Recusants, nonjurors and conspirators in early modern Worcestershire

This website grew out of my family history research, and specifically my exploration of the recusant and Catholic connections of my sixteenth-century Sussex ancestors. More recently, my attention has shifted northwards to Worcestershire, the birthplace of my 9 x great grandfather Thomas Forrest, a London haberdasher in the second half of the seventeenth century. By virtue of his sister Alice’s marriage to gunmaker William Boulton, Thomas was connected to another family with Worcestershire roots. Alice’s son Captain Richard Boulton was a prominent member of the East India Company, while her great grandson Henry Crabb Boulton would become chairman of the company and Member of Parliament for Worcester.

I’ve been trying to trace the Worcestershire origins of the Forrests and the Boultons, and have come to the conclusion that they lived in the part of the county lying between Evesham and Pershore, fifteen miles or so to the south-west of Worcester itself. Thomas Forrest’s brother William was a yeoman farmer in Badsey, near Evesham, and there are also links with the village of Fladbury, a village lying on the River Avon a few miles to the west. Another of William and Alice Boulton’s sons, Major Peter Boulton, who was a gunsmith like his father, married a woman from Fladbury.

Old map showing Fladbury, Worcestershire and surrounding area

Old map showing Fladbury, Worcestershire and surrounding area

I was also interested to discover that Peter’s sister Margaret married a man named Thomas Sanders or Saunders, from the hamlet of Moor near Fladbury. Intriguingly, Thomas’ name occurs in an official return of ‘papists and nonjurors’ estates’ from 1723. This document can be found in the National Archives, whose website provides this explanatory note:

Following the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, all Catholics refusing to take oaths of loyalty to king and government were required to register their names and estates at quarter sessions. Lands not so registered would be forfeit. This series consists of returns by clerks of the peace for most counties of England and Wales and several towns of the names and estate details of Catholics and nonjurors, registered pursuant to an Act of 1722. 

Frustratingly, it’s not clear from the documentation whether Thomas Sanders was a Catholic or a nonjuror. The latter were Anglicans, including some clergy, who refused to take an oath of loyalty to William of Orange after he deposed King James II in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, believing that they were bound by their original oath to James. Although this was not necessarily a doctrinal split, most nonjurors were high church Anglicans. Nonjurors tended to be Jacobite in their sympathies, but this did not necessarily mean that they supported the uprisings of 1715 and 1745.

Thomas Sanders was one of only twenty-one people from Worcestershire to be included in the return, and the only person from Fladbury. However, one of his neighbours, Sir Thomas Throckmorton, was listed in the return for Warwickshire. The Throckmortons were a prominent recusant family whose main home was (and still is) at Coughton Court near Alcester, on the Warwickshire-Worcestershire border, but who also owned property in the Fladbury area. The village of Throckmorton is just a few miles north of Fladbury, and the National Archives holds the record of a legal case from 1608 concerning land in the area, involving Thomas Throckmorton and, among others, various members of the Forrest family of Fladbury.

Sir Thomas Throckmorton was a staunch Catholic who suffered persecution and loss of property during the reign of Elizabeth. During his time Coughton became an important recusant centre: the Tower Room, with its panoramic view for monitoring any approach to the house, made it an ideal location for the secret celebration of the Mass, and the house also included an ingenious double hiding place for priests, built by Nicholas Owen, who was tortured to death in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot and canonised in 1970.

Coughton Court

Coughton Court

I suspect that Thomas Sanders was probably a nonjuring Anglican rather than a Catholic recusant, since there is no other evidence of Catholic affiliation in the family from this period, but I may be proved wrong. It seems that Worcestershire tended to be strongly Tory and loyal to the Stuarts, perhaps as a legacy of its firm support for the Royalist cause during the Civil War. Another neighbour of Thomas Sanders was the Tory politician and landowner Sir John Pakington of Westwood Park, who railed against the latitudinarian theology that had come to dominate the Church of England. In the election of 1702 Pakington faced a vigorous campaign against him by William Lloyd, the Whiggish Bishop of Worcester. According to one source:

Lloyd used the occasion of his episcopal visitation to issue veiled exhortations to the voters to eschew Pakington, and in private excoriated the baronet for debauchery and adherence to the Pretender. The dispute between Pakington and Lloyd epitomized one of the most important divisions within the Church, that between an increasingly Whiggish, Latitudinarian episcopate and a High Anglican, Tory squirearchy.

Lloyd went so far as to write to local vicars, encouraging them to put pressure on their parishioners to vote against Pakington. One letter, ‘To the Reverend Poutney, Rector of Fladbury’, berates the local electors for voting for Pakington in the past and adds a postscript: ‘The enclosed is a list of the voters from Fladbury at the last election. I pray God direct them this time to vote better or to stay away’. The list then follows, and from it we know that Thomas Sanders was one of those entitled to vote. The bishop’s campaign clearly had little effect, since Pakington emerged victorious from the election, and went on to complained to the Commons in November 1702 of a breach of privilege against the bishop. The upshot was that the House voted Bishop Lloyd and his son (later to be appointed, ironically, the vicar of Fladbury) guilty of ‘malicious, unchristian and arbitrary’ proceedings which were ‘in high violation of the liberties and privileges of the Commons of England’.

