THE FERMORS AND CATHOLICISM IN SOMERTON
All that is left of the Fermors’ great house in Somerton. The arch stands in a field to the east of theHeyford Road
The history of Catholicism in Somerton through the turmoils of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is intertwined with that of the Fermors as lords of the manor. Their support for catholics in Somerton lasted from the time of the Reformation until their sale of the manor to the Earl of Jersey in 1829 and made Somerton a centre of Catholicism in Oxfordshire during that period. Thereafter the number of catholics went into steep decline: by 1888 only two were left in the parish (a Sarah Jennings, and Widow Plumb) whereas in 1811 the number was recorded at 48 – and this despite the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in the same year (much of which remains on the statute book today), Irish immigration in the 1840s, and the Oxford Movement of the same period.
The English Reformation coincided with the tenure of the first of the Fermors: William Fermor purchased half of the manor in 1498, and in 1512 he was granted the other half by the Crown (which had acquired it after Sir Francis Lovell had forfeited it in 1495 for high treason). The son of Witney cloth merchants, William, as lord of the manor, remained firm in his catholic faith in the difficult years that followed but firm too in his policy of avoiding trouble. His successors followed the same policy. By contrast his elder brother Richard, who had bought the manor of Easton Neston, had his estates seized for having given relief to his former confessor, Nicholas Thayne, then imprisoned in Buckingham jail (although Henry VIII eventually forgave him and his property was largely restored). William, meanwhile, served in 1530 on the commission enquiring into Cardinal Wolsey’s possessions, and in 1535 was appointed a Royal Commissioner for Oxfordshire, responsible for collecting the tithes no longer to be paid to Rome. The authorities evidently considered him to be loyal.
On completing his acquisition of the manor William built himself a new manor house in contemporary style on higher ground to the south-east of the village. It was a substantial building whose outline can still be traced east of Jersey Manor Farm. In 1665 it was returned for the hearth tax as having 22 hearths. It had a central dining-hall with mullioned windows and ‘great’ parlour above and flanking wings.
This arch is all that is left of the Fermors’ house. It stands in a field to the east of the Heyford Road.
It is not clear whether William’s original house included a chapel or whether this was a creation of his successor, Thomas. In any event, this did not detract from his deep attachment to the parish church and the funding of improvements to it. William’s will of 11 September 1552, made 18 days before his death, specified that he was to be buried in the church ‘under the newe Arche between the Ile of the South side, and the quere wherein I used to knele’. Following the removal of the Victorian organ his tomb, with the fine brasses of himself and his last wife, Elisabeth, can again be seen in the same position.
The character of the parish at the time can be judged by its priests. From 1537 until 1552 the office was held by Robert King, notable for opposing those desiring to ‘pull down the images of the Saints, and who denied that the Virgin and Saints are mediators’. (King went on to become Bishop of Oxford, a position he retained when Mary reinstated Catholicism after her accession in 1553. As such he sat in judgment on Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was burnt in Oxford in March 1556). King was succeeded in Somerton by his own curate, Thomas Gardiner, in 1552. It may therefore be assumed that little changed, despite the coming into force of the revised prayer book the same year.
William’s successor Thomas was not his own child (he had no progeny), but the second surviving son of his elder brother Richard. Blomfield (1) describes him as ‘large-hearted and tolerant of opinions differing from his own’ as well as being ‘obedient to existing authorities’.
Until his death in 1580 Thomas lived at the manor house built by his uncle. Possibly at the same time as founding the school or (as Blomfield states) as his first act on arriving in his manor, Thomas built both a chapel and a priest’s residence in the grounds of the old castle, and also set aside land for burials. This chapel was specifically a place of worship for Catholics. Some at least of this ground is now covered over by the railway because during its construction a small silver crucifix was excavated on the site. The dedication of the chapel did not last long. During the reign of Elizabeth I the laws against Catholics were tightened so that they could no longer hold public assemblies, including attending mass. The chapel therefore fell into disuse, and in 1580 Thomas provided it as part of the school’s endowment.
It is reasonable to assume that the 16th century chapel recorded at the manor house before 1718 by the antiquary Rawlinson was built by Thomas for more private worship when the castle chapel fell into disuse. It was this chapel which remained the centre of Catholicism in the village for more than a century after the Fermors departed. John Watson, the rector of Somerton from 1729-1769, reported in 1738 that the Catholics held monthly services there, despite the surroundings presumably becoming increasingly dilapidated.
As with William, Catholicism did not prevent Thomas from continuing to support the church financially, nor from specifying burial in the church in his will of 15 June 1580.. His is the tomb in the south-eastern corner of the Fermor chapel, Thomas resting with his second wife, Bridget, with images of his children, living and dead, carved below, along with arms including those of his first wife, Fraunces. It would be marvellous if these were actual portraits of Thomas and Bridget; but they are not. The tomb is of particular antiquarian importance because the original contract for its design and erection still exists. It is dated 20 September 1581, and made between Thomas’s executors and Richard and Gabriell Roiley of Burton upon Trent. It makes detailed provisions for the effigies:
‘…ye said Richard and Gabriell Roiley… shall and will worke, make, laye, and place, artificially substantially durably and decently in or on ye uppermost p’te of ye said Tumbe… a very faire decent and well p’portioned picture or portraiture of a gentleman representing ye said Thomas Fermor wth furniture and ornaments in armour, and about his necke a double cheyne of gold wth creste and helmette under his head, wth sword and dagger by his side, and a lion at his feete and in or on the uttermoste parte of the uppermost parte of the said Tumbe a decent and p’fect picture or portraiture of a faire gentlewoman wth a Frenchehood, edge and abilliment, with all other apparell furniture jewells ornamentes and things in all respects usuall, decent, and seemly, for a gentlewoman’.
