6. Religion


When Henry VIII became king in 1509 there were more than 850 religious houses in England and Wales. The period during his reign when he broke away from the religious authority of the church of Rome, is known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. We think of it as a time when soldiers entered Catholic places of worship and put to death many monks and other devotees, stealing their wealth and confiscating land. This was true of course, but in terms of the implementation of the suppression of the monasteries it was a legal and administrative framework for dissolving Catholic monasteries and consolidating their wealth.

The reason so many people died was because the King needed public support for his actions. The church was firmly embedded in the lives of people and everything the church owned came from the people and it had become wealthier than the government. So the King put a spanner in the works arguing that the Church was exporting most of its wealth which meant the Pope was benefiting from it instead of the poor and the community at wide.

It’s a scenario that’s repeated throughout history. Today in London people see Russians, Poles and Romanians as syphoning money from this country back to their mother lands; in the 1950s it was Indians, Pakistanis and Jamaicans. Not much of it has any foundation or relevance on a fiscal scale today and the same was true for the 1500s, as it was known by the government that virtually none of the monasteries’ wealth was leaving the country.

The King would have been aware that the Roman Catholic Church owned about one-third of all the land in England and Wales. His advisor Thomas Cromwell (not to be confused with Thomas Cromwell author of Walks Through Islington of whom we met earlier,) had taken care of the legal framework when Cardinal Wolsey had shut down many monasteries and now working for the King, Cromwell sent emissaries to all religious houses to assess their value which he recorded in a tome known as the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’.

It was from 1530 that attitudes towards the Roman Catholic Church changed. Prior to Thomas Cromwell’s assessments the interests of religious houses had been the task of the bishops. Now they were all at the mercy of Cromwell’s scrutiny. He wanted to show the King what they were worth on paper so that the King would act. The Emissaries were knowing of the outcome desired by Cromwell and there are records of complaints made by religious houses about being bullied.

Whatever the opposition, it fell on deaf ears and in 1536 an Act was passed that took from the Church much of its wealth and this legislation ended the Pope’s authority in England and Wales. Whether the King attacked the monasteries for financial or spiritual reasons is not wholly understood, but it’s known that he was a lavish spender having inherited considerable wealth from his father Henry VII and that it was virtually spent by the mid 1530s.

Having divorced in 1533, the Pope annulled the divorce and in order to re-legitimise it, Parliament passed the Acts of Supremacy in 1534 making Henry VIII the head of the English Church forcing Pope Paul III in 1535 to issue a bill of excommunication which was subsequently suspended in the hope that Henry VIII would make amends.

Referencing the Valor Ecclesiasticus, an Act of 1536 required monasteries with an income of less than £200 a year to be dissolved and the property handed to the Crown. This affected around 300 houses of which around 80 were saved for a fee of one year’s income. Once the Act had been passed it became essential to move quickly to shut down the religious houses before they could move their wealth.

That England and Wales were full of monasteries is slightly misleading as it was a generic term. The larger houses were abbeys, medium size houses were priories and nunneries, and the smaller house was called a friary or hermitage. The purpose of an open house was a devotion to the poor and needy, using whatever income they received in that pursuit and for which they remained relatively poor themselves. Closed houses were more about monastic life and retreating from public view, and they often developed orchards, wineries, and dairies.

It was the closed houses that had acquired the great wealth. In fact many of them were richer than the wealthiest nobles. People whether rich or poor, would bequeath their estates to these churches with the expectation of securing a place in heaven. Records right up to the twentieth century are full of people leaving money in wills for clergy to say prays on their behalf for a given period.

In the North mainly Yorkshire, there was a highly organised dissent in October of 1536 known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. It was made up of a combination of lesser uprisings that opposed the King’s break with the Roman Catholic Church that lasted for a few months and involved around 35,000 men. The leader was Robert Aske, who blamed Thomas Cromwell and not so much the King for the way things were. But the King showed no mercy and the rebel leaders were executed including Robert Aske. And of the religious houses that were judged to have sided with the rebels, the head of each house was executed, the other monks made to leave, and the property taken for the Crown.

