The secret worshippers

The secret worshippers

Stuart A. Raymond explores researching Catholic recusants through his detailed study of a parish in Wiltshire

Stuart A. Raymond,  author of handbooks and guides for family historians

Stuart A. Raymond

author of handbooks and guides for family historians


It is not always easy to trace Roman Catholics before c.1750. Their names were not generally recorded in parish registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials, since they avoided the ministrations of the established church. They were persecuted by the government, and therefore kept a low profile. The prime source for tracing them are the records of governmental persecution.

A priest hole
A ‘priest hole’ – a hiding place for a Catholic priest – in a 16th manor house in Worcestershire

Stourton (Wiltshire) is one of the few parishes in England where a substantial Catholic congregation existed continuously from the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558 until the mid-20th century. It owed its existence to the eponymous Stourton family, who were lords of the manor, and also peers of the realm. Successive Lords Stourton supported the Stourton Mission through thick and thin, despite heavy fines, occasional imprisonment and exile. Even after heavy debts forced the 12th Lord Stourton to sell up in 1714, and the congregation ceased to be able to use the chapel in Stourton Castle, his brother (who subsequently became the 13th Lord) provided a chapel at Bonham, and his heirs continued to provide support for the ensuing centuries.

St Peters in Stourton
Recusants refused to attend St Peters in Stourton

The local historian of Stourton is therefore faced with the problem: how are the members of Stourton’s Roman Catholic congregation prior to c.1750 to be traced, given the fact that numerous baptisms, marriages, and burials are missing from the register? For example, between 1627 and 1800 only two baptisms are recorded for the Barnes family, despite their numerous progeny. These two exceptions were entered in 1703 and 1704; the entries imply that they recorded baptisms by a Catholic priest. These entries were probably made due to the fact that the government imposed a tax on all baptisms between 1697 and 1704. That tax involved counting baptisms in the parish register; consequently, for this brief period, both Roman Catholic and nonconformist births are likely to be recorded.

Bonham Chapel
Stourton’s Catholics worshipped at Bonham Chapel instead

The easiest way to identify Roman Catholics in a particular place is to find a list of them. The persecutors, fortunately for us (although not for their potential victims), frequently made lists. Indeed, churchwardens were expected to present all ‘recusants’ (that is, those who refused to attend church) during the visitations of both archdeacons and bishops. Admittedly, they frequently failed to do so, or submitted very abbreviated lists. In Stourton, the most detailed ‘presentment’ was made in 1662 [Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre (WSHC) D54/1/4]. It was signed not only by the churchwardens, but also by the rector, Nathanial Field. Field was probably responding to a direct order from the bishop, Seth Ward, following the 1662 Act of Uniformity. The presentment listed 48 names, including five members of the Stourton family, four Shepheards, four Cullifords, and many husbands and wives. In subsequent years, the numbers presented at visitation declined sharply, although some names regularly appeared until the last presentment was made in 1686 – when the Roman Catholic James II was on the throne! It listed 18 names (WSHC D1/54/11/5).

1674 Presentment, listing recusants
1674 Presentment, listing recusants

Presentment at visitation was sometimes followed by citation to appear in the ecclesiastical courts. Many lists of those cited survive among the records of Salisbury Diocesan Consistory Court [WSHC D1/5/1]. These indicate that the reluctance of churchwardens to make presentments did not prevent recusants from being cited. For Stourton, many citations from the 1630s survive; in 1637, for example, 26 parishioners were cited. The same names recur repeatedly.

1706 listing of Wiltshire Catholics
A page from a 1706 listing of Wiltshire Catholics

Presentments were also regularly made at Quarter Sessions, by both the Mere Hundred jury, and the High Constable of the Hundred. Quarter Sessions could inflict much heavier penalties than the ecclesiastical courts, which could only admonish or excommunicate defendants. Sometimes the same names appear in presentments at both visitations and Quarter Sessions.

Fines and confiscations imposed by Quarter Sessions were reported to the Exchequer and recorded in the recusant rolls, now in The National Archives, classes E376 and E377. These are in Latin, and may be difficult to consult for the non-specialist (although a few are in print). Fortunately, Wiltshire entries from these rolls are fully listed in J. Anthony Williams’ Catholic Recusancy in Wiltshire 1660–1791 (Catholic Record Society, 1968).

