‘Catholic East Anglia’ Conference

The Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich © Alex Ramsey

Today’s Catholic East Anglia Conference at the Narthex, Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich, was the first ever conference devoted to the history of Catholicism in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and was attended by almost 80 delegates from all over the Diocese of East Anglia and beyond. The conference celebrated 40 years of the Diocese, which was established in 1976, but the conference covered a much broader range of history, beginning with the earliest recusants at the accession of Queen Elizabeth I. Many people contributed to the conference: the members of the organising committee (Prof. John Morrill, Fr Russell Frost and Fr Tony Rogers), Narthex administrator Jess MacDonald, and Diocesan press and digital media officers Keith Morris and Gavin Dvelys. The conference was also generously supported by the Catholic Record Society.

The conference was introduced by Bishop Alan Hopes, who announced that he recently presented a copy of Catholic East Anglia to Pope Francis at a general audience; the Pope wished the Diocese of East Anglia ‘Happy Birthday!’

You can also read a full account of the conference on the website of the Diocese of East Anglia.

Panel 1

Roger Martin brass
Brass depicting Roger Martin between both his wives in Long Melford parish church

Panel 1 consisted of three papers ranging from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, beginning with my own paper on a recently discovered prayer book which I have identified as probably belonging to the celebrated Suffolk recusant Roger Martin. I made the case for the ‘Rookwood Book of Hours’ (Cambridge University Library MS Add. 10079) to be considered a manuscript of recusant provenance and explained my reasons for believing that it may have belonged to Martin, author of ‘The state of Melford church … as I did know it’, a valuable memoir of pre-Reformation liturgy and furnishings in Long Melford which was written in the 1580s.

Suffolk missions map
A map showing eighteenth-century Catholic Mass centres in Suffolk

Sadly, owing to ill health our second speaker, Joy Rowe, was unable to attend the conference, but I read out a paper on ‘The Bacton and Riding Missions’ which addressed the history of one of the most enigmatic of East Anglia’s eighteenth-century riding missions, which was not focussed on a single gentry house but on a number of different locations in High Suffolk and South Norfolk, including Thelveton Hall, Coulsey Wood House in Stoke Ash, Haughley Park, and much more modest Mass centres in Bacton, Cotton and Botesdale. The paper analysed the Bacton mission register (1768-98) in comparison with other East Anglian missions at the time, reaching the conclusion that the Bacton mission (which gave rise to the Catholic parishes centred on Stowmarket, Thetford and Diss) was led by the laity and demonstrated the possibility of the survival of grassroots Catholicism in remote rural areas.

Frederick William Keating, Bishop of Northampton 1908-21

Prof. John Charmley delivered the third paper of the panel, focussing on East Anglia within the Diocese of Northampton between 1850 and 1907, and advancing the argument that the Church in East Anglia was saved by Bishop Arthur Riddell of Northampton between 1880 and 1907. Prof. Charmley argued that Riddell’s success resulted from his prioritising of church-planting and confidence that the faithful practice of Catholics within their communities would draw others to the Catholic faith.

Panel 2

NHDS Chapel
Chapel of Notre Dame High School, Norwich: the sanctuary

After lunch we heard a fascinating illustrated paper from Jonathan Hooton, Chair of the Norwich Society, on the chapel and other buildings of Notre Dame High School, Norwich. The Sisters of Notre Dame arrived in Norwich in 1889 and the chapel was completed in 1896, the work of the East Anglian architect F. E. Banham (who was also responsible for St Bene’t’s Minster and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Gillingham). The chapel suffered a fire in 1911 and was damaged by incendiary bombs in 1942 (a surviving gas mask was recently discovered in the nuns’ air raid shelter); more recently, in the 1990s, the chapel was turned into a studio. However, in 2004 the chapel was restored (including a remarkable Victorian porcelain toilet in its own turret) and a new altar has recently been made for the school’s 150th anniversary.

Book Launch

Front Cover

Jonathan Hooton’s talk was followed by the launch of the book that accompanies the conference, the official history of the Diocese of East Anglia: Catholic East Anglia: A History of the Catholic Faith in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, published by Gracewing. Two of the authors were present in addition to myself (John Charmley and Tony Rogers), and they kindly said a little about their contributions to the book (on the nineteenth and late twentieth centuries respectively). The book launch was also attended by Sir Henry and Lady Bedingfeld, who kindly gave permission for the reproduction of a painting at Oxburgh Hall on the front cover of Catholic East Anglia.

East Anglian Catholic History Society (EACHS)


The final stage of the conference saw the establishment of an East Anglian Catholic History Society to continue the work which this conference has begun.

Bishop Alan Hopes graciously agreed to be the Patron of the Society, and a committee of five was elected: Sir Henry Bedingfeld, Prof. John Charmley, Fr Charles Fitzgerald-Lombard, Prof. John Morrill and Jeremy Pilch. Prof. John Morrill was elected Chairman in absentia, and I was elected Secretary.

You can read about the establishment of the Society here. The conference website for Catholic East Anglia is now the website of the new Society.

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