Saturday , May 25 2024

Lancashire – The Sacred County

Famous for its rich history and diversity, the County Palatine of Lancashire is home to almost one and a half million people – people from all faiths and none.  For many, it is the Sacred County – which, since its inception, in 1182, has been at the heart of religious movements and ideas.

From the earliest times, even before the Romans built their forts in Lancaster, Ribchester, and Manchester, religion and diverse forms of worship have been at the heart of the county’s life.

The Celtic Brigantes saw their gods superseded by Roman religious practice and, in turn, Saxon churches made way for Norman and medieval religious foundations and paved the way for chapels and churches which sprang up everywhere during the industrial revolution – accompanying the Wesleyan Revival and the emancipation of Catholics.

In the wake of John Wesley’s ardour for the salvation of souls, the nineteenth and early twentieth century Lancashire saw the erection of Methodist, Baptist and Congregational chapels; Unitarians opened chapels; while new Anglican churches were built and dioceses created in Manchester and Liverpool.

And nor did the story end there.

The Irish re-enforced the Lancashire recusants, who had refused to give up their Catholic faith, and in 1859 Lancaster gained a Catholic cathedral. Twentieth century arrivals saw the building of Sikh Gurdwaras, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, Hindu temples while, in 1977, the Church of England gave Blackburn a cathedral and in 2015 Preston became a cathedral city with the consecration of the Syro-Malabar Catholic cathedral

The turning point in learning to“live and let live” had come, in 1829, with the emancipation of Catholics and Jews, in the aftermath of the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventienth centuries; the execution of Catholics at Lancaster; and the imprisonment at Lancaster Castle of other dissenters, such as the Quaker leaders, George Fox and Margaret Fell.

Secret worship and persecution was now gradually replaced by a new tolerance – and re-enforced by new arrivals who worked in the burgeoning cities and towns of the county.

Their religious faith – and a hope of a new Jerusalem – was often all that sustained the folk condemned to live in the soot and soil of tenements and slums, whilst working in the “dark satanic mills” – commemorated in William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem, printed in 1808,

And Lancashire – the Sacred County – has continued to“keep the faith” – more than anywhere in England.

In the last census 978,000 Lancastrians described themselves as Christian, a further 279,000 stated no religious affiliation; 96,000 were Muslim; and other faiths accounted 17,400 – with Ribble Valley, and 78.1% of its population declaring a Christian affiliation, having the fourth highest percentage of Christians anywhere in England and Wales – with West Lancashire, South Ribble and Chorley also ranking in the top ten of the 348 boroughs.

The celebration of Lancashire’s deep faith is the motivation behind Theodore House – a brand new project aimed at helping people of faith, and of no faith, to explore religious beliefs; to provide a sacred space for retreat; and to have access to some of the most important artefacts held at Stonyhurst – the world’s oldest Jesuit college; and to explore the sacred landscape of the beautiful Ribble Valley.

Five years ago, a group of British Christians decided to start a project which would help to ensure that Britain does not forget its Christian story; to help individuals and families rekindle their faith; and to promote greater understanding and respect of difference.

Theodore House is part of the Christian Heritage project, a freestanding registered Charity and has been blessed by a fruitful partnership with Stonyhurst College.

Theodore House will provide accommodation in over thirty rooms, provide a lecture there, two seminar rooms, a chapel, library and atrium.  It is taking shape in a ruined, roofless Grade II Listed early nineteenth century corn mill that stands in the grounds of the College and once fed the bodily needs of hundreds of students. For the future, the Trustees of the charity hope it will feed the spiritual needs of souls. The libraries, museum, and local countryside provide the perfect backdrop while Theodore House is adjacent to the restored church of St. Peter’s, which provides a stunning setting for prayer and contemplation.

St. Peter’s is a small version of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge. One of the first churches to be built after Catholic Emancipation it is an important example of church architecture in the Gothic Revival Perpendicular style.

The Heritage Centre has helped with the funding of the restoration of Stonyhurst’ s historic libraries and museum – home to 50,000 volumes and 60,000 artefacts, and which were formally re-opened by the Rt.Revd John Arnold, Bishop of Salford, in December. The cultural significance of the objects in the Collections transcends national boundaries and is of common importance for present and future generations of many peoples and nations.

The charity is now putting all its efforts into Theodore House – which is due to open in the summer of 2018 – at a cost of more than £4 million.  The Trustees are busy trying to raise the final £200,000.

Those using Theodore House will also be able to make use of the Collections and Libraries, through a Collegium programme. There will be Summer School programmes (which can provide accommodation for up to 400 in College rooms outside of term time).

