Yesterday evening I launched my book Rookwood Family Papers 1606-1761, the Suffolk Records Society‘s volume for 2016, in the crypt of the Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr, Bury St Edmunds. The SRS tends to choose launch venues with a connection to the subject of the year’s volume, and St Edmund’s was an appropriate venue for launching mine because the church was founded in 1761 (as the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception) by the second son of Elizabeth Rookwood (1683-1759), using money and land bequeathed in her will. Indeed, her son described Elizabeth as ‘almost the foundress’ of the Jesuit chapel. I was honoured by the attendance at the launch of the Mayor of St Edmundsbury, Cllr Patrick Chung.
Rookwood Family Papers, which draws primarily (but not exclusively) on the papers of the Rookwood family, held in Cambridge University Library as part of the Hengrave Manuscripts, chronicles the fortunes of Suffolk’s most notorious family of Catholic recusants between the execution of Ambrose Rookwood (1573-1606) for his part in the Gunpowder Plot and the death of Elizabeth Rookwood in 1759 (although the last document in the collection dates from 1761). The Rookwoods of Coldham Hall, in the parish of Stanningfield just south of Bury St Edmunds, produced two convicted traitors within less than a hundred years; in addition to the Ambrose of the Gunpowder Plot, another Ambrose Rookwood was executed in 1696 for attempting to assassinate William of Orange in the Barclay Conspiracy. So black was the reputation of the Rookwoods that even Shakespeare punned on the family name in Macbeth, and more recently J. K. Rowling selected the surname for one of her ‘Death Eaters’.
The great historical puzzle of the Rookwoods, given their terrible reputation, is how they managed to survive as a family, hold onto their lands, and finally triumph as Suffolk’s foremost Catholic family at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1767 the Rookwoods inherited the baronetcy and estates of the Gages of Hengrave Hall, later absorbing the patrimony of the Martin family of Long Melford as well. The Rookwood Gages or Gage-Rokewodes did not finally go extinct until 1872, although they abandoned Coldham Hall in 1843. My volume presents the documents that solve this puzzle, showing that the Rookwoods held on to their lands by the skin of their teeth in the period 1606-1636, finally retrieving ownership of the Coldham estate by dint of the political, legal and financial astuteness of Sir Robert Rookwood, who managed to retrieve James I’s trust to the extent that the King knighted him at Royston in 1624. Nevertheless, the Rookwoods never wavered in their loyalty to the Catholic faith, faithful to the family motto Tout est en Dieu – ‘all is in God’.
Although the second Ambrose Rookwood to suffer a traitor’s death was an obscure fourth son, the incident tarnished the heir to the Coldham estate, Thomas Rookwood (1658-1726) who found himself in exile in France and Flanders until 1704, when he returned without permission from Queen Anne and was arrested. In the meantime his estates came almost to ruin, and it was his daughter Elizabeth who really saved the Rookwood family. In 1718 she secretly married (against her father’s wishes) John Gage of Hengrave, and after his death in 1728 she shrewdly managed the Coldham estate until the marriage of her eldest son Thomas Rookwood Gage to Lucy Knight of Kingerby in 1746. Elizabeth Rookwood, who was educated at Paris and Bruges, was a learned woman who spoke multiple languages and the jewels in this collection of documents are a domestic inventory of Coldham Hall compiled in 1737 and a catalogue of Catholic books in the library at around the same period. With 1,889 books, the library of Coldham Hall was the largest Catholic library in East Anglia and one of the largest in England. Elizabeth’s domestic inventory shows that she collected works of art and devotional objects from all over Europe. These two documents, more than any others, show that Coldham Hall was far more than just a family home: it was the de facto headquarters of the Jesuit College of the Holy Apostles (of whom the Rookwoods long-serving chaplain Fr James Dennett was superior) and the library may have doubled up as the collection of the missionary college.
Rookwood Family Papers is in many ways a companion volume to my earlier Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism (2015), in the sense that it draws on the same collection of manuscripts and pertains to the same network of interconnected Suffolk recusant families. Indeed, my work on the Rookwoods volume came about in 2011, after I had finished transcribing the Gages documents, because I felt that this small and somewhat neglected adjunct to the Hengrave Manuscripts required attention. Together, the two books are intended to provide a comprehensive account of Catholicism in West Suffolk between the Civil War and the 1760s.