Norfolk is full of suppressed Catholicism

I recently took Gilda away for a few days in Norfolk. Gilda’s not my wife, she’s my green Mini Cooper, and she just loves the open country. Like a dog unleashed, she speeds off into the distance and I really have no say on where we end up. When you own a Mini, you’re never a driver. You’re a passenger.

Norfolk, I discovered, is full of suppressed Catholicism; every field seems to contain a ruined abbey, every house a priest hole. The most impressive hideout is in Oxburgh Hall, home to the recusant Bedingfields. It’s an assault course: you have to lower yourself down a trapdoor right onto your bottom, slide along the floor beneath a sunken wall and then pull yourself up the other side into a tiny cell with a wooden bench.

Coming out again, backwards, is even harder. How many arthritic clerics went down that hole and never returned? As I squeezed myself into the cell, I imagined finding there a couple of priests from the 1500s, covered in cobwebs, drinking tea. “Is the Reformation over yet?” they ask.

Sometimes it amazes me that English Catholics don’t get angrier about all of this: the desecration of the faith was appalling. What remains of Castle Acre Priory gives visitors an impression of what was lost. A giant Norman religious establishment that housed perhaps 30 Cluniac monks, its enormous west front still stands in tall weeds, almost intact, and the foundational outline of the rest is clear enough that you can trace the nighttime run from dormitory to latrine.

It was dissolved in 1537. Many of the buildings were simply pulled down; only the prior’s lodge, which admittedly was the plushest part, was retained as a house for a local gent.

It’s fascinating how many religious places were destroyed only to be repurposed, either for a venal aristocrat or what became the Church of England – or, indeed, for some profitable alliance of both. All my prejudices about England’s Protestant revolution were confirmed at Ickworth, Suffolk; a neoclassical rotunda set in exotic gardens, designed to make a bit of England forever Italy. The guidebook is hilarious. We learn that the Earl-Bishop of Bristol, Frederick Hervey (1739-1803), tried his hand at law, didn’t like it, so entered the CofE instead, and gained control of the bishoprics of Cloyne and Derry.

He was, in fact, a supporter of Catholic Emancipation, which is a good thing, but also raised vast sums of money by ensuring that the proceeds from the renewal of agricultural leases went straight into his purse rather than the diocese, much of which was then spent on long trips anywhere but Ireland. “He became a well-known figure dressed in an eccentric adaptation of clerical robes, bowling along the roads of Germany and Italy.”

The guidebook says that in one such carriage ride he had an almighty row with his wife and they never spoke again. Never mind: it gave the Earl-Bishop more time to devote to his passion for dotting the landscape with large round buildings packed with expensive art. Napoleon’s army confiscated part of his collection and scattered it across Europe, forcing our hero to spend the last years of life trying to rescue it. He died on the road to Albano in 1803, according to the guidebook, “in the outhouse of an Italian farmer who refused to admit even a dying Protestant bishop into his house.”

I’ve a lot of admiration for the Anglican Church, which is a repository for the best of England, and did briefly convert to it before becoming a Catholic – but my heart is as non-conformist as my politics are quietly radical.

Does the decadence of so many of the families who, like the Herveys, did well under the Tudors, tell us something about the moral consequences of the Reformation? Wild things grow from ruins, and the misfortunes of the Herveys read like some sort of morality play. The 6th Marquess was declared bankrupt at 21, in 1936, and was briefly imprisoned for his role in an attempted jewellery heist.

The 7th Marquess was a drug addict. He loved the estate but was unhappy with the National Trust’s stewardship and would make his feelings known by hovering over the top storey of the rotunda in his helicopter, “expressing his displeasure” to the people inside. Marquess no. 7 also had a passion for fast cars, with which this Catholic commoner can entirely sympathise.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor

This article first appeared in the November 2 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here