Baddesley Clinton Hall, deep in the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire, is a perfect medieval manor house with an inner courtyard, tall chimneys — star-shaped in plan, mullion windows, and a wide moat spanned by a creeper-clad Queen Anne bridge. The panelled interior with moulded beams, Elizabethan stone fireplaces, heraldic glass, portraits, and tapestries, speaks of ancient squirearchical prosperity. The first thought that came to mind when I saw it on a fine spring day not long ago, with the light playing on the water, was undisturbed tranquility.
All of this, however, is deceptive. At other seasons it would have a still, ruminative melancholy, and perhaps that more truthfully indicates the reality of the history of the house which is dramatically associated with Catholic recusant resistance. On 19 October 1591 nine or 10 English Jesuits, two secular priests, and two or three laymen, from all over the country were gathered together for a three day's consult and renewal of vows. They included three future martyrs: St Robert Southwell, St Henry Garnet and Blessed Edward Oldcorne. This group formed part of the English Jesuit mission which began in 1580 with the arrival of St Edmund Campion and Fr Robert Persons.
The Forest of Arden was a strong centre of Catholic continuity. Baddesley Clinton was owned by the Ferrers family who remained faithful to the Old Religion and suffered imprisonment and fines. They were an ancient Norman family, Henry de Ferrers having served as Master of the Horse to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. The hall had been let to two devout sisters, Mrs Brooksby, a widow, and Anne Vaux, daughters of Lord Vaux, who were friends of the Jesuits and made the house available for secret meetings. At 5am, while the priests were praying or preparing to celebrate Mass, they heard a great uproar outside. It was four pursuivants, with drawn swords, battering the main door to force an entrance. St Robert slipped off his vestments, stripped the altar bare, and the others concealed their personal belongings, rosaries, vestments, all signs of piety. They hid for four hours, ankledeep in water, in a hide constructed from a converted sewer by St Nicholas Owen.
"Outside the ruffians were bawling and yelling,wrote Fr John Gerard in his autobiography, "but the servants held the door fast . . . At last the leopards were let in. They tore madly through the whole house, searched everywhere, pried with candles into the darkest corners. They took over four hours over the work but fortunately chanced on nothing. All they did was to show how dogged and spiteful they could be, and how forbearing Catholics were. In the end they made off, but only after they had got paid for their trouble. Yes, that is the pitiful lot of Catholics — when men come with a warrant to upset their homes in this or any other way, it is they, the Catholics, not the authorities who send them, who have to pay. As if it were not enough to suffer, they are charged for suffering."
It was a close shave. "For, quite miraculously," Fr Gerard wrote to the Jesuit General, Fr Aquaviva, in Rome, "one pursuivant who took in his hands a silver pyx, which was used for carrying the Blessed Sacrament from place to place, straightway put it down again, as if he had never seen it. Before the eyes of another lay a precious dalmatic folded up. He unfolded everything else, but this he did not touch." At the end of the search the priests came out of hiding and all said Mass. Thereafter Baddesley Clinton was considered unsafe and the Jesuits met elsewhere. The harassment continued. In 1603 the itinerant priest, Blessed John Sugar, was captured, with Blessed Robert Grissold, allegedly after celebrating Mass in the house. They became the Warwick martyrs. In 1611 it was recorded that "in Warwickshire, and in the parts adjoining, the pursuivants this last summer by searching have much troubled Catholics". The faith continued secretly, administered by priests under assumed names and disguises at the risk of their lives.
In the middle of the 17th century the hall became the headquarters of the Franciscan Fathers of the Second English Province until 1755. This came to an abrupt end when Fr Henry Bishop OSF discovered Thomas Ferrers eating meat with a hunting party on Good Friday arid threw the joint into the moat. Thereafter they continued to minister to the district independently until Catholic Emancipation in 1829. They established a small chapel and in 1785 their academy for boys moved to Baddesley Green from Edgbaston, Birmingham.
In 1850 the Poor Clares arrived from Bruges in Belgium to establish the first convent of the order in England since the Reformation. The red brick, slateroofed convent was built in 1870 to the designs of Benjamin Bucknall of Swansea, the translator of Viollet-le-Duc into English; he also built the small church of St Francis in the French 13thcentury style with lancet windows.
The Ferrers occupied Baddesley Clinton for 400 years. They were never rich. For long periods the hall was either empty or let and much of the contents was sold. The last member of the family to live there was Cecil Ferrars and he sold the estate in 1939. It was bought by a distant Anglican cousin, Thomas Walker, and eventually, with the help of neighbours and the National Land Fund, an endowment was provided and the hall was handed over to the National Trust.
Nowadays Baddesley Clinton is regarded more as an architectural survival
than a Catholic shrine. Few places retain the atmosphere of a recusant household more strongly than this house. Read Philip Caraman's John Gerard: The Autobiography of an Elizabethan. visit it and say a prayer for vocations. And don't forget the hatchment-hung, Perpendicular church of St Michael nearby where 12 generations of the family are buried in the chancel. The 16th century east window represents Sir Edward Ferrers, his wife and sons, their shields, one with 32 guarterings, and patron saints. It should be seen for that alone.