Theodore House will facilitate programmes for people of all ages and cultures, promoting dialogue, tolerance, and mutual respect at a time when the world is witnessing a tragic resurgence of religious conflict – using the Collections to reflect more deeply on questions of faith, identity, religious freedom, persecution and tolerance.

So, who was Theodore?

St. Theodore of Tarsus was the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a Syrian refugee who fled persecution. Theodore studied theology, medicine, Roman Civil Law, Greek rhetoric and philosophy, Latin literature (both secular and ecclesiastical), astronomy and mathematics in Antioch, Constantinople and Rome.

The embodiment of what the charity’s Trustees call“faith and reason”, they say his story also reminds us of the ever-present challenge of persecution.

Pope Vitalian sent Theodore to Britain as Archbishop of Canterbury, where he served between 668 and 690 AD.

Theodore is remembered for healing divisions, reforming the Church and for the entrenchment of Christian education.

His promotion of Biblical commentary, sacred music, knowledge of Eastern Christianity – and the possible creation of the Litany of the Saints – added richness to the liturgy and a more profound understanding of other traditions within the Christian faith. St Theodore holds a special place in the hearts of Orthodox, Catholics and Anglican Christians – and his story is especially poignant as today’s Syrian Christians have faced genocide and sustained persecution at the hands of ISIS.

Underlining the international importance of this Lancashire initiative, the patrons of the project includeits Royal Patrons, Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor and Lancashire’s Lord Lieutenant, Lord Shuttleworth. Other Patrons include Field Marshall Lord Guthrie, the former head of the UK’s armed forces; John Bruton, the former Irish Prime Minister; the Rt.Hon. Ann Widdecombe; Lancashire born, Ilyas Khan; four Cardinals; Blackburn’s former Anglican Bishop, Nicholas Reade; parliamentarians from across the political divide; Peers, including Baroness (Caroline) Cox, Lord (Peter) Hennessy, Lord (Dan) Brennan QC and the Jewish philanthropist and academic, Professor N. David Khalili.

Benefactors have included The Theodore Trust – who generously gave a grant of more than £2 million; The E.L. Wiegand Foundation; The Stanhill Foundation; the John Paul Getty Trust; Ribble Valley’s Bowland Trust; and many individual benefactors across the world

Theodore House has also benefitted from some American support – based on links that go back to the sixteenth century.   During the period of Catholic suppression, when Stonyhurst College had to be based on the Continent many Maryland boys (and others from Pennsylvania), were sent to St Omer’s to be educated. Amongst these was Charles Carroll who, in August 1776, one of the signatories of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Original copies of some of his work are held in the Collections, most notably an essay which he wrote as a teenager using the story of St. Cecelia’s martyrdom to explore the issue of religious freedom. Charles Carroll was a Maryland Senator until 1800.

His cousin, John Carroll SJ, also a St. Omer’s boy, was the first Bishop (and later, Archbishop) of Baltimore and founded the University of Georgetown.

His successor, Archbishop Lori, has been a visitor to the Collections along with other notable Americans, who have given support to the project.

For the future, the Trustees want to create a popular Interpretive Centre for Visitors – telling the Christian story.

They point out that in a population of 65 million people, at any one time, there are about 8 million children attending the UK’s 24,372 schools. Of these around 800,000 are in 2,400 Catholic schools and around 1 million in 4,700 Church of England schools.

In addition to identifying the significant appeal which the Interpretive Centre would have for schools, a Business Plan, commissioned by the charity’s Trustees has identified a significant potential for tourism, anticipating 40,000 visitors each year and 15,000 school visits.

The demand for high quality tourist experiences is underlined by the statistics: in one recent year 3.7 million tourists visited Ribble Valley, 63 million tourists visited Lancashire and 160 million visited the north-west region with 1.5 million people live within 60-90 minutes travelling time.

In 2014, British residents took 92.6 million overnight trips in England, totalling 273 million nights away from home, with the expenditure of £18.1 billion. The tourism industry is worth £85 billion – a contribution of almost 4% to the national economy. Visitors Centres are a vital component in providing access to unspoilt countryside, interesting villages, walking and cycling trails, and historical heritage sites – and they generate jobs and opportunities in a region which, the Trustees say, is too often disadvantaged economically. Ribble Valley has no National Trust or English Heritage facility and the Visitors’ Centre would meet a currently unmet demand, creating a superb resource.

