In this excerpt from their new book Catholics and their Houses, Peter Stanford and Leanda de Lisle consider Mapledurham House in Oxfordshire.
THE CATHOLIC MARTYRS of Elizabethan times were executed, in the authorities' eyes at least, in an effort to dissuade others from rejecting the National Church and the Queen's supremacy in matters of religion. But their deaths sometimes had precisely the opposite effect Sir Michael Blount, master of Mapledurham, was Lieutenant of the Tower of f.ondon between 1590 and 1595 and was so moved by :he witness of two of the condemned men in his sharge, Fr Robert Southwell Ind Philip Howard, the Earl sf Arundel, that he became sver more wedded to his Catholicism.
Sir Michael had prospered
n the Elizabethan age. A brmer Sheriff of Oxfordshire it'd Member of Parliament, se raised a loan of £1,500 tround £150,000 in today's money to build himself a sew home at Mapledurham, 3eside the Thames outside Zaversham. It was erected alongside an existing manor souse on this riverside site tad today stands largely unal:ered, a graceful Elizabethan salt of diapered brickwork, Ugh gables and tall chimneys, >uiit in the shape of the letter -1.
Mapledurham is believed o he the only house built with he intention of providing a secret refuge for Catholic sriests as part of its design. Is priest-holes appear to have seen integral to the original 'Ian, not a later alteration as n other houses. Maplelurham's isolated location vas an additional bonus for my such scheme, at the end if a long river track whose same, Chalk Pudding Lane, Oyes a clue to the fact it was iften flooded and impassable.
Sir Michael would travel by river from the tower to Mapledurham an early example of commuting. A court favourite, his high standing with the Queen saved him from being put on the spot over religion and he is thought never to have been asked to take the Oath of Supremacy. What resolve he had to stick to his Catholicism was undoubtedly strengthened by his contact with the Jesuit poet Southwell whom Sir Michael called "that saint" and Howard. The earl died in the Tower seven weeks before Sir Michael's term of office came to an end. The Lieutenant reportedly went to Howard's deathbed and begged his forgiveness. The earl replied that "God, who with His finger turneth the unstable wheel of this variable world, can in the revolution of a few days bring you to be a prisoner also, and to be kept in the same place where now you keep others".
Mapledurham was not finished until 1612, two years after Sir Michael's death. His son and heir, Richard,
completed the work. He died
in 1628 and is buried alongside his wife Cecily in what has been traditionally regarded as the "faMily aisle" in Saint Margaret's, which stands behind the house in the village of Mapledurham. 'This area, sectioned off from the main body of worshippers, was long believed to have allowed the Blounts to conform ostensibly to the "new religion" each Sunday while keeping their conscience in the privacy of their own pews.
The story does not, however, stand up to scrutiny. For one thing the family maintained its own chapel in The cast front of Mapledurh the gables of Mapledurham. And it was only in the later part of the nineteenth century that their ownership of the
Bardolf Aisle in Saint
Margaret's was firmly established.
Richard's heir, Sir Charles Blount, took up the Royalist cause with enthusiasm during the Civil War. It was an allegiance that almost brought the family to ruin. When the parliamentary forces under the Earl of Essex besieged Reading in April 1643, they sent a detachment to the noted Royalist stronghold of Mapledurham, four miles to the northwest. Essex's troops quickly overran the house and pillaged its goods. Not that there was much to take because Sir Charles whose portrait hangs in the entrance
hall was not much luckier with money than he was on the field of battle. In 1637 he had been forced to sell most of the contents of the house to settle debts.
In the 18th century Mapledurham played host on many occasions to the Catholic poet Alexander Pope. His family had moved in the 1700s to nearby Binfield where their neighbour was Martha Englefield who later married and became Mrs Blount. Her daughters, Teresa and Martha, grew closer to Alexander Pope.
At Mapledurham, Pope found an environment where neither his Catholicism nor his physical disabilities set him apart and he grew close to the sisters. First it was Teresa, then Martha who attracted the poet's affections.
With the passage of the Second Relief Act in 1791, Michael Blount felt able to build a chapel at the back of the house in Strawberry Hill Gothic style.
His motivation was chiefly to provide a place of worship for Catholic emigres who had fled the French Revolution and settled in Reading. The new chapel, still used today, is believed to be the first Catholic, legal, purpose-built one of its kind erected in England after the Reformation.
In the 19th century the Blounts once again took their place in public life. The mistress of the house founded a Catholic school in the village in the 1830s while in the 1880s a Blount, like his ances
tors before him, was named High Sheriff of Oxfordshire. The direct male line of
Blounts died out in 1908 with
John Darell Blount who had
let his house out to tenants. It passed eventually to the Blounts' Eyston cousins of Hendred House and has now been lovingly restored.
Mapledurham's picture postcard setting makes it one of the most attractive of the recusant houses.
Some, however, find the quintessential Englishness of the location too much. "There is even a water mill", Pevsner wrote, "exactly where it should be. The whole place, one feels, is over-acting like mad".