A while ago, I came across this notice in the Norfolk Chronicle of 1793:
“FRENCH REFUGEE CLERGY. Subscriptions and Collections already advertised £181.10s.6½d …Collected from the following parishes…Rev F.A. Oxburgh Chapel £7.15.0d…Subscriptions and Collections received at several Bankers in Norwich and remitted by them to the Chairman of the Committee in London.” Oxborough was one of 30 Norfolk parishes listed in this notice. (Norfolk Chronicle 22.06.1793)
Well, that got me thinking. I knew Oxburgh Hall had a long association with Catholicism and, as I had once lived for a while in France, I thought I knew a fair bit about the French Revolution (1789-99) and the closure of Catholic churches and priories. But I had never considered what happened to the Catholic clergy and nuns. So, I dug a little deeper…
Under Revolutionary France’s Civil Constitution of the Clergy, of 1791, Catholic clergy had to swear an oath of loyalty to the new Republic. Those clergy who refused to swear had to immediately obtain a passport, be clear of their district within 8 days, and, after 15 days, be out France or face execution or transportation to French Guiana. Naturally, this led to the mass emigration of French clergy and nuns who were dispersed across Europe. Their number included around 3,000 male clergy and 400 nuns who came to Britain and the Channel Islands.
Amongst the nuns who arrived in England were those who belonged to religious orders that had actually been founded by women exiled from Britain during the 260 years since the English Reformation of 1534. (1)
In all, three orders of nuns took refuge in overwhelmingly Protestant East Anglia; a region where the few Catholics that did exist were mainly on the estates of recusant families(2) such as the Bedingfelds of Oxburgh Hall.
In 1792, as a result of expulsion from the French Republic, around 40 Benedictine destitute nuns landed on the south coast of England where they came under the protection of a number wealthy Catholic families as well as the Prince of Wales (later King George IV). The nuns stayed first in London before moving to Bodney Hall, Breckland where they paid a peppercorn rent to the Catholic Tasburgh family (3). When it was first suggested that the community move from London to Norfolk the mayor of Thetford objected on the grounds that the appearance of Benedictine nuns could cause trouble among the local population. However, some time later Bishop Douglass, the vicar-apostolic of London, argued that , “all the families, Protestant as well as Catholic, around Bodney….are extremely fond of them. The ladies tell me they are perfectly happy”. And, despite a certain level of local anti-Catholic opposition towards them, the community did manage to survive. They did so though donations from Committees such as the one described at the head of this article, and by deriving income from running a school for Catholic ladies. Yet, just as with refugees today they had their difficulties. At one point they were informed that the Refugee Clergy Committee that it had insufficient funds “to answer the demands upon it “ and suggested the nuns take up offers from convents in the Netherlands and suffer their close community being segmented into small groups. In November 1793 the nuns successfully requested a sum of £35 per month, “it will be sufficient together with the profits arising from having the Education of Young Ladies (of which there are only 4 at present) to enable them to support themselves until they have a great number of young ladies to educate“. Their community stayed at Bodney for some twenty years, until 1813 when they moved to Heath Hall, Yorkshire, then to Orrell Mount, Lancashire, and, finally, in 1835 they settled in Princethorpe, Warwickshire, where their community still survives.
As refugee Catholic women making new lives in a Protestant country the nuns faced many challenges. They were not legally allowed to wear their habits or to profess new members. And the nuns who came to our area will have certainly come up against several hundred years’ worth of anti-Catholic propaganda which consistently portrayed nuns as sexually frustrated young women or as ladies with an excessive sexual drive, who’s cloistered existence allowed them to indulge in secret sexual practises. Indeed, many 19th Century novels often made associations between nuns and prostitutes and witches. Such widely held perceptions meant that upon arrival they had to rely on the support and protection of wealthy families, such as the Bedingfeld’s of Oxborough. However, in general, such support made the women vulnerable to being used in state and press propaganda campaigns against the French Revolution (the new Republic was frequently depicted by Anglican leaders as being the Antichrist). They were used as political pawns rather than being taken seriously as the women’s communities for what they were. Instead, the refugee nuns, as a whole, became trumpeted as examples of the English nation providing safe refuge to political outcasts. The nuns had to find benefactors and patrons but, when they did, they had to deal with the duel challenge of maintaining some semblance of communal integrity while still performing their roles as grateful recipients on both a local and national level.
