Sacred Catholic Objects Seeking New Home: A Window into England’s Rich Recusant History

The artifacts include a rosary owned by Marie Antoinette of France and a prayer book that belonged to a martyred courtier to King Henry VIII.

Register senior Vatican reporter holds Marie Antoinette's rosary in his hand
Register senior Vatican reporter holds Marie Antoinette's rosary in his hand (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register )

HUSBANDS BOSWORTH, England — Valuable sacred Catholic artifacts, including papal slippers, a rosary of Marie Antoinette, and a Book of Hours belonging to a martyred courtier to King Henry VIII, are part of a treasure trove of significant objects found at the home of one of England’s oldest Catholic families. 

The Constable-Maxwell family who reside at Bosworth Hall, a stately home in the heart of rural Leicestershire in central England, have safeguarded these sacred objects, testament to England’s rich Catholic heritage that survived the almost-300-year recusant period of persecution following the Reformation.

But the family, headed by Robert Turville-Constable-Maxwell, whose distinguished English Catholic ancestors include St. Thomas More, is now looking for a new home for the sacred vessels and vestments where they can be suitably looked after in the future. 

Among the most significant of the objects is the rosary of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France and the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who was executed during the French Revolution in October 1793. 

Rosary of Marie Antionette. EP
Rosary of Marie Antionette(Photo: Edward Pentin )

Marie Antoinette had given the rosary to an Irish missionary priest, Father Henry Essex Edgeworth, otherwise known as Abbé Edgeworth, who was then chaplain to her husband, King Louis XVI. When the king was guillotined in January 1793, Abbé Edgeworth fled to England for safety and took refuge at the home of the Earl of Shrewsbury.

Abbé Edgeworth eventually returned to France to continue his missionary work and left the rosary with the Shrewsbury family. It was then handed down through the generations, eventually ending up with Mary Fortescue-Turville, a previous owner of Bosworth Hall who died at the property in 1906. The rosary, one of several Marie Antoinette is thought to have given away, was then kept at the hall and has remained there ever since. 

Another principal object is a Book of Hours that belonged to Blessed Adrian Fortescue, a Third Order Dominican, courtier to King Henry VIII, and first cousin of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Loyal to Rome, he was supportive of Pope Clement VII’s refusal to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne. 

Book of Hours that belonged to Blessed Adrian Fortescue, a Third Order Dominican, courtier to King Henry VIII,
Book of Hours that belonged to Blessed Adrian Fortescue, a Third Order Dominican, courtier to King Henry VIII(Photo: Edward Pentin )

In 1539, Sir Adrian was arrested, convicted of high treason without trial, one of 50 persons similarly convicted, and beheaded the same year. As with St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, he had refused to take the 1534 Oath of Succession, which made Elizabeth, daughter of Henry and Anne, heir to the throne rather than Mary, daughter of Henry VIII by Catherine of Aragon. The oath also recognized the king as supreme head of the Church in England, formalizing Henry’s break with Rome. 

The personal piety of Blessed Adrian, whose descendants once owned Bosworth Hall, was attested by his Book of Hours, which had been left to decay over many centuries but was repaired and rebound by a descendant of the martyr in 1903. The Constable-Maxwell family recently loaned it to the Order of Malta, which has since returned it to Bosworth Hall. Blessed Adrian was a member of the order whose property, like that of the monasteries, was seized by King Henry. 

A handwritten inscription on the opening page signed “Adryan Ffortescue” is filled with sound spiritual advice, beginning with the words: 

“Above all things, love God with thy heart. Desire His honor more than the health of thine own soul. Take heed with all diligence to purge and cleanse thy mind with oft confession and raise thy desire or lust from earthly things.”


He later continues: 

“Banish from thee all grudging and detraction and especially from thy tongue. And pray often. Also enforce thee to set thy house at quietness. Resort to God every hour. … Show before all people good example of virtues. … Be pitiful unto poor folk and help them to thy power, for there you shall greatly please God.” 

Further down the page, Blessed Adrian writes: 

“Pray continually to God that you may do that that is His pleasure. Also apply diligently the inspirations of the Holy Ghost whatsoever thou have therein to do. Pray for perseverance. … Renew every day thy good purpose. … If by chance you fall into sin, despair not, and if you keep these precepts, the Holy Ghost will strengthen thee in all other things necessary, and this doing, you shall [be] with Christ in Heaven, to whom be given laud, praise and honor everlasting.” 


Papal Slippers, Burses and Chasubles

Elsewhere in the house is an ornate red slipper that belonged to Blessed Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) and was frequently worn by him, no doubt with its missing one, which perhaps remains in Rome. It was given by Msgr. Talbot, the Pope’s English chamberlain, to the daughter of George Fortescue-Turville who lived in Bosworth Hall in the late 19th century. Also kept at the hall are a pair of papal slippers worn by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), noticeably small in size, the Pope himself being small in stature. 

