Tribute to renowned East Anglian Catholic historian

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Tribute to renowned East Anglian Catholic historian

Dr Francis Young pays tribute to renowned East Anglian Catholic historian Joy Rowe who died on September 7 at the age of 93.


Joy was a key figure in the study of the religious history of early modern East Anglia, and especially in the history of East Anglian Catholicism. It would be no exaggeration to say that she revolutionised our historical understanding of the place of Catholics and other religious minorities in early modern East Anglia, and she pioneered the study of East Anglian Catholicism as early as the 1950s – long before the recent expansion of interest in the study of the English Catholic community at a local level.

The body of work she left behind remains indispensable to the study of Elizabethan Catholicism, and Joy ought to be considered a largely unsung hero of the ‘revisionist’ movement within the historiography of English Catholicism in the 1980s and ’90s, alongside such figures as Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh, Michael Questier, Alexandra Walsham, and Nicholas Tyacke. Perhaps because she never produced a major monograph, Joy’s work has tended to be consigned to footnotes – but every article she wrote was pioneering and extraordinary.

Joy taught History at Assumptionist convent school at Hengrave Hall in the 1950s, and her first major article, published in 1958, focussed on the medieval monastic hospitals of Bury St Edmunds. Then, in 1959, Joy turned to early modern history with the publication of a slim but ground-breaking pamphlet, The Story of Catholic Bury St Edmunds. Although later reprinted in an expanded form in the 1980s (to cover the history of the Catholic mission at Coldham and Lawshall as well), Joy’s work was pioneering in the 1950s because it broke away from the then predominant view of post-Reformation Catholic history as the story of recusant gentry families and the priests who served them.

Joy drew on the surviving 18th-century mission register of the Jesuit founder of the Catholic church in Bury St Edmunds, John Gage, to analyse the Catholic community in a town – of all social classes, and not just the gentry. Joy showed that pockets of Catholicism could survive in a strongly Protestant county like Suffolk, and her crucial insight was that popular Catholicism in post-Reformation East Anglia persisted for reasons similar to the popularity of other varieties of religious nonconformity in the region. Catholicism, for Joy, was not an exotic survival but a reflection of the independent-mindedness of the East Anglian people.

In 1962 the Rowe family moved into Ixworth Abbey, a house constructed from the ruins of Ixworth Priory, a priory of Augustinian canons founded in the 12th century. Joy published a brief pamphlet on Ixworth that remains to this day the most recent research on this little studied religious house. Joy shared her historical interests with the parish priest of Bury St Edmunds, Fr Bryan Houghton, who in the 1960s embarked on a search for the relics of St Edmund in the belief that they reposed at the Basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. Joy assisted Fr Houghton with his research, although Fr Houghton’s dream of bringing the alleged relics of St Edmund to Bury St Edmunds never came to pass.

In 1960 Joy began a scholarly collaboration with Patrick McGrath that would last for three decades and produce five articles. The first article focussed on the intriguing Sir Thomas Cornwallis of Brome, Norfolk, an Elizabethan Catholic notable for his tactical strategies of survival and alliance of convenience with the Protestant Bishop of Norwich, Edmund Freke, against the increasingly influential Puritans. This early article foreshadowed two of the major themes in revisionist historiography of the English Catholic community in subsequent decades, which emphasised the nuanced nature of Catholic adherence (beyond outright recusancy) and the extent to which Catholics continued to exert local influence rather than being merely persecuted martyrs. Subsequent articles co-authored with McGrath examined Marian priests in the reign of Elizabeth, the early seminary priests, harbourers of priests, and imprisoned Catholics in Elizabeth’s reign.

In the 1990s Joy’s historical interests expanded beyond Catholicism to include other religious minorities in early modern Suffolk, while her researches into the Catholic community expanded beyond the reign of Elizabeth to include the 17th and 18th centuries. Joy’s work on the 1767 Census of Papists once again broke new ground, at a time when there was very little interest in the 18th-century Catholic community. Joy showed a willingness to grapple with the complexity of urban and rural Catholic communities that was paralleled by few other historians at the time. In 2004 she was invited to contribute no fewer than eight articles to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

My own collaboration with Joy began in earnest in 2009, when I began work on my book The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640–1767. The book was, to an extent, one that Joy herself had long wanted to write, and she generously shared her insights and kindly permitted me to reproduce extracts from John Gage’s mission register (which was in her custody at the time). Then, in 2016, Joy kindly acted as general editor for my edition of the Rookwood Family Papers, 1606–1761 for the Suffolk Records Society. In that year Joy and I also collaborated on a chapter on Elizabethan Catholicism in the volume I edited to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia, Catholic East Anglia. Sadly, Joy was not able to be present in person to deliver her paper on the 18th-century Bacton mission at the ‘Catholic East Anglia’ conference at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in May 2016, but in September I was able to help Fr David Finegan present Joy with a Diocesan Medal (in recognition of her contributions to Catholic history) at her 90th birthday party at Ixworth Abbey.

Joy was an exceptionally gifted historian whose work, even today, has not yet been exploited to its fullest extent to transform our perceptions of Catholicism in post-Reformation East Anglia and beyond. Joy’s work was characterised by her unfailing willingness to return to the primary sources, by her nuanced and insightful interpretation of the evidence, and by her boldness in advancing new approaches to material that others sometimes thought unworthy of attention. Above all, Joy Rowe was as faithful to historical truth as she was to the Catholic faith she professed.

Pictured above, Joy Rowe is presented with a Diocesan Medal (in recognition of her contributions to Catholic history) at her 90th birthday party at Ixworth Abbey in 2016.

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