Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXII, No. 1
Ufton Court: A Reminder of Catholic Heritage
Tudor Manor House Evokes Recusant History
by Joanna Bogle
Ufton Court is a beautiful English manor house in a beautiful part of the country, the Thames Valley (about 30 miles from London). It has a recently restored barn that is now popular for local wedding receptions and other gatherings. The house is rich in history and has been used by schools to enable pupils to study the Tudor period in genuine Tudor surroundings -- making pomanders, dressing in Tudor costumes, enjoying an Elizabethan-style banquet.
But for Catholics this is a place with a special resonance as it has no fewer than four priest-hides (or priest holes), plus a private oratory.
The family that lived here throughout the Reformation period was a Catholic family. The whole of this area of England has a number of Catholic strongholds -- not so far away is Stonor, where Saint Edmund Campion had his secret printing-press.
Ufton Court was used for Mass, celebrated in its oratory. The design of the house is such that someone keeping watch in a room over the front porch would be able to see anyone approaching even while they were some distance away. A priest could be quickly bundled into one of the hides -- which interconnect with a series of passages -- while the house was cleared of any evidence of Mass and the crowd dispersed into various harmless activities around the extended household.
Unlike many houses with a recusant past, Ufton Court’s story is not a grim one: there were raids here by priest-hunters but none of them was successful. The priest-hides are well-designed and effective. (The present owner, Sir William Benyon, remembers hiding in one of them when on a visit as a child: “I wanted to get away from my nanny!”)
Why did a house need hiding places for priests? Initially when Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne, it was assumed that Catholicism would simply die out: the priests ordained during Queen Mary’s reign would grow old and would be replaced with ministers ordained to the new Protestant system.
What changed things was a policy of the Jesuits and other English priests living in exile: determined to win back England to the Catholic Faith, missionaries were send to England to preach, teach, hear confessions and celebrate Mass. Eventually, a law was passed making it an act of treason to be ordained abroad and then return to England as a Catholic priest.
This meant that simply to be a Catholic priest -- simply to be alive, and in England, and have some evidence of identity of Catholic priesthood -- meant the death penalty.
And it was a horrible death: partly throttled by hanging, a man would be cut down and butchered while alive. Examples of priest-martyrs who are honored today as saints are Edmund Campion, the poet Robert Southwell, John Kemble, George Beeston, Ralph Sherwin who died alongside Campion, and John Southworth, who was a priest in London’s Great Plague and the last to be martyred.
Many priest-martyrs met their deaths at Tyburn, near today’s Marble Arch in London. A brass cross set into a traffic island at a road junction marks the exact site of the gallows, and nearby Tyburn Convent has relics of the martyrs and a museum in their memory.
The Catholic faithful guarded their priests. They built hiding places for them in safe houses, helped them to assume different identities, sealed chalices and other items into the walls of buildings from where they could be extricated for Mass, used codes for passing on information. Some priest-martyrs were betrayed by people who gained large sums for handing over a wanted man to the authorities. Others were captured by the priest-hunters who ripped rooms apart, tore down walls, and set fires so that men hiding would be smoked out.
At Ufton Court the priests survived to continue their work. Peering into a priest-hide is a weird experience. So is praying in the tiny oratory, which dates from a later period and is private rather than secret -- evidence of a Catholicism perhaps tolerated by the local authorities provided it did not make itself too evident.
I will never forget the summer evening when I first visited Ufton Court: the summer sun was setting, there was a group in Tudor costume parading into the barn across a courtyard, old floorboards creaked gently, and the grandchildren of the owners ran happily about and were shown the priest-hides “and look, when the baddies came you could see them from this window here, so there was time for the good priest to hide safely….”
It is interesting that history in Britain is no longer taught with the anti-Catholic bias that was normal for almost four centuries. Rather, the Reformation period is seen as one of religious tension and tragic events generally, driven by political events and producing much suffering. (This is not to say that history is well taught in most British schools -- it isn’t -- though at least a certain built-in bias has faded).
Locally, people are proud of Ufton Court and its traditions. The house is the scene of an annual event, the “Marvin dole”. The Benyon family, current owners, keep up the tradition established by a (presumably Catholic -- we are not sure) previous lady of the manor, Lady Marvin.
Lost in the local woods one stormy night, she was helped by some of her tenants, and ever since that time, free gifts of bread and linen have been distributed to bona fide local families. They gather on the lawn in front of the house on a set date, and come one by one to a certain window, where members of the family hand out the gifts. The mood is cheerful and neighborly, unpretentious and very English: no one seems embarrassed, there is a mood of gentle amusement by all concerned though the gifts are real and useful. (A few years ago, Lady Benyon decided that giving out only bed linen seemed a bit unhelpful, as some families were now becoming extremely well-supplied, so she added towels as an alternative).
The Benyons are not Catholics but as committed Christians are active in a number of ecumenical ventures: as a local Member of Parliament Sir William was a strong opponent of the 1967 Abortion Act and the first politician to seek (unsuccessfully) to amend it. They support a number of Christian projects including a plan, run under Catholic chairmanship, encouraging pupils at schools across Britain to study the New Testament and win prizes for essays on events in the life of Christ. They are on terms of warm friendship with local Catholics including monks at nearby Douai Abbey, and they have been active campaigners on pro-life and pro-family issues.
Ufton Court is run as an education center administered by a trust, and there is a strong emphasis on honoring the traditions of the house and the courage and faith these represent. Visitors, especially groups, are welcomed -- tours can be arranged, there are facilities for conferences or other events, and you can even have a traditional English Tea (visit www.uftoncourt.co.uk).
Here the centuries seem to merge together somehow, and there is a sense of continuity, and of faith in the future. In the small oratory, I said a quick “Hail Mary”.
Within these walls, the message is that the Faith can survive and that we should “hold fast to that which is good” and know that the future is in God’s hands.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
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