East Anglian Catholics and the founding of Catholic America

Memorial to Edward Maria Wingfield, Kimbolton parish church
Memorial to Edward Maria Wingfield, Kimbolton parish church

As Pope Francis visits the United States, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the important contribution made by Catholics from East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire) in founding the Catholic community in English America. The role of East Anglian Protestants in early America is celebrated annually by Americans at Thanksgiving – it is well known that many of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ came from the region, especially the Stour Valley dividing south Suffolk from north Essex. What is far less well known is the important contribution of Catholics, who also travelled to the New World in the hope of finding religious liberty. In 1634 an entire colony – the present state of Maryland – was founded by English Catholics, but Maryland was not the first interaction between English Catholics and the new world.

As early as 1581 – before the foundation of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated colony at Roanoke – William Catesby, a recusant from Northamptonshire and the father of the Gunpowder Plotter Robert Catesby, drew up plans for an English Catholic colony in the New World. The government was less enthusiastic; Elizabeth I suspected that English Catholics were more loyal to Spain than to England, and the entire raison d’etre of English expansion into North America was to resist Spanish dominance. In 1588 Catesby was imprisoned, along with other Catholic gentlemen, in the Bishop’s Palace at Ely, although whether he continued planning his American Catholic colony there we do not know.

In 1605 the Catholic explorer James Rosier (1573-1609), who was born at Winston in Suffolk, began exploring the coast of Maine on a mission funded and patronised by Sir Thomas Arundell (later Lord Arundell of Wardour) to find a suitable site for a Catholic colony. Rosier was born a Protestant, but converted to Catholicism when he spent time in the household of Sir Philip Woodhouse at Kimberley Hall in Norfolk. However, the exposure of the Gunpowder Plot put paid to Arundell and Rosier’s plans. Nevertheless, English Catholics remained interested in the idea of an American future, and a key member of the expedition to found the first successful English colony in North America, Jamestown, was a Catholic. This was Edward Maria Wingfield, who was a cousin of the Suffolk-born explorer Bartholomew Gosnold. Wingfield himself came from Stoneley, Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire). Born in 1550, he served as a soldier in Ireland and the Low Countries before becoming involved in the Virginia Company via his kinship with Gosnold. He sailed in the initial expedition to Virginia and, on arrival, was elected the first President of the Virginia Colony (and thus arguably the first American President) on 13 May 1607. As such, he was the senior representative of King James I, but he held the post only until September; famine and disease ravaged the fledgling colony and Wingfield was held responsible. The fact that he was a Catholic while most of the settlers were loyal Protestants cannot have helped matters.

The first East Anglian priest to set foot in the New World was the Norfolk-born Jesuit Alexander Baker (1582-1638) who was sent to Newfoundland in 1629. In 1634 Baker joined the newly founded colony of Maryland, much further south, which was the first serious attempt at a colony for English Catholics. Maryland, which was named after Charles I’s Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria, was the brainchild of Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, who had secured a charter from Charles that made Maryland a proprietary colony – in other words, it was a feudal domain under Lord Baltimore’s sovereignty as ‘Lord Proprietor’, modelled on the County Palatine of Durham which was under the rule of the Prince Bishop. One of the leaders of the expedition to found Maryland in 1634 was Thomas Cornwallis (c. 1605-1675) from Beeston or Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk, who was the son of the English ambassador to Spain, and was appointed Captain General of the colony on arrival.

Throughout the 1630s Thomas Cornwallis defended the early colony and its capital, St Mary’s City, against attempted incursions by Virginian colonists to the south. In 1643 he led a campaign against the Susquehanna. However, Cornwallis was back in England and unable to defend the colony when Virginia invaded Maryland in 1646 and abolished the colony’s freedom of religion. Cornwallis did return to Maryland, and remained there until 1659, but by this time Catholics were forbidden from holding public office in the colony and, disillusioned with the colonial project, Cornwallis went back to live out the rest of his days in Norfolk. However, in spite of Virginia’s attempt to enforce Protestantism on Maryland, Catholic families continued to play a key role in the colony. Members of the Rookwood family (both the Euston and Stanningfield branches) were early colonists in the palatinate, and by the eighteenth century a branch of the Jerningham family (from Costessey in Norfolk) had settled in Annapolis, the colony’s new capital, and was sending its daughters to English religious houses on the Continent.

There was a strong incentive for the younger sons of English Catholic families to emigrate to North America (usually – but not always – Maryland) since the financial penalties for recusancy left little for their parents to pass on to them. American Catholics remained closely linked with the mother country; the English colonies in North America were under the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of the London District, and North America was also part of the same Jesuit province as England. For this reason, American priests (most of them from Maryland), were often sent to England. One of these was Fr Charles Thompson, who succeeded Fr John Gage as the second Jesuit chaplain of the Catholic chapel in Bury St Edmunds in 1789. It was Thompson who succeeded in registering the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in Westgate Street as the first in Britain to be licensed under the Second Catholic Relief Act of 1791. East Anglian Catholics may have contributed to the founding of Catholic America, but American Catholics also played a part in preserving the Catholic faith in East Anglia – which seems especially fitting given East Anglia’s close relationship with the USA since the Second World War, as the home of US military bases.