Had the rebels looked to obtain Papal support they would surely have received it, and had they marched South it’s doubtful the King could have put up a successful defence. The King promised to pardon all the rebels but held out waiting for their army to fall into disarray and then he attacked and had all the leaders executed.

The handling of the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion was another event that was not accepted by the Pope. As it was, the King was much stronger for it and the Reformation started after it had all died down, in 1538. But his next move was to attack religious shrines that were visited by many pilgrims such as that of St Thomas Becket deemed to be one of Europe’s holiest shrines.

Sentence to the effect that Thomas, formerly archbishop of Canterbury, having been cited, and no one having appeared for him, judgment is given that in his life time he disturbed the realm, and his crimes were the cause of his death, although the people hold him for a martyr. He is therefore never to be named martyr in future, his bones are to be token up and publicly burnt and the treasures of his shrine confiscated to the King. This edict to be published in London, Canterbury, and elsewhere. London, 11 June, 1538.

It took nine days to fill 26 wagons with gold and silver from the shrine. The religious relics were burned and scattered and in April 1538 Pope John III renewed the Bill of Excommunication from 1535:

Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 CE.

Bull against Hen. VIII., renewing the execution of the bull of 30 Aug. 1535, which had been suspended in hope of his amendment, as he has since gone to still further excesses, having dug up and burned the bones of St, Thomas of Canterbury and scattered the ashes to the winds, after calling the saint to judgment, condemning him as contumacious, and proclaiming him a traitor, and spoiled his shrine. He has also spoiled St. Augustine’s monastery in the same city, driven out the monks and put in deer in their place.

Thomas Cromwell then turned to those religious houses situated South of Yorkshire with a yearly income of more than £200. His emissaries again visited advising that they voluntary hand over their assets to the King. An Act in 1539 made it legal for monasteries to voluntary surrender their property to the crown, therefore not doing so may be interpreted as unfavourable by the King.

Those larger abbeys that resisted the intimidation had to be dealt with by the law. By 1540 over 800 monasteries had been dissolved. Henry VIII and later his daughter Elizabeth I were excommunicated (1538 and 1570 respectively,) a futile act since the King had effectively excommunicated the Church from England.

When the King placed himself as head of the Church of England it necessitated revised doctrines and so documents were formulated from existing Catholic and Protestant papers that by 1571 came to be known as the thirty-nine articles. They formed the basis of Protestantism which itself was based on the Lutheran theology, a reformed view of Christian doctrines that asserted the way to heaven was through faith and not by penance and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

At that time a wave of Lutheranism was spreading out of Germany through Scandinavia, France and even Scotland, so it was fortunate for Henry VIII that he found allegiance in that movement to justify his actions and the direction that he was taking the country. It was a movement of reformed churches that gave its name to the ‘Reformation’.

Martin Luther had started a wave of interdependency away from the Roman Catholic Church and it was the perfect model for the Church of England to adopt. The Church of England’s doctrines, the thirty-nine articles, are contained in the common book of prayer, first published in 1549. Adherence to the Articles was made a legal requirement in 1571 and they are the common belief for all Christian denominations that are labelled as protestant.


Martin Luther was a German professor of theology and an Augustine friar who was highly critical of Roman Catholicism. In one of his thesis he writes: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” His thesis were popular and spread through Europe around 1519. In 1520 he published three works including ‘On the Freedom of a Christian’ in which he expounded his teachings about faith and absolvement.

The main threat to the Catholic Church from Lutherism was financial. Money raised for building and repairs came from people paying for indulgences. By giving money to the Church it absolved you of sin. If adultery was sinful then absolve yourself with a financial penance. This is what he was referring to in the thesis mentioned above. He preached that everyone is forgiven whether they pay or not and indeed to seek forgiveness for payment was not Christian. In his ‘The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows,’ he advises monks and nuns that they can break their vows without sin, because vows are illegitimate and vain attempts to win salvation.

Martin Luther cut out the middle man whereby anyone could have a relationship directly with God. Catholicism was adamant that people and clergy were two separate entities and that the clergy were closer to God by virtue of their devotion, and purity. Martin Luther argued that a bishop had no more right to interpret the scriptures than the average person. One has to remember how strict and cruel the Roman Catholic Church was, particularly the Orthodox variety that murdered its way across Europe. Reformists where those churches that went with most Christian edicts but amended or removed others.

