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The Burgess Altar

This article focuses on an altar constructed for the secret and illegal celebration of Mass in the 16th century, and on its subsequent history up to the present time. The story throws light on the status of Catholics and catholic worship over four centuries.

The Burgess Altar

Posted by Josie Bolton

An altar in disguise

Holy Mass became an illegal act by the Elizabethan Act of Uniformity on June 24th 1559. In 1560 Thomas Burgess, acting bailiff to the Towneleys near Burnley, built this altar so that the Towneley family could attend mass in secret. It was kept, for safety sake, in the Burgess’ house called Dynley farm.

The Altar was built to resemble an ordinary oak wardrobe, but there was a secret drawer for the vestments and the decorated pediment was made to lift off and be hidden in the lower half of the altar, which was a cupboard. The medallion of Christ in the crib and other decorations were added much later when it was no longer illegal to attend Mass.

In 1564 Sir John Towneley was imprisoned for his faith and it became too dangerous for the Altar to remain so close to Towneley Hall and so it set off on its journey around Lancashire.

The journey begins

The Altar was taken to Denham Hall, a farm belonging to the de Hoghtons. Local Catholics in the area would gather to hear Mass whenever a priest was available and Burgess family tradition tells that in 1564 St Edmund Campion, having escaped from prison in London , sought refuge at Denham Hall. He stayed and said Mass on the altar eventually being taken in disguise as a groom by a local family of Worthington from nearby Blainscough Hall.

The Altar was built to resemble an ordinary oak wardrobe.

In 1611 Sir Richard de Hoghton renounced the faith , so the Altar had to be moved again. It went this time to Lower Woodend, a secluded farm, 3 miles from Chorley. Tradition tells us that, whilst it was there St Edmund Arrowsmith celebrated mass on it in 1624. *Link to longer story? He was executed in Lancaster 1628

John Woodcock connection

Another famous missionary priest connected to the Altar was the Ven. John Woodcock. He was born at Woodcock Hall and he would have known the Burgess family as they leased their house at Woodend from his relative James Anderton of Clayton Hall. John was the son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, he became a Catholic in his teens which displeased his father and he went to live with his Anderton relatives. He was trained abroad but his great desire was to come back to Lancashire to serve the people. In 1644 he arrived in Newcastle, travelled to Lancashire and arranged to say Mass at Woodend.

After the arrest of John Woodcock in 1644, the Burgesses were forced to move again with their Altar. They took a house at Bryn near Ashton in Makerfield. It had belonged to the stepfather of Thomas Burgess , Nicholas Mather, a tenant of the Gerard family, a well known Catholic family. They had to make a difficult journey of 15 miles over rough and muddy roads, taking the Altar with them on a farm cart. This part of the Altar’s history is not well documented, since sales of land to Catholics were often done in secret at that time. It is probable that the Burgess family moved from one farm to another in the area.

A more public existence

In the mid 17th century the penal laws against Catholics were relaxed a little and by 1748 the Burgess family were able to buy a property (a tenement for three lives according to the custom of the time) a secluded farm called Hawksclough at Cuerden about a mile from Bamber Bridge.The property still stands. They set up the Missionary Altar in an oratory where it was “much frequented by the neighbouring Catholics”

St Edmund Campion, having escaped from prison in London, sought refuge at Denham Hall. He stayed and said Mass on the altar.

In 1784 Thomas Burgess , a builder and the last of “the three lives”, bought a plot nearby and built the first Weld Bank Catholic Church now demolished near Chorley.

He finally built a house at Clayton Brook in which he made a large room to serve as an oratory. The Altar was moved there in 1788 and Clayton Brook became a Mass centre until later public churches were built in the area.

A later Thomas Burgess who was born at Clayton in 1791 later became the Bishop of Clifton. He being the current Guardian of the altar, had it removed to the house of his sister Ann who had married George Abbot of Lower Brockholes Farm near Salmesbury, Preston.

To Lancaster

The altar next went into the care of their daughter Helen who married Henry Clarkson of Grimsargh. Henry and Helen moved to Bolton le Sands and the altar remained with them until 1891when it was transferred to 96 Dale St Lancaster. Mrs Helen Clarkson, now a widow, had removed there with her brother Fr. Thomas Abbot ,a retired priest. Having got too frail to attend Mass at St Peter’s he would say Mass at the old Missionary Altar. Cardinal Vaughan visited them there. Much of the story of the Burgess Altar comes from the writings of Fr. Thomas Abbot.

Final resting place?

When Fr Abbot died in 1902 the Altar went back to Bolton le Sands where I was shown it by Mr Ted Clarkson in 1983 when I was writing the history of the Catholic Church there. The Clarkson family had provided the first Mass Centre in their barn. At that time Bishop Foley was a great friend of the family and said Mass himself on the Altar. When Mr Clarkson died, the last of his line ,Bishop Foley ensured that the altar was saved for posterity and it can now be seen at Our Lady of Fernyhalgh, Fulwood Preston.