Roman Catholicism.

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1979.

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Eleanor Chance, Christina Colvin, Janet Cooper, C J Day, T G Hassall, Mary Jessup, Nesta Selwyn, 'Roman Catholicism.', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford, ed. Alan Crossley, C R Elrington( London, 1979), British History Online [accessed 19 July 2024].

Eleanor Chance, Christina Colvin, Janet Cooper, C J Day, T G Hassall, Mary Jessup, Nesta Selwyn, 'Roman Catholicism.', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford. Edited by Alan Crossley, C R Elrington( London, 1979), British History Online, accessed July 19, 2024,

Eleanor Chance, Christina Colvin, Janet Cooper, C J Day, T G Hassall, Mary Jessup, Nesta Selwyn. "Roman Catholicism.". A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford. Ed. Alan Crossley, C R Elrington(London, 1979), , British History Online. Web. 19 July 2024.


In the 16th and 17th centuries a succession of Roman Catholic priests was stationed in Oxford, (fn. 1) presumably to gain converts from the university, but they also ministered to a number of townspeople. Mass was celebrated in some inns, including the Mitre and the Star, which remained in recusant hands into the 18th century, (fn. 2) and in private houses, notably Holywell Manor, the home of the Napper family, and Richard Owen's house at Godstow, just outside Oxford. (fn. 3) Three members of the Napper family were ordained, and both Holywell Manor and the family's house in Temple Cowley were refuges for Roman Catholic priests in Oxford. (fn. 4) The city recorder from 1566 to 1607, Robert Atkinson, may also have played a part in protecting recusants; his wife was a Catholic and he seems to have had Catholic sympathies at least in the early part of his career. (fn. 5)

In 1561 the mayor allegedly reported that there were not three houses in the town without papists, (fn. 6) and a return of recusants in 1577 listed 14 esquires and gentlemen, 25 inferior men, 10 women, and a priest in the town, and 23 recusants, including two priests, in the university. (fn. 7) Popish books were distributed by the stationer and bookbinder Rowland Jenks, who was arrested in 1577, tried at the notorious Black Assize, and condemned to lose his ears. (fn. 8) In 1581 a priest apparently distributed copies of Edmund Campion's Decem Rationes at the university Act in St. Mary's church. (fn. 9) Campion himself had stayed in Oxford at Lady Babington's house. (fn. 10) In 1582 another recusant stationer, Conrad Miller, and two other men were tried in Star Chamber for libel against the government, presumably by the distribution of Roman Catholic books. (fn. 11) The discovery of more popish books in 1586 (fn. 12) may have been related to the 'popish plot' reported in Oxford that year. (fn. 13) The first Roman Catholics to be executed in Oxford were two priests and two laymen taken at the Catherine Wheel in 1589 and hanged, drawn, and quartered the same year after interrogation in London. (fn. 14) Another priest, who, while imprisoned in Oxford castle in 1604 was found prepared to say mass in his room, (fn. 15) was apparently not executed; but George Napper, a member of the Holywell family, who came on a mission to Oxford in 1603, was captured and martyred in 1610. (fn. 16)

By the 1620s 'Romish priests' were said to be allowed 'uncommon liberty' in Oxford, although recusants continued to be presented at Quarter Sessions and distresses were taken from some of them. (fn. 17) Recusant rolls of the period, while clearly not complete, record a total of 66 papists, most of them small tradespeople. (fn. 18) In 1640 the Mitre was reported to be a meeting-place for Catholics, and the innkeeper, Charles Green, was dismissed from his common councillor's place as a recusant. (fn. 19) In 1642 Green's and Edmund Napper's houses and the Star were searched for arms on the orders of the parliamentarian commander, Lord Say; the presence of arms and powder at the Star seems to have been explained satisfactorily, but bonfires of popish books and pictures were made in the streets, one of them in front of the inn. (fn. 20) While the court was in Oxford mass was said openly, and several of the Royalist garrison, including two governors of the city, were Roman Catholics. (fn. 21) Priests continued to serve the city during the Interregnum, (fn. 22) but persecution increased again; the Napper's property was sequestrated in 1652, and a London man was bound over in 1658 for distributing popish books. In that year 40 recusants were reported in the city. (fn. 23)

