Warding off oppression

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The beautiful domed ceiling of the Bar Convent Chapel in York, still hidden from the outside by a plain slate roof. Picture: Frank Dwyer
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Brave pioneer Mary Ward who fought for women’s rights in the 17th century

I have mentioned before that as my dad was a devout Catholic, we girls were educated at the Bar Convent in York. We were taught how important Mary Ward was in our school’s story, but to be honest, back then the teenage me didn’t really appreciate just what a brave pioneer she was.

She was born in Ripon in 1585 at a time when girls were not educated and it was extremely dangerous to be a practicing Catholic. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in, a trait which ran in the family. Two of her maternal uncles, John and Christopher Wright, were shot in 1605 for their involvement in the Gunpowder Plot to overthrow Protestant King James I and his government.

Mary has been described as a ‘typical Yorkshire woman’, being straight-talking and determined, yet blessed with unshakeable good humour. Her faith meant everything to her, and although she wanted to be a nun, she hated the idea of having to live a quiet, contemplative life, which was the only option available. She sought the kind of existence enjoyed by her male counterparts which was serving God by travelling the world, teaching and spreading the faith. She entered an enclosed convent in Flanders but within a couple of years the charismatic Ward had gathered round her a supportive band of women and in 1609, at the tender age of 24, she established her own religious institution and began openly teaching local girls.

Her school was immediately popular, and over time Mary established schools and communities all over Europe. The Catholic establishment was outraged and declared her a heretic, and she was even imprisoned for nine weeks, and yet she remained undeterred. On her release, she secured an audience with the progressive Pope Urban VIII and her impassioned plea to allow nuns to practice the ministry in the open, and to educate girls, won him over. She was cleared of heresy and even allowed to set up a school in Rome itself.

Ill health brought Mary back to York in 1639, and she died in 1645. She left behind a band of followers eager to continue her legacy. Such a person was Frances Bedingfield, another very brave woman who in 1686 built a school on land just outside York city walls. It was still a very dangerous time to be a Catholic and the house was designed in such a way as to disguise the activities going on within. To blend in outside the convent, instead of wearing habits, the nuns wore plain grey dresses which were the fashion of the day. Nevertheless, the school was raided several times by the authorities, and Frances Bedingfield was even imprisoned for her actions.

The beautiful chapel that lies at the heart of what is now the Bar Convent Museum was built in 1769 at a time when Catholic places of worship were still illegal. Eight exits were included in the design should the congregation need to flee in a hurry, and its beautiful domed ceiling was hidden by a plain slate roof. From the outside, it was impossible to see that a chapel was there at all.

Another unique feature was a priest hole, hidden under the floor so that the celebrant could hastily conceal himself should it ever be necessary. The priest hole is still there and can be seen by visitors to the chapel.

Priest holes began to appear in the latter part of the 16th century when the penalty for shielding a Catholic priest was death, as my dad mentions in his column from 21st June 1980. It was an era when many great houses were built, extended or modernised, and wealthy Catholics seized the opportunity to incorporate secret hiding places behind walls, wooden panelling and even within the chimneys of their huge inglenook fireplaces.

There is a priest hole at Ripley Castle, near Harrogate, which has been home to the Catholic Ingilby family for the past 700 years, and yet it was so well concealed that it was only discovered in 1963 while the building was being inspected for death watch beetle.

I’d like to give the last word to the brave lady who sparked this piece, Mary Ward. She was several centuries ahead of her time when she declared in 1617: “I hope in God it will be seen that women in time will do much.”

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th June and the Gazette & Herald on 17th June 2020

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