Very few secret Catholic chapels from the 16th century have been identified in England – fewer, indeed, than the “priest holes’”(properly called “hides”) sometimes found in recusant houses. There are good reasons, however, to believe that such a chapel has been identified in Norfolk – and the discovery is rendered all the more intriguing by the fact that the family who created it did not publicly avow their Catholicism.
The rarity of these secret chapels is scarcely surprising, given the capital penalty for saying Mass in the reign of Elizabeth and the circumstances of secrecy and haste in which priests were compelled to celebrate Mass. In most cases, secret oratories were simply disguised as an ordinary room of the house; often they were located in the eaves of a building, sometimes with a secret point of access such as a concealed staircase that allowed both the priest to escape at a moment’s notice and the faithful to access the chapel directly, without drawing attention by going through the house. Yet in a few cases, Catholics went to the trouble of decorating a secret chapel – most famously, perhaps, at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire. The small chapel at Harvington, located on the top floor, was distinctively decorated in around 1576-8 with alternating lines of red and white drops, which represent the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side at his Passion. This is a distinctively Catholic decorative scheme, recalling both the medieval cult of the Holy Blood of Christ as well as the sacrifice of the Mass. Until recently, however, no other example of a decorative scheme similar to that in the small chapel at Harvington was known in a domestic building in England.
Around 10 miles west of Norwich, in the village of Barnham Broom, is a Tudor manor house known as Old Hall, built by Sir Edward Chamberlayne between 1510 and 1550. For centuries after the Chamberlayne family sold Old Hall in the late 17th century, it was tenanted by local farmers and even used as an agricultural store, with the first restoration work taking place in the 1960s. In the late 1990s, during the removal of wallpaper in rooms on the building’s first floor, a much-faded decorative scheme of alternating vertical bands of black and white was first uncovered. While the black bands were decorated with white drops, the black were decorated with white drops, in vertical rows very much like the drops at Harvington. However, no connection was initially made with Harvington and it was a number of years before further investigation and reconstructive work was undertaken by a wall paintings conservator, Andrea Kirkham. In addition to the wall paintings, the chamber features an east window and square niches in the north and south walls; the niche in the north wall is covered by a door to make it an aumbry (cupboard for sacred vessels) while the niche on the south side probably held a dish to serve as a piscina and held the cruets during Mass. In the view of Michael Hodgetts, the foremost authority on the material culture of secret Catholic worship in Elizabethan England, the decoration at Barnham Broom is “strikingly like the wall paintings at Harvington, and deserves to be seen as a parallel”.
While the previous owners of Old Hall suspected the chamber might have been a chapel, it was only earlier this year that the connection with the decorations at Harvington Hall was made. One possible candidate for the priest who said Mass in the chapel is Richard Chamberlayne (1519/20–1570), who was appointed rector of Barnham Broom in August 1560 but was probably ordained as a Catholic priest in Mary’s reign. Richard Chamberlayne was the younger brother of the lord of the manor, Edward Chamberlayne, who inherited the hall in 1567 and died in 1596. We know that, throughout the 1560s and ’70s, many priests ordained in Henry’s and Mary’s reigns continued to celebrate Mass in private, even when they held preferment in the Established Church. The penal laws against priests were much less severe against the old Henrician and Marian clergy, compared with the “seminary priests” ordained in the new Catholic colleges abroad. The fact that Richard Chamberlayne was a family member would have made it easier for him to celebrate Mass in secret, if there was even much need for secrecy in a Norfolk where sympathy for the Catholic cause was rife early in Elizabeth’s reign.
The recent discovery of a very faded wall painting outside the small chapel at Harvington Hall that may portray Queen Elizabeth is a reminder that Catholics of the era went to considerable lengths to demonstrate their conspicuous loyalty to Elizabeth, whatever the extent of their commitment to the Catholic cause. Famously, the committed recusant Sir Thomas Tresham offered to go naked into battle for Elizabeth. While the juxtaposition of Catholic imagery and the image of a Protestant queen who persecuted Catholics may seem a strange one, Elizabethan Catholics were at pains to refute the allegations of treason routinely levelled against them.
Since Richard Chamberlayne died in 1570, if it was executed during his lifetime, the decoration of the secret chapel would have to be around a decade earlier than Harvington’s to be associated with him. While this is not beyond the bounds of possibility, we simply cannot know with any certainty who might have celebrated Mass at Barnham Broom Old Hall. What we do know, however, is that the Chamberlayne family were not recusants: Catholics who refused to attend Protestant services in the parish church, and were fined for their refusal. Instead, the appearance of Catholic wall paintings in their house makes it almost certain that the Chamberlaynes, along with many East Anglian Catholics at the time, belonged to that more elusive group known as the church papists: Catholics who attended their parish church often enough to avoid recusancy fines, and received Holy Communion at Christmas and Easter. Because we usually have no evidence of legal proceedings against church papists (for the obvious reason that they stayed under the radar of the authorities), we have very little evidence for who these people were. However, in the 1560s and ’70s the gentry of East Anglia were notoriously sympathetic to Catholicism and both recusancy and church papistry were rife – so much so that, in 1578, Elizabeth came on progress to Norfolk and Suffolk as part of a crackdown on Catholics. The Queen deliberately visited Catholics, singled them out, humiliated them and arranged their trial and imprisonment.
Catholicism in East Anglia was never quite the same after the royal progress of 1578, which stamped out the widespread and semi-public crypto-Catholicism of earlier years and confined Catholicism to a core of the most committed families, such as the Bedingfields of Oxburgh. We cannot know whether the celebration of Mass in the secret chapel at Barnham Broom Old Hall survived this crackdown or not, but the chapel transports us back to a murky world where it was eminently possible for those who remained Catholic at heart to attend Protestant services in the parish church while also hearing Mass in private – sometimes celebrated by the same parish priest. The survival of an unambiguously Catholic scheme of decoration in a domestic setting in the house of a family who were never recusants is a reminder that Elizabethan Catholicism was a complex phenomenon, ranging from the most courageous of principled recusants to the rather more pragmatic church papists, who fulfilled the law’s minimum requirements on church attendance in an effort to avoid penury and worldly disgrace. While their witness may not have been as public as that of the recusants, there is no reason to believe that church papists like the Chamberlayne family of Barnham Broom were any less sincere in their faith.
Today, the Old Hall is open to private guests as the Tudor and 17th-Century Experience, where guests walk back into history and are hosted by the Lord of the Manor with Tudor food, drink and entertainments. Appropriately, the former secret oratory is now disguised as a “bedroom”, with a narrow 16th-century spiral staircase linking it to a chapel above (which was formerly a bedroom).
For more information on The Old Hall, Barnham Broom, visit historichouses.org
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.