Historical context of the Shireburne Chapel

Internal view of the Shireburn Chapel

It is important to understand the historical period in which the Shireburne family lived and during which the Shireburn chapel was built and was used by the family. 

The Significance of the Period.


The period c.1480 to c.1660 saw the dissolution of the Mediaeval order and emergence of the “Early Modern” period. New “nation-states”, bound by common language and culture, replaced feudal overlordships to create the map of modern Europe. Spain and Portugal pioneered overseas exploration and imperialism. European Art, Sculpture, Music, Literature and Philosophy were transformed by the Renaissance and in the complex events known as the Reformation,  western European Christendom disintegrated. 

Southern Europe, closest to the seat of Papal power in Rome, remained staunchly Catholic while “Reformed”, “Protestant” churches, became predominant in Northern Europe. Here, Reformers (Luther, Calvin et al) condemned the immorality and abuses perpetrated by Catholic clergy and challenged the Church’s entrenched interpretation of the Bible with its emphasis on priests as intermediaries between God and Man; they believed God intended a personal, direct relationship with Man, so that the distractions of ornate church decoration and elaborate ceremonial in Latin should be replaced by simple services in vernacular languages in plain churches.  

In yet another “modern” development, the rapid spread of these ideas was facilitated by the new medium of printing. Emerging northern European states could not reconcile national identity and independence with allegiance to a distant Papal authority and broke away. They sought, too, to absorb the Church’s power and resources to consolidate national identity and royal power. The inevitable “Counter-Reformation” from the Catholic south of Europe sought to restore the status quo ante, one effect of which was that religion became a core element in all states’ domestic and foreign policies. For Spain and France, especially, this justified attacking any non-Catholic power from which they may profit. 


European developments were inextricably interwoven with those in Britain. England’s transition from Mediaeval to Early Modern state is taken to begin with the killing of Richard III at Bosworth and the seizure of power by Henry Tudor in 1485. The Tudors’ questionable legitimacy made securing a male line essential. Henry VII achieved this but Henry VIII’s reign was dominated by his troubled attempts to do so. Divorce from Katherine of Aragon was a necessary first step but the Pope’s refusal to grant this (having earlier sanctioned the marriage) famously prompted Henry’s irrevocable break with Rome, the establishment of his own Church and a continuous fight against the forces of Catholicism, domestic and foreign. 


These domestic and foreign issues were aligned in north-west England, with Shireburne lands near the epicentre. The Tudor nightmare scenario was a French or Spanish invasion in north-west England launched from Ireland. The short sea crossing, usable landing grounds and strength of local Catholicism, especially among wealthy and influential landowning families like the Shireburnes who could offer material assistance to an invader, combined with Lancashire’s remoteness from London (exacerbated by the extremely poor lines of communication) all fuelled such anxieties. Influential Catholic families, whose behaviour could be monitored were not persecuted but often recruited to bolster the administration and secure their adherence through the advantages of offices under the crown. Those of questionable loyalty were ipso facto traitors and treated accordingly.  While some Catholics, fled and plotted abroad, and  others risked open opposition and were penalised heavily, many, like the Shireburnes, kept their faith quietly (albeit as openly as they could get away with) and made themselves useful to the crown to enhance their standing and minimize the threat.


Only recently explored and understood in detail – was the practice of Catholic families building strong, mutually supportive “connections” via strategic marriages, dispositions of properties through wills and the making of politically-orientated partnerships, often in shared official roles. Such relationships often were reinforced over several generations; each family became intimately related to the others. It is the nature of Upper Gentry families to intermarry to secure and expand wealth and “position”, but it is notable that all these families allied themselves exclusively to trusted Catholic Jacobite families.


During the early part of the 17th century with the death of Elizabeth I, the reigns of the Stuart kings, James I and Charles I, there was broader sympathy towards Catholicism and this brought the Shireburns and their connections a little more security. However,this was offset by the growing opposition from fundamentalist protestants (Puritans et.al.) in Parliament. The resulting Civil Wars contested many issues but the future of religion in England, and the primacy of Parliament or King were predominant. Catholic families were almost always committed, active Royalists but Charles’ defeat in the Civil Wars, his trial and execution and the eleven year-long republic brought testing times; ruin for some, exile for many and jeopardy for all. 


Charles II’s Restoration, and the succession of the openly Catholic James II brought only periodic and temporary relaxations of tension. Puritanism and strong support for the principles of Parliamentary primacy did not disappear. James II heightened the crisis by promoting greater freedoms for Catholics including the right of succession to the crown. Tolerated – just – until his Italian Catholic wife bore him a male heir in 1688, the resulting Revolution divided the nation again. 


James was deposed and forced into exile by Parliament whose supporters declared a “Glorious Revolution” saved the nation from Catholic tyranny. Opponents, however, with a weight of legal judgement supporting them, declared Parliament’s nominee, William of Orange, a usurper. His arrival with a powerful military force was interpreted, by some,  as a foreign invasion and the culture of his government and policies widely deemed antipathetic to English values and interests. There remains abundant evidence in support of this view. Jacobitism – support for James II’s and his heirs’ Restoration – was born in 1688 and lived exactly 100 years until the death of James II’s grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, still exiled in Italy, in 1788.


Under such circumstances, people seek ways to assert who they truly are and defiantly confirm their existence. This is perhaps the real power of the Shireburn Chapel’s legacy.