In 1663 a priest visited Oxford openly, staying at the Mitre and laying his hands on the sick, and in 1666 there were said to be many seminary priests in the city, keeping company with scholars. (fn. 24) In 1673, however, the Catholic master of Magdalen College school, who was reputed to have made 60 converts, was forced to flee the city when suspicions of his religious beliefs became public. (fn. 25) In spite of his alleged activities, only 29 recusants were recorded in the city in 1676. (fn. 26) At the time of the Popish Plot in 1678 there was an anticatholic demonstration, apparently by scholars, in the course of which the pope was burnt in effigy, and papists' houses were searched for arms. (fn. 27) Titus Oates was given the freedom of the city in 1679, (fn. 28) and the same year at least 51 persons were indicted for recusancy at Quarter Sessions; William Dormer, a 'favourer of the popish party', was ordered to leave the city. (fn. 29) Of those intruded into the council in 1688 only Thomas Kimber, nominated to a bailiff's place, was certainly a Roman Catholic, while Edward Prince seems to have had several recusant relations. (fn. 30) During the brief period of toleration between 1686 and 1688 mass was again said openly in private houses, in oratories in University College and Christ Church, and in Magdalen College chapel; (fn. 31) Obadiah Walker, master of University College, was licensed to print certain Catholic books, which were presumably distributed by Oxford booksellers. (fn. 32) Reaction was fierce, however, and the days before the acceptance of William of Orange were marked by anti-Catholic rioting, sparked off by rash words by the recusant landlord of the Mitre against the earl of Abingdon. (fn. 33)

Thereafter Roman Catholicism declined in the city, and by the end of the 17th century the Jesuits had left and were ministering to their small remaining flock from Sandford or Waterperry. (fn. 34) In 1706 only fourteen recusants were reported in Oxford, including, apparently, seven members of the Kimber family in Holywell; Anglican visitation returns and the Roman Catholic registers of the mission at Waterperry record very few Catholics in Oxford in the rest of the century, and those were poor and unimportant. (fn. 35)

In 1793, when the Jesuit mission moved from Waterperry to St. Clement's, where they built St. Ignatius's chapel, there were apparently c. 60 Roman Catholics in Oxford. (fn. 36) St. Ignatius's chapel remained the only Roman Catholic church in Oxford until 1875, although as early as 1841, in the wake of the interest in Catholicism aroused by the publication of Tract XC, the priest started to collect money for a more central church. (fn. 37) J. H. Newman, received into the church in 1845, felt that a move into the centre of Oxford and any resultant conversions of undergraduates would involve the church in undesirable controversy with the university. (fn. 38) The congregation at St. Ignatius's was small and poor; there were said to be 130 communicants in 1839, but in 1852 the congregation was said to average only 50, and the number of communicants, which had fallen to 87 in 1853, rose only to 118 by 1859. (fn. 39) The decline may have been at least partly due to the priest's departure from Oxford and from the Jesuit order in 1849, after a disagreement with his superiors over a school which he ran in the presbytery. (fn. 40) There seems to have been further trouble in the mission in 1853, when some members of the congregation wished to remove it from the Jesuits' control, and in 1854 it was reported to be in a bad way under an ineffective priest. (fn. 41) In 1859 it was handed over to the bishop of Birmingham, the Jesuits having declared themselves unable to build the new church necessary to make any headway in Oxford, and unwilling to spend more money on 'a very unproductive mission, to say nothing of an ungrateful congregation'. (fn. 42)

The 1860s were marked chiefly by further unsuccessful attempts to build a new church in a more central position; those foundered on the opposition of the papacy and the ultramontane party in England to anything which would attract Roman Catholic undergraduates to Oxford; there was also some friction between J. H. Newman and the priest of St. Ignatius over one plan. (fn. 43) In 1871 the Jesuits resumed the mission, and later in the same year £7,000 was left to the diocesan bishop for a church in Oxford. (fn. 44) The new priest at St. Ignatius's, J. H. Corry, S.J., urged the necessity for a new church to counter the impression made by such Tractarian churches as St. Barnabas, concluding, 'if I was even a storm, what can I do in a tea kettle?'. (fn. 45) Only after much argument and some ill-feeling was a site at the south end of Woodstock Road agreed upon and designs accepted from the Catholic architect, J. A. Hansom. (fn. 46)

The new church, dedicated to St. Aloysius, was opened in 1875, Cardinal Manning preaching at the dedication. (fn. 47) As the hierarchy's policy of forbidding Roman Catholics to attend the university was not reversed until 1895, (fn. 48) the majority of the congregation came from the town. There was a steady increase in baptisms and conversions after the opening of the new church, (fn. 49) and by 1896 the congregation was estimated at 860. (fn. 50) In that year a convert described it as 'a huddled little flock, very thinly recruited from the university, with one or two remnants of old Catholic families, and for the rest drawn from modest commercial and industrial circles'. (fn. 51) The congregation continued to rise until the early 20th century, when the foundation of new churches in the suburbs and the depopulation of the city centre caused a steady decline. (fn. 52) From 1923 to 1933 a loft in Charles Street, St. Ebbe's, was used as a temporary chapel served from St. Aloysius. (fn. 53)