Review: An Introduction to Classics by Graham John Wheeler


Graham John Wheeler, An Introduction to Classics: a short guide to the world of ancient Greece and Rome (London: Felicla Books, 2015), ISBN 978-0-9931141-1-3 (paperback), 258pp. £5.99

In An Introduction to Classics, Graham John Wheeler provides a stimulating and thoroughly engaging survey of the life and literature of two great civilisations. A number of introductions to the Classical world for the non-specialist have appeared in recent years, and Dr Wheeler refreshingly manages to avoid the twin perils of patronising the reader and trying too hard to make a case for the ‘relevance’ of his subject. His approach is, rather, to allow the ancients to speak for themselves; the author is a sage guide, selecting and pointing out curious features of the past for the reader’s observation, but Wheeler’s interpretative touch is pleasingly light. An Introduction to Classics is as sophisticated as it is accessible, as informative it is concise, and as wide-ranging as it is authoritative.

An interesting and original feature of this book is its determined focus on language and literature. Many introductions to Classics are built around the differences between two civilisations – the Greeks and Romans – but Wheeler weaves this theme into a structure that covers the themes and genres of Classical literature, with chapters concentrating on epic, satire, philosophy, tragedy, oratory, history and pastoral. The author also provides a chapter that directly addresses issues of language and translation. The message is clear: for Wheeler, Classics is fundamentally a literary discipline; it is the business of engaging with the written heritage of antiquity, preferably in the original language, rather than a sort of cultural study of a civilisation that happens to be different from our own. Still less is Classics merely a matter of mining the literature for historical information. Having said this, Wheeler makes no attempt to shy away from the insights of archaeologists and anthropologists, and the book captures well the interdisciplinary nature of Classics.

Wheeler avoids the heavy-handed methodology of those who would have us believe the ancients were just like us – by multiplying instances of unexpected sophistication or supposedly contemporary relevance – and instead he redresses the balance by reminding the reader of the profound otherness of the Classical world. It is not enough to read about the Greeks and Romans; to have any hope of understanding them we must read them, and read them as far as possible on their own terms. One of the finest chapters of this book explores the issues of (mis)translation, using as an example the clumsy attempts to replace Latin with English as the language of Catholic liturgy from the 1960s onwards. As Wheeler astutely observes, ‘Translation can be a matter of ideology and politics as much as grammar and syntax’ (p. 85).

Wheeler ranges over a vast range of subject matter, deftly handling his chosen themes. The reader is simultaneously aware of a vast terrain to explore behind the vignettes Wheeler provides, and reassured that the author is an authoritative guide. Wheeler does not oversimplify when the complexity and ambiguity of the ancient world is what makes it worth studying in the first place. Wheeler’s Introduction is profoundly scholarly in its approach; the book is introductory because it is selective rather than because it is basic, and Wheeler’s discernment and taste as a Classical scholar are what set this book apart from others in the field. Above all, however, Wheeler’s Introduction to Classics is well written and a joy to read, whatever the reader’s level of interest in or prior knowledge of the subject-matter.


Launch party for The Gages of Hengrave


Yesterday evening the Farmers Club in Bury St Edmunds hosted the launch party for The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640-1767, which was officially published back in June and was issued to members of the Catholic Record Society as their volume for 2015 in late July. I am very grateful to the Farmers Club for generously hosting this event, especially since the building now occupied by the Club was the Gage family’s townhouse from the 1670s until 1767. The Gages originally owned what is now numbers 9, 10 and 11 Northgate Street (the Farmers Club is number 10), and the launch reception took place in the fifteenth-century great hall which is hidden behind a later Georgian frontage. The panelling in the great hall is seventeenth-century and, according to tradition, was taken from Hengrave Hall. I am also grateful to my publishers, Boydell & Brewer, for arranging a 25% discount for books purchased at the event.



The event was extremely well attended, and I was delighted that the Suffolk Records Society was represented by its President and Secretary; the Sisters of the Assumption were represented by Sr John Mary and the Catholic Record Society by Alan Dures. Distinguished guests included Joy Rowe, the doyenne of East Anglia’s Catholic history, and Margaret Statham, whose work on Bury St Edmunds is unsurpassed. I was honoured by the attendance of so many leading lights of Suffolk history. I delivered a short talk on the Gages in the newly restored lecture room, which looks out over Northgate Street.