Monday 15 June 2015

Lady Cecily Stonor of Stonor Park

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Oxford, where the distribution of Catholic literature helped expose Lady Cecily's devotion to her faith

A few months ago, I fell into a conversation about heroism and whether it still serves a purpose. In his biography of Anne Boleyn, published in 2010, Professor George Bernard dismissed the idea, quoting the Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht's response to "Unhappy the land that has no heroes" - "Unhappy the land that needs heroes". Bernard, paralleling the old idea of heroism with the contemporary fascination with celebrity, continued, "Models are not necessary ... Men and women should not need to study the life of Anne Boleyn, or modern 'celebrities', to learn that if you do not like your lot in life, you should do what you can to improve it."

This certainly raises a valid point about projecting our own needs and neuroses onto the men and women of the past and, in doing so, misrepresenting them. However, I also think that people can be heroic and inspirational without being whitewashed. Theology teaches us that even the holiest saints had their flaws. To be inspired does not necessarily equate with creeping on metaphorically knee to the shrine of the revered. In this vein, I am delighted to share an article by American author Stephanie A. Mann, author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics endured the English Reformation, who has written a reflection on Lady Cecily Stonor, a English Catholic who defended her faith in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. 

Lady Cecily Stonor of Stonor Park by Stephanie A. Mann

Although I write often about the Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation era and certainly highlighted them in my book about the English Reformation—and there are three women honored by the Catholic Church among the canonized and beatified martyrs of that era, I have not chosen a martyr as my heroine.

The heroine I’ve chosen does have much in common with those three martyred Catholic women (St. Margaret Clitherow, St. Margaret Ward, and St. Anne Line). She could have suffered the same punishment they did: she was a recusant Catholic and she protected Catholic priests in her home. Because she came to trial in 1581 before it was a felony for hiding Catholic priests, she avoided execution. But she suffered much because she remained true to her Catholic faith and her conscience.

Lady Cecily Stonor (nee Chamberlain) and her late husband Sir Francis Stonor (+1564) had two sons, Francis and John, and three daughters. They were recusants and because they would not attend Sunday services in the Church of England, they had to pay huge fines, selling land and estates as necessary. In 1577, according to the Stonor Park website, the family paid the modern equivalent of £50,000 in fines.

Cecily Stonor was elderly when she was brought to trial in Oxford for her recusancy. Her home, Stonor Park, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire was a refuge for Catholic priests. The Jesuit Edmund Campion stayed at Stonor and his “Decem Rationes” was printed there and then boldly distributed in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, copies laid out carefully on the benches for Commencement on 27 June 1581. The authorities hunted Campion down on his way to Norfolk and captured him at Lyford Grange in Berkshire on 15 July. Then authorities came to Stonor Park on 4 August, finding the press, another Jesuit priest, William Hartley, and the printer—they also arrested Cecily, her son John, and four servants.

Questioned about her recusancy, Lady Stonor proclaimed that she had remained true to her Catholic faith even though the monarchs and government of England had changed religious policy several times. She referred particularly to her devotion to the Catholic Mass in her statement:

I was born in such a time when holy mass was in great reverence, and brought up in the same faith. In King Edward’s time this reverence was neglected and reproved by such as governed. In Queen Mary’s time, it was restored with much applause; and now in this time it pleaseth the state to question them, as now they do me, who continue in this Catholic profession. The state would have these several changes, which I have seen with mine eyes, good and laudable. Whether it can be so, I refer to your Lordships’ consideration. I hold me still to that wherein I was born and bred; and so by the grace of God I will live and die in it.

Cecily Stonor had experienced the Tudor dynasty, seeing the religious changes made once Henry VIII had proclaimed himself Supreme Head and Government of the Ecclesiae Anglicanae, while she had remained unchanged in her profession of religion.

Although her son John bore the weight of the blame for the priests and the printing press, going into exile after breaking his parole and not conforming to the Church of England, Cecily and her daughters were placed under the authority of her elder son Francis Stonor, Jr. She was held in house arrest for the rest of her life—and the family remained resolutely Catholic.

Cecily Stonor is my English heroine because she remained true to what she believed and she bore the consequences. She represents many Catholics during the long recusant era in England who faced great fines, suspicion, arrest, harassment, and even exile or execution because of their loyalty to their faith. Lady Stonor resisted the tide of conformity to the state’s demands; all she wanted was to attend Mass and practice her Catholic faith.

Lady Stonor even has a royal parallel: the Old Pretender, whom his supporters called James III and VIII. Son of James II and Mary Beatrice of Modena, his birth precipitated the Glorious Revolution in 1688. He had the opportunity regain his father’s throne in 1714, if he had just renounced his Catholicism and embraced Anglicanism. Like Cecily Stonor more than 125 years before him however, he held “still to that wherein [he] was born and bred”. Unlike Henri IV of France who accepted the Mass to gain the crown, the Old Pretender kept the Mass and lost the crown to “continue in this Catholic profession.”

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at


  1. Good article. I just hope Lady Stonor's son Francis treated her decently for the time she spent under house arrest (the rest of her life as noted in the above feature). Of course "saints" (and I appreciate that Lady Stonor has not been canonised). were human too, neither wholly good nor wholly bad like all of us. I guess we just aspire to having our "good" periods outweigh our "bad". Once again thanks for providing the above article to read - Patricia O

  2. Thank you, Gareth, for posting this! I am perusing your latest opus and preparing some questions for your blog tour! Happy Sunday!

  3. Fascinating. Are they descended from the same Stonors who were active letter writers in the late 15th Century? The Stonor letters being an important contemporary source for those interested in what actually happened during the Wars of the Roses.


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