The church of St. Aloysius, a yellow-brick building in gothic style, comprises a nave with narrow north and south aisles, an apsidal chancel at the west end, and a south-east turret. The east wall, facing the Woodstock Road, contains a large rose window. A new altar was given in 1876 and installed in 1878 when a reredos containing two rows of statues was built to the designs of Farmer and Brindley. In 1907 the baptistry was converted into a chapel to house a large collection of relics bequeathed to the church by H. de la Garde Grissell. (fn. 54)

St Ignatius's chapel in St. Clement's remained open until 1911 when it was replaced by the new church of St. Edmund and St. Frideswide on the Iffley Road. (fn. 55) In 1911 the church of St. Gregory and St. Augustine, a rectangular stuccoed building designed by Ernest Newton, was opened to serve a new parish in North Oxford, (fn. 56) and in 1961 the church of the Holy Rood, Folly Bridge, was built to serve South Oxford. (fn. 57) The church, designed by Gilbert Flavel, is octagonal with a square lantern of four glazed gables cutting into the pyramid roof, the walls are of yellow-brown brick. (fn. 58) In Headington mass was said in a café from 1932 to 1935, and then in the Bury Knowle library until Corpus Christi church was built in Margaret Road in 1936. (fn. 59) St. Anthony of Padua church hall was opened in Jack Straw's Lane in 1948; a church was built in Headley Way in 1960 to designs of Jennings, Homer, and Lynch. (fn. 60) The church is of yellow-brown brick with a rectangular nave and small rectangular chancel at the west end; at the north-east corner is a vaguely Italianate bell-turret. St. Francis's church in Crescent Road, Cowley, founded in 1906 as part of the Franciscan (Capuchin) friary, (fn. 61) was taken over by the Salesians in 1920 and replaced in 1962 by the church of Our Lady Help of Christians in Hollow Way, designed by P. J. Sheahan. (fn. 62) The church is cruciform, of yellow-brown brick, except for the end walls of the transepts which are of stone. The church of the Sacred Heart, Blackbird Leys, was founded in 1966. (fn. 63)

Since 1875 a number of Roman Catholic religious orders have established houses in Oxford. Apart from the Dominicans, who opened a priory in St. Giles's Street in 1921, the men's orders have been connected with the university or with parish churches, and their history is described elsewhere. (fn. 64) Most of the women's orders have been involved in education, (fn. 65) but the Daughters of the Cross did parish work in the parish of St. Edmund and St. Frideswide between 1910 and 1913. The Sisters of the Sacred Heart opened a hostel for students in Woodstock Road in 1931 and moved to Norham Gardens in 1935; the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus opened a similar hostel in South Parks Road in 1905. The Carmelite nuns established a monastery in the Banbury Road in 1923. (fn. 66)


