Since moving to a picture postcard village in Surrey, I have been inundated with kind invitations. The chairwoman of the parish council brought me the timetable of the local Anglican church, which has roses around the door. She reached out to touch my arm sympathetically when I demurred.
It turned out that my nearest Catholic church is St Edward the Confessor at Sutton Place, a Grade I-listed Tudor manor house built in 1541 by Sir Richard Weston, a courtier of Henry VIII. To say this place is steeped in history is to put it mildly – the Reformation did not happen here.
You can see the Italianate gates of the estate’s east lodge entrance from the A3 near Guildford. In modern times, it has passed from one wealthy owner to another; Jean Paul Getty spent the last 17 years of his life there.
I had read on Wikipedia that “within Sutton Place was once the bloodstained ruff of St Thomas More and a crystal pomegranate that belonged to Queen Catherine of Aragon”. Upon visiting, I soon found myself standing in front of a display cabinet looking at a cream, perfectly intact piece of concertina-shaped cloth, as flawless as if it had just been taken off the garment it belonged to. “Cambric Wrist Ruff believed to have belonged to St Thomas More”, said the card in front of it.
Alongside that were other precious relics which had been hidden in priest holes. Much of Surrey fell into line with official edicts, being too close to London for open defiance, according to Brian Taylor’s excellent history, The Catholics of Sutton Park.
The house was searched twice after a commission headed by Francis Walsingham in 1577 intensified the hunt for recusants. Twelve were fined in Surrey, according to the records.
Sir Richard Weston had served on the jury that condemned Buckingham for treason and it was on the day of that execution, May 17, 1521, that the Sutton estate was granted to him. Henry VIII visited the house in August 1533 while suffering an outbreak of “the sweat”. He had just had his marriage to Catherine of Aragon declared void and was already married to Anne Boleyn. In 1534, the breach with Rome was final and Sir Thomas More was dead the following year. Sir Richard’s son, Francis, was soon dead too, implicated in Ann Boleyn’s alleged adultery.
Sir Richard died in 1542. His will stipulated that 450 Masses begin immediately for his soul. He wasn’t taking any chances.
Worship at Sutton continued in ways that were clandestine to the extent that not a single record remains of how they did it. One imagines hidden rooms and priests employed on the estate as farm workers or tutors. Two hiding places for priests were found in the 19th century. One, on the upper floor of the east wing, concealed a casket of relics, some of which I was able to view.
After Emancipation, Mass at Sutton Place was said in a small cottage on the estate, and in 1874 building began on the church of St Edward, a flint-walled example of Gothic Revival with a magnificent painting above the pulpit of the deposition of Jesus from the Cross, by Pedro Francione.
Nowadays, I have only to thank the head of the parish council for her offer and explain that I will be heading up the road. But that freedom is not to be taken lightly when the history of this place is considered.
The BBC began broadcast services from St Edward the Confessor in the 1950s under its People’s Services initiative, including, in1957, Midnight Mass in Latin.
At around the same time, Getty installed a payphone at Sutton Place. He did his own laundry by hand, reused stationery and, most famously, negotiated down the ransom for his grandson even while the kidnappers were cutting off the boy’s ear and mailing it to him. Perhaps he wrote his response to this in the margin of the ransom note, as he often did with correspondence to save on paper.
I am never quite sure whether being frugal is a sin or not. I don’t know whether God means us to splash money about like water on the basis that if one lets it flow it might permeate the world and do some good, or conserve it on the basis that profligate spending is wasteful and a sign of obsession with material things. So I steer a middle course – but I draw the line at putting in a payphone for guests.
Getty adopted a low profile locally, occasionally being seen driving an old Cadillac coupé. His decision to move to Sutton Place was made in part because he thought the cost of living there was cheaper than in London, but to be fair, he had resided at the Ritz. He boasted that it cost 10 cents for a rum and coke at Sutton Place, whereas at the Ritz it was more than a dollar. Today, real estate prices in this part of Surrey seems commensurate with those of London, and when I sold up in the capital and bought my little house here it was a stretch.
Since Getty, few owners have lived at Sutton Place, finding the 300-acre estate too expensive to run. Apart, that is, from the current owner, Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-born metal and mining magnate worth an estimated $15 billion, who has managed to renovate it.