28 Jul

The Norris family of Speke Hall

“The Catholics of Woolton owe the preservation of the Faith in great measure to the family of Norris, of Speke Hall, two miles distant from Woolton. For several generations the Norris family played a prominent part in the life of Catholic Lancashire; one of the most interesting proofs of this is a document, preserved in the Public Record Office, endorsed ‘A Note of Papists and Priests assembled at St Winefrid’s Well on St Winefrid’s Day, 1629,’ of which a portion is printed in Vol. III Mis. Cat. Rec. Soc. as follows:

On St Winefrid’s day, 1629…

‘The Lord Will. Howard (Belted Bill), the Lord Shrewsburie, Sir Tho. Gerard, Sir Will. Norris, Sir Cuthbert Clifton, Mr. Preston of ye Manner (Furness), Mr. Anderton of Clayton, Mr. Anderton of Foarste, Mr. Gerard of Ince, Mr. Bradshaw of Haigh Hall, Mr. Harrington of Button Hey, Mr. Blundell of Crosbie, Mr. Scarisbrick of Scarisbrick, Sir John Talbot of Bashall Hall, Mr. Latham of Mossborow and his five sons who are all priests; The Lady Falkland, and with her Mr. Everard, the priest; Mr. Price, Mr. Clayton, priest; Sir Thos. Gerrard hath two priests resident in his house, namely Pittinger (Dom Dunstan Pettinger, O.S.B.) and Umpton. At Sir William Norris’s house, Speke Hall, two, namely Richardson (Robert) and Holland. At Sir Cuthbert Clifton’s two priests, Anderton and Smith; also Mr. Arrowsmith’s clothes and the knife to cut him up are at Sir Cuthbert Clifton’s house. Mr. Preston of the Manner hath two priests at his house – viz. John Mitchell and John Sefton. Mr. Mayfield, the priest (Will. Maxfield), is archdeacon under the Bishop Chalcedony, of Speke near the seashore.’

Speke Hall, ca. 1923

Speke Hall, ca. 1923

Speke Hall lies seven miles south of Liverpool on the banks of the Mersey. It was restored in the reign of Elizabeth and is now probably the most perfect example of the ancient timbered house. It contained many hiding-places for the priests who resorted to it – one in particular was said to lead to a subterranean passage affording easy access to the shore. Father Gibson (Lydiate and its Associations) gives the following instance when this passage would probably be used: ‘1586, Richard Brittain, a priest receipted in the house of Will. Bennet, of Westby, about the beginning of June last, from whence young Mr. Norris, of Speke, conveyed the said Brittain to the Speke as the said Bennet hath reported. The said Brittain remayneth now at the house of Mr. Norrice, of the Speke, as appeareth by the deposition of John Osbaldston.’

The young ‘Mr. Norrice’ mentioned above became, on the death of his father, Sir William Norris of Speke. He adhered to the ancient Faith, and had a strange altercation in 1631 with Mr. More, complaining that this latter ‘had been too precise in examining the church-wardens touching his, Sir William, not coming to church and that it was ungentlemanly dealing.’ Unfortunately the ‘altercation’ was not limited to words, for Sir William Norris later ‘drew his sword and struck the Plaintiff therewith, he being then a Justice of the Peace,’ for which assault he was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay the plaintiff £50 damages.

His wife was a ‘notorious recusant’

Regarding this family, Mr. Gillow says: ‘Edward Norreys of Speke Hall, against whose name Lord Bourghley in his map (1590) has placed a + , was the son and heir of Sir William Norreys. This latter was in so much trouble on account of his adherence to the ancient Faith in 1568. Edward Norreys, who built the greater portion of the Hall, was returned in 1590 as a suspected person – in religious matters – conforming in some degree, but of ‘evil note’; his wife was a notorious recusant, and in 1598 he had to pay £15 to the Queen’s service in Ireland. His children mostly adhered to the Catholic Faith, and at least one of his children suffered for it. Edward died in 1606. His son, Sir William Norreys, is described as ‘not conformable to the laws ecclesiastical, now established,’ and two years later he was a ‘convicted recusant,’ paying double taxes. He died in 1630.’

Thomas Norris, son of Sir William, who compounded for his estate during the Civil Wars for £508, was probably the last Catholic owner of Speke. The property was sold in 1797 to Mr. Richard Watt, but in accordance with the will of the late Miss Watt, who died in 1921, Speke Hall will again return to the Norris family.

