LAST WEEK in North Devotii the Catholics celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of their local martyr. Celebrations of this sort do still occur but this was remarkable by the standards of any time.
It was probably the largest religious service ever seen in the history of Barnstaple. The Anglicans not only joined in: they lent their chief church. The estimate of Catholics in the area varies from one to three per cent of the population.
The anniversary was that of St Cuthbert Mayne. (Some of the pamphlets on sale had "Blessed' crossed out and "Saint" substituted.) He is remembered as a singularly sweet-natured man who was the first of the seminary priests trained on the Continent to get the rope.
He was born in 1544 at Sherwell, about four miles from Barnstaple. His father was a shepherd who rented land for his sheep, He would not have qualified as a gentleman.
An uncle was a comfortable clergyman who got him educated at Barnstaple and an to St John's College, Oxford, where he became chaplain. Edmund Campion and other subversives were up at St John's with him, but it was only in 1576 that he left England and was received into the Church at Douai.
He studied there and was or
dained and came back to Cornwall, where he worked for a year and was taken, tried and executed at Launceston on a market day. He was not allowed to make a speech before being turned off the ladder.
He was taken to a house called "Golden", which belonged to Francis Tregian (pronounced Trudgeon) who was one of the richest landowners in Cornwall. He was a young and cultured person.
He had been at court and had impressed Queen Elizabeth, but was devoted to the Catholic religion. Some of his old house still stands as a barn, with charming gothic details haphazard in its walls. Cuthbert Mayne was arrested by Richard Grenville, an unpleasing and violent sort of local gentleman who died with great splendour in The Revenge.
Father Mayne was imprisoned in an unlit sty called a dungeon. He was tried, but in fact had committed no capital crime in law. They decided on his dying in order to discourage papists. It was an executive and political act. He was hanged and cut open in Launceston. His head was taken off and put on a pike over the gate of the town.
Francis Tregian spent 28 years in prison, was exiled and died in Lisbon. Somehow he sticks in the memory. He lost his estates, He never saw England again.
His calm and rigorous piety
must have seemed extraordinary in Portugal. The people for certain still remember him there. He was buried in the church of St Roch. You can tell where, because in one place the church pavement glistens with wax from the candles that are stuck on the stone.
He is the object of a local and popular calms which is not officially approved. When I went there before the recent troubles there was a litter of lights and flowers below a wall inside which I was told his coffin had been stood upright.
Banner of the Five Wounds
IN FACT the West Country did not take easily to the Reformation, and rose against it, under the Banner of the Five Wounds in 1549. And though Catholicism was almost stamped into the ground, the Reformed religion really had to wait until the tours of Charles Wesley before it took fire in these parts.
The Catholics in Barnstaple could muster about 140 souls in 1850. With their own money and the help of a few surviving great Catholic families, they built a church on the edge of the town.
The Catholic church in Barnstaple is in the Norman style. It stands among lines of good, plain, poor terrace houses and
looks properly Non-conformist. It is tall and father gaunt, and it cries out of the hard years.
The parish priest and his curate are both Irishmen. It is clearly a very lively and friendly parish. The English do not object to having such Irish pastors, which is good of them.
And the Irish priests do not object to having to minister to the English, which is good of them too. It's a rare place, and if all the Church were like it there would be quite different things for the Catholic Herald to write about.
But the parish faced a problem. Their own church is rather small — though the parish attendance at Sunday Mass is about 400.
So the Anglican vicar, who is the Rev Stephen Leach — very young, and the head of a group ministry — was approached. He asked his parish church council. They thought it a splendid idea and they offered their church to the Catholics for the evening. And no one objected?
The central parish church of Barnstaple is a fine great city church in a graveyard which teems with the dead, It is late 15th century: Perpendicular, wide aisles each side of a wide nave.
Solid philoprogenitive citizens in ruffs, gowns, and here and there a mayoral chain, stare down from their painted monuments on the wall. Brass gleams from the high altar a long way away. There was a throne in one aisle for the mayor with a mad lion and a mad unicorn, one on each side of it.
They have a fine font by the door. with the Paraclite in Glory hanging above it. The roof is high-pitched, ribbed with wood. It is all open and confident. It speaks of money to burn and a favourable balance of trade.
After ail, Barnstaple was one of the ports which took the wool they grew on Exmoor sheep — "sheep were eating men' , said Sir Thomas More, to clothe the High Renaissance in Europe.
This is an open church for citizens. It used to have a chantry in the churchyard. This stood free, a sort of bijou gothic chapel like a jewel casket, where they prayed for the dead.
It was made a grammar school after the suppression of such things and it remained so until 1910. St Cuthbert Mayne is one of its old boys.
For this celebration the Catholics had set up a large, properly apparelled altar under the great chancel arch, Lights blazed on its' red front.
They had set up a portrait of St Cuthbert Mayne, admirably done by the parish priest, Fr Michael Reid. There was also a modern banner of the saint.
The bell-ringers came for the Mass. Their ropes hung close to the temporary altar in the aisle. You could see them flicking their ropes down. filling the church with the most joyous, swift, nonsensical noise in the world. Regularly there would be a hoarse order from the leader and they shifted the peal imperceptibly.
People came early. The church seats 600 easily. All the pews were taken. They were standing in the aisles. The choir was crowded with schoolgirls and people. People bulged in through the door. No one complained. It was as cheerful as midnight Mass. There must have been at least a thousand there, and many simply must have been courteous and God-pursuing Anglicans.
A hateful necessity
THE CURATE, Fr Bartholomew Nannery, had to conic out and mention that though their prayers were welcomed, the nonCatholics could not take Communion. This is a painful and hateful necessity that makes my toes curl. Fr Nannery gave no discernible
Sidesmen had to cleeve away for the mayoral party. She came in scarlet preceded by four grave men who carried handy maces and silver-bound top hats. Aldermen and councillors followed her. They retired to their benches by the mayoral throne.
Then the procession came. There was the cross and candles. There were about 10 priests from this alarmingly farflung diocese. The vicar walked with them.
The parish priest came in carrying the crown of St Cuthbert's skull, ivory white on its small oak stand with a square hole in it made by the jabbing onto the spike over the gate.
Then, in red with mitres on their heads, came the Abbot of Buckfast, the Bishop of Clifton and the Bishop of Plymouth, all vested in red. Plymouth was wielding a 19th century crozier which had been Bishop Vaughan's.
Then the tide of clergy and councillors withdrew. Slowly the crowd pushed out onto the path through the churchyard. The bells rang a storm of sound in the darkness. And people went home better and happier Christians.