History of The Lutterworth Parish

Although in 1980 we celebrated the Centenary of the then current church buildings, the Catholic Church in Lutterworth did not begin in 1880. There is little doubt that there was a church – and therefore a Catholic church – in Lutterworth in Saxon times.

It is thought that the parish of St. Mary’s Lutterworth was founded during Norman de Verdun’s tenure of the Manor from 1139 to 1192. Norman was a son of Bertrum de Verdun, who had many possessions in the Midlands including the manors of Misterton, Cotesbach, Bittesby and Cotes de Val. Bertrum’s principal home was the ruin you now see when you go to Alton Towers.

In 1224, Hugh de Wells, the then Bishop of Lincoln in which diocese Lutterworth was located, established a record of churches in his diocese and the de Verduns were listed as patrons and owners of Lutterworth church.

In 1374 John Wyclif was presented with the rectory of Lutterworth, ten years before his death.

It is in the church of St Mary’s that the next part of our history begins. One day in 1577 Robert Sutton, the then incumbent called his parishioners together in the church and, no doubt to their surprise and consternation, asked their forgiveness for teaching them erroneous Protestant doctrine, renounced his ministry and told them he hoped to become a Catholic priest. At the time it was very brave, in fact some would say foolhardy, to make such a public pronouncement of his intention rather than simply to ‘disappear’. He rode to London with his younger brother Abraham en route to the continent to begin their studies.

Our Robert Sutton, (not to be confused with another martyr of the same name who came from the Kegworth area) was born in Burton on Trent. He was baptised in St Modwen’s Parish Church on 11th September, 1545. The son of a carpenter, he was one of four sons who were all brought up as Protestants. Later, three of them became Catholic priests.

In 1561 Robert Sutton became an undergraduate at Christchurch College, Oxford, where he gained his BA in 1564. He was ordained an Anglican Minister in 1566 and gained his MA in 1567. Under Elizabeth 1st he was appointed to the living of Lutterworth and was inducted on 17th June, 1571. So Robert was only 32 when he made his historic announcement and set in train the events which he no doubt knew all along were likely to end with painful martyrdom.

Robert was arrested again and was tried for treason on the basis of his being a Catholic Seminary Priest at Stafford Assizes in June 1588.

He was martyred at Gallows Flat, Stafford on July 27th 1588. As was the practice he was hanged, cut down while still alive, disembowelled and dismembered. As commanded his body was left on public display for 12 months. During that time his bones were picked clean by the birds except for the flesh around one forefinger and thumb which did not corrupt. Why that part of him should remain is open to conjecture, but he would certainly have used is forefinger and thumb to hold the sacred host.

The relic was passed on to his brother Abraham who, in spite of a second arrest, was still working in Lancashire as late as 1610. He passed the relic on to Father John Gerrard who composed a note of authentication in Latin. This note, written within 40 years of Robert Sutton’s martyrdom, has accompanied the relic from that time and is still in existence.

“The thumb of Mr Robert Sutton priest, who, when in prison in Stafford, the night before his passion was seen to pray surrounded by a great light. After the parts of his body being exposed to the birds of the air for a year, they were carried away by Catholics. The thumb and forefinger were untouched though the rest was consumed to the bones.”

Father Gerrard gave the relic and the note to the Jesuit order. From around 1830 the relic was venerated at Stoneyhurst College where it remained until 1987. In that year thanks to the co-operation and generosity of the Jesuits, it was permanently translated back to Lutterworth and is reserved in a niche within the altar.

“With grateful thanks to Philip Harris – an abridgement of his “History of the Catholic Church in Lutterworth”