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Francis Young: The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640-1767 (reviewed by Eilish Gregory)

The study of early modern English Catholicism has continued to grow in interest over recent years, stimulated by a rise in publications analysing the impact of political events upon the lives of English Catholics, the early modern Catholicism conferences that have been held at Durham since 2013, alongside the re-branding of the former Recusant History Journal, now known as the British Catholic History Journal, in 2015. Through this surge of interest there has been a growing appreciation within these journals, books and conferences on how English Catholics integrated with local society while maintaining their faith, and the book being reviewed bears no exception.

Francis Young’s monograph The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640–1767 is a microstudy on how the Catholic Gage family interacted with the wider Catholic community near their home at Hengrave Hall in West Suffolk, and the family’s relationships with local Protestants during a time when it was still illegal to worship Catholicism in England. The work focuses on the Gages and their local relatives, including the Catholic Darcys, Kytsons and Rookwoods, (who would later inherit Hengrave as the Rookwood Gages), alongside Protestant relatives the Herveys, Springs and Jermyns, which provides the reader with an insight into Catholic-Protestant kinship networks for this period.

The Catholic community in early modern East Anglia has previously received attention by Young in other works leading to this book, including two articles for the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History journal in 2006 and 2012 respectively, as well as an article on Catholic prisoners in the latter years of Elizabeth I’s reign for Recusant History. Young’s attention to the Catholic position in East Anglia, along with his extensive geographical knowledge of Suffolk has been utilised to great effect throughout the book, as Young has been able to explore the Gages’ relationships with their local Catholic brethren while also navigating seamlessly how the community in Bury St. Edmunds responded to known Catholics in their midst.

In recent years, there have been several studies examining English Catholic relationships with their local community. Michael Questier’s innovative study Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England: Politics, Aristocratic Patronage and Religion, c. 1550–1640 analysed how the Browne family interacted with the Midhurst community in west Sussex and their attempts to maintain power, while Gabriel Glickman’s The English Catholic community, 1688–1745: politics, cultural and ideology has examined the English Catholic contribution to society for the first half of the 18th century.(1) In contrast to most works focusing on the 17th century, Young has chosen to frame his time period from 1640 until 1767 when Hengrave Hall was inherited by the Rookwood Gages after Sir William Gage, fourth Baronet, died with no legitimate heir. The mid-17th century has previously been neglected in studies on English Catholicism, with works traditionally ending on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 and subsequently skipping to the Restoration in 1660. Young’s decision to cover this period provides an important insight into how a recusant family dealt with the social insecurities and threats caused by the Civil War and the Interregnum, while also providing information on how the family navigated themselves through various anti-Catholic penalties after the Glorious Revolution and Jacobite Rebellions.

The book is divided into five chapters, of which the first two focus on the Gages from the eve of the Civil War until the Glorious Revolution in 1688. The last three chapters chart the Gages and the local Catholic community in Bury St. Edmunds until the end of the Gages ownership of Hengrave in 1767. In these final chapters, Young analyses how the Catholic community in Bury St. Edmunds started to take a more active role in the administration of their faith after the Benedictines arrived in the 1730s, while the Gages became less engaged in employing their influence on the religious affairs of the local Catholic community.

The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism is based on a wide selection of manuscript sources linked to the Gage family, which Young uses in great abundance throughout the book and for which he has included in the appendices section. Among the primary sources incorporated in Young’s evidence are the personal papers belonging to the Gages housed in Cambridge University Library; the returns on the value of estates belonging to Catholic non-jurors in 1715 for the west Suffolk community shortly after the Jacobite Rebellion (which provided the authorities with an idea of the possible ‘popish’ threat in their local community); and registers that were compiled separately by the Benedictines and the Jesuits until 1767. The registers and the returns in particular support a central argument by Young that the Catholic community in west Suffolk was not dependent upon the gentry to preserve the Catholic faith, but instead the main impetus to the strength and survival of that local Catholic community lay with the urban population.

A prominent focus throughout Young’s book is on the relationships between the west Suffolk community of Bury St. Edmunds with local Catholics in the town and at Hengrave throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Young has been able to establish effectively that despite religious differences, the Suffolk gentry and authorities were willing to protect the Catholic minorities in their community. In chapter one, Young highlights that during the Civil War in the 1640s, the Gages were given assistance and advice from their servants at Hengrave and the Gage branch based at Firle, Sussex, while the family also obtained help from local Protestant relations including Sir William Spring, who oversaw one of the raids upon Hengrave Hall searching for weapons (pp. 7–14). In chapter three, Young observes that while there were local Protestants who opposed the Catholic attempt to control the Bury Corporation during James II’s brief reign in the 1680s, the very same Protestant individuals aided Catholic gentry families who had their goods confiscated after the Glorious Revolution (pp. 80–1). Moreover, in chapter four, Young draws attention to the popularity of Sir William Gage, second Baronet, who died after he was thrown off his horse in 1727. Young observes that upon news of Sir William’s death, the local newspaper Suffolk Mercury praised Gage for his charity, virtue, generosity, honour, and commitment to the community during his lifetime, which indicates that the family were integrated with west Suffolk societ (pp. 99–100). Young’s reflections demonstrate that the relationships between Protestants and Catholics in the early modern period were not hindered by differences in religious opinion, but instead took into account local loyalty and genuine respect for their local neighbours.

