A new project will put English Catholics in touch with their past
In 2015, the historian David Starkey complained that the BBC series Wolf Hall contained “a deliberate perversion of fact”. The programme, based on Hilary Mantel’s novel, presented Thomas Cromwell as a tender family man, even something of an early feminist. Like other historians, Starkey found it pretty implausible, adding that if there was one man who loved his daughters and gave them a first-class education, it was Wolf Hall’s villain, St Thomas More.
The controversy is a reminder of how easily historical truth can be buried – for although More is a fondly remembered character, English history is, especially from a Catholic’s perspective, full of forgotten greatness.
There is Helena Wintour, the 17th-century seamstress who made beautiful vestments rich in symbolism. There is the martyr Blessed Roger Wrenno, who seems to have had a mystical experience on the scaffold: after the rope broke and he was offered a final chance to apostatise, he told the sheriff, “If you had seen that which I have just now seen, you would be as much in haste to die as I am now.” There is the 18th-century Bishop Francis Petre, apostolic vicar of the Northern District, who asked to be buried in the Anglican chapel at Bailey Hall. (It had previously been a major recusant site.)
This history will soon be getting its due, and on an unprecedented scale. The Christian Heritage Centre, at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, will be putting some of Stonyhurst College’s 100,000 books and artefacts on display at a new site, Theodore House. Stonyhurst’s own museum closed in the 1960s, but soon it will get the setting it deserves. Visitors will be able to see the Wintour Vestments, or walk up the road to Bishop Petre’s tomb. Scholars will be able to consult the histories of Roger Wrenno and the other martyrs, stories kept alive by historians like Dom Odo Blundell OSB, author of the three-volume Old Catholic Lancashire.
The launch date may not be too far away, though they still have to raise £300,000 of the £4 million total. The figure is so high because the project is far more than a museum. Theodore House will also be a retreat house and educational centre.
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