Recusants, Refusants, and Downton Abbey, Part I- Why is Called an ‘Abbey’ if it’s a Home?
A “priest hole” in a Stuart-era manor home figures prominently the recent James Bond movie Skyfall. While it never could be said that watching this movie (which took in an estimated $89 million its first weekend) is akin to having a religious experience, Father Robert Barron found Catholic themes and connections aplenty in the film, which provided many viewers their first glimpse into the world of Catholic persecution during Elizabethan times.
“Ah! This was a house from the Recusant period, when Catholics were under siege and they had to protect priests, who would visit to say mass and do the sacraments,” Father Barron commented in a clip from his Youtube Word on Fire series. “They hid them in walls, they hid them behind walls, in cellars and in attics.”
Background: In 1534, King Henry VIII obtained Parliament’s passage of the Act of Supremacy which made him “the only supreme head of the Church of England,” a title never before claimed by any monarch in the history of Christendom. Parliament’s Act of Succession subjected the entire population to swearing an oath acknowledging the yet unborn issue of Henry and Anne Boleyn as legitimate heirs to the throne (and declaring the illegitimacy of Princess Mary, daughter of the king by Catherine of Aragon). Its preamble contained a clause explicitly rejecting papal authority. To refuse the oath was to be guilty of treason.
The 1534 Treasons Act made it punishable by death to disavow the Act of Supremacy. St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More were both arrested for refusing the oath and were sent to the Tower of London for nearly a year before their respective trials.
After being found guilty due to suborned perjury of Richard Rich, More declared, “Seeing that ye are determined to condemn me (God knoweth how), I will now in discharge of my conscience speak my mind plainly and freely touching my indictment and your statute withal. And forasmuch as this indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his Holy Church, the supreme government of which, or of any part whereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him . . . ” Fisher, too, was found guilty. Both were martyred by beheading.
The Supression and Dissolution of Monasteries (link to list of those dissolved)
In 1536 Parliament passed an act dissolving all “lesser” monasteries and convents with fewer than 12 inhabitants or with an income of less than £200 per year. A companion bill of Parliament that same year made monasteries, convents, priories and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland — formerly subject to the Pope — now subject solely to the king and created a special Court of the Augmentations of the Revenues of the King’s Crown to dispose of the properties of the dissolved monasteries. The Court was headed up by the aforementioned Richard Rich. In 1539, another act was passed disbanding the larger monasteries too. The king confiscated monasteries’ income and disposed of their assets — mostly by giving or selling lands to wealthy gentry familie, who then converted them into private country houses. The Highclere Castle in Hampshire (in Southern England), used for exterior shots and for most of the interior filming of the popular television series with the fictional title of “Downton Abbey,” stands on the site of an earlier house which was built on the foundations of the medieval ‘castle’ of the Bishops of Winchester, who owned this estate from the 8th century. The original site was recorded in the Domesday Book.
The summer of 1536, Warren H. Carroll wrote, the targeted religious houses were seized and despoiled. “Whatever Cromwell’s men did not take was looted by some of the neighboring people,” he wrote in The Cleaving of Christendom (A History of Christendom, vol 4). “Even the tombs of dead monks and nuns were robbed.” But some found protectors: of the 376 monasteries and convents originally listed for confiscation, 123 survived, either due to local protectors or to large bribes paid to Cromwell. The people in the northern regions, Warren wrote, were mostly faithful Catholics, and the seizure of the monasteries and convents– known and loved by most in their vicinity — brought home for the first time to the people of England what was really happening in their country.
Next: Recusants, Refusants, and Downton “Abbey” Part II – “Are We Criminals Again?”
Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong!
(1 Cor. 16:13)