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Petre familylocked

(per. 1633–1801)
  • Robert G. E. Wood

Petre family (per. 1633–1801), Roman Catholic nobility, in the eighteenth century were owners of the most extensive estates in Essex and were among the leaders of English Roman Catholic society, intermarrying with most other similar families. A succession of minor heirs gave dowagers (usually occupying the family homes at Thorndon Hall, near Brentwood, and Ingatestone Hall) lengthy periods of authority. Two members of a junior branch of the family became vicars apostolic; the sixth baron ventured briefly and ineffectively into local politics; otherwise the family kept quiet and no doubt prayed for better times, their position in county society securing them against the strict application of the penal laws.

Thomas Petre sixth Baron Petre (bap. 1633, d. 1707), was born at Ingatestone and baptized on 5 December 1633, the fourth of the five sons of Robert, third Baron Petre (1599–1638), and his wife, Mary Browne (c.1604–1685). He was a nephew of the translator William Petre (1602–1678). Thomas's elder brothers William Petre, fourth Baron Petre (1625/6–1684), and John, fifth Baron Petre (d. 1685), having died without male heirs, he succeeded to the title in January 1685. In the following year he married the sixteen-year-old Mary (d. 1730), daughter of Sir Thomas Clifton, of Latham, Lancashire. In February 1688 James II appointed him lord lieutenant of Essex in place of Aubrey de Vere, twentieth earl of Oxford, following the latter's refusal to give unconditional support to the king. The warrant dispensed with the need for Petre to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, or to receive the Anglican sacrament. At about the same time nine other Essex Catholics were appointed justices of the peace: it appears that although none of those appointed was unworthy of the office, James could not have gone on to appoint more Catholics without lowering the social standing and influence of the Essex bench. Following publication of the declaration of indulgence in April, Lord Petre visited some fifty deputy lieutenants and justices to ask whether they would support abolition of the penal laws and the Test Act. The response was generally equivocal, only twelve of those questioned being prepared to comply with the king's wishes. Members of the gentry began refusing to accept militia commissions at his hands, and Lord Petre, finding his position untenable, relinquished office by October and retired from political life. He died on 5 January 1707, and was buried on 10 January at Ingatestone. His widow died at Ghent on 15 February 1730 and was buried in the chapel of the English Benedictine convent there.

Robert Petre seventh Baron Petre (bap. 1690, d. 1713), was baptized at Ingatestone, Essex, on 17 March 1690, the eldest child of Thomas, sixth baron, and his wife, Mary. Reputedly one of the handsomest young noblemen in London, he defied current fashion by keeping his own long hair instead of wearing a wig. He was already celebrated as the original of the 'adventurous Baron' of Pope's Rape of the Lock when, on 1 March 1712, he married Catherine Walmesley [Catherine Petre Lady Petre (1697–1785)]. Born on 4 January 1697, Catherine was the youngest of the four children of Bartholomew Walmesley (d. 1701), heir of the family estate created by the judge Sir Thomas Walmesley (1537–1612) at Dunkenhalgh, Lancashire, and enlarged by his descendants. Orphaned as a small child, her brother and sisters all predeceased her, leaving her (at fifteen) heiress to a fortune of £50,000 and an estate possibly worth £5000 a year. On one occasion the family account books record five suitors visiting her house simultaneously. She seems to have made her own choice of the seventh Baron Petre as a husband. Their marriage was brief: he died on 22 March 1713 in Arlington Street, London, of smallpox, and was buried on 30 March at Ingatestone. Ten weeks later the widowed Lady Petre gave birth to their son, Robert James Petre, eighth Baron Petre (1713–1742). For a brief period she lived in France before returning to Ingatestone Hall in June 1715. Thereafter she devoted herself to his upbringing, and to a wide range of charitable activities. She made large donations to convents in Europe, not only in return for prayers on behalf of her late husband but also as dowries for young ladies entering them; she paid for boys' education or apprenticeships, and also (especially after the 1715 rising) sent money to prisoners. In 1717 she was proposed as a wife for James Francis Edward Stuart, the Pretender, but the plan was rejected despite her wealth. By 1720 she had founded schools for Catholic children at Ingatestone and nearby; Defoe commented that the family's 'constant series of beneficent actions to the poor and bounty upon all occasions, have gained an affectionate esteem throughout all that part of the country, such as no prejudice of religion could wear out' (Defoe, 141). Many years later, when her first and second husbands' heirs were again admitted to the House of Lords, they searched in vain for their ancestors' parliamentary robes: they had been cut up by Catherine 'to make petticoats for old women' (Petre).