Another central analysis in Young’s monograph is on the female members of the Gage family. Throughout Young’s timeframe, the Gage family had several strong matriarchs who influenced the running of the Hengrave estate often due to the heirs of Hengrave being minors, though all of them were certainly strong characters when faced with adversity. For example, Young remarks that Penelope Gage née Darcy inherited the Hall in her own right in 1644 from her mother Mary Kytson despite Parliament attempting to sequestrate the estate due to the family’s known Royalism (pp. 1–10). Young also attributes the Gage family’s survival during the late 17th century to the influence of Sir William Gage’s second wife Merelina Jermyn, the widow of Protestant Sir William Spring, which consequently allied the Gages to highly influential Protestant families in Bury society (p. 72). For the 18th century, Young highlights the impact that Delariviere Gage née D’Ewes had on the running of the Hengrave estate after her 14-year-old son Sir Thomas Gage inherited his grandfather’s estate in 1727, while later in the period Elizabeth Rookwood, the wife of John Gage, a younger son of second baronet Sir William Gage, patronised a new Jesuit mission for the Catholic community (p. 134). By examining their roles in great detail, Young has demonstrated how powerful these women were to the survival of the Gage family fortunes and the maintenance of Hengrave Hall and the Catholic community, showing that their roles were just as vital as the male Gages.

The various religious missions played a dominant role in the survival of Catholicism for the Catholic community in Bury St. Edmunds. A hypothesis in Young’s book is that by the death of the fourth baronet Sir William Gage, the Catholic community in western Suffolk, principally in Bury St. Edmunds, was able to survive and thrive despite the penal laws against Catholic worshippers. In chapter three, contrary to the arguments put forward by Peter Marshall, Geoffrey Scott and Hugh Aveling, who have contended that Catholicism was beginning to decline in England from the 18th century (2), Young establishes that the Gages and the Catholic community in Bury St. Edmunds reorganised themselves slowly, allowing the community to become revitalised from the guidance of the Benedictines whose mission arrived in Bury St. Edmunds in the 1730s (p. 69). Young contends that this survival across the 18th century was down to the influence of the Bury community, who started to obtain control over their religious affairs. He notes that this gain in control can be timed to when the Jesuit mission at Hengrave Hall disappeared, who were replaced by the Benedictine monks. Thus, who controlled the administration of faith to the locals played a significant part in the survival of Catholicism in the community, especially when Suffolk was ideologically staunchly Protestant. Young devotes much attention to the religious missions in his book, to which two chapters examine the role of the Jesuits and Benedictines in the local community, and the control the Gage’s initially held towards their faith. Hengrave Hall was still used as a beacon for Catholics at the end of the 18th century when the Hall became a refuge for the English Augustinian canonesses who had fled their base at Bruges because of the French Revolution, as the canonesses had an ancestral link to the Gage family, which Young discusses briefly in the conclusion of his book (p. 183).

What the reader is able to assess from these sources is the diversity of the social class in the Bury St. Edmunds Catholic community. The Catholic faith was not restricted to the gentry or elite in the area, but was instead maintained by a community that included tradesmen and widows, which supports Young’s contention that the 18th-century Catholic community was not as reliant as they had previously been to the Gages in maintaining the faith. Although this book is a monograph on the Gages, Young provides details on the Bury St. Edmunds Catholic communicants and registers in his appendices. The registers provide insightful information on the social status of the lay Catholic population, which will hopefully in the future prompt more work on their role in Catholic survival.

The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism is a well-researched and detailed book on an early modern English Catholic family and their engagement with west Suffolk and the community of Bury St. Edmunds. The book provides valuable insight into how the Gages preserved Catholicism for themselves and for their community throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, and most importantly, Young has argued convincingly that Catholicism remained strong throughout the 18th century in that community because of the urban population in Bury St. Edmunds. To strengthen his work further, Young could have focused more on how Protestant relatives and local officials helped the Gages during the Civil War, particularly on the relationship between the Gages and their distant cousin the MP and local sequestrator Harbottle Grimston.(3) Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and very comprehensible book on the social and religious lives of an early modern English Catholic family. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of early modern Catholicism, especially for those wanting to study how Catholics interacted with their communities in spite of anti-Catholic rhetoric, and for anyone interested in the roles of women relating to religious affairs.


    1. Michael C. Questier, Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England: Politics, Aristocratic Patronage and Religion, c. 1550–1640 (Cambridge, 2006); Gabriel Glickman, The English Catholic Community, 1688–1745: Politics, Culture and Ideology (Woodbridge, 2009).
    2. Peter Marshall and Geoffrey Scott, ‘Introduction: the Catholic gentry in English society’, in Catholic Gentry in English Society: The Throckmortons of Coughton from Reformation to Emancipation (Farnham, 2009), p. 18; J. C. H. Aveling, The Handle and the Axe (London, 1976), p. 253.
    3. This comes to light particularly in the House of Lords and House of Commons Journals for the period between 1642 and 1644, when Harbottle Grimston helped Penelope Gage’s sister Elizabeth Savage, the Countess Rivers after her homes were attacked by mobs in August 1642 in Essex and in Long Melford, Suffolk. Harbottle Grimston is briefly mentioned in Chapter One of Young’s book when a letter written by Penelope Gage to Grimston thanked him for taking care of their possessions during the 1640s.