Quarter Sessions had the right not only to impose heavy fines, but also to authorise the seizure of recusants’ lands – although title to property remained with the recusant. Therefore, the Exchequer became responsible for the administration of recusants’ landed property, and the recusant rolls provide much detail concerning their estates.

The Exchequer was also responsible for levying general taxation. Recusants were required to pay double taxation, so their names can frequently be identified in tax rolls. In 1641, for example, nine Stourton residents who were not liable to the normal subsidy had to pay a special poll tax imposed solely on recusants. Tax rolls can be identified in The National Archives’ E179 database, .

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Further information on Catholic estates is provided by the returns of lands which recusants were required to make after the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. Two copies of the resultant register were kept, one by Quarter Sessions [Papist Estates in Wiltshire in the 18th century], the other by the Forfeited Estates Commission [TNA FEC 2/1113-1323]. The national register has been summarised by Edgar E. Estcourt and John O. Payne, in their The English Catholic non-jurors of 1715, being a summary of the register of their estates (1885). Consultation of the latter reveals that a number of Stourton recusants had estates in adjoining counties. For example, Dorothy Barnes had property at Buckhorn Weston (Dorset) worth £30 per annum, and her daughter Mary had a house at Brewham (Somerset) worth £20. Mary’s brother, Walter, had an estate in Stourton worth a mere 4s 6d.

These lists of names frequently identify husbands and wives, and sometimes other family members. More linkages can be established by consulting deeds and leases. When the Hoare family purchased the manor of Stourton in 1717, they also acquired the Stourton family’s estate papers [WSHC 383]. In the following decades they added a number of surveys, leases, and rentals to that collection. These documents frequently name several family members, and enable us to join up the dots. For example, Richard Coffin and his wife Mary (née Barnes) is mentioned in the register of papists’ estates. A lease of 1685 states that he was ‘of Bradworthy’, and mentions his children, Richard and Mary. The family is also mentioned in a survey of 1722.

Recusants also sometimes made wills. Richard Coffin did not do so, although we know that his estate was administered by his wife Mary. She, however, did make a will [WSHC P2/C/1088], which reveals the names of two more daughters, Bridget and Margaret. When recusants made wills, they had to be careful not to make bequests for ‘superstitious purposes’, that is, to support their church. Dorothy Barnes got around this problem by making a ‘deed of gift’ to three trustees (including Lord Stourton), who were expected to use her money as they ‘think proper and convenient without ever being called in question to give or render any mannr of account whatsoever’. She did leave them ‘private instructions’, and although there is no direct evidence, it seems likely that she intended to clandestinely support some Catholic cause. One of Lord Stourton’s stewards, William Knipe, had the same idea in view when, in 1673, he bequethed £100 to ‘my friend Mr Dowaie’, that is, his son’s college at Douai, where priests were trained for the English mission.

English Catholic Nonjurors
Consult this book to locate Catholic estates

Many people associated with the Stourton Mission were educated on the continent. Some joined one of the monastic orders, and/or were ordained as priests. In particular, many members of the Stourton family can be found in the registers of Catholic schools and monasteries – especially Cambrai and Douai. Many of these registers are published by the Catholic Record Society. Monks can be found by consulting the Monks in Motion database, dur.ac.uk/. Priests are listed by Dominic Aidan Bellenger, English and Welsh priests 1558–1800; a working list (Downside Abbey, 1984).

A few men from local families who studied on the continent eventually returned to serve the Stourton Mission. Nicholas Fitzjames, from nearby Redlynch in Somerset, was a Benedictine who died at Stourton in 1652. His cousin, Edward Byfleet, who would have had to ride past Redlynch in order to reach Stourton from his home in Bratton Seymour, served the Stourton Mission for 50 years.

Roman Catholic priests (seculars) and monks (regulars) can usually be easily traced in the registers of the institutions where they trained. It is also fairly straightforward to trace Catholic laymen possessed of property, whose fines and forfeitures can be traced in the records of persecution. It is, perhaps, more difficult to trace Catholic tradesmen and labourers. It was frequently not considered worthwhile to persecute such men, as there was no money in it for the government. Nevertheless, their names do occasionally appear in presentments and citations, and can be searched for in leases, surveys, and a wide range of other records.

If you have Catholic ancestors, then it may be worth checking some of the sources mentioned here. The absence of baptism and marriage registers does not mean that they are impossible to trace. There are many alternative sources, although you may have to dig a little deeper.

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