It was not until 1596 that Thomas’s son Richard came of age. It was he who in about 1625 moved his seat from Somerton to Tusmore, which he had bought at some point before 1612 with monies accumulated by his father’s executors during their trusteeship.
“Tomb of Thomas Fermor and his wife Bridget”
He continued the family tradition of ensuring that the Rector of Somerton was sympathetic to the catholics in the parish by appointing William Juxon as Rector of Somerton from 1615 to 1633. Juxon was a noted ‘high church’ Anglican who went on to become Bishop of London and, after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Richard Fermor gave the manor of Somerton “in dower” to Cicely, the widow of his eldest son John who died in 1625. She subsequently married Lord Arundell of Wardour, a prominent catholic and royalist during the Civil War. Somerton was therefore sequestrated by the parliament along with the rest of his estates in 1646. The family, however, managed to buy it back in 1653 (for ?1,609 15s. 10d.) and it remained part of the Arundell estates till Cicely died in 1675, when it reverted to the Fermors.
By contrast to Lord Arundell Henry Fermor, who succeeded his father in Tusmore in 1643 maintained a prudent neutrality during the Civil War. These must have been difficult times for the catholics of Somerton but the Fermor chapel has monuments not only to Henry’s father Richard but also to Colonel Thomas Morgan, killed in1643 at the first battle of Newbury, who was the husband of Jane Fermor. The (parliamentary) Committee for the Advance of Money referred to him as a ‘notorious papist and delinquent’.
“Tomb of Richard Fermor who died in early 1643”
The Fermors of Tusmore will have tried to maintain their quiet protection of the Catholics in Somerton and probably had something to do with saving Somerton’s wonderful stone reredos depicting the Last Supper from the vandalism of the Puritans. Blomfield says that it was removed and hidden in the tower, which indicates that any threat to it was from outside the village. (Once that threat had passed the relief was returned to the north aisle, before in 1822 being returned to its original position by the rector, Mr Wintle, who also paid for its restoration).
Glass in the windows of the manor house at Somerton is still recorded in 1660, and the future James II of England slept there a little later, but it fell into ruin from the late seventeenth century. Timbers and stone from the manorhouse may have been re-used elsewhere in the village or at Tusmore. Indeed the remarkable timber frame granary cum dovecot at Tusmore is thought to have been brought from Somerton and reconstructed – quite a normal procedure when timber was so valuable.
From Tusmore the Fermors continued in their attachment to Somerton. Up until the last male descendant, William, who died in 1828, they were buried here and they continued directly to support the Catholics of Somerton, many of whom must have been their tenants, certainly this was the reason given by Rector John Watsonin his responses to queries from his Bishop in 1738. “Our Parish has always been remarkable for a great many Papists, which I suppose proceeds from most of the Inhabitants being Tennants to Mr. Fermour a Roman Cathk. gentlm. who lives at Tusmore about three miles from us; I am informed that formerly near half ye Families in ye Parrish were Papists, but they are considerably diminished of late years” (In fact the figures show that the number of catholics in the village had not significantly declined) Watson reported that a catholic priest from Tusmore or Goddington had conducted services at the Manor ‘s chapel till it became a ruin and that thereafter a Tusmore priest would occasionally say mass in a Somerton farmhouse. More regularly, though, Somerton’s Catholics attended services at Tusmore itself. The Rector concluded his letter to the Bishop defensively by saying
“I have formerly been advis’d by my superiours not to be troublesome to ye Roman Catholicks so long as they live quietly and peaceably, and get no ground amongst us. The Protestants and Papists by long living together in ye same Parrish are so blended and united together, having for several years married one among another, that shou’d we put ye laws in execution against ye Papists, I am afraid that instead of bringing them over to the Church, it would be a certain means of driving some of our own people away.”
The continuing strength of Catholicism in Somerton even after the manor house was abandoned is shown by the numbers. They are strikingly consistent. Elizabeth I made it mandatory for villages to return numbers of “Popish recusants”. Somerton’s from around 1600 records 50 names, excluding those of the Fermors themselves. In 1620 Somerton was named as a centre in Oxfordshire for the Roman Catholic Province in England. In 1676 there were 51 recorded papists, in 1706 there were 45, and in 1738 47 (as against 48 Anglicans). 1767 shows 42 Catholics, 1811 48, but then the decline sets in: by 1854 there were only 20 and by1888 just two.
It is difficult not to see this decline as linked to the departure of the Fermors. William the last male Fermor was unmarried and, when he died in 1828, the estate was inherited by Captain John Ramsay of Croughton who had married William’s natural daughter Maria Whitehead. The Ramsays continued to have their memorials in the Fermor Chapel in Somerton but they were Protestant. Moreover they sold the estate in 1829.
The Fermors can therefore be credited with the maintenance of the Catholic faith in the village. But it must be remembered that the atmosphere of toleration, which they deliberately fostered and encouraged, also ultimately depended on the goodwill of each inhabitant. In Somerton under the Fermors the Protestants and Catholics had indeed been, as the Rector put it, blended and united together.
(1) – J. C. Blomfield, History of the Deanery of Bicester, containing: Part iv, History of Middleton and Somerton ( Bristol, 1888)
( 2) – John Watson, Responses to Bishop Secker’s Visitation 1738