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The Reformation and the Penal Years

After the break from Rome and the Act of Supremacy of Henry VIII in 1534, the Tudor authorities cracked down on Catholic worship in the city. People and clergy were expected to take an Oath which recognised Henry VIII and Supreme Head of the Church of England, and many Catholics in good conscience could not take such an oath that denied their faith. Some of these were martyred for the faith. 

In Exeter, the monastic foundations which had formed a significant part of the city's religious life, as well as the economy and healthcare systems, were destroyed and the communities disbanded. Between 1536 and 1538, across the country monastic foundations were dissolved and the assets seized by the Tudor state. In Devon, and other parts of the country, people responded in defence of their faith. The lay people of Exeter were more traditional and conservative in their faith than in London and Oxford and other urban centres which were centres for the Reformation - in fact, when the reformer Bishop Latimer preached at the Franciscan church in Exeter in 1534 talking about the new theology from the continent, he was met with a protest from the laity.

The Western Rebellion

In 1549, people in Devon and Cornwall rose up in defence of the faith and in response to a new book of Common Prayer, which laid out the religion of the country under King Edward VI, and which was largely directed by Lord Protector Somerset for the young king. Popular processions and pilgrimages were banned, and other signs of the Catholic faith were suppressed, which prompted those with Catholic beliefs to revolt in the counties of Devon and Cornwall. 

The Rebellion began in Sampford Courtenay, and the people of the village marched towards Exeter. As many as 2,000 rebels besieged the city, hoping for an end to the "new religion" that had been forced upon them, and which they did not want. Despite being sympathetic to their viewpoint, the Chapter of the cathedral and the civic authorities did not give in to the rebels, and the rebels beseiged Exeter for a period of a few months. 


A model of the Five Wounds banner carried by the rebels in the Western Rebellion which now hangs in Sacred Heart

Further confrontations took place at Fenny Bridges and Woodbury Common. The turning point in the rebellion was the Battle of Clyst St Mary, where Catholic forces loyal to Sir Humphrey Arundell where defeated by the men of Lord Russell, who had been rewarded by the monarchy with ands and monastic property in Exeter after the Reformation, including the old Dominican friary. Exeter was relieved, and the final battle of Sampford Courtenay saw the end of the rebellion. The rebels sought to flee to the west, with all other routes away from Exeter cut off by loyal forces. Over 2,000 people from Devon and Cornwall died in rebellion against the Book of Common Prayer and the English Protestant services that had been forced upon them. This included the leaders of the rebellion - Winslade, Bury, and Holmes - who were all executed at Tyburn in 1550. A heavy response from the authorities also led to a decline in Catholic sympathies in the area, and recusancy was less common in the south west than other parts of the country, partly due to the heavy response from the Tudor authorities to this rebellion. 


One of the motifs of the marchers were the five wounds of Christ. This was a common motif for those who resisted the Reformation, and had been carried on banners in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 in the north of the country. A later banner depicting the five wounds, modelled on those carried by the rebels, can be seen in Sacred Heart.

The Post-Reformation missions

The Western Rebellion effectively ended any organised opposition to the religious changes being enacted by the Tudor authorities, and Catholics had to retreat. The wealthy in Exeter began to abandon the Catholic faith, and Exeter Cathedral, once a vibrant Catholic centre of worship, saw its relic collection destroyed, processions ended, and statues defaced or torn down. The cathedral liturgy became more Puritan in its outlook from 1562, when Tremayne became the new Church of England bishop in Exeter. 


​Only one recognised martyr was killed in Exeter - Venerable James Dowdall, a layman, was executed in 1599 for refusing to acknowledge the supremacy of Elizabeth I over the Church of England. An uncountable number were however certainly imprisoned in Exeter gaol for their faith. 


As the Reformation progressed and Protestantism enforced across the country, missionaries came to bring the Catholic faith back to the country. Priests had been trained on the continent for the English Catholic Church in seminaries in Valladolid, Lisbon, Douai, and Rome. England had always been a strongly Catholic country prior to the Reformation, and continental monarchies and dynasties desired the conversion of England back to the Catholic faith, so supported these missions very heavily.  All parts of England would see missionary priests, with numerous books produced for the continental seminaries to promote the causes of the missionary priests.


Jesuit missionaries, who were promoting the Catholic faith across Europe in the counter-Reformation in the face of Protestantism, also came to Exeter. The seminaries on the continent provided many priests for England and Wales, man y of whom were martyred. A proto-martyr for Devon and Cornwall was St Cuthbert Mayne, who was martyred in Launceston. He is now regarded as a patron of the Diocese of Plymouth.


