THE SHEER sense of serenity you encounter at Stonor on a sunny day makes it hard to associate the place with persecution and torture.
But this extraordinary Oxfordshire home has some remarkable stories to tell and played a unique part in the history of English Catholicism.
Today, basking in the September sunlight, the only sound to be heard across the 1760 deer park is the clack of a cricket ball and occasional cries from approval from the small crowd round the green at the Stonor Cricket Club across the main Henley road, which overlooks the estate.
But although Stonor Park has been home to the same family for 850 years, it was let to the National Benzol Company during the war and was empty when the family moved back in 1945. Many family possessions were sold off during subsequent years of financial hardship.
It was only in 1978 that the current Lord Camoys was able to buy and start renovating the house, opening it to the public in 1979 and buying back many portraits, pictures and other possessions which had been sold.
It has been an extraordinary achievement, because there’s a wonderful sense of peace and warm about the manor house which the poet John Betjeman remarked upon – and the same sense of serenity can be found in the park and gardens.
Parts of the house date from the 13th century but the site has been inhabited for longer than that, as witnessed by the circle of standing stones by the front drive, deposited during the Ice Age and used as a pagan site of worship.
The family name (de Stonore in the 14th century) comes from the stones – and the crest, appropriately, is a hill with prominent stones.
But while the children might want to explore the adventure playground out in the woodland, it’s inside the house and 13th century chapel that the real story of Stonor Park unfolds.
This is where we first encounter those darker memories of centuries of persecution which followed the Reformation, when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the Pope and unleashed a harsh crackdown against all those regarded as being guilty of heresy.
Any priest found on English soil was guilty of treason (as was anyone who harboured him), and that included a scholar by the name of Edmund Campion who had once found favour with the Queen as a young man.
Campion had been born in London and studied in Oxford before moving to Dublin, Douai and ultimately travelling on foot to Rome to become a Jesuit priest. He had been a professor in Prague before the Jesuit mission to England began and he arrived in London in June 1580 disguised as a jewel merchant, and began to preach.
He led a hunted life, administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire while he started to work on his Decem Rationes (“Ten Reasons”), arguments against the validity of the Anglican Church.
Upstairs in a hidden room behind a chimneybreast at Stonor is where he and his colleagues hid their printing press which was used to print the famous tract – 400 copies were distributed on the benches of the university church in Oxford, causing a great sensation.
The hunt for Campion was stepped up and the “seditious Jesuit” was arrested at a house in Berkshire and soon publicly hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn in London in December 1581, at the age of 41.
Back at Stonor, Dame Cecily and her son John were taken to the Tower of London too, but Dame Cecily refused to conform to the Established Church – meaning that the tiny family chapel is one of only a handful in the country to have remained Catholic despite 250 years of persecution.
Several rooms in the main house are open to the public, including the Gothic Revival hall dating from 1350, the library, drawing room and bedrooms. Throughout, there are dozens of portraits, photographs and family artefacts, meticulously documented in a “hand list” of contents.
Outside there’s time to unwind in the tranquil gardens to the rear of the house or meander up to the terraces which provide views across the roofs of the house to the park beyond, where the fallow deer may be seen grazing while red kites and buzzards glide on the thermals overhead.
Although the house and chapel are only open on Sundays in September and are generally closed until April, there are a number of special events planned, from an autumn food festival in October to candlelit tours of the house decorated for Christmas.
For full details of prices, opening times and future events, see the main Stonor House website.