Monday, October 21, 2013

A Recusant's Life in the 17th Century

by Deborah Swift

In 1571  a law was passed making it treasonable to be under the authority of the Pope, including being Jesuit, being Roman Catholic or harbouring a Catholic priest. The standard penalty for all those convicted of treason at the time was execution by being hanged, drawn and quartered. Nevertheless, many Catholics would not give up their faith as a matter of principle, claiming that Henry had stolen their Church, the rightful Church of England, from them.

Official records show that 5000 people were fined between 1593 and 1600, but these numbers are probably the tip of the iceberg. Many more would have escaped being fined and continued to practice their faith in secret. Women in particular, deemed to be 'the weaker vessel', with no property rights, and whose husband controlled all their wealth, were particularly difficult to fine - unless of course their husbands agreed to pay the penalty.

At the beginning of the realm of James I, many Catholics were outraged that Mary Queen of Scots's son did nothing to ease the legal persecution that they had endured since the reign of Henry VIII.But James knew that to win the allegiance of the English,who saw themselves as a Protestant nation, he must accede to the demands of  the powerful evangelical committee of the Church of England.

So a new King meant further persecution for the remaining Catholic families, who could be fined or jailed for attending Mass. Catholic Priests were concealed in 'priest holes' and led their lives in hiding, often in fear for their lives. Some people went so far as to build their houses to plans which would include multiple hiding places - Eliza Vaux arranged for Harrowden Hall to have many - something that alllowed her a virtual Jesuit college right in the heart of England.

Priest Hole at Harvington Hall

There are many tales of Priests who did not escape their pursuers - forty of the Priests who lost their lives in this period were canonised as late as 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

In the 17th Century the penalty for an ordinary person not attending the Church of England was £20 a month - an enormous sum considering that a yeoman farmer might earn £2 a year. No wonder Guy Fawkes and his Catholic friends wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. An anonymous letter eventually warned Parliament of the Gunpowder Plot - a letter that is still in our National Archives and causes fierce debate because nobody really knows who it was that betrayed the conspirators.

Image of The Monteagle Letter

Of course Guy Fawkes and his gang were executed in the traditional way, but their plotting made life considerably worse for Catholics, as recusants were subsequently banned from practising Law, serving in the Army or Navy, and from voting in elections.

For a recusant, the objects of your faith - chalice, Bible, statuary had to be hidden in cellars or in attics. In this picture - again of Harvington Hall, the floorboards to the left of the altar can be lifted to hide away the candleabra and altar furniture.

Some Catholics had elaborate chests made that opened out to reveal an altar or shrine. This article about Mapledurham House shows a picture of a secretaire adapted for that purpose, and tells us that some priest holes were so well-hidden that they are only now being discovered.


This period fascinated me, and I set my most recent novel at this time. The Leviston family are Catholic and must go to elaborate lengths to hide their faith. At the same time, in other European countries such as Spain, it was illegal not to be a Catholic. The young woman in my novel has to travel from England to Spain in search of her lost inheritance, a journey which changes her view of English life forever.

"A Divided Inheritance achieves what all stellar historical fiction must: through the voices of imagined characters, important lessons from the past linger and haunt long after the book is finished."  
Ann Weisgarber, winner of the Langum Prize for Historical Fiction

The book comes out on Thursday, published by Macmillan - Hooray! Find out more from my website.
Thanks for reading!
Sources: The Gunpowder Plot - Antonia Fraser
Religion and the Decline of Magic - Keith Thomas
You might also like


  1. Congratulations and best wishes on the release, Deborah. I look forward to reading it!

  2. Congratulations Deborah on the publication of A Divided Inheritance. I can't wait to read a copy !

    Whilst researching my family history I found that my relatives were on the recusant roll in Lancashire during the 17C.

  3. Hi Christy and Jo, thanks for your good wishes! I'm getting excited now! Jo - that's interesting about your relatives. Lancashire was quite a hot-bed of Catholics - according to Wikipedia which has a map showing the concentrations of Catholics in England.

  4. I grew up just down the road from Harvington Hall and went there often. I may just be fanciful, but I think there's a tremendous atmosphere in that house and wondering around, it always has me thinking about what life was like - practically and emotionally, when a priest was in hiding there - it seems to me that some of those complex emotions permeate to this day. Good luck with the book!

  5. Thanks! Lucky thing to live so near. I think memories and atmospheres do embed themselves in the walls of these places. It's part of what we want to catch when we visit them - all those tantalising wisps of the past!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.