Catholics in Ely and the Fens

NPG D30676; Miles Prance by Robert White

Last night I delivered a talk to the Ely Society at Ely Museum on the subject of ‘Catholics in Ely and the Fens’. I addressed the issue of the survival of Catholicism in the Fens, beginning with the remarkable story of Elizabeth Throckmorton, the Poor Clare Abbess of Denny Abbey who continued to live the religious life with two of her nuns at Coughton Court in Warwickshire, dying eleven years after the suppression of Denny. However, the evidence points on the whole to a complete extinction of Catholicism in the Fens, even though incidents in the late sixteenth century like the conversion of William Taylor of Ely (the future Benedictine Maurus Taylor) and the suspicious number of ‘popish ornaments’ still in St Mary’s church, Ely in 1570 point to a degree of Catholic sympathy and Church Papistry. However, it was the arrival of priests at Wisbech Castle that gave the first great impetus to the revival of Catholicism in the region, with the priests converting local inhabitants including the gaoler’s daughter. Priests escaped with the aid of local recusants, and local boys like William Arton made their way to the Continent to train as priests. Furthermore, the Bishop’s Palace in Ely was used as a prison for lay recusants between 1597 and 1588. After 1627, when the last prisoners departed from Wisbech, Catholicism in the Fens seems to have declined dramatically, although isolated families remained. Jeremy Hackluyt of Stretham converted and attempted to enter the English College, Rome in 1667, and the Prance family of March produced two priests and two nuns, as well as the Fens’ most notorious Catholic, Miles Prance. Miles trained as a goldsmith and invented the story that Sir Edmond Berry Godfrey had been murdered at the instigation of two Jesuits in 1678, thus setting in motion the train of events that led to the persecution of Catholics in the so-called ‘Popish Plot’. The final part of the talk dealt with Catholics who owned land in the Fens according to property registrations in 1715 and 1744. The last evidence we have of Catholics in the Fens is a letter from the chaplain at Sawston Hall in 1791 describing a journey he made into north Cambridgeshire to minister to scattered Catholics. But when the first priests arrived in Wisbech in 1840 to establish a Catholic congregation, they were essentially planting the faith anew.

The text of my talk can be downloaded here.

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