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Berkshire Family Historian
September 2002

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, September 2002 Contents

Catholic recusancy in Berkshire

by Tony Hadland

During the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, those who 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 strategy. In July 1586, a secret conference at Harleyford Manor, across the river from Hurley, determined that priests would be based in the homes of the recusant gentry. Harbouring a priest could incur the death penalty and merely being a priest constituted high treason. Nonetheless, the Harleyford strategy worked well in many parts of Berkshire. Various factors contributed to this:

  • Recusancy among the gentry was relatively strong in neighbouring Hampshire and south Oxfordshire.
  • Most conforming gentry did not invoke anti-Catholic legislation against their recusant neighbours.
  • The Thames provided an efficient link with London, with recusant manor houses every few miles along the Oxfordshire bank of the river.
  • Catholic priests returning via the Hampshire coast from the Continent often passed through Berkshire.
  • Berkshire was far away enough from London to make casual raids unlikely.
  • Until the reign of Charles I, there was a steady supply of local martyrs to provide spiritual inspiration.

Hence, after two centuries of repression, there were still nearly 600 Roman Catholics in Berkshire. The Catholic Relief Act of 1778 put a formal end to the prosecution of priests by informers and allowed Roman Catholics legally to purchase and inherit land. Thirteen years later, a second act re-opened the professions to Roman Catholics and permitted the legalisation of Catholic chapels.

Catholics in Berkshire (map)

During the recusancy period, Roman Catholics 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. Lesser mortals would be buried in the churchyard at night, with a blind eye turned by the authorities. In the absence of civil registration, Roman Catholics often had their children baptised by the vicar as well as by the Catholic priest. Similarly, even when the law did not require an Anglican wedding, Roman Catholics might undergo one to guarantee legitimacy.

Let us now look more closely at some of Berkshire's recusant enclaves:

Englefield & Sonning

Englefield House

Englefield House

Sir Francis Englefield, one of Mary Tudor's strongest supporters, went into exile on the accession of Elizabeth I. His refusal to return led to forfeiture of the family seat, Englefield House. His nephew, another Francis Engiefield, became a baronet and bought the Whiteknights estate in Sonning parish. This became a recusant centre for the Reading area, served by Franciscans until the seventh baronet sold up in 1783. There were 21 Roman Catholics in and around Whiteknights when, in 1767, the Anglican authorities attempted a national census of 'papists'.

After the Civil War, the recusant arch-royalist John Paulet, formerly of Basing House, retired to Englefield House, which he inherited through marriage. Paulet died in 1675, first marquis of England, and lies in Englefield parish church.

Ufton Nervet, Padworth & Beenham

Adjoining Englefield parish is Ufton Nervet. The recusant Perkins family had their main seat at Ufton Court. Francis Perkins was the, son of Cardinal Pole's usher and a nephew of the martyred Swithun Wells. Ufton was served by Franciscans and has priest-holes where the recusant Thomas Vachell of Ipsden, Oxon. (formerly of Coley Park) hid his treasure. Arabella Fermor, the subject of Alexander Pope's poem The Rape of the Lock married a Perkins and became mistress of Ufton. In 1767 there were 43 Roman Catholics in Ufton parish and a further 32 in the adjoining parishes of Padworth and Beenham. In 1741 George Brownlow Doughty had his own chapel in Beenham.

Woolhampton, Bucklebury & Thatcham

Abutting Padworth and Beenham is Woolhampton parish. William Wollascott was half-brother of Edmund Plowden, Sir Francis Englefield's lawyer. Plowden's eventual main seat was Shiplake Court, Oxon. Wollascott held the Shalford estate, centred on Woolhampton. He was a 'church papist' - a secret Roman Catholic who outwardly conformed to Anglicanism - and founded an enduring recusant dynasty. In 1757, the Woolhampton estate passed by marriage to Arthur James Plunkett, Earl of Fingall, who was related to the martyred archbishop of Armagh. In 1767 there were 84 Roman Catholics in Woolhampton parish and another 30 in adjoining Bucklebury. In Elizabethan times, there was recusancy in the Winchcombe families of Bucklebury and Henwick (Thatcham). In the seventeenth century, several Winchcombe daughters married into local recusant families.

