Catholics at Lacock, Brian Howells Banks

Lacock Abbey

Lacock Abbey

The Papists’ returns of 1706 recorded 131 Catholics in twenty-five parishes in Wiltshire and in 143 parishes, there were no Papists. The parish of Lacock was one of the negative returns.

Elizabeth, Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury, a Catholic kinswoman of the Talbot family, occupied their seat, Lacock Abbey, on a lease arrangement during a period which included the minority of W.H.Fox Talbot, the ‘father’ of modern photography. She was herself of recusant background, a daughter of Lord Dormer. She brought her own household to the Abbey and during her tenancy she maintained a Catholic priest, the Rev.George Witham. She died in 1809, aged 85.

A Wiltshire General Quarter Sessions documents records that the Countess appeared with others before Sir Edward Baynton, Sir James Long and James Montague, esquire, at the house4 of John Awdry in the parish of Lacock, on 18 October 1791 and: ‘did verbally take, make and subscribe the Declaration and Oath appointed to be taken, made and subscribed by persons professing the Roman catholick religion.’

Members of the Lacock household, who also took the Oath, were:

James Smith, butler
George Hunt, footman
John White, under-butler
Jane Elstone, servant
Hester Brown, servant
Margaret Tilbury, servant


Joseph Barnes, butler to Mrs Porter of Lacock

A register of baptism was clearly kept during the years 1792-1809; the original is unfortunately missing, but a transcript (originally made by the Rev.W.Vince Smith) is in the library of the Society of Genealogists and the register is endorsed from the Rev.Mr George Witham’s papers. Entries have been reduced to standard form.

Interior of St. Cyriac’s Church, Lacock

Interior of St. Cyriac’s Church, Lacock

Not all the baptisms took place at Lacock; one was at Hartham, a nearby village, another at Cleavancy, near Wootton Bassett, and two at Chippenham. Possibly a few Catholic families may have moved into Lacock and the surrounding villages, due to the construction of the Wilts and Berks Canal. Work was started in 1795 on the Chippenham and Calne branches and the Foxham to Semington section included Lacock. The theory of new arrivals is supported by the baptism of Sarah Lee ‘born on shipboard coming from Ireland.’

Throughout the period of this register, marriages had to take place in the Church of England to be legal; but many Catholics had a Catholic marriage as well. If the Rev George Witham kept any record of marriages at the Abbey, it has not been found; but with the names of the Shrewsbury household and the list of baptisms, it was reasonable to search for at least two marriages in the local Anglican register. The following were found, both events taking place on the same day:

25 Sep 1809 Joseph Faulkner and Margaret Tilburry, both of Lacock. Witnesses: George Witham, Henry Taylor
25 Sep1809 George Barnes and Sarah Smith, both of Lacock. Witnesses: George Witham, Jane Smith

There were no local families named Witham, so clearly this witness is the Rev George Witham, Catholic priest. Nor were there any villagers named Faulkner or Tilbury, so Joseph Faulkner was an incomer and Margaret Tilbury surely the servant who took the Oath in 1791. Witness George Barnes was probably a relative of Joseph Barnes, who also took the Oath. Both witnesses and George Barnes and Sarah Smith were sponsors at the baptism of Moses Canton in 1793. Jane Smith was probably a relative of James Smith, butler to the Countess, and she also acted as a sponsor, as did Sarah Smith. James Smith acted twice and John Barnes three times.

Other marriages in the Anglican registers also have Catholic witnesses, including the following:

27 Apr 1807 George Moore and Mary Holmes, both of Lacock. Witnesses: Margaret Tilbury, Joseph Faulkner

The witnesses seem obviously the couple who married in 1809. In the burial register appears the simple entry:

29 Mar 1801 James Smith

while a long, flat, stone slab in the churchyard (now with no date of death on it) records:

James Smith aged 49 A Faithful and Honest Servant who lived many years in the Shrewsbury family.