TWO hundred years ago they opened a splendid Catholic church in one of the wings of the great, calm, curved Palladian house called Wardour Castle. Since this was 1776, certain rules had to be obeyed by nonconformist sects who were building chapels and opening con venticles.
There had to be no exterior sign that it was a church no tower, no bells. It was preferred that it should be attached as an integral part of a dwelling house.
And to-day when you face the great curved facade of the mansion, you can't tell which is the church until you ask one of the nicely brought-up girls who now use it as a school.
In fact the church is in the right wing behind a battered wooden door which needs painting. Close inspection will disclose a carved wooden plaque proclaiming its identity.
You push open the door. You are in a curious, flagged anteroom. very bare, with a few memorials on the walls and, Oh! the bliss of it, a loo. And thcn you push open the church door and like a small, civilised explosion, there is one of the most extraordinary surprises in
he Catholic church is marvellous architecture, in the most exquisite repair. of incomparable richness, utterly unspoilt and so unheralded that one would like to give a shout of happy surprise.
And if this sounds like the exaggeration of one who is sold on all the ecclesiastical splendours of the 18th century and goes a little overboard when they are Catholic, you are dead right. But then so am I. This is the best thing of its sort that the Catholics have in this kingdom.
The first impression is of an almost unrestrained magnificence, heavily Roman and yet still basically English. It is a large hall church, with a graceful curved apse at each end. All this is dune in white with some of the detail picked out in gold.
The altar goes flat out and gave me slight Anglo-Saxon reservations. There is no chance of turning it round or putting one of those tables in front of it. It is free standing. It is massive, It is high.
It was designed by an Italian artist called Quarenghi and made in a workshop set in the Roman Forum. It clearly cost a packet and was brought through the Customs into England with some of its marbles reversed so that the gilding should be concealed.
The whole church is nobly pillared. It is decorated with delicate plaster work. The ceil ing is as rich as a man can make it without going too far.
Above the altar there is a semi-circle of painted glass which lets the light fall dramatically down. This is an old baroque trick. The centre which contains the Jesuit symbol, IHS, floats in the clearest light and around it gather clouds that grow darker towards the edge.
It was John Ryan, our cartoonist/artist, who arranged this visit for me, and who pointed out that the in-crowding clouds are. in fact, seen from above. You are getting, in effect, a preaeroplane view of one of the symbols of the Beatific Vision.
If I have made this church sound like some palatial drawing room, I have failed. Its purpose cries out to the most atheistic aesthete.
Surrendered with honours
The family that built all this is of delicious complication. They are of course ancient Norman, but managed to come from Cornwall. The wife of one of them defended the old castle aeainst Cromwellians and surrendered with the honours of war.
Her husband, who had been at Oxford with the King, returned and reduced it to a ruin to get it back.
They kept the Old Faith, but they gave money towards the defeat of the Armada and quite right too. The same contributor also fought against the Turks in Hungary and, scaling a wall, captured a Turkish horsetail banner. For this he was made an hereditary Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1595. This made him something of a national hero.
Elizabeth Tudor called for several days of national thanksgiving and got her Archbishop to compose a prayer when the Knights of St John of Jerusalem repulsed the Turks from Malta. And no one, not even the Pope,
could have been more catholic
and Catholic than they.
Bashing the Turks was acceptable at the time to both Protestants and Catholics, for the Turks at that time were, roughly, the equivalent of hot war Russians to the West. In fact Elizabeth made Arundell a baron despite his religion.
This recusant family, with virtually no ',political rights, grew richer and richer. Really they did it through sensible dynastic marriages within their minority, which had massive financial and property overtones.
I have never quite understood this. They were meant to be paying crippling fines for non-attendance in church. Yet this must have been one or the most flourishing of the recusant families.
It is said that the local Catholic community was larger than any other outside London, and that includes "Proud Preston" and the Catholic villages of Lancashire.
It is dwindling now under the onslaught of the "two houses" set from London, because this is a majestic countryside of solid, small, desirable houses and of noble villages which have an air of spacious, gracious, unhurried wealth that was not exclusive to the great houses of their social betters.
They look redolent of beef rather than salt fish and smoked bacon. Their curtains come from Peter Jones.
B uilding 'Chastity itself'
The eighth Lord Arundell was clearly comfortably off. He decreed this stately house of which some dintinguished critic wrote: "No building could be less open to the charge of pretentiousness. It is chastity itself." Clearly it was the chapel he cared about.
It must have been a marvel to Catholics in its time. It is still one now and some of our usually insensitive minority have looked after it superbly.
