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Religion has always plays an important part in our History. Before the 20th century most People in the United Kingdom would have described themselves as Christian and many of them would have gone to church regularly.  The oldest denomination were the Catholics.  However, in 1553 Henry VIII fell out with the Pope (the leader of the Catholics) because the Pope wouldn’t let him divorce his first wife Katherine of Aragon.  The result was that Henry set up his own Church, The Church of England.

A lot of Catholics didn’t want to go to his new church. Those who obeyed Henry and stopped being Roman Catholics were known as Protestants, because they had ‘Protested’ against the Catholic Church, this is something that was happening in other parts of Europe, especially Germany at the time. Strangely enough this was something that Henry had been very critical about, until the Pope wouldn’t do what he wanted!

His successors later passed some very nasty laws known as The Penal Laws which meant Roman Catholics could be persecuted and punished for their faith.  These even went so far as burning them at the stake and there were other punishments as well, such as fines and prison sentences. A lasting reminder of this is burning the Guy on Bonfire Night, although not everyone might realise that this was originally a gesture of anti-Catholic feeling.

One of the most notable local examples of the persecution of Catholics was Sir Thomas Tresham of nearby Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire.  He was a very well respected member of the local community and had connections with the Royal Court of Queen Elizabeth I, the Royal Court being the place for anyone who wanted to be important. He refused to become an Anglican and had to pay out a lot of money in fines for his beliefs as well as also spending quite a lot of time in prison in the Tower of London.  Whilst he may have been in some of the better accommodation there reserved for ‘posh’ prisoners, it is unlikely that this would have got a good write up on Trip Advisor, had it existed in those days!

To show his Faith he also built the very extraordinary Triangular Lodge at Rushton, this was never lived in but was intended as a ‘folly’ that is something interesting or nice to look at in your back garden and this one was supposed to represent ‘The Holy Trinity’ otherwise known as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit central to Christianity.   He also started building Lyvedon New Bield House on some other land he owned in Northamptonshire, shortly before his death in 1605.  This was intended to be a summer house and again reflected his strong religious beliefs as it was built in the shape of a cross.  Sadly, he died before it was finished. 

Unfortunately, his son Francis died in the tower of London from natural causes in December 1605, due to his involvement in the Gun Powder Plot of that year. Francis had been involved in earlier plots to get rid of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, then replace her with a Catholic monarch and his father, Sir Thomas had had to pay to get Francis out of trouble several times.  Unfortunately, by November 1605 Thomas wasn’t around to do that anymore. Over time anti Catholic or Penal laws gradually relaxed until they disappeared in 1829 with The Catholic Emancipation Act.

In the 16th Century the Church of England took over all the Roman Catholic church buildings and removed monks and nuns from convents and monasteries.  In Market Harborough, St Dionysis became an Anglican church.  This church dates from 1320 and it was originally built for pilgrims to stop off and say a quick Hail Mary, have a bit of a rest and maybe even take a nap, although it would have been considered very disrespectful!  Then they would have continued with their journey.  The church has been expanded over the years.  In 1791 the Sundial was added, don’t forget people didn’t have watches or mobile phones in those days.  That meant the sundial was very useful.

Funds were raised to build an Alabaster Pulpit in 1860, to make it easier to see and hear the vicar’s sermon or maybe so head could see if anyone was asleep!  In 1888 a Stone font was added. There aren’t any records of babies being accidentally dropped in it which would certainly have livened up their Christening!

There were also other Christian groups that didn’t like the church of England, they thought it was still too Roman Catholic. They all became known as either Dissenters or later Nonconformist.  Both words mean you disagree with something and refuse to go along with it.  The trouble was that these Dissenters didn’t agree with each other about what they thought Christianity should be so lots of different groups emerged, and still continue to do so today.

One of the oldest of these groups were the Quakers, and there is evidence of Quaker families in Market Harborough practicing their faith, very quietly and peacefully. They would have held services called ‘Meetings.  In the 18th century there seems to have been a Quaker Meeting house in what is now known as Quakers Yard, this later disappeared and not much is known about it. ‘ Dissenters’ also experienced prejudice and there were laws that discriminated against them.  This wasn’t to the same extent as Roman Catholics, but it was common practice for worship take place secretly in one of their homes.  This also included Baptists and Congregationalists.

In 1662 Thomas Lowry of Market Harborough got the sack from the Church of England along with several other Vicars as they didn’t agree with the Church. In Harborough and surrounding villages groups of Congregationalists begun to meet even though it was illegal.  They met secretly in people’s homes, the woods and even cowsheds. In 1689 the law changed allowing them to meet and in 1694 they built themselves a meeting house in Bowden Lane at the bottom of Burnmill Road. This must have come as a great relief as several of them including the Minister Matthew Clarke (originally from Narborough) had been in Leicester Goal, which was in the Guild Hall.

A new type of Non Conformism emerged in the 18th Century. John Wesley, a former Anglican Vicar who had fallen out with the Church of England, decided to form his own church in 1739, which became known as Methodist.  He thought the Church of England had lost touch with the common people and was therefore not doing its job. Obviously, the Church of England didn’t appreciate his view point but his church soon gained lots of followers.  By then things for Nonconformists were a bit easier.  Bowden Road Chapel was built in 1813.  It was closed when a new Chapel was built on Northampton Road.  The Bowden road building is still there and these days it’s a kitchen and bathroom shop.

What happened to the Roman Catholics, did they become Protestants?  The answer is probably no, and many carried on worshipping in secret regardless of the harsh laws in place.  Finally, all of those laws disappeared in 1829. There was also a big influx of Irish Roman Catholics coming to England from the 1790s to work on the construction of the canals and a lot of them spent some time working at Kibworth.  At the time Ireland was under English control, the vast majority the people being Roman Catholic.  Ireland was extremely poor at this time.  The Irish experienced discrimination against them by many English people not just because they were Catholic but also because they were considered to be racially inferior.  Due to this many of the Irish weren’t too keen on being controlled by England.  They had a habit of taking sides with England’s enemies at times of war and getting support from those enemies against the English.  As far as the English were concerned this made the Irish traitors, another reason to dislike them and be very suspicious of those of them who came over to work as ‘Navies” (short for Navigators, a term form labourers).  This was certainly the case at Kibworth, in the 1790s the Irish were known to be plotting with the French who were at war with England at the time!  The Navies were either camped out at the edge of the village or staying in lodgings in the village itself.  They had a bad reputation for being rowdy which made them even more unpopular.  In 1795 a violent incident occurred involving the Navies that became known as the Kibworth Riot, it also spread down the canal to nearby Newton Harcourt, where they were dealt with by the military who arrived from Leicester.  You can find out more about them in Michael Wood’s book ‘The Story of England’.  By the way not all of the rioters were actually Irish!

Irish emigration rose again in the 1840s due to a terrible Potato Famine.  A nasty disease called ‘Potato Blight’ destroyed the potato crop in Ireland several years running due to the wet weather.  The level of poverty in Ireland was high with many Irish farmers being totally dependent on potatoes just to feed themselves and their families.  As a result, about a million people either starved or died of diseases due to the fact that they were so badly fed.  Many of these worked on the construction of the new railways that were being built at this time.

Roman Catholics finally got their own church ‘Our Lady Of Victories” in 1877.  In Market Harborough the Roman Catholic Church there had an important relic, that is some kind of holy object that is regarded as very important and that is sacred, something that pilgrims will come to see.  In this case it was a wood carving of ‘Our lady of Moorsele’ dated 1687.  Later the decision was taken to move it to St Wilfred’s, in York, as it was much easier to get there.   Another claim to fame for this church is that an architect named Pugin designed the Sacristy and Cloisters.  His father had designed the Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham amongst other famous buildings. 

Apart from providing places of worship all the churches provided a great deal of community support through various charities they ran. This was considered to be part of Christian duty as it still is today. They all ran Sunday schools for poor children most of whom worked, and Sunday was their only day off!  Sounds a bit grim that they ended up at school on their only day off, but they did teach many children the 3 Rs.  That is reading, writing and arithmetic although their main focus was on religion.  This was mainly to make sure people behaved themselves! In the nineteenth century the churches all contributed to day schools for poor children. 

Churches also did their bit to help the poor at a time when little other help was available.   It was also very common practise for people to make ‘bequests ’in their wills.  They would leave money or property to be invested so that something could be done to help the poor regularly from the interests gained by the money invested. There were plenty of these in Market Harborough, many continuing well in to the 20th Century.

  • In 1632 Sarah Goodwin made one to allow money to be distributed to the poor
  • In 1670 Joan Appleby made provision to provide shoes for the poor
  • In 1808 Mary Letts wanted to give money to the town’s Sunday Schools.  So did Thomas Dawson in 1820.  He also wanted his bequest to include providing bread for the poor.
  • In 1880 Thomas Barfoot left a bequest to provide clothing to the over 60’s (of which there not have been very many). However not Catholics!
  • In 1857 John Bates bequest was to provide meat, bread and coal for the poor with anything left over going to the towns Sunday schools

There are lots more examples, so let’s finish with a personal favourite.  In 1785 William Hubbard left money to St Dionysis, with terms and conditions.  The clergy, choir and congregation had to sing his favourite hymn at his grave side once a year. 

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