As a theologian and Augustinian friar, he had questioned the leadership and theology of the Catholic Church in 1517. Pope Leo X arranged for other theologians to make a case against him and several hearings ensued. He was denounced as an enemy of the Pope and told to recant various written statements from his writings. Martin Luther responded by sending the Pope a copy of ‘On the Freedom of a Christian’ and was excommunicated in 1521 with permission given for anyone to kill him without consequence and forbidding anyone to assist him by way of food or shelter.

He is credited today with having taken the Church in a positive direction and his views are generally accepted as being the truth. His influence remains extensive: Protestant priests can marry unlike their Catholic colleagues because Martin Luther married a nun and this precedent accommodates clerical marriage today.

As if his achievement wasn’t great enough, he also translated the Latin bible into German making it available to anyone that could read. A copy of his bible was acquired by William Tyndale in 1522 who translated it in to English against the will of the Bishop of London who labelled it a heretical work. Tyndale used both the Lutheran version and the ‘Erasmus’ version the only translation authorised by the Catholic Church.

As a heretic, Tyndale had to evade the authorities and his work appeared in the Matthew Bible published in 1537, so called because it was published by John Rogers under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew. Tyndale was eventually caught and suffered death in 1536 by strangulation and burning at the stake. John Rogers was put to death with fire in 1555 at Smithfield. Martin Luther survived the charges of heresy and died in 1546 having 62 years.


Following the Reformation came the Renaissance but it would be 250 years before Roman Catholics were able to practice their religion in the United Kingdom and not until 1829 that the Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to hold public office.

By 1829 there were few Catholics in England, just those arriving from Catholic countries such as Ireland. Their numbers would increase with the development of the railways in the 1830s when navvies and navigators came to work on its construction and settling mainly around Holloway.

The Duke of Marlborough’s nephew, the Hon and Reverend George Spencer was a great uncle of Winston Churchill and the great-great-great uncle of Lady Diana Spencer. George Spencer was born in Admiralty House in 1799, the youngest son of the 2nd Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, and brother of Lord Althorp. He turned away from a life of immense wealth and was to become a man instrumental to the Catholics’ return to the UK and joined the Passionists.

The Passionists, or The Congregation of the Passion (since 1984; The Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ.) was founded in 1790 by St Paul of the Cross in Italy. He was occupied with the return of England to the Catholic Church, and during one of the last masses of his life he had a vision after which his face was radiant as he said: “Oh what have I seen? — my children in England!” But it was another Italian, Father Dominic Barberi, that would take the order to England.

Dominic Barberi believed that he had a mission to preach the Gospel in England in a similar calling that St Paul of the Cross had felt. He joined the Passionists in 1814, was ordained in 1818, and worked as a lecturer in Rome for a time before meeting with English Catholics and being introduced to the Honourable and Reverend George Spencer. However, he was tasked with establishing the order in Belgium where he struggled until receiving an invitation from the then Dr Wiseman inviting him to establish the Passionists in England.

Father Dominic Barberi arrived in England in November 1840 to discuss plans with the Reverend George Spencer and returned again for good in 1841. In February 1842 a property was secured at Aston Hall, Staffordshire. The tales of his determination are astounding, enduring physical violence from a nearby church and stones being thrown at him that on occasions he was lucky to escape with his life. Eventually he endeared himself to the residents and became quite well known in England for his teachings.

In 1845 at the College of Littlemore (south of the city of Oxford) Father Dominic Barberi received John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest, into the Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII would make him Cardinal Newman in 1879, in recognition of his role in assisting the return of the Catholic Church in England.

In 1847 Fr Dominic received the Reverend George Spencer into the Congregation who took the name Father Ignatius. And in continuing the search for suitable premises in London he wrote the following:

At the end of the year 1847, Divine Providence was pleased to advance Dr Wiseman to be Vicar Apostolic of the London District. Immediately on receiving this happy news we anticipated, and rightly too, that this good Bishop, after giving us our first house and obtaining for us our second, would give us our third house in his own District.

