Fr Anthony Symondson SJ discovers English Catholic history in the treasures of Stonor Park
Daphne Pollen's painting of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, commissioned by Fr Philip Caraman Si when he was the Postulator General of their cause, is well known. A preliminary sketch survives at Stonyhurst College but I had not seen the original until I went to Stonor Park in the Chilterns, not far from Henley-on-Thames, to see an exhibition of religions treasures and items related to the Stonor family, mounted in the Long Gallery. I have always liked the picture but had not previously appreciated its wider references.
In the centre is a disguised altar in the form of a wooden press prepared for Mass. Behind is Tyburn Tree and on the right is the Tower of London where many of the martyrs were imprisoned. No ambiguity there. What I had not noticed was a long. low house in the distance, of grey and red brick and silver flint, built on the side of a hill. This is Stonor where the Stonor family have lived since the 12th century, perhaps longer.
It is a lovely house, devoid of Whig ostentation, that has grown through the centuries. Leland described it as "clyming on an hille" and Pevsner as giving the effect of a watercolour. John Betjeman liked its welcoming aspect, and John Piper had a darkroom there where he developed and printed his fine topographical photographs. He was a neighbour and the house contains some of his work. Graham Green gave the stations of the cross in the chapel, carved by Josef Janos, a Polish Prisoner of War. Edith Sitwell was a benefactor and has a memorial stone lettered by Will Carter. Surrounded by hills and beechwoods Stonor lies concealed in a valley in the middle of a deer park.
As part of the English Mission in 1580-1 St Edmund Campion and Fr Robert Persons SJ established a secret press in an attic room above the porch. The Jesuits' main contacts were with the Catholic gentry. The future of Catholicism in England lay in their hands, they held the nucleus of a potential Catholic governing class. Many of their sons were educated at the Jesuit college founded at St Omers in the Low Countries in 1593. If they were to lapse, there would be few centres for secret Masses and fewer places where priests could minister in comparative safety. The Jesuits affirmed that recusancy was to be "the sum of that which all priests should teach and insinuate into Catholics in all places".
It was at Stonor that Campion published Rationes Decem. the ten reasons for renouncing the Protestant and embracing the Catholic Religion. It was a small book and ran to less than 20,000 words. Campion's prestige was high in the universities, especially at Oxford where, before his conversion, he had been a Fellow of St John's College. Robert Cecil described him as "one of the diamonds of England". Four hundred copies were distributed in the university, some by leaving copies in the University Church of St Mary before the Act, or public disputation, when suppliants for degrees had to defend their theses. Of these only four survive and Sionyhurst's copy is includ
ed in the exhibition, placed next to relics and a portrait of St Edmund, and other publications, both recusant and anti-Catholic.
Stonor's early recusant life has, since Elizabethan times, formed the history of the family and the house. It presents in microcosm the vicissitudes of English Catholic history: that hidden stream that quietly flowed for three hundred years until it re-emerged as a river after Catholic Emancipation in 1829. In this story the Stonors played a conspicuous part. The exhibition is composed of portraits, books, papers, bondieuserie, "massing stuff(otherwise known as church plate and vestments) personal objects belonging to the people whose lives are represented. It is like a narrative marching through history that cumulatively tells an extraordinary story, that has application to a wider world.
Dame Martha Stonor's portrait shows a strained but determined woman with resolute eyes. It was she. with her mother-in-law, Dame Cicely, who gave refuge to St Edmund and his companions. She was arrested in 1581, and again in 1612, and committed to prison for refusing to conform. Nearby is the illuminated prayer book of her daughter-in-law, Dame Elizabeth, compiled by her chaplain in 1630 placed near a Douai Bible of 1609. Thereafter the family was, like so many others, crippled by fines and penalties.
The portraits are arresting. There is one of the early 18th century Jesuit chaplain and tutor, Fr Vaughan, in a full-bottomed wig and cravat, hanging near another of his pupil, Bishop John Talbot Stonor, Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District 17161756. Nearby is the bishop's nephew, Mgr Christopher Stonor, Agent in Rome to the Vicars-General in 174895. Hung opposite an earlier likeness of Bishop Stonor, of the school of Kneller, painted as a young man before ordination reflects the optimism that characterises all but the Tudor portraits. They belie the times.
