This is the first post of three on the Shrine at Fernyhalgh in Lancashire. Most of the information I have to report in this post comes from a 1955 pamphlet called Catholic Fireside, which describes the shrine and the church about a half-mile away. The source of this information is from several pamphlets, the first being the article by H. M. Gillett, “Our Lady’s Well at Fernyhalgh.
Today I visited this shrine and the church. The photos of the church are mine.
The Protestant Revolt under Henry VIII resulted in the destruction of over 900 abbeys and convents. Even small chanceries, which previous kings had set aside for prayers for the dead, were ruined. All the great shrines of England, Scotland and Wales came under the hammer and hatred of the visitators and soldiers who not only destroyed the buildings, but stole altar ware, vestments, and relics. The damage to the psyche of Catholics proved too much for some, and a chance for heroic virtue and even saintliness for others.
Gilllett wrote this, “…the King’s Mass was still being said daily at Walsingham and his Candle was yet burning in the Holy House (of Walsingham) when the commissioners arrived for the destruction.” In Lancashire, were I went today, devotion to Our Lady had been practiced for centuries in this outpost of Catholic piety. Fernyhalgh, pronounced Ferny huff, only four miles from Preston, which used to be called Priest’s Town, was a shrine with a well, not an uncommon thing in Britain and Ireland. Holy wells gave healing to the people and brought pilgrims from all over England to Fenyhalgh. The Well of Our Lady, still called Ladyewell locally, is next to the shrine built at various periods of time.
Gillett said that “In 1471, temp Henry 4th, a virtuous and wealthy merchant is great distress upon the Irish Sea had recourse, for his personal safety, to ‘Him home the winds and sea obey’, and made a vow in case he escaped danger” to make a place of piety to God and Mary. Of course, he was saved, and this account, written originally by a Father Christopher Tuttell, a priest in residence for many years at the Shrine, in his story, “The Traditional Account of Our Lady’s Well and Chapel at Fernyhalgh”, gives us only part of the story.
A voice, Tuttle wrote, quoted by Gillett, told this merchant to find, in Lancashire, where he was washed up safely on a beach, to fine “a crab-tree bearing fruit without cores,” and under it a spring. This man made his way to Priest-town and met a housemaid where he found lodgings who knew of Fernyhalgh, place with such a tree. She had just retrieved a lost cow in that area and gave directions to the merchant. He found the crabapple tree and the spring and dedicated the area to Our Lady. However, as Gillett notes, earlier as in 1348-1349, there had already been a chapel there when Archbishop Zouche gave the local squire, a Thomas Singleton, permission to have a Mass at the oratory in Broughton, Famuhole and Fernyhalgh.
References to this chapel could be found in documents from 1508 and 1516, There was definitely a chancery at Fernyhalgh earlier, but Edward VI had suppressed chanceries and the place was ruined and all the furniture stolen.
Father Tuttle, who had to be called Mr., as this was the custom of the day for Catholic priests, for their safety, noted that the locals kept the place sacred, assembling and praying together even without a priest on the Holy Days, Sundays, and feasts of Our Lady.
Finally, a house of prayer was built there, to local like a Manor House, where the faithful could come for prayer. This was in 1684-1685, in the last year of Charles I. 100 years after the Edwardian demolition, this house had a chapel as well. In 1701 Rev. Edward Barlow, the Vicar-General from Park-hall, was given a huge amount of money by a Cuthbert Heskayth, Esq., to pay for this house and the rent of it for over sixteen years.
Other benefactors gave money and Bishop James Smith, the first Vicar-Apostolic of the Northern District (remember, Catholicism was outlawed still as were priests and new churches), gave vestments, an altar frontal, and a large gilt silver chalice with money from Madame Westy, who gave 100 pounds and a legacy. The original chapel was still visible from the new house, and people still came to pray at the well. Mr. Tuttle could say Mass and give the sacraments.
As a side, the crabapple tree was cut down either in 1811 or in 1821 by a ruffian.
Mr. Tuttle’s ministry was halted under the penal laws of George I, penal laws still on the books, because of the rising Jacobite rebellions, of which there were two, which led to the plunder of the chapel.
Catholic hiding expected the shrine to be burned, but it was not. The 15 soldiers took the church movables, but did not burn the chapel. However, they were looking for Mr. Tuttle, who hid at one time on the Eve of the Epiphany, 1716, all night in a cold barn accompanied by mice and owls. He wrote, “Playing Bo-Peep was all that winter’s pastime.”
It was not until the feast of the Assumption in 1717 that he was able to say Mass publicly again. But, the persecution continued, and the last day of public worship was June 20th, 1718,
Again, the place was raided, the soldiers led by a traitor priest, a Mr. Hitchmough. Then, Masses began in private. Mr. Tuttle wrote that “We began to pray (say Mass) at Our Ladie’s Well, privately, Aug. ye 5th (feast of Our Lady of Snows) 1725 and publicly Aug. ye 15th (Assumption) in ye same year.”
We have no idea how the laity suffered under such stringent rules, repeated over and over again not only in Lancashire, but across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Mr. Tuttle died in 1727 and was followed as resident priest by a friend of his, Mr. Edward Telling, who served the shrine until he died in 1733. Note this all happened over a century before Catholic Emancipation in England in the 19th century.
The second Jacobite rising in 1745 caused more persecution. When Charles’ highland forces were pushed back to Manchester, the Protestants proceeded to Fernyhalgh and sacked and burned the shrine.
The people rallied around Mr. Anthony Lund, whose tomb you will see in the next post, but he could not buy the adjacent land as he wanted to build a church, which he did and which I visited.
That will be the topic of my next post.
Let me go back to the shrine. Now, the people of Lancashire began to build more and more “barn churches”, places of worship which looked like barns on the outside but where Mass was held inside. More and more of the faithful took things into their own hands and added stained glass windows and beautiful remedies to these churches. .
As St. Mary’s grew, the shrine grew as well. Today, where can see the well, although it is boarded up. The church of St. Mary’s was built, as were many other churches, 35 years before Emancipation and dedicated in 1794. The original shrine chapel was still recalled in 1816, by old people living and speaking to those who wanted to record its history.
The recusants kept histories of the family and the priests kept records of the rare occasions of sacramental life. I shall refer to these in the next two posts. I shall refer to only one statistic here, as related by Gillett.
“That the chapel was popular, and served useful purposes, is evidenced by the record that on September 8th, 1687 (Our Lady’s Birthday), Bishop Leyburn confirmed there no less than one thousand and ninety-nine persons…”
Such was the Faith in Lancashire…. Two highlights in the shrine room of relics for me was a piece of the skull of St. Thomas a Becket. Years ago, I saw the skull in Rome, which is a post on my old blog, and there was a large hole in it….to see part of the skull bone which would have filled part of that hole, was awesome. And, one of the hands of Margaret Clitherow, whose post I wrote about last week, is in the shrine. She had beautiful, thin and elegant hands. It is not corrupted.
To be continued…by Supertradmum
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,