By the 1820s the family lines of landed Catholics in our region gradually petered out and only the Bedingfelds remained. Increasingly, the exiled clergy became less dependent for support on their rural gentry protectors. Priests founded their own self-funded chapels, and by 1829 Catholic churches existed at Norwich, Bungay, Thetford, etc. However, these priests were still very few in number; in 1824 there were just 13 priests serving Norfolk and Suffolk, six of whom were French. Anti-Catholic feelings, though, were still common, and in 1839 the Catholic congregations of Oxborough, King’s Lynn and Thetford met at Oxburgh Hall to “defend Catholic doctrines”. This meeting was apparently held as a response to attacks on Catholicism from certain members of the Anglican clergy.(4)
It was not until 1907 that the first Catholic mass was said at Swaffham. And it not until 1911 that a celebratory Mass was held in Oxborough itself, in Oxburgh Hall’s Catholic Chapel.
A fairly recent example of the family attempting to retain the Hall as a centre of Catholic activity can be seen in this 1951 press announcement when the Oxborough estate was up for auction (5); “A very fine …estate…including the historic Oxborough Hall with Grounds, Private Chapel, Lodges etc. Eminently suitable for a Catholic Institution…seven farms, 66-756 acres. The Presbytery, schoolhouse, 26 cottages…The BEDINGFELD ARMS …about 3,563 acres…to be offered to auction … at the GLOBE HOTEL, KING’S LYNN”.
(1) Between 1600 and 1700, 153 nuns born and raised in East Anglia and mainly from gentry families were to be found in 23 ‘English’ convents on continental Europe: 96 of the nuns were from Suffolk; 40 from Norfolk; and 7 from Cambridgeshire. The Bedingfeld family of Oxburgh Hall provided the largest number of these nuns; totalling more than 30, if mothers as well as fathers who were part of the extended family are included. Sir Richard Bedingfeld (1726-95) was the head of the family at the time of the French Revolution, and, like his father, he was educated in France, at the Jesuit College in St. Omar. His son, the 2nd Baronet (1767-1829), had to end his French education and return to England to escape the French Revolution.
(2) Recusants: In 1559, Elizabeth 1st outlawed the Catholic Mass. ‘Recusant’ was a term referring to people who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and did not attend Church of England services. Recusants were served by priests ordained under Queen Mary until the 1570s, after which seminaries on the Continent began sending ordained Englishmen to England as priests. This in turn led to a state clampdown and between 1580-1616, 111 priests and laypeople were imprisoned at Wisbech Castle, Norfolk. In the Cambridgeshire Fens, a network of sympathisers facilitated the regular escape of priests from Wisbech Castle. Catholic families constructed hiding places and escape routes for fugitive priests, including the well-known local priest-hole at Oxburgh Hall, which, I can assure you is rather difficult to enter and exit!
In 1767, twenty-seven Catholics were recorded as living in Oxborough.
(3) The Tasburgh family benefited from the Tudor Dissolution of the Monasteries; acquiring ownership of nearby Flixton Priory, a house of Augustinian nuns. They become recusants in the late 1620s.
(4) Bury & Norwich Post, 4 April 1839.
(5) Notice from The Yorkshire and Leeds Intelligencer, 19.11.1951. After the estate was sold the Hall was under threat of demolition until Sybil, Lady Bedingfield, bought it back and gave it to the National Trust in 1952. The Bedingfeld family continue to live in the premises.
Further reading: Catholic East Anglia; a history of Catholic faith in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Edited by Francis Young. Published by Gracewing, 2016.
A while ago, I came across this notice in the Norfolk Chronicle of 1793: