A Body in the House: The Catholic Origins of the Modern Murder Mystery

The English country house has an unusual fascination for many Americans. There are numerous coffee table books which feature their splendors, and a vacation to England frequently includes tours of their stately premises. What are the reasons for this? Is it their aura of the secular shrine, where one can walk among the genteel surroundings of past English nobility? Or their suitability as the setting for murder mystery stories? Within the past few months, for example, the Book-of-the-Month Club has featured volumes called English Country House Murders and Murder in the Manor, a trilogy of Agatha Christie mysteries set in country homes. Or do these homes arouse interest because of the profound associations some of them have with English Catholicism in keeping the faith alive in that most Protestant of countries? All of the above apply. For what is striking about the English country house is precisely its role as the only available Catholic “church” in sixteenth-century England and its then turning into a haunted house when it was subsequently secularized, becoming the temple of the modern church of guilt.

Queen Elizabeth began in earnest in 1571 to repress the Catholic religion through legislative acts. By the end of the century it was impossible to attend Mass without risking ruinous fines, imprisonment, and loss of life, and the sacraments had to be administered in secret in Catholic homes where priests could evade the government agents seeking to arrest them. Some of these houses had fairly elaborate chapels where Mass was sung on feast days; the greatest Elizabethan composer, the Catholic William Byrd, wrote Masses for such occasions. Many young people in these houses grew up amidst a daily routine of family prayers and recitation both of the rosary and of the hours of the breviary. The historian Adrian Morey remarks that “these Elizabethan households influenced the great expansion of religious houses for men and women on the Continent that was a feature of the next century.” Thus, when St. Francis de Sales wrote his classic Introduction to the Devout Life in 1609, which advocated adapting the prayers and devotions of monastic life into the routine of family households, a model for this was available in England, where such a program had been established under the difficult circumstances of active persecution.

By the middle 1590s, says the contemporary biographer and historian Phillip Caraman, all the counties in England were provided with a network of Catholic establishments served by more than 300 priests. In these homes, as in the jails filled beyond capacity with Catholics, Masses were said, confessions heard, and schismatics received back into the Church. Schismatics were those who had attended Protestant services in conformity with the law but who nonetheless still gave their intellectual assent to Catholicism. As one priest remarked at the time, many Englishmen desired to live as Protestants but to die as Catholics, a truth not limited to that particular period of history.

In his Autobiography recounting his work as a Jesuit priest in England during this period, John Gerard commented that Catholic country homes only lacked the name of religious houses in order to be fully recognized as such. Of course, as early as St. Paul’s epistles there is evidence of the identity between house and church, the Apostle having sent greetings to one “Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house” (Philemon 2). In Reformation England great numbers of Catholics would seek out the houses where a priest was in residence, and the crowds that famous preachers and holy men such as Edmund Campion drew to their services greatly increased the risk that the priest would be caught. Spies were sometimes present in the congregation or on the household staff, as well as occasionally in the very seminaries in Europe where the English priests studied. One of the Elizabethan government’s many contributions to modern statecraft and to Gothic literature, whose connection to the English country house I will examine in a moment, is its inauguration of an efficient espionage bureau, one quite willing to spy on its own citizens.

Elizabethan Torture

The zeal, learning, and truly superhuman fortitude of the Jesuits in particular on this “English Mission” of the counter-Reformation Church made them both admired by many Catholics and also severely treated by the government. Robert Southwell, for example, was tortured on the rack ten times without betraying any of the confidences of the Catholics that he knew. (The laconic statement in the leading literary history of England about the poet Southwell’s death, written by a member of the academic booboisie: “He died a felon.”) The Jesuit superior in England, Father Henry Garnet, wrote in 1595 with justifiable pride: “It is commonly said that where one of Ours treads, there follows at once the blessing of God; and certainly if such things were not said, the astonishing changes that have taken place speak for themselves.”

The tortures were unbelievable—another of the Elizabethan contributions to the modern world when dealing with religious “dissidents”—and they continued right up to the moment of death. The typical means of execution for a priest was to hang him until he was only half dead, then to cut down his body, tear out his heart and bowels, and finally to divide his body into quarters. On occasions the crowd witnessing the execution would not permit this brutality if, as was the case with Garnet himself, they were especially moved by the courage and steadfastness of the martyr. The government practiced this brutality because of its hatred of the Church and its desire to extort from the missionaries a confession that they were political operatives plotting the assassination of the Queen. But despite their advanced methods of “interrogation,” Lord Cecil and his fellow ministers could never obtain such admissions, as the Jesuits were eloquently truthful in their public trials in proclaiming their loyalty to Queen and country, even when torture had rendered them barely able to speak.

At one of the homes where Garnet stayed during his 20-year ministry in England, his hostess died, and in a letter to his superior in Rome after her death he wrote: “She went forth to the eternal dwelling prepared for her by her Lord, a dwelling similar to that in which she had sheltered us. It was the feast day of that great hostess of the same Lord, St. Martha.” Unmistakable in the accounts of the priests’ dangerous work is the voice of the Psalmist—”He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (91:1). “Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God” (84:3). “Thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy” (61:3). Christ’s statement that in His Father’s house are many mansions (John 14:2) also comes to mind, for this is exactly what the missionaries found in their “evangelization” of England. Many of the houses in which they stayed were equipped with “priest’s holes,” and one dwelling might have as many as seven or eight such hiding places. The women of the house, such as the heroic Ann Vaux, would delay a government search party until the priest was safely hidden away, often in a false chimney, where he could stay for a week or even longer while his pursuers tore apart large portions of the walls of the home. Generally the priests were found only if spies had given the government specific information about their being in a particular home.

English Catholics, however, did not discover the strait gate and the narrow way that leads to salvation only in prison or in concealment in country homes. As the sixteenth century drew to its end, the whole country became more and more of a prison for them. The great German historian (and a non-Catholic) of this period, A.O. Meyer, reports this statement made in 1583: “Prisons are so full of Catholics, there is no room for thieves.” Thus, Meyer says, the final and most severe of all the penal laws was passed in 1593, which “hit upon the cheapest and most comprehensive method of detention: Catholics were restricted to a radius of five miles from their abode, and so all the Catholics in England were kept in a sort of open confinement.” There is much contemporary evidence for such a statement. The priest John Pilbush, for example, wrote to Garnet in 1600 from prison shortly before his execution that when he returned to England after his studies abroad he found the country “one huge prison for all who, like us, profess the true faith.”

Popish Aura

Early in the seventeenth century hopes quickly faded for the reconversion of England to the Church after James I showed no more friendship than had Elizabeth to the recusants (the formal name then given to Catholics). Not so, however, the interest in country homes, which increased. One reason for this is the romantic but also quite real association of these places as the last redoubts of the faith in the country. Large, gloomy homes, castles, monasteries, and convents—anything with a “medieval” or “popish” aura—became the setting for one of the most popular literary genres of modern times, the Gothic romance. Stories containing such things as, in George Sherburne’s accounting, “giant swords and helmets, bleeding statues and walking portraits… gloomy cloisters, strange sounds, and breathless flights” became the staples of many English and American writers. The weakness of such literature, however, is its failure to understand what really went on in those Elizabethan homes where the sacraments were administered in secret, where priests had to live incognito as members of the household, and where secret passages, tunnels, and compartments were as much a part of the floor plan as the Great Hall or the kitchen. Furtiveness, disguises, sacred rites said in a “foreign” language, a carefully reasoned doctrine of equivocation when faced with persecution solely for reasons of religion—such things were not practiced for their own sakes but rather for a spiritual and supernatural end. These houses, when they sheltered the sacraments, had a real, sacramental sense of mystery. Today, in our secularized world, such things can hardly be spoken of or hinted at; nonetheless, even such vestiges of mystery as do remain tantalize people with hungers they don’t quite understand.

With the passing of Catholicism from England there also passed the sacramental understanding, and the Anglo-Saxon literary imagination consequently looked more and more at material things for themselves alone or for some merely secular end and not as the veil which cloaked a divine reality. Gothic and horror novels usually have large numbers of guilty secrets which are the result of or lead to murder and other crimes (consider, for example, the charming escapades that take place within Poe’s House of Usher—incest, live burial—or the scientific advances consummated in the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein). By contrast, recusant households were turned into sacred dwellings where the souls and bodies of its penitent members were made fit to reside through the absolution granted in the confessional and through the sacrifice of the Mass offered in the house’s chapel.

Dark passions and acts may abound in the novels of, say, William Faulkner, but no real evidence was ever found of any such acts by the great Jesuits who kept the faith alive in sixteenth-century England. Even when government spies eavesdropped on Henry Garnet’s private confession in prison, all they could report was his having drunk an extra glass of wine one evening which he said had made him prematurely drowsy. The priests who were sometimes forced out of their hiding places in Catholic houses were not skeletons in the closet but sheep prepared for the slaughter by years of self-renunciation and self-abasement, and whose only secrets, which they almost never disclosed, were the names of the families with whom they had stayed. A skeleton which stays in the bed of an (to say the least) eccentric spinster, a girl who commits incest with a brother who then goes to Harvard and commits suicide, a monster who goes on a murderous rampage because his reclusive creator did not know how to give him the virtue of forgiveness—this and much like it is the stuff of the Gothic, in which spiritual material is transformed by secular corruption.

Blood in the Vestry

A particularly popular incarnation of the Gothic nowadays is the detective story; many such stories have as their settings country homes or churches. PBS’s series Mystery has dramatized a number of these; the recent broadcast of P.D. James’s A Taste for Death is a typical example. James’s enigmatic detective, Adam Dagleish, must solve two grisly murders which were committed in the vestry of an Anglo-Catholic church. The murders were notable for their bloodiness—there is blood, blood, everywhere but none of it is penitential or sacrificial, it is only the lifeless material remains of homicidal dementia. But then the whole church is also only lifeless matter, warmed by no spiritual presence. The crucial clue, a button from the killer’s jacket, is found in the coin box by the statue of the Blessed Virgin, and the confessional is used not for the confession of the penitent who comes there but rather for the ineffectual parson’s confession to her that he is losing his faith. (Before the story ends he, too, will shed his blood on the cold stones of his run-down church.) At one point Dagleish, the son of an Anglican vicar, is moved to pray while conducting his investigation in the church; he tells an inquirer about this that although he no longer believes the prayers he is saying, he should still (apparently for good form) go on saying them anyway.

Another of Mystery’s notable detectives, Colin Dexter’s Chief Inspector Morse, has also had to solve cases in Anglican ecclesiastical settings where, for example, poison was administered in the communion cup or where a very bloody corpse was found in the chapel of a country home. Morse once commented while touring a high Anglican church with lots of statuary and candles that he “hates” churches like that. It does seem congenial to the Gothic imagination that very bloody murders should take place where the unbloody expiatory sacrifice of the Mass has been abandoned in favor of the more vague service of Holy Communion found in the Book of Common Prayer. For in detective stories murders are only murders and are committed in buildings, be they country homes or churches, which are only buildings, mere physical structures subject to the decay of time and never knowing as did the homes of the recusants the glory of being the outposts of Heaven. Modern man’s ignorance of nature as sacrament has given rise to his obsession with nature as thing-in-itself, and the result is the paganism which currently saturates our culture.

Waugh Revisited

One twentieth-century novelist, though, who does understand both the newer Gothic “house of horrors” and the older reality of the “house as church” is Evelyn Waugh. We see a notable dramatization of this in A Handful of Dust but especially in Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited.

Brideshead’s tremendous appeal (and it was of course an addictively popular television serial both in America and in England) lies in its being both a Gothic novel and also a romance similar to those enacted in real life by Catholics in the reign of Elizabeth. For members of the Marchmain family, the heroes of the story, are very much in decline. There is a patriarch who lives abroad with his mistress, an eldest son who is orthodox but extremely eccentric and a youngest son who is drinking himself into alcoholism, a daughter who rebels against the Church by marrying a divorced man and who then wishes to divorce him in order to marry another divorced man, and a mother who—in the modern mode—somewhat officiously suffers the whole business. The story is effectively narrated by a kind of yuppie agnostic of the time, Charles Ryder, the emptiness of whose soul is attracted to all the goings-on amongst the Marchmains. All these persons live in or pass through the family’s spectacular estate of Brideshead, a great house built out of the stones of the ancient castle which had originally housed the family and which now boasts a great cupola over its interior spaces and a showpiece fountain on its lawns.

The most important part of the estate, however, is the chapel. No corpses are discovered there nor does anyone retire to it in order to keep up the pretenses of belief. In fact, the place is often used out of desperation and is every bit the retreat and refuge from worldly feverishness that Robert Southwell or John Gerard or Henry Garnet found in the great Catholic homes of the sixteenth century. When Lady Marchmain, for example, is forced from sheer weariness to give up her attempts to keep her son Sebastian from drinking while he is at Brideshead, she goes to the chapel to say the rosary before going to bed. This is not for show; it is what she does when she can think of nothing else to do (and she is very inventive) to keep her wayward family in order. After she dies, the chapel is closed, an event described by the family’s youngest child, Cordelia: the priest “emptied the holy water stoop and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday… suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room.” “As though from now on it was always to be Good Friday”—not a bad description of the twentieth century, as well as the misfortunes of the Marchmain family, all symbolized by the empty tabernacle and the extinguished sanctuary lamp, the ripe conditions for the modern Gothic, a house built by a lord who no longer dwells there.

Such is not the end of this novel, however. At its conclusion, all the members of the Marchmain family are reconciled to the Church through suffering and the frustration of their vain personal desires. An epilogue describes the visit years later of Charles Ryder to the house during World War II, when none of the family was on the premises. Ryder finds his way to the reconsecrated chapel, now being used again by the soldiers stationed on the grounds, and, surprisingly, he says a prayer, not of the Dagleish type. While there, he sees a fit emblem for the story he had witnessed and for much else besides: all the work of the builders and restorers of Brideshead found its meaning, he thinks, in “a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.”

The secret of Brideshead, then, is very different indeed from that of the House of Usher but no different whatever from that of earlier recusant homes nor, indeed, from that of the thousands of Irish who at the risk of their lives trooped to secluded “Mass rocks” hidden away in their countryside during the eighteenth century, when the Mass was forbidden to them by English authority. And in times like ours, which Anne Roche Muggeridge says presents the greatest crisis to the Church in its history, when Jacuzzi tubs have replaced baptismal fonts and kneelers have been removed so that a “prayerful atmosphere” may replace prayer, when an ordinary Catholic must become like Galahad—he is looking for the Grail, the Tabernacle enclosing the Body of Christ, and it is no longer easy to find—in times such as these, then, a “small red flame” is even better than a star to “stay our minds on and be staid.”

  • Richard Harp

    Richard Harp is professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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