It took about 24 years to build and adorn. Apart from the Italians, from whom all recusants and later upper-class Catholics used once to do their ecclesiological shopping see the Brompton Oratory throughout the place is a triumph of English architecture, and hence the restraint under the gilt of the plaster work.
Prisoner of war in Colditz
So the last, the 16th, Lord Arundell of Wardour was a prisoner of war in Colditz and came back only to be buried in the vaults of this chapel. The title is honourably dead. The chapel is startlingly alive, and not merely as a work of art.
So they had there last Sunday a bicentennial Mass. The place is not easy to find. It is set in an ageing park done, of course, by Capability Brown. Admission to this physical act of faith was by ticket only. Even then the place was packed.
There are two slightly later transepts designed by the great John Soane. These have delicate galleries for the family and household. And these and the pillared shadows beneath them were crowded.
Upstairs they were crowded with a bending-over crowd which, apart from the cameras, looked like one of those Venetian paintings of a holy mob looking over the delicious brink of heaven.
They had got down the choir from the Sacred Heart Church in Wimbledon. The music suited the architecture. The Bishop of Clifton drifted in behind a medieval processional cross to attend the Mass corarn episcopo.
The priest came in with the servers carrying heavy silver candlesticks. He was wearing vestments made for the opening more than 200 years ago. The missal stand, the chalice veil, the various stoles, all were of the set made for the opening of the church. They glittered in
a manner restrained by age. They had a tendency to make the priest look like a Byzantine F.mperor.
But then the most modern, and almost equally expensive lobs that are now fashionable, those great swathes of white rawsilk, tend to make them look like Roman Senators.
The single priest. Fr Michael Beattie who, if he did not have SJ after his name I would have thought a star Benedictine cantor did the intoning at the altar.
The place was packed and the congregation itched to join in. The Mass, except of course for the Lessons and Gospel, was in Latin. The Creed was a sort of faithful lion's roar,
The laity even helped out with the Te Deum that Venus fly trap of plainsong where you have to keep your eyes down on the music for the next surprising change in melody.
It was a rare occasion. Nothing was hastened. Nothing was a great silver nautilus shell, brought up at the Communion offering were of a gilded, papal splendour. The incense "boat" was a great silver mautilus shell, big enough to hold enough of the Arabian gum deliciously to obscure the entire interior of St Peter's. The thurible was a miniature shrine.
Painted holy canvas
There were pictures on the walls between the pilasters. Now, this habit of adorning churches seems to anger a lot of Catholics: not anger, perhaps, but it is regarded as had taste.
It's all right in Bruges or Rome, but does not do, for sonic reason, in the plain country where we carve rather than paint our walls.
In fact the medieval English were as fierce as the Byzantines in painting their church walls, and the rich recusants came back from their pious Grand Tours with acres of painted holy canvas. Wardour has great ping-pong-table-sized pictures hung between its pilasters and superb they look.
There must have been a pious industry producing these pious acres of paint. All the old convent parlours used to have them the upturned eyes, the brandished cross, the rather leaden Assumptions and images absolutely unidentifiable except to experts of the Well of Samaria or the Supper at Bethany.
The chapel walls of Wardour are splendidly lined with such noble acres and I think it fine, and can think of a hundred churches at least which could benefit by so unfashionable a habit.
The Mass went on slowly and with a great dignity. It was not quite fair in a way. There were sconces of candles on the walls held out in silver shields proudly emblazoned IIIS. There were Limoges enamel Stations of the Cross.
There was an enchanting marble Madonna and Child at the back of the church which had once stood in the oratory of the General of the Jesuits and been looted from it at that most
disgraceful and squalid occasion when the Bourbon sovereigns of Europe had forced the Pope to suppress the Society.
It is said that the Pope, Clement XIV, died of the shame of it. It was the very least he could do.
Wardour has, too. a collection of vestments that are a part of the treasure of England. Their sort of embroidery was the type of thing in which medieval England excelled. The embroidery has been transferred to newer velvet.
And there is the Westminster Chasuble with great, socking fleurs de lis, roses, a portcullis, a pomewanate (for Katherine of Aragon) of Flemish work and it is all still used, all most beautifully kept, all loved and all helping people like me to enjoy their Faith.
It was a slow Mass and a very beautiful one, and basically a simple one. I enjoyed it immoderately. To have so splendid a thing every Sunday would be like drinking a pint of Green Chartreuse instead of beer after Mass. And yet I prefer Chartreuse one hopes in moderation.