Fernyhalgh Three, The Burgess Altar

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Perhaps the most moving thing I saw at the Shrine of Fernyhalgh was the Burgess Altar. To stand in front of an altar where Edmund Campion said Mass is a great experience.

Known as the Old Missionary Altar, this piece of cabinetry was created to fold up and look like an oak wardrobe, a common piece of furniture in Elizabethan and in modern day England. The English even have such pieces in their living rooms, as well as in bedrooms or parlours. The medallion at the top in the photos was added on much later, but the photos show the open wardrobe revealing an altar ready for Holy Mass.

The reason for this altar was the Parliamentarian Act of June 24th, 1559. In this act, it became illegal and a serious criminal offence to celebrate Mass or to hear Mass. Originally, the piece was made about 1560 by Thomas Burgess, hence the name of the altar, hidden on his farm at Dinley, near his Hall. The areas of Lancashire where the altar first was documented to be established was Denham Hall, Blainscough Hall, and Gregson, Lane Houghton. The reason it was moved so many times was because of dangers to the Burgess family At first, Sir John Towneley, of the famous recusant family, had the Burgess’ family with him, at Home Farm, but then, he was imprisoned for his faith, in 1564, the first of many imprisonments and the family had to move. The altar was moved to Denham Hall were it was used until 1611. The famous Edmund Campion, in 1581, at Easter, escaped from London and went to Denham Hall where he said Mass for those who needed to make their Easter Duty. It is known that on April 18th, 1581, that Mr. And Mrs. Worthington from Blainscough Hall came and escorted Camption to their house. Dom Bede Camm writes about this in his book, “In the brave days of old”, which is quoted in a pamphlet on the Burgess Altar.

Fr. Abbott of the Burgess family wrote this about that visit.

“On a morning in April, 1581, a small party of three wended their way through country lanes from Denham Hall and over unfrequented roads and moor which lay between Preston and Wigan, where the Burgesses had the Old Altar, was about 8-10 miles from Blainscough. The gentleman was accompanied by his young-looking wife, and followed by an elderly man clothed in the Worthington livery. This servant was a striking-looking man of about 40 years old, with a keen intellectual, and clear piercing eyes, that had a strange charm in them…”

They came to Blainscough Hall and were greeted by the family, and of course the servant was the famous Edmund Campion. His arrival caused news to spread and many people came for Mass. Campion preached every night, in the chapel crowded with men, women and children. However, news also came to the enemies of Campion, those government and military officials from London who were tracking him. The Worthington’s did not hear of the pursuers until they were at the gate. Campion was in the garden when the pursuivants burst into the house. They looked everywhere and then came into the garden. However, he was saved by a clever maid-servant. The record continues: “Feigning anger at some familiarity that the supposed ‘cowman’ had addressed to her, she retorted with sharp anger and contemptuous words, and, by a sudden thrust, pushed him into a dirty pond beside which they were standing. The pursuivants laughed heartily at the joke, as they saw the unlucky wight emerge out of the filthy pond, his old clothes dripping and his whole form caked in the black mud, which formed the most effective disguise, no doubt many rough pleasantries were thrown by the Amazon who had so summarily rejected his advances. This time at least, the pursuers were foiled…”

Sadly, Sir Richard de Houghton in 1611, left the Church and renounced the Faith, forcing the Burgess family to move yet again. They went to a small secluded farm called Lower Woodend, about three miles from Chorley, (where I am writing this piece). Then, the martyr Edmund Arrowsmith, said Mass on the Burgess Altar in a house at Gregson, Lane Houghton, just 14 minutes by car from where I am. St. Edmund Arrowsmith, like St. Edmund Campion, was killed by being hung, drawn and quartered. Arrowsmith died in Lancaster on August 28, 1628, while Campion had been killed much earlier, on December 1, 1581. I wondered what Edmund Arrowsmith thought when he celebrated Mass at the very same altar used by Edmund Campion?

Another martyr had celebrated Mass on the Burgess Altar, Blessed John Woodcock. His tale is sad, as his father kicked him out of his house at Lower Woodend Farm, when he became a Catholic at 17. Woodcock managed to come into England via Newcastle and arrived back at his father’s house in 1644. The Catholics and the other Royalists were in the process of losing the Civil War, so the area was a dangerous place to be. Woodcock, a Franciscan priest, knew the Burgess family well from childhood. Here is Father Abbot’s record:

“Arriving at his father’s house on the Eve of the Assumption 1644, he made arrangements to say Mass in the night time on the Old Missionary Altar at Woodend; which was about two miles from Woodcock Hall…just as he had finished hearing confession and was standing in his vestments to commence the Mass…some Catholics came rushing in, to beg all to disperse immediately, as the pursuivants were coming. Fr. Woodcock immediately took off his vestments, closed up the altar, which is then simply an ordinary oak wardrobe, and got into the priests hiding hole. Mrs. Burgess, who had thrown herself into a rocking chair, protested against their rude intrudence into a sick woman’s room at the at time of night….

Nothing and no one was found so they left. Fr. Woodcock came out of hiding and said Mass. However, the men pursuing him came back and he had to leave. He raced to his house and there his father would not let him stay. Woodcock ran but was caught at Bamber Bridge and taken to Lancaster Castle where he was a prisoner for two years, finally killed with two other priests, Fathers Bamber and Whittaker, on April 6th, 1646.

The Burgess family had to move again and went to Bryn, fifteen miles away, taking the altar with them. Finally, in 1748, the Burgess family bought a secluded farmhouse at Cuerden and set up the Old Missionary Altar is a proper chapel. In 1748, Thomas Burgess bought a plot and built a house made for the altar, Clayton Brook. The altar was brought there in 1788. The altar was moved to Lower Brockholes Farm in 1843, but it was sent back to Clayton Broook in 1854. In 1891, it was taken to Lancaster, where Father Thomas Abbott, the relative of the Burgesses, used it. He died in February of 1902. The altar at the Ladyewell shrine is a stark reminder of how the priests and laity faced death in saying and hearing Holy Mass.

Some of this information is from a pamphlet by Judith Swarbrick.

Please pray to Edmund Campion, Edmund Arrowsmith, and Blessed John Woodcock for me, as I continue to struggle with cancer.