Dr Wiseman did write to Fr Dominic asking if the Passionists could assist with the Irish population and so Fr Dominic went to London in 1848 to view a house in Hampstead, observing that “… nothing can be seen but trees and sky.” The Passionists took possession of Poplar House in West End Lane in June 1848 and with a parish that extended from Kilburn to Watford.

They soon realised they were administering from the edge of a very large area, and their chapel was at Hyde several miles away. And then, still in 1848 Fr Dominic set out from London to Woodchester and suffered a heart attack at Reading from which he died. He had established three churches and would later be beatified as Blessed Dominic. Cardinal Manning said of Fr Dominic that he was was an Apostle to England.

When Father Ignatius became Provincial of the Passionist order following Fr Dominic, it was his task to raise the finances needed to establish a suitable home in London. They moved to Hyde Lane in December 1849 and moved again to Woodfield House, Cool Oak Lane, the Hyde, Hendon in 1852, but always it would prove to be unsuited to their needs and not least because Barnet had been incorporated in to their parish.

The wilderness years followed for the community could not reach the extremities of their parish and parishioners could not reach the chapel. Then in April 1857 three senior Passionists returned to the mother house in Rome for Provincial elections; these were the current Provincial of England Fr Vincent Grotti, and Fathers Ignatius and Martorelli. Fr Ignatius Paoli was elected as Provincial of England.

Fr Ignatius Paoli had joined the Passionists in 1845 and would be Provincial for nine years. Of his many achievements, his part in the founding of St Joseph’s in Highgate is most notable. In June 1857 he set out for England and arrived at the Hyde. As had troubled Fr Dominic, it was the distance from London that Fr Ignatius Paoli now saw as his major obstacle. It was a mile to the nearest house across fields or two miles by track.

Fr Ignatius Paoli wrote to Cardinal Wiseman, having become Archbishop of Westminster in 1850, to ask for a meeting. His aim was to sell the Hyde and buy another property but the Hyde was wished to remain in the diocese. Before leaving he asked the brethren there if they would kindly notify him of any properties that came up for sale. Having no more business to attend with the Hyde, the Provincial moved on to other business in the province, particularly in Dublin, where he founded the monastery at Mount Argus, Dublin; once described as the noblest religious house erected in these countries since the Reformation.

So in April of 1858 came the message that he had been hoping for from the brethren in London. He left immediately for London and looked at the proposal of land for Highgate. He subsequently went to view the site taking with him Fr Eugene Martorelli, the Rector at the Hyde.

On this site on Highgate Hill stood the Old Black Dog PH, mentioned from 1735. It’s thought that drovers used to frequent it probably taking their dogs and this may be the reason for the tavern’s name. The owner was a Mr Woodward which one account labels him as a hater of Christians, or ‘Papists’ as they were referred to then. England was still very much opposed to non-Protestant religions and the account tells of Mr Woodward that he was in the process of selling his land and property in 1849 but the night before had a dream that the buyers were Papists and so he cancelled the sale. However, Fr Ignatius Paoli tells of a rumour that the house was haunted and this prompted Mr Woodward to put the land up for sale again in 1858.

In order to appraise and appropriate the house Fathers Ignatius Paoli and Eugene went in disguise. They dressed as laymen and proceeded to reconnoitre. Father Eugene returned disguised as a Hall-Porter to view the inside. Once it was decided the place was suitable they had to deposit £1,500 with the solicitor in order to be able to bid for the purchase of this house and garden. They had eight days to get the money and they hadn’t even told Cardinal Wiseman yet.

As had been the case when they went to see the Cardinal, he had been laid up quite ill and they did not get to see him but had dealt with his secretaries. He was still ill so they wrote to him and he wrote back refusing the request to buy the property at Highgate. So Fathers Ignatius Paoli and Eugene went to see him in person. At first the Cardinal denied them and then he agreed but made them deal with an auxiliary Bishop who gave his permission only at the eleventh hour, on the evening of the auction date on the 24th of May 1858.

At 10pm Fr Ignatius Paoli was in the solicitor’s office agreeing on the finances. The Community were at the Hyde praying for Divine Providence but they need not have been so tentative for at the auction on the morning of the 25th of May there were no other bidders and the property became theirs at the cost of £4,500.