Speke Hall, ca. 1923

Speke Hall, ca. 1923

Rev. John Almond

It was while Speke Hall was still in Catholic hands that Rev. John Almond died for the Catholic Faith. He was born about the year 1577 at Speke, so one account says, or on the borders of Alperton, as he himself states in his examination. He went to school at Much Woolton, and passed thence to the English College at Rheims and then to that at Rome. Little is known of his life on the Mission, but the following account of him is given in Challoner’s Memoirs of Missionary Priests: 

…came to suffer at Tyburn for the Catholic religion…

‘On Saturday, being 5th December, 1612, between 7 and 8 in the morning, came to suffer at Tyburn for the Catholic religion John Almond, a man of the age of 45, by his own relation; yet in his countenance more grave and staid, beginning to be besprinkled with hairs that were white – who having tarried beyond the seas about ten years to enable himself by his studies returned into his native country, where he exercised a holy life with all sincerity, and a singular good content to those that knew him, and worthily deserved both a good opinion of his learning and sanctity of life… full of courage and ready to suffer for Christ, that suffered for him.’

‘Ready to suffer for Christ, that suffered for him’

Mr. Almond, Challoner says, was apprehended on March 22, 1612, and brought before Mr. John King, lately advanced to the bishopric in London. At his examination he showed wonderful courage and most extraordinary acuteness, as the following will show. [A – Rev. John Almond; B – Anglican Bishop John King]

B. What is your name? A. My name is Francis. B. What else? A. Lathome. B. Is not your name Molyneux? A. No. B. I think I shall prove it to be so. A. You will have more to do than you ever had to do in your life. B. What countryman are you? A. A Lancashire man. B. In what place were you born? A. About Allerton. B. About Allerton! Mark the equivocation. Then not in Allerton? A. No equivocation. I was not born in Allerton, but in the edge or side of Allerton. B. You were born under a hedge then, were you? A. Many a better man than I, or you either, has been born under a hedge. B. What! you cannot remember that you were born in a house? A. Can you? B. My mother told me so. A. Then you remember not that you were born in a house, but only that your mother told you so; so much I remember, too. B. Were you ever beyond the seas? A. I have been in Ireland. B. How long since you came thence? A. I remember not how long since, neither is it material. B. Here is plain speaking, is it not? A. More plain than you would give, if you were examined yourself before some of ours in another place. A. I ask, are you a priest? A. I am not Christ; and unless I were Christ in your own grounds, I cannot be a priest. B. Are you a priest, yes or no? A. No man accuseth me. B. Then this is all the answer I shall have? A. All I can give unless proof come in. B. Where have you lived, and in what have you spent your time? A. Here is an orderly course of justice sure! What is it material where I have lived, or how I have spent my time, all the while I am accused of no evil?

He flung some three or four pounds in silver amongst the poor that crowded about the scaffold

He thus continued to parry the questions put to him through a long and tedious examination, after which he was committed to Newgate Prison, from whence after some months he was brought to trial, upon an indictment of high treason, for having taken orders beyond the sea by authority of the See of Rome, and for remaining in this country contrary to the laws. At his trial he showed the same vivacity of wit and resolution as he had done in his examination, but was brought in guilty by the jury, though he neither denied nor confessed his being a priest; and what proofs were brought of his being such do not appear.

At his execution he prayed earnestly for the king and all the royal family, and that his posterity might inherit the crown of England for ever. He flung some three or four pounds in silver amongst the poor that crowded about the scaffold, saying: ‘I have not much to bestow or give, for the keeper of Newgate hath been somewhat hard unto me and others that way, whom God forgive, for I do. For, I having been prisoner there since March, we have been ill-treated continually, for we were all put down into the hole or dungeon, or place called Little Ease, whence was removed since we came thither two or three cart-loads of filth or dirt; we were kept twenty-four hours without bread, meat or drink, loaded with irons, lodging on the damp ground, and so continued for ten days or thereabouts.’

‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my soul’

He gave the executioner a piece of gold, and desired him to give him a sign when the cart was to be drawn away, so that he might die with the name of Jesus in his mouth. He often repeated the words, ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my soul,’ and at the sign being given, he cried, ‘Jesu, Jesu, Jesu,’ and than hanging for the space of three Paters [‘Our Father’, i.e. The Lord’s Prayer], some of the bystanders pulling him by the legs to dispatch his life, he was cut down and quartered, his soul flying quickly to Him who redeemed us all. So far the manuscript written by an eyewitness, says Bishop Challoner, who adds: ‘Mr. Almond suffered at Tyburn, December 5, 1612, in the forty-fifth year of his age, the eleventh of his Mission.’

