The story of a seventeenth-century English woman who upheld religious freedom in a period when Catholics could not practise their religion.

If you take the Hadrian’s Wall Path and Cycle Route 75 from Wallsend, following the Tyne up-river in a loop to the south until you get off your bike at Byker, you will pass the site of a remarkable woman’s achievement. 

It was St Anthony’s House, built in 1623 by Dorothy Lawson, a widow with at least 14 children. The house was ruined in the Civil War, but restored, and could still be seen in an aerial photograph between a railway viaduct (where the Cycle Route is now) and the river. By then it was stuck between a chemical works and a lead works. Like many historic buildings it was needlessly demolished by the 1950s leaving no trace in Walker Riverside Park. 

The settlement there by the Tyne was called St Anthony’s (as it still is) because in the Middle Ages an image of St Anthony was set up in a tree for sailors to see as they came up river. Dorothy Lawson, Dame Dorothy, as she was known, did something that would have attracted attention in the 1620s. “At the end of the house opposite to the water,” wrote her chaplain and biographer Fr William Palmes, “she caused to be made the sacred name of Jesus, large in proportion and accurate for art, that it might serve the mariners instead of St Anthony’s picture.” 

It has been understood that by the “name of Jesus” was meant the monogram IHS (standing for the Greek Iesous), a symbol popularised as a devotional device in the 15th century and adopted in 1541 by the founder of the Jesuits as the emblem of the new religious congregation. Certainly, Fr Palmes declared that as well as signifying the protection under which she put herself, the monogram was displayed by Dame Dorothy so that “it might be known as a Catholic house”. 

That was more than a gesture. Dame Dorothy was a recusant, that is, she did not attend the parish church as the law prescribed. This exposed her to ruinous fines, but there is no record that she was required to pay any. 

Her father was a Constable of Burton Constable, where Mass was said in secret and liturgical vestments hidden; her mother was a Dormer, another recusant family. 

At St Anthony’s, Dame Dorothy allowed local Catholics to hear Mass, a crime punishable by death. She even got the Jesuit Fr Richard Holtby, already 70 years old, to lay the foundation stone for the new house. There she gave food to the poor and visited prisoners until her death in 1632, aged 52. But her house was never searched by the officers of the law.

 Even more strikingly, her funeral procession was by 20 barges up the Tyne to the Quayside in the middle of the town, where her coffin was met by magistrates and aldermen and carried to the church of All Saints, its way lit by tapers (evening funerals being the common custom of the time). The ceremonies that surrounded her burial were those of the Catholics.

What are we to make of this flouting of penal laws? Certainly that Dame Dorothy exerted authority in a locality sympathetic to her and, from some, to her religion. Northumberland had several centres where Catholicism continued from that time until disabilities were lifted in the 19th century.

I found out about Dorothy Lawson only because of a mention of her IHS by Alexandra Walsham in a chapter, “Material Culture”, in volume one (1530-1640) of the six-volume Oxford History of British and Irish Catholicism, edited by James E Kelly and John McCafferty, a magnificent undertaking, often dense in content. If I follow up all the leads, I’ll never finish it.

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