Attendance at monthly Masses at Milton Manor in Oxfordshire is usually by invitation only, in the form of a telephone call from the current heir, Anthony Mockler. “Would you like to come to Mass on Sunday with drinks afterwards in the library?” he asks.
Around 30 to 40 people will turn up, some of whom are simply curious to sneak a look at a house seldom open to the public. According to the BBC historian Lucy Worsley, who worked at Milton Manor in the 1990s, they were typically a “small and outlandish collection of people” who all pronounced Mass “with a long ‘a’ ”. Their numbers are significant for the priest, who is paid solely out of the collection.
Since 2016 the use of the chapel has widened. The Latin Mass Society now holds services there at least twice a year, allowing Catholics to experience the older form of the Mass as part of a programme of services held in different churches around the country every year. The chapel is fine Strawberry Hill Gothic, and interesting because Bishop Richard Challoner, the translator of the hugely influential Douay-Rheims Bible, prayed here and was buried nearby until 1946, when he was reinterred at Westminster Cathedral.
Private chapels are rare in England, perhaps also a little decadent, certainly rich with ornament, wealth and privilege. Yet perhaps their rather hidden secret is that most harboured a passionate desire to keep a forbidden flame alive.
Catholic families of England at the time of the Reformation were finding that their identity was being crushed. England’s private chapels were needed most when those worshipping in them had to go underground to withdraw from public religion. As Catholicism became progressively outlawed through the 16th and 17th centuries, they became centres of resistance.
Sometimes a priest disguised himself as a tutor to the family’s children, as he did for the Welds at their home in Lulworth Castle in Dorset, to bring the Eucharist clandestinely to family and other trusted Catholics in the area.
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