The Molyneux family came to assist the Catholics of Woolton

It was not long after the Norris family had ceased to be Catholics, that the Molyneux family came to assist the Catholics at Woolton. About the year 1700 Hon. Richard Molyneux purchased the Woolton Hall estate, comprising the Hall and about 400 acres of land. He was then, says Mr. C. R. Hand, contemplating marriage, and like other young men in similar circumstances he became anxious about the house, and like some young men he paid for the house out of the money which his wife brought him. Although Richard’s father died in 1717, and he then succeeded to the title as Viscount Molyneux, he continued to live at the Hall until his death in 1738. Religious, political, and financial difficulties prevented him from moving to Croxteth Park, the family seat. On May 8, 1728, he made an important agreement with his lawyer, Isaac Greene, who charged in his bill for attending his Lordship at Woolton, and thus the view that Lord Molyneux lived on at Woolton is confirmed. It has recently transpired that in consequence of fines for recusancy and other disabilities the family was at this period in such straits that Isaac Greene, shrewd lawyer as he undoubtedly was, proposed to take over all the Molyneux estates and allow his Lordship a small annual income. Fortunately the kind offer was not accepted!

The family was in dire straits in consequence of government fines for recusancy etc.

During the Jacobite troubles of 1715, Lady Molyneux invited Dom Richard Holme, or Helme, of Goosnargh, to officiate at Woolton as the first priest. He had previously been chaplain to the Molyneux family at Sefton and Croxteth Halls, but he remained at Woolton until his death on December 18, 1717. Father Holme was succeeded by Dom Lawrence Kirby, who resided at Woolton till 1731, when he was removed to Childwall, dying there on July 18, 1743. He was followed by Dom William Lawrence Chapney, who died at Woolton, April 21, 1732. Dom Placid Thomas Hutton was the appointed chaplain, officiating at the Hall until his death on May 17, 1755, and after him came Dom Edward Bernard Catterall.

The founding of St Bennet’s Priory

Lady Molyneux continued to reside at Woolton Hall until her decease, and she was buried at Sefton, March 20, 1766. During the year before her death, in order to provide for the continuance of the Mission at Woolton, she gave twelve acres of land to the Order of St Benedict, and a chapel and presbytery, to which the name of St Bennet’s Priory was given, were erected, under the direction of Father Catterall, in Watergate Lane. On its completion Father Catterall took up his abode there permanently. This was probably occasioned by the proposed sale of the Hall to Nicholas Ashton. Father Catterall died at the Priory on September 9, 1781.

His house and chapel had been burned down by the ‘No Popery Association’

The noted Dom John Bede Brewer, D.D., was the next priest, coming from Bath, where his house and chapel had been burned down and demolished by the members of Lord George Gordon’s ‘No Popery Association.’ Dr. Brewer was famous as an erudite and brilliant theologian, and became later President of the English Congregation of the Order of St Benedict. It was on his invitation that the “black nuns” of the Benedictine Order came to Woolton, where they opened a seminary for young ladies in 1795, and in 1808 they removed to Abbot’s Salford, Stratford-upon-Avon. They are now settled at Stanbrook Abbey, near Worcester.

A Protestant minister, who came across the distressed nuns at an inn, amid uncongenial surroundings, kindly helped them 

Another account gives further details. On one occasion, when a party of Carmelite nuns had been beheaded, their clothes were taken and given to their English sisters in the prison. When the dresses of the murdered nuns were brought to them, the recipients received the gift on their knees, kissed them, and wet them with their tears. Thanks to the nuns being English, they did not suffer death, and when food became scarce they were liberated. They made their way across the Channel to Dover, thence to London. A Mr. Holt, a Lancashire Protestant minister, came across the distressed ladies at an inn, amid uncongenial surroundings, and he kindly undertook to find a better lodging for them. Dr. Brewer, of Woolton, hearing of them, invited the party to come to Southwest Lancashire; so, in 1795, they travelled down from London in three parties by stage coach to Woolton. Here they found employment as teachers of the seminary in connection with the Benedictine Mission in that ancient village.

In 1818 Dr. Brewer left for Ampleford College, but he returned to Woolton, where he died on April 18, 1822, and was buried at St Peter’s, Seel Street, Liverpool. His office of President of the Benedictine Order occasioning frequent duties elsewhere, he was assisted by Dom James Maurus Chaplin, Dom Stephen Hodgson (died April 9, 1822), and Dom James Calderbank (died April 9, 1821).

