Article on Papists in the Isle of Ely published in Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society


My article ‘Papists and Non-jurors in the Isle of Ely, 1559-1745’ has just been published in Volume 104 of Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, pp. 161-70. This is the first study ever made of Catholicism after the Reformation in the Isle of Ely, an area which is now part of Cambridgeshire but which, before 1874, was traditionally a separate county jurisdiction. The geographical Isle of Ely is the area of raised ground around the city of Ely itself, including the villages of Witchford, Witcham, Haddenham and others, which stood above water during the winter flooding of the Fens; however, the term soon came to be applied to all of the territory under the immediate temporal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely, which stretched as far north as Wisbech (the Bishop’s spiritual jurisdiction, the Diocese of Ely, covered the entirety of what is now Cambridgeshire and still does).

Isle of Ely map1

The Isle of Ely has not been studied for evidence of post-Reformation Catholic activity before owing to the prevailing assumption amongst historians that there were hardly any Catholics in Cambridgeshire, apart from a scattering of gentry families (such as the Huddlestones of Sawston) in the south of the county. Furthermore, the Isle of Ely was under the firm control of the Bishop of Ely as diocesan and temporal lord, meaning that it was virtually impossible for anyone to get away with recusancy (neighbouring Suffolk and Norfolk, by contrast, were a hotchpotch of local jurisdictions where people regularly defied the recusancy laws). However, the Isle of Ely played a key role in the history of Elizabethan and Jacobean Catholicism because it was here, at Wisbech and Ely, that many priests and lay Catholics were imprisoned. Wisbech Castle, in particular, became a hotbed of Catholic intellectual life. These prisoners were, for the most part, not local to the area, but time and again the records of Wisbech Castle show that local people helped priests escape, and my article focusses on these local sympathisers in an effort to discover who they were and why they may have supported the priests.

Sympathisers in the Isle of Ely were rarely if ever recusants, and this is why historians have missed them – however, families such as the Finchams of Upwell and Outwell, the Prances of March and the Pratts of Whittlesey were church papists or occasional conformists, some of whom later became recusants when they moved out of the area. Perhaps the best known Catholic from the Isle of Ely was Miles Prance, the unfortunate goldsmith-in-ordinary to Queen Catherine of Braganza whose false testimony set in motion the events of the Popish Plot in 1678.

In addition to Catholics, my article also examines Protestant Non-jurors (individuals who refused to take oaths of allegiance to William and Mary and their successors after 1689), since these appear in the records alongside popish non-jurors. Non-jurors sometimes had Catholic sympathies even if they were not recusants, and in the eighteenth century the Non-juror Simon Hake of Chatteris was married to a member of a prominent Yorkshire Catholic family.

It is my hope that this article will revise perceptions of the religious history of the Isle of Ely, an area hitherto associated solely with Protestant dissent but which was not entirely without its Catholic sympathisers.


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