History of Catholicism in Windsor

Catholics in Windsor since the Reformation.

The English Reformation occurred when the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

It was triggered by Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, which was rejected by Pope Clement VII in 1527.

This dispute led to Henry summoning the Reformation Parliament which sat from 1529 to 1536. This Parliament passed a series of laws which transferred religious authority from the Pope to the English Crown. At the same time, in agreement and under the direction of the King, the Parliament passed statutes that affected all aspects of national life, and ensured that no area of government of the realm was outside the authority of Parliament and the Monarch.

The Reformation continued throughout Henry’s reign with Henry appointed Supreme Head of the Church in England and the dissolution of the monasteries.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, he was succeeded by his nine year old son Edward VI (1547-1553). His mother was Jane Seymour and he was England’s first monarch to be raised as a Protestant.

Edward VI was advised by a strongly protestant council led by the Protector, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and during his short reign the Reformation was finally fully forced through.

On his death in 1547, a few months before his sixteenth birthday (through smallpox and consumption), he nominated his strongly protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey to be his successor. Unfortunately this nomination was immediately overturned by the Privy Council and her reign lasted only 9 days. She was replaced by Edward VI’s half -sister, Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon and a staunch Catholic.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Queen Mary I did more harm than good to the cause of Catholics by her overzealous attempt to re-establish the Catholic Church and silence the Protestant voice, which earning her the nickname Bloody Mary. During her 5 year reign, she had over 280 protestant dissenters burned at the stake.

Once she had been succeeded by Elizabeth I, all that Mary had done was reversed, and Elizabeth was much more astute. She made it compulsory for everyone to attend the new Established Church; and those who did not comply were fined 1 shilling. This soon converted the poor. Thus the Catholic faith in mainland Britain could only survive in the houses of the rich, who could afford the fines and also could afford the luxury of a private and often secret chapel, or were located in inaccessible areas like the Scottish Highlands.

However Queen Elizabeth did not restrain her courtiers equally; John Bull her famous musician and composer, was allowed to continue to practice as a Catholic, but she would not allow the Dean of Windsor, Dr John Boxall to remain in his position after he refused to convert. He was arrested and confined in Lambeth Palace.

In practice, the lives of the majority of Roman Catholics in this country were severely restricted for the next 200 years. They could not worship openly, were excluded from holding office, from voting, from serving in Parliament, from holding a senior position in the army or taking a degree at Oxford or Cambridge. At the beginning of the 18th century there were only 115,000 Catholics in England, and by 1780, just 69,000 people owned up to be Catholic and there were no public Catholic churches. However, by 1840, after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the number of Catholics had increased to 700,000 with 469 churches and chapels. Today there are some 5.5 million Catholics in England. There is very little hard evidence about Catholics in Windsor until the end of the 18th century, although we know that, during the early 18th century a wealthy local stonemason, Edward Chapman, was a Catholic. His only daughter Hester married Francis Bird, the sculptor who produced the Queen Anne statue in the Guildhall niche. They inherited Chapman’s estate, which helped them to survive after the Jacobite Rebellion, which put Catholics even more out of favour, and Bird found himself without any commissions. There is also mention around 1710 of Fr John Chapman de Vere St Leger, a Jesuit, who may have been related to the stonemason Edward Chapman.

Towards the end of the 18th century attitudes were clearly changing. Large numbers of Catholics came to this country, many from France. French émigrés  revolution were highly respectable and largely Catholic. One of these Fr. Jean Charles Dajon Lamore officiated at the house of one Joseph Leonard in Windsor who had a private chapel in his house. Quarter Session records dated 17 May 1796 refer to a chapel at Frogmore in the premises of a Joseph Leonard. It is possible that Joseph Leonard could have been the publican of the Hope Inn as another French émigré, the Abbe Noel Duclos of Evreux who taught French at Eton College, is said to have said Mass in a room in the Hope public house in Frogmore. The Windsor local paper even said that there was a Catholic Chapel at the Hope Inn. The Hope did not have a very savoury reputation and was frequented by soldiers. In those days before the building of Albert Road, soldiers marching to the Windsor barracks liked to use the route from Staines through Old Windsor and Frogmore, entering Windsor via Park Road.

The second large influx of Catholics to England were not quite so respectable; they were Irish soldiers recruited into the British army. Ireland was heavily garrisoned and the richest recruiting ground for the army. During the first half of the nineteenth century some 40% of soldiers in the British army were Irish and Catholic. There were always large numbers of these in the Windsor garrison, and as the army had given freedom of worship to Catholic soldiers as early as 1811* that is 18 years before the Catholic Emancipation Act, there must have been somewhere for them to go to hear Mass; this must have been the chapel in the Hope Inn.

It may have been for this reason that the Abbe continued his work there until 1826, the year in which the Catholic Chapel in Clewer Green was registered at the Quarter Sessions.