Hampstead Norreys, Shaw, Binfield & Warfield

Adjoining Bucklebury is Hampstead Norreys. In the seventeenth century, the Dancastles held property at various places including Hampstead Norreys and nearby Shaw. The Dancastles also held property in east Berkshire at Binfield in Windsor Forest until they died out in the mid-eighteenth century. Their recusant neighbours included the parents of the poet Alexander Pope.

There were 25 Roman Catholics in Binfield parish in 1767 and another 12 in the adjoining parish of Warfield where another recusant family (possibly Coxe or Milton) had a private chapel. The recusant John Vachell died at Warfield in 1641.

Buckland & Lyford

Recusant branches of the Yate family lived in the Vale of White Horse at Buckiand Manor and Lyford Grange. It was at Lyford that Edmund Campion, the first Jesuit to be executed in England, was arrested in 1581. There was a secret convent there, more than 40 years after the suppression of the monasteries. Buckiand remained a recusant base and passed through marriage to the Throckmorton family. In 1767 there were 42 Roman Catholics in Buckland parish.

Denchworth, Purley & Brimpton

Hyde Hall, Purley (drawing)

Hyde Hall, Purley

Close to Lyford is Denchworth, which at the time of Campion's arrest was the main seat of the Hyde family. There were recusant Hydes at Hyde Hall, Purley in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century and subsequently at Hyde End, Brimpton. In 1767 there were 29 Roman Catholics in Brimpton.

Milton, Drayton, Sutton Courtenay & Marcham

Milton Manor (drawing)

Milton Manor

In 1764, Bryant Barrett, lacemaker to George III, bought Milton Manor near Abingdon. Barrett was a convert to Catholicism and a secret Jacobite. The house was attacked by a mob during the Gordon Riots. Barrett's friend Richard Challoner, a clandestine Roman Catholic bishop, died following the riots and Barrett had him buried in the parish church at Milton. In 1767 there were 23 Roman Catholics in Milton and the nearby parishes of Drayton, Sutton Courtenay and Marcham.

East Hendred

Adjoining Milton is East Hendred, where the Eystons quietly but steadfastly maintained the Old Faith. In 1688, their newly restored chapel, then served by a Franciscan chaplain, was desecrated by William of Orange's invading army but subsequently restored. Through marriage the Eystons added the bloodline of the martyr Sir Thomas More to their pedigree. In 1767 there were 32 Roman Catholics in the parish of East Hendred.


Sir Francis Moore was a highly successful Elizabethan lawyer who gave no hint of recusancy. Yet at Fawley he established a Catholic mission that lasted until the family sold up in 1765. It was the only Berkshire mission served for any length of time by Benedictines. It transferred to nearby Whatcombe where the Franciscans took over. Whatcombe was at various times home to the recusant Young, Hyde and Deariove families. In 1767, despite the Moores' departure, there were 19 Roman Catholics in Fawley and nearby Brightwalton.

West Shefford, East Garston & Lambourn

Abutting Fawley are West Shefford and East Garston. In Elizabethan times, George Browne, son of the staunchly Catholic first Lord Montague, acquired property here. The neighbourhood retalned a recusant population well into the eighteenth century. Between them, the adjoining parishes of West Shefford, East Garston and Lambourn had 41 Roman Catholics in 1767.

East Illsley & Littlestoke

The recusant Hildesley/Hilsley/Ilsley family had its roots in East Ilsley. Throughout most of the recusancy period, their main seat was at Littlestoke, Oxon., across the Thames from Papist Way, Cholsey. The main male line died out by the eariy eighteenth century but one of the junior lines apparently remained Catholic. Joseph Ilsley of Mapledurham, born in 1805, became a priest and president of the English College, Lisbon. The second Roman Catholic bishop of Birmingham was also an Ilsley.

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.

Principal sources:

Hadland, T. Thames Valley Papists (revised online edition at Hadland Books, 2001

Gandy, M. Catholic Missions and Registers, Volume 1, Gandy, 1993

Worrall, E.S. (ed.) , Catholic Record Society, 1989

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created 27th October 2002