(Clockwise from Top Left) Bosworth burse from the late 16th century. Red slippers worn by Pope Leo XIII, 15th century chalice veil. Marie Antoinette's Rosary. Robert Turville-Constable-Maxwell and his wife. courtesy edward pentin
(Clockwise from top left): Bosworth burse from the late 16th century; red slippers worn by Pope Leo XIII; 15th-century chalice veil; Robert and Susan Turville-Constable-Maxwell; Marie Antoinette’s rosary (Photo: Edward Pentin )

Particularly striking are some elaborately embroidered burses and vestments dating back to the time of the Reformation and which miraculously survived the violent persecution that followed. They include the 16th-century “Bosworth Burse,” which honors the memory of St. John Payne and a miracle relating to him and a chalice. 

Payne, so the story goes, was having doubts about the Real Presence in the Eucharist when he was studying as a seminarian. He had almost completed his studies at Douai Abbey in France and was attending the first Mass of his friend Robert Gwyn in 1575 when, as Gwyn elevated the chalice, Payne saw the figure of Christ in the sacred vessel. 

Payne was ordained a year later, returned to England and was based at Ingatestone House, where he was chaplain to Lady Petre, a recusant who rejected the Church of England, and remained loyal to Rome, and an ancestor of Robert Constable-Maxwell. 

While at the Ingatestone House, which sheltered several recusant priests and contained two “priest holes” visible to this day, Father Payne was betrayed by a servant of the household and subsequently arrested, tried and condemned to death — racked, drawn, hanged and quartered in Chelmsford on April 2, 1582. St. John Payne is among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. 

Bosworth Burse.
Bosworth Burse(Photo: Edward Pentin )

It is not known whether the burse was made during St. John’s lifetime or at a later date to commemorate his martyrdom, but it came to Bosworth when Oswald Turville-Petre, Robert Constable-Maxwell’s grandfather, inherited the house. 

Also kept at Bosworth is another well-preserved burse, this one from the 17th century and embroidered with seed pearls. 

Bosworth Burse. seed pearls
Burse embroidered with seed pearls(Photo: Edward Pentin )


Chalice Veil and Cisalpine Salver

Another part of the collection is an English pre-Reformation chalice veil dating back to the 15th century and embroidered with emblems of the Passion. In addition is a well-preserved 19th-century rose chasuble containing embroidered panels from the 15th century showing the apostle St. James the Less with the Fuller’s Club (an instrument he traditionally holds, designed to thicken wool and beat out its impurities) and St. Lawrence with the gridiron, the instrument to which he was bound and roasted to death over a fire.

Bosworth Burse.
Rose-colored chasuble(Photo: Edward Pentin )

As with the chalice veil, records show that the embroidered panels and some of the other items at Bosworth Hall were purchased from Owston Abbey in 1539 after it was seized by Henry VIII as part of his dissolution of the monasteries and its contents sold.

Chalice veil
Chalice veil(Photo: Edward Pentin )

Lastly among the most notable objects is a large silver salver given to Charles Turville by the Cisalpine Club in 1850 and containing the names of all, or almost all, the heads of the Catholic families of England. 

The Cisalpine movement intended to further the cause of Catholic emancipation after the persecution that followed the Reformation. While respecting the supreme authority of the pope, the movement believed Catholicism should not be based on his dominance (they had lived through the recusant period for nearly three centuries relatively independent of Rome) and that allegiance to the crown was not incompatible with allegiance to the pope. In short, it sought to accommodate Catholicism within the Protestant state in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Bosworth Burse.
Silver salver (Photo: Edward Pentin )

Bosworth Hall has a deeply rich and uninterrupted Catholic history. It comprises two main buildings situated back-to-back: a 16th-century Old Hall (with an added Victorian wing), which stands on the site of the house in the Doomsday Book, a detailed record of land ownership completed in 1086 at the behest of William the Conqueror. The second part of the hall is an 18th-century Georgian house. 

Bosworth Burse.
Bosworth Hall (Photo: Edward Pentin )

The hall has always been the property of Catholic families, beginning with the Stoke family (1293-1537), then the Smiths and others (1537-1632), Fortescue (1632 1763), Fortescue-Turville (1763-1900), Turville-Petre (1907-1945) and Constable-Maxwell (1945 to the present day). 

All this accounts for so many of the sacred objects being preserved at the hall, but for the older, pre-Reformation objects, little is known about them. 

Bosworth Burse.
Family crests mark windows.(Photo: Edward Pentin )

“Nothing was written down for obvious reasons or they would have been found and destroyed,” said Susan Constable-Maxwell. “We’re lucky that a lot of it hadn’t been burnt because a great many religious artifacts were destroyed and very few, if any, wooden crucifixes from pre-Reformation times survived.” 

Aside from the sacred objects, a further point of interest about the Old Hall is that the Fortescues and others sheltered priests there from persecution following the Reformation, creating a priest hole that ran up into the attic, although currently inaccessible. 

In the Old Hall’s former Chapel Room, where priests would secretly celebrate Mass, is a damp patch quite possibly pointing to a Eucharistic miracle. It came about when, one day in the mid-17th century, a priest received an urgent message warning him that a raiding party of soldiers was approaching. In his haste to clear away evidence of the Mass and escape, the priest upset the chalice containing the consecrated wine. 

Bosworth Burse.
Altar in St Mary's Church.(Photo: Edward Pentin )

Although now covered by new flooring, for centuries a damp stain, about a foot long in diameter and indented on the chapel room floor, marked the spot where the consecrated wine was spilled.