In the early 18th century the Church in England was in a state of acute religious depression. The flight of King James II, the "Glorious Revolution" and the Popish Plot had led to a time of terror for Catholics all over the country. The library contains much polemical literature from both sides that reflects the Stonors' interest in the national attitude to
Catholicism. Bishop Stonor threei at his family seat. He was an "autocratic prelate of fine address and determined character", a realist in politics and an advocate, against strong opposition from leading Catholics, of a favourable attitude towards the Hanoverian Government. His coffespondence complains of the Jesuits for selecting the best boys from St Omers for the Society, and sending the less suitable to the English College which produced "fewer and fewer priests of decent quality". Cardinal Manning later made the same complaint, this time confined to the cream of the clerical converts.
Bishop Stonor's silver compass and sundial from Oscott compares favourably with his chapel plate — a chalice, monstrance, host box and incense boat — work of exquisite purity of profile, made by Benjamin Pyne. They form a notable contrast to the elaborate French Gothic Revival plate belonging to the "gracious and welcoming" Mgr Edmund Stonor, Archbishop of Trebizond. He was a domestic prelate to Pope Pius IX and Pope St Pius X. In 1892 when Catholicism was officially recognised in England with the non-conformist denominations, Pope Leo XIII chose him to
bring the pallium from Rome to Cardinal Vaughan for the first time since the Reformation.
The marriages of the sons and daughters of English Catholic landowners were carefully planned by parents and relations; romance played little part in them. The walls of Stonor are hung with portraits of Blundells, Towneleys, Talbots, Biddulphs, and Blounts. Many of the children of these alliances entered the religious life, starting with the medieval Joan Stoner who became the Benedictine Prioress of Little Marlow in 1349, through to Dorn Julian Stonor, a monk of Downside Abbey, Chaplain to the Irish Guards in the Second World War, author of the history of Stonor, who died in 1963.
In the Long Gallery is an early 18th -century portrait of Sister Anne Stonor, an Augustinian Canoness at Fosse, St Victor, painted when she was in Paris. Other members of the family were priests and religious in the Low Countries and France. The connections there for pupils at the English Catholic schools meant that they were often taught by uncles and aunts, with a scattering of brothers, sisters and cousins, all contributing to a uniform identity that led to future marriages and the maintenance of Catholic lines.
The heart of the house is the Chapel of the Blessed Trinity, a 12th century structure of flint and stone built on an earlier foundation, enlarged in the 14th
century. It stands on an ancient pagan site and incorporates sarsen and pudding stones in the walls. There is a tower of Flemish brick built in 1417, In 1757 Thomas Stonor, the bishop's nephew, commissioned John Aitkins to modernise the house and gothicise the chapel with a thin rib-vault • on angel corbels and a marble floor.
At the end of the 18th century more work carried out in the chapel by James Thorpe. A Gothic gallery and altar rails were added and Francis Edginton made a transparency for the east window of ochreous glass depicting the "Salvator Mundi", after Carlo Dolci at Burghley House. Henry Blundell of Ince, in Lancashire, father-in-law of the 5th Thomas Stonor, gave three more windows by Edginton and the grey altar of antique verdur marble. In 1960 the chapel was elegantly restored to what it must have been in 1800 with pink walls, a blue vault, black and white doors and benches. Mass has been celebrated continuously at Stonor since 1349.
The house has much more besides. The exhibition is
brought up to date by a statue of Padre Pio and the New Testament given to the present Lord Camoys by the President of the Privy Council in 1997 prior to becoming Lord Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household. It was the 8th Thomas Stonor who established a connection with the Court and served for thirty-two years as Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria. In 1838 he claimed the Barony of Camoys through his greatgrandmother, Mary Biddulph. So history ran its course in a way that could not have been foreseen by the Stonors of the late 16th century, The family optimism was justified.
The Stonor exhibition is not simply a record of privilege; Catholics of all backgrounds gained by recusancy. It reinforces the English Catholic memory, Refreshingly understated in presentation, it will open your eyes and should not be missed.
I hope that perhaps it might be a prelude to a larger exhibition in a national museum, with exhibits drawn from all over the country, which one day might more completely tell our history. It lies waiting to be re-discovered.
Sionor Park is open on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays until the end of September, and on Wednesdays in July and August from 2-5.30pm. Admission 1.6, children free. For further information telephone: 01491 638587. Website: www.stonorcom