Having resisted proposals of a second marriage until her son came of age, on 2 April 1733 Catherine married Charles Stourton, fifteenth Baron Stourton (1702–1753), one of her earlier suitors and a lawyer. They lived first at Dunkenhalgh and then in Cheam, Surrey, but he died childless in 1753 and Catherine embarked on another thirty-two years of widowhood. Her letters and accounts reveal a life that, while characterized by religious fervour (with daily mass and long evening prayers), was far from joyless. Cards, concerts, exchanging visits, and purchasing lottery tickets feature regularly; her admirer Ralph Standish wrote in 1727 'I never had so mutch innocent mirth and satisfaction as here [at Ingatestone], where they are not apt to take things amiss and never mean harme, always gay and merry without excess' (Foley, Catherine Walmesley, 18). She died at Ingatestone on 31 January 1785, and was buried there on 5 February.

Her son, the eighth baron, was more interested in plants than in his role as a leading Roman Catholic peer, but his marriage on 2 May 1732 to Lady Anna Radcliffe provided him with a wife more suited to that position. Anna Maria Barbara Petre Lady Petre (1716–1760) was (after 1731) the only surviving child of James Radcliffe, third earl of Derwentwater (1689–1716), who was executed for his part in the 1715 rising (and who had been another of Catherine's disappointed suitors in 1711–12). Her mother was Mary Tudor (d. 1723), daughter of Charles II. Anna was passionately devoted to her father's memory, and ordered her children to keep his apparel with respect and veneration in the mahogany chest she had had specially made. Derwentwater's body was eventually reburied at Thorndon Hall in October 1874. Her only son (following three daughters), Robert Edward Petre, ninth Baron Petre (1742–1801), was about five months old when his father died, and she was his guardian until she too died, on 31 March 1760; she was buried on 4 April 1760 at Ingatestone. Her son became a leading figure in the campaign for Catholic emancipation.

Benjamin Petre [alias White] (1672–1758), vicar apostolic of the London district, was born on 10 August 1672, the sixth son of John Petre (1617–1690), of Writtle, Essex, and his second wife, Elizabeth Pincheon (d. 1678). He was a grandson of John, first Baron Petre, and a cousin of William Petre, the translator. He studied at the English College, Douai, and was ordained priest, probably in 1696. After returning to England in 1697 he was chaplain to members of the Radcliffe family, notably James, third earl of Derwentwater. In 1721 Petre was nominated by Bishop Bonaventure Giffard, vicar apostolic of the London district, as his coadjutor and eventual successor. He protested that this nomination had been made without his knowledge, claiming that he had been chosen only because of his high birth and private wealth, and asserted that he had little theology and could hardly read Latin without a dictionary. Giffard however was insistent: he saw the appointment as a way of resisting Bishop John Talbot Stonor's attempts to secure another episcopal appointment for a member of the regular clergy, and Petre was consecrated bishop of Prusa on 11 November 1721. His reluctance was more than the conventional humility of a potential bishop, for he continued to protest and threaten resignation until 1730. Giffard continued to resist his arguments, despite complaining that Petre was more of a burden to him than the hoped-for 'comfort to me in my old age' (Anstruther, 3.166). When Giffard died in 1734 Petre succeeded him as vicar apostolic and hastened to secure the appointment of a coadjutor. The person chosen was Richard Challoner, who was appointed bishop of Debra in September 1739 and who was thenceforward largely responsible for episcopal duties in the district. He noted, for example, when visiting Bishop Benjamin's own congregation at Writtle in 1742 that fifteen of its forty members were awaiting confirmation. Petre appears to have spent much of his time on one or other of the Petre family estates in Essex. Among the family portraits at Ingatestone Hall is a painting of a large mongrel dog which 'saved Benjamin Bishop Petre's Life when he was attacked by Robbers whilst saying his Office in the Lime Walk at Ingatestone Hall' (Piper, 22), where he was living in 1733. In 1739 he consecrated the chapel at Thorndon Hall: the text of the service survives among the family papers, and is thought to be the earliest service of benediction used in England. The attached 'Rules for the keeping of the sacristy' give a vivid picture of religious observance in a devout eighteenth-century Roman Catholic household.

Although the London district covered the ten south-eastern counties and the Channel Islands, Petre seems to have confined his activities to Essex and the capital, and it was at his London house in King Street, Golden Square, that he died on 22 December 1758. He was buried in St Pancras old churchyard on 27 December 1758; his remains were moved to St Edmund's, Ware, Hertfordshire, in 1908.

Francis Petre [alias Andrews] (1692–1775), vicar apostolic of the northern district, was born on 2 October 1692, at Fithlers, Writtle, Essex, the third son of Joseph Petre of Fithlers (1666–1722), and his wife, Catherine Andrews (d. 1700). He was grandson of Bishop Benjamin's father's eldest surviving son by his first marriage. He studied at the English College, Douai, and was ordained priest on 31 March 1720. He spent 1722 to 1726 partly in England and partly in Paris, sometimes as tutor to John Wolf. In 1750 he was made bishop of Armoria and coadjutor to Bishop Edward Dicconson, whom he succeeded in 1752 as vicar apostolic of the northern district. As with his cousin Benjamin, his personal wealth did much to recommend him to his church, but unlike him he seems to have applied himself willingly to his episcopal duties. He died on 24 December 1775 at his principal residence, Showley Hall, Clayton-le-Dale, Blackburn, Lancashire, and was buried on 27 December 1775 at an 'ancient chapel' in Stydd Lodge, Dutton, Ribchester, Lancashire.


  • C. T. Kuypers, MS pedigree of the Petre family, 15th century to 1935, Essex RO, T/G 39/1
  • [M. A. Petre], ‘The pictures at Thorndon’, Essex RO, MS D/DP/F232B
  • B. C. Foley, ‘Catherine Walmesley (1698–1785) later Lady Petre and Lady Stourton’, Some other people of the penal times (1992), 1–22, 188–9
  • G. Anstruther, The seminary priests, 4 vols. (1969–77), vol. 3, pp. 165–7; vol. 4, 211–12
  • R. B. Colvin, ‘Thomas Petre, 6th Baron Petre: lord lieutenant & custos rotulorum, 1687–88’, The lieutenants and keepers of the rolls of the county of Essex (1934), 109–14
  • J. G. O'Leary, ‘The declaration of indulgence in 1687/8 and the county of Essex’, Essex Recusant, 3 (1961), 89–93
  • N. C. Elliott, ‘The Roman Catholic community in Essex, 1625–1701’, Essex Recusant, 25/26 (1983–4), 1–70
  • N. C. Elliott, ‘The Roman Catholic community in Essex, 1625–1701’, Essex Recusant, 27 (1985), 1–75
  • P. Coverdale, ‘Ralph Standish Howard's wooing of Lady Catherine Petre’, Essex Recusant, 22 (1979), 60–78
  • F. J. A. Skeet, The life of the Right Honourable James Radcliffe, third earl of Derwentwater (1929)
  • D. Shanahan, ‘Benjamin Petre, bishop of Prusa and vicar apostolic of the London district, 1672–1758’, Essex Recusant, 17 (1975), 39–41
  • W. V. Smith, ‘Benjamin Petre and the earl of Derwentwater’, Essex Recusant, 18 (1976), 106–7
  • B. C. Foley, ‘Bonaventure Giffard (1642–1734)’, Some people of the penal times (1991), 67
  • D. Piper, Petre family portraits (1956)
  • E. S. Worrall, ‘Bishop Challoner's visitations in Essex’, Essex Recusant, 24 (1982), 16
  • S. Foster, ‘The reluctant shepherd: the episcopal appointment of Bishop Benjamin Petre’, Opening the scrolls, ed. D. A. Bellenger (1987), 115–34
  • D. Defoe, A tour through the eastern counties of England, ed. R. A. N. Dixon (1984), 141
  • P. Morant, The history and antiquities of the county of Essex, 2 (1768)


  • Westm. DA, papers of Benjamin Petre


  • J. Kerseboom (Thomas Petre), Ingatestone Hall, Essex
  • portrait (Catherine Petre), Ingatestone Hall, Essex
  • portrait (Anna Maria Barbara Petre), Ingatestone Hall, Essex
  • portraits (Robert Petre), Ingatestone Hall, Essex
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
Essex Record Office
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