A man of great ability

Dr. Brewer was followed by Dom John Jerome Jenkins, who only remained here five years, being succeeded in 1824 by Dom Samuel Maurus Phillips. The latter was a man of great ability, ‘and drew large congregations’; in 1828 he enlarged the chapel, soon, however, to be in its turn too small for the Catholic worshippers of the district. Father Phillips died in 1855, and was buried in the little cemetery. Among others buried there have been a number of Catholic Irish, who, in 1847 (the fever year), had fled there, seeking in vain to escape the pestilence, Mr. Lomas, of Allerton Hall, and Mr. H. Bullen. The latter in his day was a public man; his name appears frequently in the Road Surveyor’s book, he having signed these records of the old township of Woolton. When the vault of the Bullen family, which is now overgrown with ivy, was opened to receive the body of a child, a corpse was exposed, which was found to be petrified. It was taken to a pond, washed, and replaced in the grave. In the wall of the garden nearest to Woolton Hall are two pillars. These indicate the site of the gate through which Lady Molyneux, the original foundress of the Mission, came to the church. The path through the graveyard garden is decorated with patterns formed of stones, mostly small cobbles, of a Maltese Cross, a Heart, a Monstrance, and other religious emblems.

The present church of St Mary

The Catholic population of Woolton becoming too great for the Priory chapel, it was deemed necessary to erect a larger place of worship, and the present church of St Mary was built by Dom R. P. Burchall, D.D., and opened on October 28, 1860. Dr. Burchall lived for some time at the Priory, and was the first to be buried in the grounds of the church, where his body now lies in the south-west corner. His funeral in March, 1885, was the occasion of a most imposing demonstration, as he was regarded by ‘Roman Catholics’ as by actual right the lawful Abbot of Westminster.

In 1870 Father J. P. O’Brien built St Mary’s presbytery and schools; Father J. P. Whittle, in 1878, enlarging the schools, and adding new vestries, confessionals, and a handsome cloister to the church.

The old chapel being no longer required, it was pulled down in 1872, and an addition made to the Priory on a portion of its site. There is thus nothing at all left of the former chapel. The year 1910 being the fiftieth anniversary of the building of St Mary’s, the Rector, Rev. Vincent Cornet, considered it a suitable opportunity for a complete renovation of the church, which was carried out at a cost of £1,000. The church is now considered by all who visit to be very beautiful.

A secret passage

It may further be mentioned in connection with the Priory and its chapel that the addiwere, on the left-hand side of the doorway, was mainly built of the materials of the old chapel, and erected on part of its site. The lawn immediately in front of that portion of the house is the old burial-ground. The grave-stones were levelled, and are a few inches under the surface. The right-hand side of the house is the original presbytery. Local tradition asserts that a subterranean passage under the meadow once afforded communication between the Hall and the Priory chapel.

In times of persecution the priests were so poor and danger of robbery so great, that chalices of pewter seem to have been in common use

There is preserved in the presbytery a chalice of pewter. It measures 5 3/4 inches in height, is 3 1/8 inches across the foot, and 3 inches across the bowl. It has been in the possession of the priests at Woolton for many years, and was in all probability unearthed in the old Priory burial-ground. It is now so corroded as to give it the appearance of having been at one time embossed. Mr. Charles Hand, whose ‘Notes on Woolton’ we have been following, seems to suggest that being of pewter it could not have been used in the Mass, but was merely a ‘coffin chalice,’ used at the internment of some priest. These pewter chalices are, however, so common in Lancashire, and so often occur in company with sets of vestments and other things, uncountably forming a part of the priest’s baggage, that the prevalent opinion now is that in times of persecution the priests were so poor and the danger of robbery so great, that chalices of pewter were in common use. When nicely polished, the pewter chalice could with difficulty be distinguished from that of silver.

The Woolton cross

In October, 1913, the old village cross of Catholic days was restored, the following account being contemporary. The cross now restored must have stood in the heart of the old village from the fourteenth century. The stump of the cross was removed for a time when the new Speke road was made, but was returned to its place in the year 1901 by the kindness of Colonel Reynolds, into whose garden it had been taken. It is now restored to something like its original form. The Woolton cross is Maltese in form, treated florally, and stands on a pedestal 6 feet high. On the north and south sides the Cross of the Knights Hospitallers is incised to record the association of that body with Woolton in the twelfth century, they having owned the greater portion of the land, and having a house of their Order there, the situation of which has never been ascertained. On the bronze band which serves to bind the new part with the old is this inscription:

Woolton Village Cross: Crux Potestas Dei (The Cross is the Power of God).

