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.

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