News Analysis

Britain: Northern powerhouse

A new project will put English Catholics in touch with their past

In 2015, the historian David Starkey complained that the BBC series Wolf Hall contained “a deliberate perversion of fact”. The programme, based on Hilary Mantel’s novel, presented Thomas Cromwell as a tender family man, even something of an early feminist. Like other historians, Starkey found it pretty implausible, adding that if there was one man who loved his daughters and gave them a first-class education, it was Wolf Hall’s villain, St Thomas More.

The controversy is a reminder of how easily historical truth can be buried – for although More is a fondly remembered character, English history is, especially from a Catholic’s perspective, full of forgotten greatness.

There is Helena Wintour, the 17th-century seamstress who made beautiful vestments rich in symbolism. There is the martyr Blessed Roger Wrenno, who seems to have had a mystical experience on the scaffold: after the rope broke and he was offered a final chance to apostatise, he told the sheriff, “If you had seen that which I have just now seen, you would be as much in haste to die as I am now.” There is the 18th-century Bishop Francis Petre, apostolic vicar of the Northern District, who asked to be buried in the Anglican chapel at Bailey Hall. (It had previously been a major recusant site.)

This history will soon be getting its due, and on an unprecedented scale. The Christian Heritage Centre, at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, will be putting some of Stonyhurst College’s 100,000 books and artefacts on display at a new site, Theodore House. Stonyhurst’s own museum closed in the 1960s, but soon it will get the setting it deserves. Visitors will be able to see the Wintour Vestments, or walk up the road to Bishop Petre’s tomb. Scholars will be able to consult the histories of Roger Wrenno and the other martyrs, stories kept alive by historians like Dom Odo Blundell OSB, author of the three-volume Old Catholic Lancashire.

The launch date may not be too far away, though they still have to raise £300,000 of the £4 million total. The figure is so high because the project is far more than a museum. Theodore House will also be a retreat house and educational centre.

When finished, it will contain not just a library and museum, but also 34 bedrooms, a lecture theatre and seminar room – and, most importantly, an oratory which will be dedicated to prayer and Eucharistic Adoration. Parish and school groups will be encouraged to visit. Lord Alton, chairman of the Christian Heritage Centre, tells me that he hopes Theodore House “will be a gift to ordinary Christians who will see it as a northern powerhouse for re-evangelisation and renewal”.

Some of the items, which Lord Alton describes as “both the legacy and birth-right of generations of faithful Catholics,” will bring the visitor close to history. “Items like the crucifix of St Thomas More and the rope that dragged St Edmund Campion SJ through the streets of London to his death at Tyburn – both cared for and loaned by the Society of Jesus – never fail to inspire all who see them,” he says.

Theodore House will also be of interest to literary pilgrims, and perhaps to fans of fantasy literature: it includes a “Tolkien Trail”, since the great novelist would walk in the Ribble Valley around Stonyhurst, and come to Mass at the college. The trail leaflet even claims that “The verdant countryside is dominated by the dark shape of Pendle Hill which bears a striking resemblance to Mordor.” Another trail is planned, this one inspired by another visitor to the area, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Interest in the project extends beyond England. Some of the funding has come from across the Atlantic, and Theodore House plans to mark what a brochure calls the “Special Relationship” between American and British Catholicism. It will remember the Catholic Pilgrim Fathers, and John Carroll, America’s first Catholic bishop, who was educated at St Omer, the Flemish precursor to Stonyhurst.

And it will be a reminder that persecution continues today on an even larger scale. One room in Theodore House is dedicated to Shahbaz Bhatti, the Catholic who served in the Pakistani government before being assassinated by a fanatic who hated Bhatti’s advocacy for religious minorities.

The house’s name is itself a tribute to a Christian community which today lives under the threat of murder. St Theodore of Tarsus was a Syrian Christian who had to flee from Tarsus when Islamic armies invaded. He became the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury.

Key player

Best known as a politician and campaigner, Lord Alton of Liverpool has led the efforts. He says: “At a time when we are suffering a collective loss of memory, seeing an upsurge in worldwide persecution, and needing to both renew our Faith and combat religious hatred, these collections both inspire and challenge.”