Tuesday, 4 June 2013


Mapledurham Gurney was the larger of two Manors mentioned in the Domesday Book.  In 1490, the Manor was purchased by Richard Blount.   Descendants of Richard Blount still live in Mapledurham House. 

About 1588 Sir Michael Blount felt the four hundred year old house was not befitting a man of his status so he set about replacing the old Manor with the present house.  Little remains of the old Manor House now.
Inside the oldest part of the Manor
The oldest part of the Manor

These were difficult and dangerous times for Catholics.  Priests and laypeople alike were in danger of losing property, liberty, and life itself.  Priests conducted their mission in secret and many were assisted by Catholic gentry who gave them shelter.  The priests would say Mass and administer the sacraments to Catholics in the secret chapels which these recusant gentry provided in their homes.  Catholic Sir Michael had two secret hiding places, priest holes, constructed off a first floor bedroom.  Located in Oxfordshire, Mapledurham was on the River Thames and thus an ideal location for a Catholic Safe House.  Priests could approach the house from the river thereby avoiding the danger of being spotted as a stranger entering the village on horseback or on foot.  All recusant houses had a secret sign and at the back of this house is a gable covered with oyster shells.  This could be seen from the River and it was a sign to Catholics that this was a Catholic house and a safe refuge where Mass was celebrated.  
Oyster Shells on the gable


The gable with the secret sign,
Oyster Shells on the gable

With something to interest everyone, this historic old Manor House is a delight to visit.  The pleasant grounds, the beautiful Anglican Church and the ancient watermill add to the enjoyment of a visit to Mapledurham.  It is also of interest to film buffs as it has often been used in films and television.  Perhaps the best know film is the 1970s classic, ‘The Eagle Has Landed’.    

I was particularly interested in its Catholic history which, in my opinion, wasn’t emphasized enough by the guides who were otherwise very informative and obliging.  However, Mapledurham is an important and interesting part of English history and definitely isn’t just for Catholics!

An interesting fact imparted to us by one of the guides is that the owners of Mapledurham House are descendants of St Thomas More, one of the early Reformation Martyrs.  In 1814, Charles Eyston married Maria Teresa Metcalfe who, through her mother, was a descendant of St Thomas More.  Mapledurham’s present owner, John Joseph Eyston, is the great-great-grandson of Charles and Maria.   Pictures of St Thomas More, his father, John More, and his son, hang in the passage which takes one to what is known as the Staircase Hall.

The library at Mapledurham House holds a vast collection of antique books, some written by the Antiquary, Charles Eyston.  Many of these valuable books are Catholic Recusant books, written in Latin.  These 16th and 17th century books would have been printed on the continent and smuggled into the country.  At that time, it was against the law to own Catholic literature so those who smuggled them into the country, if caught, faced the death penalty!   There are, too, some of Alexander Pope’s books which he bequeathed to a family member in 1744.  A beautifully restored portable altar, disguised as a writing desk, can also be seen in the library.

Among the many paintings at Mapledurham House is a curious painting of flowers on a black background.  The roses and peonies used in the painting symbolise mortality.  In the middle of the flowers is an arched black panel.  The guide book tells us that, originally, the Deposition of Christ was depicted in this panel but it was painted out in the 1600s when Catholicism was prohibited in England.

Soon after the Second Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1791 the family built a chapel onto the back of Mapledurham House.  This was one of the first Catholic Chapels legally built in England since the Reformation.  Like others of the time, it was built in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style and designed to seat about fifty people.  We noticed two small statues of the family martyr, St Thomas More, in the chapel. The Chapel was dedicated to St Michael in 1797 and Mass is still celebrated there today.  The Chapel faces the Anglican Parish Church of St Margaret and is separated from it by a courtyard.    
The Chapel Entrance
Inside the chapel
There has been a church on the site since Norman times but the present church was begun in the late 13th century by William Bardolf and his wife, Juliana de Gournay.  Apart from its Norman font, not much of the original church is evident today.  The beautiful Parish Church of St Margaret is an Anglican church with a Catholic aisle, the Bardolf Aisle.  Curious?  Unusual?  Perhaps there are others in the country but I have not encountered this arrangement before and I find it a very interesting one. 
The Anglican Church of St Margaret, Mapledurham
Sometime between 1381 and 1395, the south aisle was added as a chantry chapel and family burial place with an altar at its east end.  When the Blounts bought the Manor in the late 15th century, the aisle became their property and their burial place.    There are some interesting monuments in the Bardolf Aisle, including the hatchment of Michael Henry Blount.  A hatchment is a large heraldic painting, originally displayed over the front door of the house of a nobleman upon his death.  After twelve months, the period of mourning, the hatchment was taken down and brought to the church and hung above his tomb.  (“No trophy, sword or hatchment o’er his bones” Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5)
Some monuments in the Bardolf Aisle
The 14th century Bardolf Aisle
Michael Henry Blount's Hatchment
The Bardolf Aisle is separated from the Church and there has been no direct access between aisle and church for almost five hundred years.  Nonetheless, the Bardolf Aisle remains a privately owned Catholic aisle within an Anglican Parish Church.   
The Bardolf Aisle taken from the Church
The Bardolf Aisle & the Parish Church of St Margaret
On the outside south east wall of the church, there is a Mass Dial.  Mass Dials, or scratch dials, were usually located near the main door or the priest door.  A mediaeval device, their main function was to indicate the times of church services.
Then there is Mapledurham Watermill.  This mill, mentioned in the Domesday Book, has had a chequered history but it is now restored.   It is the oldest working watermill on the Thames. Tours  of the mill are available and it is possible to purchase superb flour from its little shop.  I hasten to add that you have not tasted Semolina Pudding unless you have used Mapledurham Watermill semolina!    
Mapledurham Watermill, the oldest working
watermill on the Thames
For a great day out, a visit to Mapledurham House in Oxfordshire is one that will surely please and delight you.

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