Cautious Expressions of Faith

Catholic Chapels in the Georgian Era

Hannah Moffat and Jennifer M Freeman


  Exterior of New Wardour Castle with colourful flower bed in bloom in foreground
  The chapel at New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, is discreetly incorporated in the west wing.

When Henry VIII cut England’s ties to Rome during the Reformation the influence and integrity of the Catholic Church in England was very effectively broken. The Dissolution of the Monasteries and the pursuant destruction of the fabric of the Church was a savage and effective blow. The Catholic faith was left homeless and its congregation scattered and isolated as churches were appropriated for Protestantism. Fanaticism among the English Protestants was encouraged in order that England should be kept free from Catholic influence and subservience to papal authority.

During the 17th century a steady accumulation of laws eroded the freedom of worship and the human rights of all non-conformists in England. Those of Catholic faith were also targeted by specific laws. The Acts of Uniformity of 1545 onwards were passed in order to give English Protestantism a religious monopoly, binding state and church together. Religious diversity would make the monarchy vulnerable to faction and usurpation. These Acts essentially made failure to attend the established church illegal. Implicit in this crime was the assumption that the accused was not loyal to the monarch. As with Thomas More, the church and the state were inseparable; religion was not a private affair but was treated as a political statement. Being proved a Catholic was tantamount to treason. This was no political expedience: in the ensuing Elizabethan period and throughout the next century the throne was rarely free from attack. After the Restoration, the Catholics in England fared no better, as the balance of power had shifted to give Parliament more influence.

Political intrigue did not end until 1766 following the death of the final pretender to the throne, ‘James III’ to his Jacobite supporters. With his death also died the last threat of usurpation of the throne by the Stuart dynasty and Catholicism was freed from complicity with this political cause.

By the Georgian period harsh laws which ordered penalties for all aspects of Catholic life and worship were being enforced less and less. During the 17th century they had been used as a whip when necessary to quell any burgeoning confidence among the Catholic community. At the end of the century Catholics were still viewed with suspicion politically. Consequently they were unable to hold official posts and were excluded from William III’s 1689 Toleration Act which gave non-conformist Protestants the legal right to build and attend places of worship.

Under this oppression the Roman Catholic Church was never able to assert itself and its illegal status gave its congregation and priests the mentality of outlaws. The practical elements of worship for small disparate congregations were dealt with in a discreet and even furtive manner, and a talent for disguise developed. Lest they drew attention to themselves, many congregations held low mass and even established permanent chapels in back rooms, outbuildings, stables and other unprepossessing buildings. By the 1770s however, Catholics had begun to feel more freedom to build, anticipating a near future when their faith would be emancipated. Their buildings over the next few decades though, were decidedly un-Catholic in style, vernacular and functional, or echoing the demure and simple neo-classical elements of their fellow non-conformists the Methodists and Baptists, reflecting the habit of mind that the beleaguered Catholic community had developed over the past 200 years; a disinclination to be noticed.

The establishment was taking a more tolerant view of the activities of Catholics, and George III himself is believed to have quietly sanctioned the building of an illegal Catholic chapel by the Weld family at Lulworth in Dorset, advising its real function be disguised as a mausoleum.

However, in 1780 those Catholics who had taken advantage of the relaxation and fulfilled the need of their congregations by building a public place of worship, were given a shock by the vehemence of anti-Catholic feelings that lingered among the public. The Gordon Riots in London were a violent expression of antiCatholic feeling. A mob looted, burned and ruined not only Catholic chapels, but also the homes of Catholics and their sympathisers. It was a painful experience for English Catholics and as a result the style of their subsequent building was to be very restrained and unobtrusive. In 1791, the first Catholic Relief Act legalised the building of places of worship by Catholics. Despite this conciliation chapels that were built legally were still predominantly unassuming in style and built on inconspicuous sites. There were a few, though, who lamented the stylistic choices being made by those with a responsibility to build. The buildings of Joseph Ireland, for example, anticipated the glory and splendour of the Gothic Revival and the work of Pugin. By the Regency period and the time of the final Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 the Catholics of England had begun to recover and reinterpret their built heritage.


St Benet’s at Netherton in Sefton, on the north side of Liverpool, is a classic example of the low key vernacular chapels built by Catholics in the late 18th century. (Curiously, there are more early Post Reformation Catholic chapels in Lancashire than any other county.) Built in 1793, the chapel is tucked lengthways behind its presbytery, the two being integrated internally, so that it looks like an ordinary house from the street, reflecting the anxieties and restrictions imposed on Catholics following the Catholic Relief Act of 1791. It is now in the ownership of The Historic Chapels Trust (HCT)[1] and is listed Grade II*.

The building exudes a simple period charm, in brick with stone dressings. The chapel roof is covered with stone slates, that of the presbytery is slated. Its frontage has a wellcrafted, pedimented door-case and fanlight. Until the 1970s the chapel interior remained largely intact but later the seating and various furnishings were removed when the building was no longer used for worship. HCT is now carrying out a careful repair of the chapel, inside and out. Fortunately the gallery with its original joinery, gallery railings and cast iron supporting columns still survives. Most important of all is the delicate plaster altarpiece set in a pilastered pedimented frame. The central panel is painted in colours reminiscent of the dawn sky, with a relief of swagged curtains, at the top is a descending dove and a rising sun. According to Bryan Little, 'With its winged cherub heads and gloria of rays and Adamesque urns and garlands, [this composition] is of the type that many churches of the Establishment could boast before the zealous efforts of "ecclesiological" restorers' (from Catholic Churches Since 1623 by Bryan Lille – see Recommended Reading).