One missionary was Fr John Sweet, who was captured in Exeter in St Lawrence's church in 1621 and taken to London. Others were arrested for visiting him, and therefore were known to be attending Catholic Masses during the reign of James I. However, James' successor Charles I was much more sympathetic to the Catholic faith, and Fr Sweet was released from a London prison. Blessed Charles Spinola, a Jesuit missionary who would later be martyred in Japan in 1622, arrived in Topsham on a stop before he returned to the continent. Other records attest to an unnamed priest who was captured in Exeter in 1625. The Franciscans also provided missionaries - Fr Thomas Bullaker, a Franciscan priest, was arrested in Plymouth and sent to Exeter gaol, but he was later acquitted when his "Latin missal" was found on closer inspection to be a Spanish history book!


There were sporadic missions in Exeter and the surrounding area. The homes of recusant families served as bases for Mass and missions, with Ugbrooke House and Powderham Castle, as well as locations in Chudleigh, all serving as Mass centres for the early Catholic missions. A permanent Mass house was established in Exeter prior to 1680, although this was levelled by the authorities during a period of particular anti-Catholic fervour, and it is said the missionary priest, Fr Norris, only narrowly escaped the destruction which was prompted by the fervour around the fictitious Titus Oates and the Popish Plot. 

The Jesuits provided the most missionaries in England during the penal years, and a series of Jesuits came on mission to Exeter. After Fr Norris came a series of itinerant preachers, who were sent by the Jesuit superiors on the continent. In 1763, Fr William Gillbrand was sent on mission to Exeter, and the missions became permanent.

mint chapel.jpg

The chapel at the Mint

Around this time, from the 1770s, restrictions on Catholic worship were being eased, and this reached its culmination with the 1778 Relief Act which allowed Catholic worship, although Catholics would not be fully equal in law or position until the Emancipation of 1829. It is a testament to the work of these missionary priests that despite having so few families, and so few resources, the community was able to encourage two priestly vocations in the intolerant environment of the 18th century.

Fr Gillbrand was present in Exeter for five years, during which time the Mint was used as a Mass centre, and he was succeeded by a series of Jesuit priests who raised funds to purchase the site of the Mint, and a permanent chapel was erected under Fr William Pole in 1807. Fr Pole was quickly succeeded by Fr Lewis, and in October 1807, Dr George Oliver succeeded Fr Lewis as priest in Exeter.

Dr George Oliver and the Mint

One of the great names in the history of the Church in Exeter is Dr George Oliver, who served as the priest in Exeter for four decades. He came to the Mint in 1807, after being educated at Stonyhurst College. Whilst not a Jesuit himself, he was sent to Exeter by the Society of Jesus. In the years leading up to his arrival in Exeter, there had been some easing of restrictions around Catholic worship, but Dr Oliver still operated in a time of hostility and suspicion around Catholics. 


Dr Oliver was a well-respected figure in Exeter. At the start of his mission, the number of Catholics receiving communion was given as 28, and these congregated at the chapel at the Mint. The chapel was functional, but not well adorned, and Dr Oliver turned it into a suitable place for the celebration of the sacraments. The missions, including that of Dr Oliver were supported mostly by the gentry, with local wealthy families giving money to support the work of the Church in Exeter. Another member of the congregation was the owner of the Bear Inn, which was situated on the corner of Bear Street where Sacred Heart Church now sits.

Dr Oliver served Exeter for around 40 years. When Dr Oliver arrived in Exeter, he was met with a largely medieval city, which was not very clean. During his time, there was a large outbreak of cholera, and the faithfulness with which Dr Oliver tended to the people was well regarded by all. The vigour of his charity was rewarded with an ornate cruet set for the celebration of Mass, which is now kept in the sacristy at Sacred Heart.

During his time in Exeter, Dr Oliver wrote histories of the monasteries that existed in Exeter and the south west, and recorded the Catholic history of the area. It was noted though that his efforts to record the history of the area, and working to improve the living conditions of those in the more squalid areas of the city, never interfered with his pastoral duties to his congregation. His learnedness, dedication, and ecumenism saw him ultimately conferred the title of Doctor of Divinity by Pope Gregory XIII in 1844.

In 1850, the hierarchy was restored, and new Catholic dioceses created. Exeter was located in the new Diocese of Plymouth, and Dr Oliver given title of provost of the diocesan chapter. although the retired Dr Oliver gave this post up in 1857. In 1861, Dr Oliver died after many years of faithful service to Exeter.

It was a testament to his successful missions, and to the growing Catholic population of Exeter, that the congregation would soon outgrow the Mint. By the time of Dr Oliver’s death, over 180 people were attending Mass at the small chapel in the Mint, and the numbers were growing. A small school would be established at the Mint, which would later grow to become St Nicholas’s School. But it was necessary for the congregation to move – and a larger, more permanent church to be built for Exeter.


Dr Oliver's cruet set now in the Sacred Heart sacristy - an engraving on the bottom commends Dr Oliver for his pastoral zeal

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