FOLLOWING EDMUND CAMPION OUT OF OXFORD….
Oxford is a bubble and it’s often difficult to escape and explore the wealth of interesting places nearby. One such place is Stonor, home of a Catholic family for 850 years and one-time hiding place of Saint Edmund Campion. On a bright spring morning, an intrepid group set out from the Oxford University Chaplaincy to see Stonor for ourselves.
We were unsure of what to expect, only that there was Mass in the family chapel for members of the public to attend. We had given advance warning, and it may have been emphasised that leading our party was a Jesuit and member of Campion Hall.
The Stonor family were of one of several recusant families with whom Edmund Campion stayed after his return to England in 1580. Their home was the perfect place to take refuge; close to the Thames and London, and well hidden in the woods.
We arrived on the estate; pristine green parkland, birds circling high above, and a herd of deer scuttling across the road. On parking, we were greeted by Lady Hon Georgina Stonor, sister of the current Lord Camoys, who was enthusiastically throwing branches off the footpaths. For the Spaniards in our party, this was their first glimpse of the English aristocracy – not quite what they were expecting! After a strict warning not to pet the deer, we were sent to wander the grounds until the chapel opened.
The chapel itself dates from the late 13th Century and there is history to be found, quite literally, in every corner; one wall incorporates part of an ancient pagan stone circle. The interior is disarmingly simple, a few wooden pews and whitewashed pink walls and blue ceiling, perhaps not what one would expect in a stately home. This was a gentle reminder that it was not just the architecture that provided our link with the past, but the shared faith that had been kept in the family during the difficult years of the Reformation.
It was Fr Dushan, our University Chaplain, who said Mass; there was something very special about having a Jesuit celebrate Mass at Stonor, over 400 years since Edmund Campion and his companions set off on their mission to England.
After Mass, we were introduced to Lord and Lady Camoys, who very kindly invited us into their home. Expecting little more than a friendly greeting, we were given an extensive tour of the house. We were taken into the roof space, where the family have a wonderfully curated exhibition about life during the Reformation and Edmund Campion himself. It is evident that the family feel a huge amount of pride for their part in Campion’s story. Lord Camoys was keen to draw our attention to one of the panels, before pulling it away to reveal a doorway in the wall. In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a surprise – what self-respecting recusant family didn’t have a priest hole? We were encouraged to clamber into the cobwebbed attic, before being told that this was where Campion had hidden, and right in front of us would have sat the printing press on which Decem Rationes (Ten Reasons) was printed. This was a pamphlet in which he put forward his case for the Catholic faith, and was daringly left in the University Church in Oxford on graduation day.
Our journey through the house continued, from cabinets filled with heirlooms to the sumptuously decorated library. Tour concluded, we assumed it would be time to leave. Instead, we were whisked into the family lounge for coffee and flapjacks with Lord and Lady Camoys. What followed was simply a lovely half hour of good conversation and hospitality from our wonderful hosts. Finally, we set off home, a little staggered at what we had been privileged to see.
It is easy to forget how much was sacrificed by a group of courageous people to allow me to live and study as a Catholic. I expected a trip to the countryside; instead I was struck by the determination of the families who sheltered priests, and experienced the generosity of their descendants.