Colonel Reynolds, in a letter of apology for non-attendance at the opening, wrote that they had indeed come to better times in Woolton. He remembered his father begging to be allowed to be the custodian of the cross years ago, when it was demolished to allow for the widening of the Speke road. He had respected those ancient monuments of religious feeling in days gone by. The chairman of the meeting, Mr. Arthur S. Mather, through whose generosity the restoration had been made, said that the last act of the Urban Council was to arrange to have the old village cross restored, so that when the district was handed over to Liverpool they might hand over the cross renovated and restored as a momento of the good old times.

How does the silver chalice dated 1697 fit into the picture?

An interesting link between Woolton and the Molyneux family is the silver chalice, now at St. Alexander’s, Bootle. Dean Powell stated that in 1875 he bought this chalice from a dealer in old silver, who had thought of melting it down. It stands 7 inches high and weighs 13 ounces. On the underside of the foot is engraved in Roman capitals of the time: EX DONO D. C. MOLINEUX DNO RICHARDO HOLME ANGLO-BENED 1697. The giver of the chalice was Caryll, third Viscount Molyneux, who with his brother Richard raised two regiments for the King in the great Civil War, and was outlawed by Parliament. He died at Croxteth February 2, 1699. The recipient of the gift was Rev. Richard Holme, mentioned above as Chaplain to the Molyneux family at Sefton and Croxteth Halls, and latterly at Woolton.

Granting that Dean Powell is correct in his history of the Molyneux chalice, whence does the chalice now at Woolton come from? It is quite the equal of the Molyneux chalice, bears the hall mark H.L. and a lion passant, while on the foot is the lettering, ‘M.H., obiit Sepr. 2°, 1694.’ I had hoped to identify this with one of the Molyneux, so that the lettering would read, ‘Molyneux gave this chalice to Holmes.’ On the other hand, Dom Gilbert Dolan, O.S.B., in his paper to this Society (Hist. of Lancs. and Ches.) statestates that in 1717 Richard Hitchmough, the noted informer, deposed before the Commissioners for Forfeited Estates that ‘at Mrs. Harrington’s, at Aigburth, Co. Lancs., was one silver chalice and paten, which he had seen and used when officiating at the Altar there.’ But if M. H. refers to one of the Harringtons we have still to find out which Harrington died September 2, 1694; so far my enquiries have failed to do so.

How the government tried to break people’s spirits and succeeded in some cases

With reference to the statement that the Molyneux family had been greatly impoverished by fines, other examples, selected out of thousands are here given. The Norris family had an estate in West Derby, now marked by Norris Green. William Norris, of West Derby, had two sons, Henry and John, both living in 1566. Andrew, grandson of Henry, as a convicted recusant paid double to the subsidy of 1628. His children petitioned for annuities from the estate, which had evidently been sequestered for papacy. It was found that the sons were recusants, and a third of their annuities was allowed; the daughters were also recusants; the estates of Henry, the eldest brother, were under sequestration for recusancy. John Norris, brother of Henry, had three sons – Charles, Richard and Andrew – all Jesuits. But their cousin, Richard, son of Henry Norris, yielded to the persecution. Thomas Marsden, Vicar of Walton, wrote in 1681, asking a favour of him, as he ‘was not yet cleared in the Exchequer for his recusancy, and had heard his name was in the list of such as should have £20 a month levied upon their heads.’ Under these circumstances, the threat of fresh persecution, as the result of the infamous Oates plot, appears to have broken the resolution of ‘Mr. Norris, of Derby,’ who conformed to the legally established religion. It is a sad reflection that his apostasy did not save his estates; the family disappeared from notice, and all the property was later in the hands of a banker, of Liverpool (Vict. Hist., p. 37).

Instances of the fines inflicted on the poorer Catholics of those days may not be without interest. William Ballard, a leaseholder in Speke, had two-thirds of his estate sequestered for recusancy. Margaret Harrison, a widow, of Hale, had two-thirds of her estate sequestered for recusancy, and on her death her grandson, Thomas Harrison, applied for the removal of the sequestration. Thomas Lathom, of Allerton, suffered the like penalty (Vict. Hist., p. 103).

Again, in 1593 Edward Tarleton was considered ‘an obstinate recusant,’ but ‘could not be found by the Sheriff’; five years later he was, as a recusant, assessed at £10 for the Queen’s service in Ireland. His son and successor, also Edward Tarleton, in 1628, as a ‘convicted recusant,’ paid double to the subsidy. He died in 1653, leaving two sons. On account of their religion their estates had been sequestered (Vict. Hist., p. 127).”

– Dom F. O. Blundell, O.S.B., Old Catholic Lancashire, Burns Oates & Washbourne, London, 1925





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