Campion’s Campout

The Thames Valley is an exceptionally lovely part of England — and few of its charms are more appealing than Stonor, a glorious old home with a rich Catholic pedigree.

The setting is 20 miles from Oxford and five from the riverside town of Henley-on-Thames. The house, which settles back into the rise of a hill, is reached by a long gravel drive that rounds off into a curve in front of the house and then leads to an adjoining chapel.

Adjacent to the chapel is the ancient ring of stones that is said to have given the house its name. In the southeast corner of the chapel, one of these stones was incorporated in the wall when it was built some 850 years ago — a symbol of Christianity taking over a once-pagan worship site.

But Stonor’s chief interest lies neither in its beauty nor even in the fact that it is a fine old house still used as the main home of the family that has occupied it for more than eight centuries.

No, Stonor’s main draw lies in a secluded attic room. Here a secret printing press produced Catholic materials during the years of persecution in the 16th century.

Well, that and its links with St. Edmund Campion: It was here that Campion produced his famous “Brag” affirming the truths of the Catholic faith and hurling defiance at the ruthless attempts on the part of Queen Elizabeth I to crush Catholicism and uproot it from the English people.

It was here that Mass was said throughout the centuries — even when to do so was to court arrest, imprisonment and death.

And it is here that Mass is still said every Sunday, serving a thriving local Catholic community and welcoming visitors and pilgrims from across Britain and around the globe.

Spiritual Refugees

The Stonor family never gave up their faith during the years of persecution after King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his establishment of an official state church to replace the Catholic Church.

As major landowners in this part of Oxfordshire, the Stonors were in a strong position. Their home was secure and fairly remote; the local people looked to them with loyalty and pride. The house, with its many rooms and attics, was an ideal place in which to provide a safe haven for priests. In the old family chapel, dating back to medieval days, the Mass could be celebrated without interruption. To this day, it is the proud boast of the Stonors that this site has been used so long for so much Catholic worship. It has never been in Anglican use, although for a short time Mass was publicly celebrated in the house rather than in the chapel.

Stonor is open to the public only during the summer. It is still very much a family home, and this is part of its charm. In the large downstairs rooms, family mementos blend with items of historical interest, while on an upper story, one section of corridor leads to the room where a saint printed his pamphlets. From a rear window, Campion and his co-workers could make an easy getaway over the rooftop and round past the high chimneys, dropping down onto the hillside at the back. Pursuers would find no cooperation from local people, even if they managed to get near the house itself. Campion was safe here and used it as something of a base for his wider activities around the Thames Valley.

When he was finally captured, it was at Lyford Grange, a few miles distant. Even then, it was only the persistence of one particular pursuer who insisted on returning to the house and enforcing a ruthless search, with destruction of walls and paneling, that finally yielded the hiding place.

More than Mementos

At Stonor today, guides show visitors around and answer questions about the house and its family. As with so many of Britain’s old houses, there is also a restaurant and a gift shop offering all sorts of crafts, linens, china, glass and even locally produced honey. It is also possible to hold wedding receptions and other events at Stonor, and the grounds are used for events such as antiques fairs and vintage-car rallies. Many visitors come for these and other events annually.

But, for Catholics, this place is something more: It is a place of pilgrimage. The 800-year-old chapel is open for Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation throughout the year, and visitors can also drop in whenever the house is open to the public.

The Stonor family suffered for the Catholic faith in the days of persecution. Cecily Lady Stonor spent the last years of her life in prison after the arrest of St. Edmund Campion and the discovery of her part in sheltering him. Her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Lady Stonor, was imprisoned under King James I. But when better times came, the family emerged to take its place in public life, and, in Queen Victoria’s reign, after the Catholic Emancipation Act, Thomas Stonor, the head of the family, became a member of Parliament.

In recognition of his services to the local community and to the nation, he was given a title by Queen Victoria, the ancient family name of Camoys being revived for the purpose. The title of Lord Camoys has been carried by the head of the family ever since. In the last years of the 19th century, the Stonors were close friends of the royal family, and there were stories of a romance between Julia Stonor and young Prince George, second in line to the throne. Any plans for marriage would have caused great difficulties and were, in any case, dashed when Prince George’s older brother died and he became the direct heir to the throne.

It was, and remains today, illegal for the heir to the British throne to marry a Roman Catholic, in a last vestige of the penal laws now increasingly seen as anachronistic.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing anachronistic about the Catholic heritage of Stonor. In fact, the word that springs to mind is timeless — like the Catholic faith itself.

Joanna Bogle writes

from London.