew rapidly as Irish immigrants flooded into Britain. Today's church is even more diverse; Archbishop Vincent Nichols says he knows of parishes whose members represent more than a hundred languages.

Occasionally, though, one hears echoes of the old nervousness about being associated with the Roman church: Former Prime Minister Tony Blair waited until he had left office to convert to Catholicism.