Material Culture under Penalty analysed a hidden aspect of early modern English Catholic material culture to develop new knowledge and practice. It focused on the penal period (c.1530-1829) when conformity to the Church of England was legally enforced and the practice of Catholicism illegal. In consequence, recusant Catholics developed distinctive liturgical vestments for their clandestine religious practice. This material culture has been under-studied and is little known, surviving in churches and houses as well as museums. This material is not readily recognised for its unique qualities or made readily understandable to the public as part of a personal, regional, national and transnational cultural/social history of the practice of concealed faith. The project used co-production to locate and examine these pieces and to explore and communicate the inter-relationship between material culture, memory and faith and the sustaining, forgetting or reviving of suppressed religious practice.
Many people are aware of the repression of the Roman Catholic faith in post-Reformation Tudor England and how those who believed in the ‘old faith’ formed clandestine, illegal network to support their communities and continued to practice their faith in chapels concealed in country houses, protected by foreign embassies or sometimes even out of doors. However, fewer people are aware of the material culture of religion which survives as testimony to this period of repression, including the vestments which were critical to the appropriate conduct of the mass. Increasingly punitive legislation in the 16th and 17th centuries only relaxed slowly during the 18th century until the movement towards repeal gathered force in the early 19th century. Often described as ‘recusants’, from the Latin recusare (‘to refuse’), because of their refusal to attend the state church and politically highly suspect because of their allegiance to the Pope, English Roman Catholics acquired, saved and hid the sacred vessels and vestments, which illegal priests needed to celebrate the mass. Discovery of such mass equipment, as well as attendance at clandestine services, could result in punitive fines, imprisonment and even death.
Working together with the custodians, curators and churches who care for these vestments, the Material Culture under Penalty project explored the type of vestments worn by the priests who were conducting such illegal services. Many of these vestments were saved, made and concealed by women who were risking their lives and their families’ safely and security for their faith. As, naturally, little was written down about these illegal vestments surviving examples are key to understanding what a priest might have worn while conducting a clandestine mass. Several distinct styles seem to have evolved, suitable for use in different contexts and reflecting different pressures. One group of surviving vestments are very plain, simply ornamented with an outline cross and reversible so they could be used for different services including funerals. Other seem to have been designed to be more easily concealed from searchers by using everyday fabrics. These, of course, might be the only fabrics available to families under considerable financial pressure. A few women defiantly embroidered elaborate vestments as statements of their Catholic faith or furnished hidden chapels with elaborate sets of vestments. Remounting and reworking vestments, both during the period of legal repression and afterwards, was a significant element in the physical survival of these vestments, revealing the impact of differing spiritual, liturgical and social values. Roman Catholic and, later, Anglican, communities of nuns played an important part in ensuring the survival of medieval English vestments and clandestine Catholic recusant vestments. These vestments moved between religious communities and churches and were made and remade in response to different legal and liturgical contexts. Links with English Roman Catholic communities and families living on the continent were also important in the creation and survival of these vestments giving rise to a lively flow of vestments across the channel. Convents took their precious vestments with them into exile. Occasionally benefactors of clandestine English Catholic chapels sent gifts of vestments to the English convents which were set up in France and the Low Countries. English women becoming nuns in these convents gave their fashionable dresses and textiles to make vestments; additionally such gifts came from their families. Reversing the flow, English nuns on the continent sent vestments back to England and brought them back when they fled revolutionary turmoil in the nineteenth century. Surviving vestments bear witness to a long history of political and religious dissension and change as well as being a statement of commitment to a particular expression of faith. The project has extended to look at how such vestments have inspired vestments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.