  • 1. H. Foley, Rec. Eng. Province Society of Jesus, series xi. 575, 598, 601-2.
  • 2. P.C. 2/52, p. 534; Univ. Arch. W.P. Q 29, f. 19; Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 8-9, 264; 'Addresses of Jesuits', Miscellanea, viii (Cath. Rec. Soc. xiii), 177, 184.
  • 3. Wood, Athenae, ed. Bliss, iv. 386; Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 211-18; Acts of P.C. 1596-7, 372-3; 1597-8, 589; 1598-9, 72-3.
  • 4. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1591-4, 28; Stapleton, Cath. Miss 212; A. Davidson, 'Roman Catholicism in Oxon. from the late Elizabethan period to the Civil War' (Bristol Univ. Ph.D. thesis 1970), 202-8: copy in Bodl. MS. Top. Oxon. d 602.
  • 5. A. Davidson, 'Robert Atkinson, a famous lawyer', Essex Recusant, xii. 91-8.
  • 6. H. N. Birt, Elizabethan Religious Settlement, 508-9.
  • 7. 'Diocesan Rtns. of Recusants, 1577', Miscellanea, xii (Cath. Rec. Soc. xxii), 8-9, 97-100, 112-13.
  • 8. Acts of P.C. 1575-7, 368-9; 1581-2, 34-5; Wood's Univ. ii(1), 189.
  • 9. Wood, Athenae, ed. Bliss, i. 474.
  • 10. Acts of P.C. 1581-2, 185.
  • 11. Ibid. 350, 352, 399-400.
  • 12. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1581-90, 373.
  • 13. Ibid. 347, 350.
  • 14. F. Madan, Oxf. Books, ii. 29.
  • 15. Foley, Rec. Eng. Province S.J. ser. xi. 570.
  • 16. Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 212-13.
  • 17. City Arch. O.5.9, pp. 34-185, especially p. 63; Wood, Athenae, ed. Bliss, iii. 87n.
  • 18. H. E. Salter, 'Oxon. Recusants', O.A.S. Rep. 1924, 16-28; there is a list of 1602 in Univ. Arch. W.P. Q 4.
  • 19. P.C. 2/52, p. 534; Univ. Arch. W.P. Q 29, f. 19; O.C.A. 1626-65, pp. xxi, 104; C. E. Mallet, Hist. Oxf. Univ. ii. 307.
  • 20. O.C.A. 1626-65, pp. xxi, 364-5; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1641-3, 258; Ogle, Royal Letters, 363; Wood's Univ. ii(1), 451.
  • 21. F. J. Varley, Siege of Oxf. 71-4; Hist. MSS. Com. 28, Portland, i, pp. 398-9; Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 10-12.
  • 22. e.g. Wood, Athenae, iii. 1221; Foley, Rec. Eng. Province S.J. ser. xi. 602.
  • 23. City Arch. O.5.11, ff. 9v.-10, 12; Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 215.
  • 24. Wood's Life, i. 486; ii. 93.
  • 25. Ibid. ii. 269n., 275.
  • 26. Compton Census.
  • 27. Ogle, Royal Letters, 378-9; Wood's Life, ii. 422.
  • 28. O.C.A. 1666-1701, 121.
  • 29. City Arch. O.5.12, ff. 12-13, 15v., 17; N.4.6, ff. 57-58v.
  • 30. Ibid. O.5.12, ff. 12-13; O.C.A. 1666-1701, 197, 201.
  • 31. Wood's Life, ii. 182, 194, 262, 264.
  • 32. Wood, Athenae, iv. 440; D.N.B.
  • 33. Broadsheet of 1688: copy in Bodl. MS. Don. c 146(15); Wood's Life, iii. 286-7.
  • 34. Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 26; 'Addresses of Jesuits', Miscellanea, viii (Cath. Rec. Soc. xiii), 177, 184; V.C.H. Oxon. v. 274, 308.
  • 35. W. O. Hassall, 'Papists in early 18th-cent. Oxon.' Oxoniensia, xiii. 79; 'Reg. Waterperry and St. Clement's', Miscellanea, vi (Cath. Rec. Soc. vii), 397, 401; Bodl. MSS. Oxf. Dioc. d 559, ff. 169, 173, 186; d 556, ff. 169, 175, 179.
  • 36. Stapleton, Cath. Miss 226-7; V.C.H. Oxon. v. 265.
  • 37. Jesuit Rec. Mount Street, London, rec. of Residence of St. Mary, f. 74; C.C. Martindale, Catholics in Oxf. (priv. print. 1925), 21-2; O. Chadwick, Victorian Church (2nd edn. 1970), i. 188.
  • 38. W. Ward, Life of Newman, ii. 56-8.
  • 39. Jesuit Rec. Foley MSS. ix, ff. 392, 396; H.O. 129/157.
  • 40. Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 237-8; J. Gillow, Bibliographical Dict. Eng. Catholics, v. 176.
  • 41. Jesuit Rec. Residence of St. Mary, ff. 98-9, 114.
  • 42. Ibid. ff. 145, 147, 169; Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 238.
  • 43. Rec. of Birmingham archdiocese, letter of Fr. A. Nary, S.J. to Canon Estcourt, 4 July 1869; Ward, Life of Newman, ii. 51-65, 121-84; Oxf. Chron. 16 Feb. 1867.
  • 44. Jesuit Rec. Residence of St. Mary, ff. 174, 210, 268.
  • 45. Ibid. f. 289.
  • 46. Ibid. passim.
  • 47. Stapleton, Cath. Miss. 239.
  • 48. H. O. Evenett, 'Catholics and the Universities', Eng. Catholics, 1850-1950, ed. G. A. Beck, 291-311.
  • 49. Martindale, Catholics in Oxf. 29.
  • 50. Ex inf. Fr. H. Waterhouse, S.J.
  • 51. M. Fletcher, O, Call Back Yesterday, 131-2.
  • 52. Ex inf. Fr. H. Waterhouse, S.J.
  • 53. Catholic Dir. (1924-34).
  • 54. Martindale, Catholics in Oxf. 27-36; Pevsner, Oxon. 289.
  • 55. V.C.H. Oxon. v. 94.
  • 56. Martindale, Catholics in Oxf. 38; Pevsner, Oxon. 332.
  • 57. Catholic Dir. (1977).
  • 58. Pevsner, Oxon. 335.
  • 59. Catholic Dir. (1933, 1936, 1937).
  • 60. Ibid. (1949, 1963); Pevsner, Oxon. 336.
  • 61. V.C.H. Oxon. v. 94.
  • 62. Catholic Dir. (1963); Pevsner, Oxon. 341.
  • 63. Catholic Dir. (1977).
  • 64. Blackfriars Oxf. (priv. print. 1937); V.C.H. Oxon. iii. 339-40.
  • 65. See below, Education (Roman Catholic Schools).
  • 66. Catholic Dir. (1876 and later edns.).