They may seem decadent, but they kept the faith alive in the wake of the Reformation

Attendance at monthly Masses at Milton Manor in Oxfordshire is usually by invitation only, in the form of a telephone call from the current heir, Anthony Mockler. “Would you like to come to Mass on Sunday with drinks afterwards in the library?” he asks.

Around 30 to 40 people will turn up, some of whom are simply curious to sneak a look at a house seldom open to the public. According to the BBC historian Lucy Worsley, who worked at Milton Manor in the 1990s, they were typically a “small and outlandish collection of people” who all pronounced Mass “with a long ‘a’ ”. Their numbers are significant for the priest, who is paid solely out of the collection.

Since 2016 the use of the chapel has widened. The Latin Mass Society now holds services there at least twice a year, allowing Catholics to experience the older form of the Mass as part of a programme of services held in different churches around the country every year. The chapel is fine Strawberry Hill Gothic, and interesting because Bishop Richard Challoner, the translator of the hugely influential Douay-Rheims Bible, prayed here and was buried nearby until 1946, when he was reinterred at Westminster Cathedral.

Private chapels are rare in England, perhaps also a little decadent, certainly rich with ornament, wealth and privilege. Yet perhaps their rather hidden secret is that most harboured a passionate desire to keep a forbidden flame alive.

Catholic families of England at the time of the Reformation were finding that their identity was being crushed. England’s private chapels were needed most when those worshipping in them had to go underground to withdraw from public religion. As Catholicism became progressively outlawed through the 16th and 17th centuries, they became centres of resistance.

Sometimes a priest disguised himself as a tutor to the family’s children, as he did for the Welds at their home in Lulworth Castle in Dorset, to bring the Eucharist clandestinely to family and other trusted Catholics in the area.

The celebrated St Edmund Campion was priest at Stonor Chapel near Henley in Oxfordshire. It was there that, in great danger, he wrote the illicit pamphlet “Ten Reasons” to spearhead the intellectual resistance to Protestantism in England. The leaflet was printed on a mobile press in the roof of the house and transported to Oxford. There it was slid onto the seats of delegates arriving for a university conference, causing a great scandal. It was the leaflet that ultimately led to Campion’s capture, torture and death.

Stonor Chapel is one of just three in England where Mass was celebrated without a break throughout the long gloomy years of the Reformation. This remarkable place contains Stations of the Cross created by a Polish prisoner of war, Jozef Janas, which were given to the chapel by Graham Greene. The original chapel was built in the late 13th century, on the earlier site of a prehistoric stone circle. The Stonor family, who have lived there for more than 800 years, have produced 15 priests and 16 nuns.

One of the best-known private chapels is the one in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The chapel, based on the original at Castle Howard, was brilliantly realised as the scene of languid conversations between Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in the 1981 television series. Its murals are by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, finished with a gilt ceiling and ornamented by a vast organ.

Like other surviving recusant chapels in England, Milton Manor’s chapel was once secret. It is still entered on the second floor by a small doorway. However, the entrance is larger than the traditional priest hole, reflecting the beginning of a new confidence in Catholic worship that emerged at the end of the 18th century. Milton Manor is one of the earliest post-Reformation chapels still in use.

It was built 14 years before Catholics were permitted to own property once again, in 1778, and even longer – a whole 65 years – before the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. It is remarkable that its 18th-century owner, a lacemaker to George III, bought the house and built the chapel despite not having legal title. This was held for him by his brother, who was not Catholic. This showed a conviction that the tide was turning in English political life.

Within two decades, the owners of Lulworth Castle showed a similar judgment by openly building St Mary’s Chapel in their grounds to replace the hidden chapel in their house. In 1786 work started on a discreet Georgian building, with no stained glass to offend any passing anti-papists. Soon after its consecration King George III and Queen Charlotte visited – recognition that Catholic worship had finally moved out from the shadows.

Sarah Crofts is a freelance journalist. If you would like to attend a Mass at Milton Manor, write to Anthony Mockler at Milton Manor House, High St, Milton, Abingdon OX14 4EN

This article first appeared in the February 23rd 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here