The sarcophagus altar probably dates from the early 19th century and is placed behind altar rails hard against the east wall, thus it predates the general layout of Catholic churches prescribed by the Second Vatican Council. In the lower part of the Georgian sash windows are examples of rare 1920s glass ‘transfers’ whose conservation is now being undertaken.

The parish of St Benet is one of the oldest in Lancashire. Before the Reformation, worship centred on St Helen’s church in Sefton (Grade I) where monuments to the Molyneux family can be seen. They remained loyal to the Catholic faith through the Reformation. Catholics worshipped in their house at Sefton Hall, where in 1603 a Benedictine priest is known to have been officiating. Eventually a separate place of worship was established in a barn at Netherton that served as a church from 1769-93. The building of St Benet’s Chapel was commenced in June 1792 and it opened in 1793. Made redundant in the 1970s when a larger church was constructed nearby, the Historic Chapels Trust acquired the chapel and presbytery in 1995. HCT is repairing the chapel and will eventually be reinstating some of its furnishings. The trustees hope that St Benet’s will become popular for community activities and occasional services of worship, especially weddings.


Built between 1770 and 1776 by James Paine, New Wardour in Wiltshire is a splendid Palladian mansion. It was built by the 8th Lord Arundell to replace Old Wardour Castle which was destroyed during the Civil War by its owner in order to gain the surrender of the Parliamentarian troops who had captured it.

By the late 18th century the Arundells were the leading lights of the Catholic congregation in the Salisbury area. In 1780 when Fanny Burney visited Salisbury, she noted that 'There is no Romish chapel in the town; mass has always been performed for the Catholics of the place at a Mrs Arundell’s in the Close – a relation of his Lordship' (from Wardour, A Short History by Philip Caraman, 1984.)

By this period there were 40 to 50 Catholics in Salisbury and 540 in the combined parishes of Tisbury, Semley and Ansty. It was thought to be the largest congregation of Catholic recusants outside London, partly because of the attraction of the recently completed chapel.

  The fine gilded plaster decoration, pilasters and saucer-domed ceiling of the chapel interior
  Interior of the chapel at New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire

The architect James Paine was given a free rein with the building of the house at New Wardour. However, Lord Arundell was keen to be very involved in the design and construction of his, ostensibly, private chapel.

Lord Arundell used Fr John Thorpe, an English Jesuit based in Rome, to liase with Italian workmen and artists including another Palladian architect called Quarenghi. The result was a glorious and ostentatious Catholic chapel, unusual for its time but nevertheless an expression of the growing freedom given to Catholics by the establishment.

Lord Arundell was in very regular contact with Fr Thorpe, discussing the designs and asking for advice about the furnishings. Quarenghi was given responsibility for the chapel’s interior which was furnished magnificently, with large wall paintings. The altar, unusually placed in the West end, was made from a variety of expensive marbles by Quirenza to a design by Quarenghi. The gilded sanctuary lamps were made by Luis Valadier and, thanks to a nifty piece of architectural salvage on Fr Thorpe’s part, the altarpiece came from the private chapel of the Jesuit Superior General after the suppression of the Jesuits.

After completion in 1776, (15 years before it became legal for Catholics to build chapels) the chapel which was, as Nikolaus Pevsner notes in The Buildings of England, actually the size of a small parish church, was opened with great ceremony by Bishop Walmesley and was used by tenants, retainers and locals. The size of the congregation was noted, but tolerated by the local Anglican administration. The vicar of Semley in 1780 sent his bishop a return for his parish with this apology; 'Should the number of Papists seem large for this parish, which is not a populous one, your Lordship will easily account for it from its vicinity to Wardour Castle' (From Wardour, A Short History by Philip Caraman, 1984).

By this time the chapel had been serving the local community for four years and, after the first Catholic Relief Act in 1778, was a famous centre for Catholic worship in the West. Because of its high profile it became a target in 1780 during the Gordon Riots and was nearly burnt down. However, it survived this threat, but not without changes; Lord Arundell for years after the Riots, employed a keeper of the peace to attend the masses at the chapel. The crude pew that was installed for this man is still in place today.

In 1789 John Soane visited Wardour, and soon after was commissioned to enlarge the chapel. He is responsible for the chapel’s dome, oval vault and a shallow apse. Despite the threat of anti-Catholic feeling the chapel, and by implication, the congregation grew and survived. In fact by the time of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, there were two catholic schools in the area and Lord Arundell had given refuge to a French bishop escaping the Revolution and settled a small community of monks driven from their home in Bourbon.



Recommended Reading

Little, Bryan, Catholic Churches since 1623, Robert Hale, 1996, p44

Cross, F L (ed), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, OUP, 1974

Parker, Derek and Chandler, John, Wiltshire Churches, An Illustrated Guide, Alan Sutton, 1993

Roberts, Jane, Tranmar, John; Cussans, Anthony, Wardour Castle: A Guide to the House, Chapel and Grounds, for Cranbourne Chase School, 1976

Anthony Williams, J, Catholic Recusancy in Wiltshire, Catholic Record Society, 1968

Oliver, George, A History of the Catholic Religion, Charles Dolman, 1857

Davies, Norman, The Isles, Macmillan, 1999


[1] The Historic Chapels Trust was established in 1993 to take disused chapels and other places of worship in England into ownership. Its buildings are all of outstanding architectural and historic interest. The Trust undertakes their preservation and repair for public benefit and opens its chapels to visitors and for a variety of suitable activities.


Historic Churches, 2001


This article was prepared by HANNAH MOFFAT of Cathedral Communications. JENNIFER M FREEMAN PhD of the Historic Chapels Trust contributed the section on St Benet’s.

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