Foundress of the Catholic Churches at Newport and Cowes.
By Peter Clarke
Elizabeth Heneage was born in 1734 at Sheat Manor house near Gatcombe. This Manor House, which she was to inherit from her uncle, Thomas Urry, was reputed to have contained a secret chapel in the attic, where Mass was occasionally said during penal times. The escape route for the priest, behind the chimney and out through a tunnel into the garden, are still evident today. We have no record of the number of Masses that were said. It is unlikely to have been many, due to the Island’s isolation. The family supported the local Anglican Church and they were popular in the farming community of the area so that they kept a low profile and did not draw attention to themselves. However their neighbours would have known where their sympathies lie.
Elizabeth was the only child of John and Mary Browne (nee Urry). Her parents sent her to the famous Convent school for girls at Hammersmith in London. This school survived throuthout most of the penal period with the nuns secretly disguised as lay women. In 1761 she married James Windsor Heneage, who came from an old Catholic family of Hainton Hall, Lincolnshire. Catholic gentry and aristocracy frequently inter-married. James had the long and arduous journey by stage coach, ferry and pony chaise to Gatcombe in order to build a relationship and win the hand of Elizabeth. They went to live in Lincolnshire, where James inherited Cadeby Hall. Their two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were sent to their mother’s alma mater, at Hammersmith and then to a convent school in Paris. (Their only son died in infancy). The parents were determined that the two girls would have a good, Catholic education and would hopefully marry into the Catholic aristocracy or gentry. Introducing them at society events at the London Season, Mary and Elizabeth (known to their family as Molly and Betsy) met two Catholic brothers, Basil and William Fitzherbert from Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire. Their sister-in-law was the famous Maria Fitzherbert, the secret Catholic wife of the Prince Regent. William married Mary Heneage and inherited Claughton Hall in Lancashire, while Basil married Elizabeth and resided at Swynnerton. The two marriages were successful in that they produced fourteen children. The Fitzherberts were connected through marriage to such prominent families as the Howards of Norfolk, the Petre family in Essex, the Welds and the Throckmortons. An ancestor, the Jesuit Thomas Fitzherbert (1552 – 1640) had been Rector of the English College in Rome. James Heneage died in 1786 and his widow Elizabeth travelled widely in France and throughout England; often staying at her two daughters’ estates and frequently returning to her native Isle of Wight, where she settled in Newport and purchased a house in Pyle Street. This house is now the presbytery. After the Relief Act of 1790, Catholics were permitted to build their own churches. Mrs Heneage immediately set about building this church in the garden of her home in Pyle Street. The cost was approx. £2000. A few months older than the famous Milner Hall in Winchester it is arguably the oldest Catholic Church in England (in continuous use since it was built). Elizabeth brought the Heneage family chaplain, Fr. Simon Lucas, from Lincolnshire, to be the first resident priest in Newport. He was followed by a French emigre priest, Fr. Etienne des Perques. One parish priest, Fr. Thomas Fryer, found Newport much to his liking and his health as he held the post for fifty years (1839 – 1889)
Five years after the opening of St. Thomas’s, Newport, Mrs Heneage turned her attention to Cowes (five miles to the north) and built a similar church, also dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury. She believed that one of the knights who were sent by Henry II in 1170 to murder the famous medieval saint, came from the Isle of Wight. Therefore this was a fitting act of reparation.
The interior of this simple, little classical style church, with its sanctuary in the apse, has altered considerably throughout its history but the exterior has hardly changed. Built as it had to be at the time, like a public meeting hall, there were no external features which identified it as a church such as steeples, bells, crosses or stained glass. It is nevertheless spacious for its size, with a gallery on three sides, similar to non Conformist churches.
The foundress, Elizabeth Heneage, had her own chapel / room (now the confessional) incorporated into the church on the gospel side of the sanctuary. She would enter the church by walking from her house (now the presbytery) across the garden using her own private door. It was the norm for the gentry and aristocracy to separate themselves as far as you could from the rest of the congregation. In the early nineteenth century Catholics living in rural villages around the Island would walk to Sunday Mass in all weather. Several families would meet up and walk together; often enduring abuse en route from radical Protestants in this age of religious intolerance. In Victorian times St Thomas’, Newport developed a royal connection. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to reside at Osborne House in the 1840s, visiting European Catholic royalty and aristocracy frequently came to St. Thomas’ for Sunday Mass. In 1857 the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress came to Mass.
Sunday Mass witnessed rich and poor worshipping together, but the deferential attitude prevalent in Victorian society was evident even in the churches. Seat rents were a useful source of income. There were six grades of rent at St. Thomas’s. The upper classes rented pews nearest to the sanctuary. Poorer folk occupied the side aisles. The military from the barracks at Parkhurst usually went into the gallery. So everyone had their place according to their class and station.
Elizabeth died on 10th Dec. 1800 and is buried in the church, near the porch. Over the years the exact location of her grave was forgotten, until in 1960 workmen dealing with dry rot, accidentally discovered her coffin under floorboards near the porch. An inscription now marks the exact spot of the coffin of this remarkable woman. It is a feature of the Catholic Church that it always seems to produce individuals who are totally dedicated to the Church and all that it represents. Elizabeth Heneage was such an individual. The Westminster archives contain many letters from the Vicars Apostolic in England, thanking her for donations and gifts to charities. One letter records how she sent religious and historical books to America. No biography of her life has, as yet, been written, but when it is, it will surely record the significant contribution which she made to the growth of the English Catholic Church in the late eighteenth century.
From the Manor House at Sheat, where Elizabeth was born to the Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury at Newport, we can proudly claim that the faith was never entirely lost on the Island. To emphasise our historic link with Sheat Manor, the present owners (not Catholics) allowed us to return in August 2002. Mass was celebrated by Fr. Bruce Barnes (parish priest) on the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo. This was the first Mass at the Manor House for over 220 years. Another Mass was offered in the garden of Sheat Manor in 2006, once again with the kind permission of the owners, Lt. Col. and Mrs Geoffrey Webber.