The first really high profile Catholic family in Windsor were also Irish, but descended from an old Irish family and were relatively wealthy. We know that John Riley lived in the centre of Windsor, in Peascod Street, where he had a private chapel. He was a prominent and respected citizen at a time when restrictions and deep suspicions of Catholics still prevailed. The first two recorded Catholic baptisms in Windsor since the Reformation were of his grandchildren William Felix Riley in 1824 and Maria Sophia Riley in 1825. John Riley died in 1817 and his obituary in the Reading Mercury reads: “On Saturday the 26th inst. died, at his house in Peascod Street, Windsor in the 78th year of his age, John Riley Esq deeply regretted by his friends; by the poor his loss will be severely felt, his charities being most extensively dispensed; humanity and liberality of sentiment were the leading features of his character, and his benevolent and bountiful hand was at all times open to every call of distress both public and private”.**

John Riley was keen to see a proper Catholic church in Windsor to serve the growing Catholic community. On his deathbed he charged his son William Felix to build a church where local Catholics could worship openly, and a house for a priest.

In 1817 William Felix Riley bought land in Clewer Green and on 4 April 1826 a chapel dedicated to St John was registered at the Newbury Quarter Sessions. There was a house for a priest and a few years later a small school was started by Fr Wilkinson. This building still exists today. It used to be called Chapel House in Chapel Lane, and today we know it as the Hermitage in Hermitage Lane. This has nothing to do, however, with the medieval hermitage on St Leonard’s Hill.

In 1828 the Catholic Directory states that there were three services on Sundays and feast days, one at nine, solely for the soldiers stationed at Windsor, one at eleven for the Catholic inhabitants of Windsor, and one at four in the afternoon for the country congregation.** And this was still one year before the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed.

At this time many regiments came to Windsor who had large numbers of catholic soldiers and their families. In 1826 the 63rd Regiment listed 311 catholic soldiers in its records and in 1827 the 21st Regiment had 622, and of course they brought with them many women and children to Windsor. In 1841, when the 72nd Highlanders were in Windsor the newspaper reported that the Anglican clergy was annoyed by the fact that some 500 Highlanders are going to “That place in William Street”, [this was the Presbyterian Chapel] and that was not the worst of it, “!the remainder of the regiment was going to the Catholic Chapel at Clewer Green”.

In 1844 the King of France came to Windsor to visit Queen Victoria, and he attended Mass at this little church. He presented a splendid Monstrance to Fr. Wilkinson. It is still used for special services in this church, but usually locked up in the safe.

The first priest was Fr. C. Comberbach, a convert to the faith. He was followed two years later by Fr. John Wilkinson who stayed 20 years. Fr Wilkinson and his successor Canon Augustus Applegarth wanted to build a larger church in Windsor, closer to the centre of the community. This was opposed initially by both the bishop and the Riley family.

Fr Wilkinson had started a subscription list for building a new church. In 1851 his Bishop wrote to him in answer to yet another letter about wanting to build a new church: “Your idea of moving the church to Windsor might be regarded as an aggression on the stronghold of the court”.

After 1854 Canon Applegarth continued the quest. He once more wrote to the Bishop: “The present congregation cannot be put down at less than 150 without counting soldiers of whom we have now 50-60, but another regiment is being expected…should the Guards go away as in the late war we should have a regiment perhaps as before with 450 Catholics in it”.

But the Riley family was not keen to give up their little chapel. However, a larger church was needed, and in 1866 Ramon Cabrera, Conde de Morella, who had started his career as a Spanish brigand and bandit, came to the rescue. He had married an English heiress, and lived in Wentworth. He donated both the land in Alma Road and £1,000 towards the building cost. Major John Riley, then head of the family, reluctantly sold the Chapel House at Clewer Green and used the money to build the Lady Chapel.

The new church was to be dedicated to St Edward, to show that Catholics in Windsor wanted to honour both a saint and an English king, St Edward’s Church, although not complete as it is today, was officially opened on 13 October 1886, the fest day of St Edward, by Archbishop (later Cardinal Manning) and Bishop Grant. It had cost about £4,000. The architect was Charles Buckler of London, and the builders were E.W. Kelly of Victoria Street, who also donated the font. Cannon Applegarth moved from his home in Chapel House to 1 Claremont Road Windsor, prior to the building of the new Presbytery.

In 1894 the marriage of the Hon. Mary Hardinge, whose mother was lady in waiting to the Princess of Wales, to Ivone Kirkpatrick of the South Staffordshire Regiment, was solemnised in St Edward’s church. The Prince and Princess of Wales came to the reception, but court etiquette did not allow them to enter a Catholic church for the wedding ceremony.

* Hansard XIX, 11 March 1811. cc.350-356.
** Reading Mercury, 5 May 1817.

This document was produced by and printed with the permission of Dr. Brigitte Mitchell.&frm=scr&’ type=’text/javascript’>