The Trustees plan to ring the changes and ensure that the exhibition material and experience remains fresh. Temporary exhibitions highlighting themes – such as William Wilberforce and the Christian campaign against slavery, Dame Cicely Saunders and the Christian pioneers of the hospice movement, or St. Theodore and the role he played in the genesis of England’s schools have all been proposed.

The Trustees were originally told they should build Theodore House in the south of England but they refused saying“Lancashire: The Sacred County is our location but the world is our house.”

The Trustees say that a Visitors’ Centre will be of international importance and of major interest to overseas visitors, especially those from the United States interested in the British and Irish roots of their families and faith.

In 2017 the Trustees organised an exhibition in Washington DC that attracted thousands of visitors.

In 2016 in London they helpedorganise and sponsor a visit byJános Áder, President of the Republic of Hungary to commemorate links between St. Thomas Becket and Hungary’s Diocese of Esztergom-Budapest.

They sponsored a Symposium at Lambeth Palace led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd. Justin Welby, which looked at the relationship of Church and State and items connected with Becket were used in a discussion of his martyrdom and its relevance to conscience, freedom of religion and belief in the twenty first century.

In the future, visitors from distant places will be able to stay atTheodore House and while there they will also be able to explore and seek refreshment in the local countryside.

In conjunction with Ribble Valley Council, whose newly elected leader, Cllr. Ken Hind, recently visited the project, the Trustees have already launched the first of several walking trails.

These walking trails will take visitors deep into the Ribble Valley countryside and which are directly connected to two Christian writers who were inspired here: J.R.R. Tolkien wrote some of The Lord of the Rings while staying in the locality and Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote much of his acclaimed poetry while living here.

In exploring the Sacred County visitors will want to see the nearby ruins of Whalley and Sawley abbeys; the ancient chapel of the Knights of St. John, at Stydd, where legend holds that St. Margaret Clitherow was secretly buried (and on whose shocking execution, in 1586, scenes in the BBC programme,  “Gunpowder”, were based); or to see  the isolated chapel of St William, at Lee House, near Chipping, where washing would be placed on a line as a secret signal that a priest had come to secretly celebrate Mass; or to pray at Ladye Well – a Walsingham in the north – that has its origins in the eleventh century.

Destroyed in less tolerant times, Catholics never went away from Ladye Well, and these days, two Nigerian priests – from a country facing its own contemporary persecution – care for pilgrims who visit while the Kerala Indians living in this part of Lancashire hold a service each month in their own vernacular.

Lancashire’s own story has much to teach those places that have yet to come to terms with respect for difference. One story graphically illustrates this.

Between 1584-1646 at least fifteen Catholics were executed for their faith at Lancaster. Two of them were Roger Wrenno andJohn Thules.

Father Thules had been ordained at the age of twenty-four and ministered, illegally, for over twenty years. Arrested and taken to Lancaster Castle, he was imprisoned with a Catholic weaver, Roger Wrenno. Both were sentenced to death.

Following the execution of Father Thules, by drawing and quartering, and to begin his execution, Roger Wrenno had the noose placed around his neck. But, the rope broke, sending him tumbling to the ground, still alive. He knelt and prayed with his hands and eyes lifted towards heaven.

The sheriff offered him the chance to live. All he had to do was to deny his faith. In response, Roger Wrenno ran back to the scaffold ladder and eagerly scaled it, telling 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.”

The Trustees hope that Theodore House will help to heal such periods of history and play its part in telling the story of those persecuted for their Faith today while promoting reconciliation and mutual respect; and enabling retreatants, scholars and visitors to take their Faith more seriously. Their aim is to make Theodore House a symbol of hope and a sacred space in Lancashire, Britain’s Sacred County.



Royal Patrons: Lord Nicholas Windsor and Princess Paola.


Stonyhurst College


St. Peter’s, Stonyhurst.


St. Théodore – Syrian Christian who became the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury


The Blessing of Theodore House in May


Theodore House: work will be completed next summer.


Tolkien wrote some of the Lord of the Rings here – now visitors can explore the Tolkien Trail







Items from the Collections


Gunpowder’s Lady Dorothy Dibdale (left) may have been inspired by Margaret Clitherow, shown here in a stained-glass portrait with Cardinal Newman




Stydd where St. Margaret Clitherow may be buried


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Whalley Abbey and Sawley Abbey – whose abbots were executed



About Lord David Alton of Liverpool

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer. He began his career as a teacher and, in 1972, while still a student, he was elected to Liverpool City Council as Britain’s youngest City Councillor. In 1979 he became the youngest member of the House of Commons and, in 1997, and when he stood down from the Commons, he was appointed a Life Peer. His motto on his Coat of Arms is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: Choose Life.

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