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Object of the Month: French Priest's Box

Lid of the priest’s box, featuring an illustration of the King’s Arms. (REDMG: 1998.1.34)

Lid of the priest’s box, featuring an illustration of the King’s Arms. (REDMG: 1998.1.34)

In the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, thousands of clergymen fled France to avoid persecution and death. Our object of the month – a fine penwork pine or plane box – was made by one such religious émigré who ended up in Reading.

Along with 234 others, this anonymous Catholic cleric spent most of his years in exile at the King’s Arms Inn on Castle Hill, which had been requisitioned by George III’s government as a place of refuge. The importance of this location is commemorated on the box lid, which features a detailed depiction of the priests’ new home. On the sides of the box are illustrations of other local buildings connected with the émigrés. These include Mapledurham House, a centuries-old Catholic county estate; the Reading Abbey Gateway and school, where one of the refugees taught French; and the Royal Palace at Winchester, where the priests were billeted prior to their move to Reading.

The presence of more than two hundred Roman Catholic ecclesiastics in Reading had a huge impact on the town and its people. In the mid-1750s, there were very few practising Catholics, largely due to oppressive legislation which prohibited them from attending Mass. But the relaxing of the laws and the arrival of the French priests in the 1790s meant that by the end of the century, there was a thriving Catholic community in the town – a community which still flourishes today.

This item has been selected for a new permanent exhibition on the Abbey, as part of the Reading Abbey Revealed project which will open the ruins and gateway to the public in 2018.

Date published: 20 Feb 2017

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