Immediately on arriving at their new property on 29th September 1858, Fr Ignatius Paoli blessed a basin of water and proceeded to bless every room. And that was the last of any ghost stories. In Cardinal Wiseman’s description of the place we have a clearer idea of the public house, “This house inside is more like a ship than a house.” And Fr Ignatius said of it, “It was better suited for the original purpose for which it had been built, 300 years before when it was christened The Black Dog.” These accounts sometimes call it The Black Dog and sometimes the Old Black Dog, we don’t know for sure. But we can place it as being built originally circa 1558.

The new parish ran from The Royal Northern Hospital in Holloway Road to Barnet and from Kilburn in the West to Palmer’s Green and beyond. Of course it was not as it is populated today and was largely farming land. The house was adapted and a chapel was built in the honour of St Joseph, which cost a further £600 but it meant room for 65 people that could attend Mass. Within a few weeks the numbers were increasing so that they filled the adjacent rooms. And in not long there were so many turning up on Sundays, Protestants as well as Catholics, that the Protestants had to be turned away in favour of the Catholics, as many as 60 at times. All of a sudden they needed a bigger church.

Seeking to finance the new church Fr Ignatius Spencer called on his nephew, the fifth Earl Spencer, for a loan of £1,000. When he became a Passionist an annuity that would have been in the region of £300 per annum was stopped. His nephew did not grant the loan but did re-instate the annuity which enabled him to secure a mortgage with it. The church that was built in 1861 was not the green dome structure seen today but a smaller version.

In 1861 there was also a small school in use at the base of the grounds described as a building that had been once used as a stable. Fr Ignatius Spencer died in 1864 so he did not see the new school or the domed church but thanks to his financing in 1865 the building of the new school started and opened in 1867. It was run by the Marist Sisters from Holloway Road until 1870 and then from 1874 by Nuns of La Sainte Union.

Looking up Highgate Hill: St Joseph’s Upper and Lower schools c. 1958

Fr Ignatius Paoli saw the end of his third term as Provincial in 1866. He had been responsible for the acquisition and development of everything in Highgate and indeed all in England and Ireland as Provincial of the St Joseph’s Province of England.

The monastery was built in 1873 and without much pause in 1888 it was decided to build a new church and the existing one was demolished in the same year. The foundation stone was laid on 24th May 1888, and horses struggled in bringing the blocks of stone up the hill. The construction work was supervised by Brother Alphonsus Zeegers. The Bishop of Liverpool blessed the church and it opened on 21st November 1889.

Also in 1888, Fr Eugene Martorelli died at Highgate on 21st April just before seeing the cornerstone being laid for the new church. He had been instrumental in securing the property at Highagte and was the first Rector of the parish and four times Provincial of the English Province. A year later in September 1889 Fr Anselm Lomax died, he had planned and built the monastery. And Fr Gerard Woollett died at Highgate in February 1894, he had built the existing church of which it is said, hastened his death.

In 1928 St Gabriel’s Church opened which reduced the Southern boundary of the St Joseph parish and in 1932 the final debt was cleared for the building of the new church. This meant the church was finally consecrated on 28th April 1932. This rite can only be performed once the building is debt-free as it would be contradictory to dedicate to the service of God a mortgage-burdened building. The alter had been consecrated in 1905.

1953 saw a complete redecoration of the church, repaired of all war damage and the organ was installed to commemorate the war dead. 1958 was the centenary year and to celebrate this, parishioners erected a new altar in honour of the Blessed Mary.

The Passionist Community on centenary year, 1959. I was fortunate to have known four of these gentlemen: Fathers Romuald, Gabriel, Gregory and Brother Leonard.

Back row L to R: Bro. Columban, Bro. John May, Fr. Gabriel, Fr. Umberto, Fr. Henry, Fr. Casimer, Fr. Finlan, Fr. Gregory, Bro. Bernignus.

Front row L to R: Bro. Leonard, Fr. Jeremias, Fr. Canisius, Fr. Bonaventure (Rector), Fr. Romuald, Fr. Alphonsus.