Recently I’ve discovered that another of the Boulton siblings married into a Worcestershire family with nonjuring and recusant connections. Elizabeth Boulton, daughter of William and Alice, was married twice. Her first marriage, in 1686, was to John Littleton. The ceremony took place at the church of St Botolph Aldersgate in the City of London and was led by Dr Adam Littleton, the son of Thomas Littleton of Halesowen. Educated at Westminster School, Adam Littleton was elected to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1644 ,where he was a conspicuous opponent of the parliamentary visitation which purged the university of Royalist sympathisers, writing a satirical Latin poem on the subject, and was expelled in November 1648. However in May 1651 he joined with three other students in a petition for the restitution of their scholarships, which seems to be have been successful. Appointed as an usher and then second master at his old school, after the Restoration Littleton taught at Chelsea where he was also appointed rector of the parish church. Besides his excursions into verse, Adam Littleton was the author of a number of theological texts and translations from Latin. Charles II made Littleton a royal chaplain, and he also served as a chaplain to Prince Rupert of the Rhine. In 1674 he became prebendary of Westminster Abbey, in 1683 rector of Overton in Hampshire, and in 1685 he was licensed to the church of St Botolph, Aldersgate, where he served for about four years.

Naunton Court, Worcestershire, home to the Littleton family

Naunton Court, Worcestershire, home to the Littleton family

I’ve yet to identify the precise relationship between John Littleton and Adam Littleton, but they both seem to have been members of the same large extended family, with many branches and a number of illustrious members. By examining a legal case in which Elizabeth was involved after John Littleton’s early death, I’ve discovered that he belonged to the branch of the Littleton (or Lyttelton) family who lived at Naunton Court, Naunton Beauchamp, about seven miles from Fladbury. They descended from John Littleton of Frankley who bought Naunton in about 1500, and then bequeathed it to his son Roger. After Roger’s death the property came into the possession of his son Humphrey, who died in 1624, bequeathing it to his son Edward. It was Edward’s son, another Humphrey Littleton, who was the father of the John Littleton who married Elizabeth Boulton.

The name Humphrey Littleton will be very familiar to British readers. The much-loved jazz trumpeter and broadcaster of that name , who died in 2008, was in fact a descendant of the Littletons of Naunton. But the name may also be familiar as belonging to one of the men executed in the aftermath of the Gunpower Plot. This Humphrey Littleton was a distant relative of the Littletons of Naunton Beauchamp. Roger Littleton, who inherited Naunton, had an older brother John, who was his father’s principal heir. This John Littleton was knighted by Elizabeth I and married Bridget Pakington, daughter of Sir John Pakington of Hampton-Levet (an ancestor of the John Pakington referred to earlier in this post). Sir John Littleton lived at Frankley but owned many other properties, including the manor of Hagley.

Gilbert Littleton, the eldest son of Sir John and Bridget Littleton, inherited Frankley. His son and heir was yet another John Littleton who married Meriel, daughter of Sir Thomas Bromley, the Lord Chancellor of England. This John Littleton was implicated in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion and was sentenced to death, though his sentence was later commuted to imprisonment in the Tower and loss of his estates. John was a Catholic, but his wife Meriel did not share his faith and after his death in 1601 decided to bring up their children as Protestants. She also successfully petitioned King James I to restore her late husband’s estates.

The Humphrey Littleton who was executed in the aftermath of the Gunpower Plot was Meriel’s brother-in-law, and thus the brother of her late husband John. (I believe Wikipedia is wrong to describe Humphrey as one of the sons of Sir John Littleton of Frankley.) It was at her house at Hagley that Humphrey sheltered their nephew Stephen Littleton of Holbeach and his friend Robert Wintour after the collapse of the conspiracy. It seems that Stephen was the son of George, another brother of John and Humphrey. Stephen Littleton was tried, condemned and executed at Stafford for assisting the conspirators.

Hindlip Hall, Worcestershire

Hindlip Hall, Worcestershire

After his capture, Humphrey Littleton tried to bargain for his life by revealing the whereabouts of the Jesuits Father Edward Oldcorne and Father Henry Garnet. However, this was not enough to save him and he was executed at Worcester with others implicated in the plot, including Father Oldcorne. Also condemned at Worcester, but later having his experience commuted, was Thomas Habington of Hindlip Hall, where the Jesuits had been hiding. Habington had previously been imprisoned in the Tower of London for his part in the Babington Plot to effect the escape of Mary, Queen of Scots. Thomas Habington was an antiquarian who compiled a famous ‘Survey of Worcestershire’, in which he describes Humphrey Littleton of Naunton (presumably the one who died in 1624) as ‘a gentellman of nobell and worthy descent, with whom althoughe in hys lyfe I had discontentment, yet before hys deathe theare was between us, eaven with expressyon of teares, that true reconcilyation as I intreate all myne eaver to love hys.’

It’s not clear how much of the mutual ‘discontentment’ or later ‘reconcilyation’ between Habington and Littleton was based on religious sympathies or differences. Some branches (and generations) of the Littleton family were Protestant, others Catholic, and I haven’t managed to discover on which side of the divide the Naunton Littletons fell. However, it seems clear that, in the years that followed the Gunpowder Plot, through the Civil War and the succession crisis at the end of the century, the Littletons in general tended to favour the Royalist and then the high church or nonjuring cause.

My research into my Worcestershire ancestors and their possible involvement in the religious and political disputes of their time has prompted me to read more about the background to those events, and particularly the Gunpower Plot. I recently read Antonia Fraser’s book about the conspiracy, which combines depth of research with page-turning excitement, and then The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest by Father John Gerard, who narrowly escaped arrest and execution after the failure of the plot, despite the fact that he, like those priests who were actually captured and martyred, was entirely innocent of any involvement. Both books have given me new insight into the recusant experience, and I found Father Garnett’s account particularly inspiring and deeply moving.

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