A History of St. Michael's Catholic Church

From Early Times until 1997

Compiled and Written by Monica McAllister

Chapter 1: The Faith Comes to Ashtead

The early history of Ashtead, which was first known as Stede and later as Estede, is well documented in the book, "Ashtead -A Village Transformed". Human occupation, possibly by pastoral nomads, could have begun as early as 2000 BC. From around 600 BC, the coming of Iron Age settlers probably led to the establishment of a more permanent population, and archaeological remains suggest that this was increased around 100 BC. It is postulated that this was because of the influx of Belgic tribes who were fleeing from the Roman invasion into Gaul. Certainly, with their superior tools, they would have been able to clear away some of the dense woodland and begin the agricultural development of the land.

The Romans were soon to invade Britain and, during the four centuries of their occupation, Ashtead became a Roman settlement. Stane Street, an important Roman Road, crosses the south-east corner of the parish and remains of Roman buildings have been £found near to St. Giles Church and on the Common. Near to the Roman Villa, on the Common, remains of kilns and evidence of a tile works have been found.

After the withdrawal of the Romans early in the fifth century, there was a period of time when Saxon invaders were penetrating the land. Precisely when they reached Ashtead and whether there was continuous occupation of the area seems uncertain but by the tenth or eleventh century the land in this part of the South East was divided up into estates and Ashtead (Stede) is mentioned in the Domesday Book. There were then forty four heads of households and nine serfs and the population could have been about 200 adults and children. The estate at that time had been the property of Earl Harold of Wessex, who was killed in the Battle of Hastings. It was then passed to William the Conqueror's half brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux.

Christianity had found its way into Britain as early as the third century. Philip Hughes, in his Short History of the Catholic Church, records that there were three British Bishops present at the council of Arles in the year 314. It was in 596 though that Benedictine missionaries, despatched by Pope Gregory I, began the real Christianisation of the country. They were sent to convert Ethelbert, King of Kent, whose wife, daughter of a Frankish king, was already a Christian. By the time William the Conqueror came to rule the country most people would have been practising Christians. This meant that they followed the Faith, which had the Pope as its leader on earth and which had the Mass as the centre of its worship and its life.

In the early twelfth century a church was built in Ashtead. This occupied the site where St. Giles is now and some of the original Norman building forms part of that church but, particularly in the l8th and 19th centuries, great modifications and improvements were made and the church is much changed. The original church was built as a chapel, subject to Leatherhead and directly dependent on the priest at Leatherhead for permission for the celebration of Mass. History was to repeat itself, some 800 years later, when the chapel hut of St. Michael began as a daughter church of the Leatherhead parish of Our Lady and St. Peter.

Originally under the jurisdiction of the Abbot of Colchester, the church at Ashtead had become independent by the late l3th century and had its own rector. The appointment of these rectors was by then in the hands of the local Lords of the Manor. In the sixteenth century came the Reformation. As the sweeping changes, which it brought, took hold there were few churches and parishes which remained loyal to the 'Old Faith'. Ashtead was no exception and from then onwards the Vicars in Ashtead were those appointed by the Lord of the Manor and were loyal to the State and not to Rome.

Around the time of the Reformation most of the land in Ashtead was part of the estate of Henry, Earl of Arundel. These lands were passed to his Son-in-law Thomas, Duke of Norfolk. In 1572 Duke Thomas was beheaded for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots and his estates were forfeited to the Crown.

In 1581 Queen Elizabeth I allowed the Duke of Norfolk's son to assume the title Earl of Arundel and the lands of Ashtead were restored to him. Unfortunately he was in debt and this was probably because of the many fines he had had to pay for remaining faithful to the Catholic Church. Regretfully he had to sell his Ashtead lands to pay those debts and in 1582 Lord Henry Seymour acquired the lands of Ashtead for the sum of £1390! The Earl of Arundel's name was Philip Howard and as St. Philip Howard he is a patron saint of our diocese. Thus the Catholic Faith died out in Ashtead and we have no record of any open association with or practice of Catholicism until the present century.

Some 200 years ago it was reported that there were only three or four priests and fewer than 100 Catholics in the whole of Surrey. Mass was celebrated in the private chapels of a few old Catholic families. Mrs. Fitzherbert, who had married the Prince of Wales, later King George IV in 1785, lived for a while in Epsom. The Prince and his Catholic wife are believed to have owned the White House (formerly called Haswell House) in Waterloo Road and it is possible that Mass was celebrated there.

From about 1690 to 1750 there was a Catholic chapel attached to Woodcote Park. During this period the house was owned by the Irish Catholic peer, Lord Baltimore. It was the Baltimore family which founded the State of Maryland in the U.S.A. When Lord Baltimore sold the property the chapel was dismantled and the altar table given to St. Giles' church, where it is still in use.  In 1841 a Catholic Mission was established in Croydon and Ashtead became part of this 'parish'. There had actually been an "illegal" Mission in Croydon as far back as 1767. It is recorded that, in that year, Fr. John Mahoney was the last priest in this country to be sentenced to life imprisonment for, exercising the functions of a Catholic priest'. Then in 1859 a Mass Centre was started in Epsom. From the records it would appear that there were no Catholics in Ashtead at that time. Ashtead continued to be part of the Epsom parish until 1923, when the church of Our Lady and St. Peter was opened in Leatherhead.

Fr Maxwell's Memorial