Edward and John Risdon

Although it could be the case that there is enough known individually about these two brothers, the fifth and sixth sons of Giles Risdon the elder, to justify presenting them each on a separate page (albeit small), because their biographies are linked by a common element — the Catholic persuasion of their religion — it made sense to do that on a combined page.

Edward Risdon was baptised, according to the Heralds’ lineage chart (for some detail about this, and how it came about, read the Coat of Arms page sidenotes) at Parkham, on the first of June 1541. It seems fairly obvious from all the comparative indicators for the time that the family was relatively quite wealthy so, as a consequence, it is very likely that all the male scions would have been educated, possibly by a live-in tutor, especially if their home, Bableigh, was a ‘manor house’ as has been claimed; whether the daughters would have been similarly indulged is another matter, but there is every reason to think that they might have been. The natural progression for an educated young gentleman at this time would have been for him to continue his education at university, which is indeed what Edward Risdon did, by ‘going up’ to Oxford.

It has to remain a matter of speculation, however, as to when he finished his home schooling, and if there was an intervening period before he went up to university, during which he might have engaged in some sort of ‘life experience’: there does not seem to have been a ‘family business’ as such, apart from perhaps estate management (possibly including a certain amount of property speculation or acquisition: sidenote 4 on the Bableigh|Parkham page refers), with associated farming to a greater or lesser degree, although none of the male Risdons is shown on the lineage as a farmer, which is surely not simply pretension. Although it is known that he became a Jesuit priest, possibly straight out of university (while there is also some reason to doubt this: for which, see below), so it is probable that he would have taken his degree in a subject that prepared him for this vocation, and it was possible for a student to be a declared Jesuit,1 some degree of caution would nevertheless have been required: after the freedom for Catholics of the Mary Tudor and then Philip and Mary reigns, Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, prepared to be accommodating if at all possible to Catholicism, but events conspired to convince her to reverse what some in her realm saw as its excesses, so it is also very possible that Edward completed his catholic training at Douai in France, which was safer for Catholics at that time.2

The Heralds’ lineage chart also states that he was one of the founders of the College of Douais [sic], which is a rather sweeping claim that needs some clarification. With reference to note 2, there was not a single ‘College of Douai’; there was the University of Douai, which had five faculties: theology, canon and civil law, medicine and arts. It was William Allen, also an Oxford man, who had the idea for a seminary for English Catholic priests, with studies linked to those of the university.3 The college was founded in 15694 and only a few years after foundation, Allen’s personality and influence had attracted more than 150 students to the college. The Jesuit influence came about because in the early 17th century, the students attended the Jesuit schools and all the spiritual direction was in Jesuit hands. A visitation of the college found many shortcomings in its administration, however, and the third president, Dr. Thomas Worthington, was replaced by Matthew Kellison, who succeeded in restoring the reputation of the college and gradually arranged for tuition to be once again given by the College itself rather than the Jesuits (see note 2 for the link to the English College): this notwithstanding, Edward presumably did not see any conflict between the aims of the college and his desire to become a Jesuit priest.

The Register of Exeter College gives some information regarding Edward’s time there, but it also gives some useful information about the atmosphere in the country, when it says that “… in Elizabeth’s time the state of things altered, the Council of Trent made compromise impossible.5 … Romanism was still strong in Devon and Cornwall, whence so many of the members of the College came. … These were chiefly such as came out of the western parts, where popery greatly prevailed and the gentry bred up in that religion. … Robert Yendall, Vicar of the College living of Menheniot, was one of those who abandoned their livings in 1559. He ‘fled from the river of Exemouth to Morlaix in Brittany. Smart, a prebendary of Exeter, went with him.’ Edward Risdon too ‘was very instrumental in the foundation of Douay College in 1568.’”6 The Register also has a detailed entry for each Fellow, and it is worth reproducing Edward’s here:

Edward Risdon (s. Giles, of Bableigh), bap. Parkham I June I54I, Dev. 4 Mch 156o/I, res. 2o Jan. 156¾ ‘duplici sacerdotio donatus’ (i.e. having taken two livings, viz. R. of Mawgan, Cornwall 1562, of Sutcombe, Devon 1564); B.A. 29 Oct. 1562, ‘sojourning in College’ 1565, M.A. 17 May 1566; Jesuit priest, one of the founders of Douai College; no one appeared for some time to stand for the fellowships of Chichester and Risdon; Athenæ i. 5I3, Visit. Devon 649, Dodd’s Church History, Trans. Devon Assoc. I886, N. and Gleanings i. I52, I75.



Dev.—Devon. [not in original]



s.—son of. [not in original]

In addition to the glossary of abbreviations shown above, a few words need to said to explain some of the terms in Edward’s Register entry. The custom of showing two years together (with what appears to be a fraction for the final digit) has been explained elsewhere, but to reiterate: at this time, i.e., before 1582, the Julian Calendar was still in use, and the new year began on March 25, so this convention is a later device to indicate the transition period between December 31 and March 24. This minor, but potentially significant aspect of history can be potentially problematic for unprepared family historians.7 It appears that Edward considered the university to be his home for an extended period; i.e., from being elected to fellowship8 in March 1561, to when he graduated with his M.A. in May 1566; in between, as well as his study, were two sabbaticals (what we would now call ‘placements’), referred to as “livings” at Mawgan, Cornwall, and Sutcombe, Devon: no doubt, where “romanism was still strong” (see above). What he did between May 1566 and Michaelmas Day, 1568, when William Allen leased a house in Douai (see sidenote 4) is unknown, but it is more than possible that Edward was also in Douai, assisting with preparations. The definition of ‘sojourning in College 1565’ is open to question: the meaning given in the Register is simply an “ordinary undergraduate”9 but that appears to be erroneous in this case — given that he had already been a Bachelor for three years, here it is more likely to be used in the sense of a temporary practitioner, either as a tutor, or a priest of some description.

What became of Edward after co-founding the English College is unknown; what can be stated with certainty is that he was not one of the one hundred and fifty-eight College members, priests and laymen, secular and religious, who became known as the Blessed Martyrs of Douai College;10 these were men who returned to England, fervently (but indubitably ill-advisedly) wanting to re-convert Protestants to the “true religion”, and their fate was to be hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason, simply for being a Catholic priest. The obvious probability is that Edward stayed at Douai to educate & encourage new priests.

At the end of the Middle Ages (generally reckoned to be 1500, although “this is contested by scholars”; reference Wikipedia) and the beginning of what is commonly referred to as the modern era, although the Church of England was funded by the State,11 this would only have covered the property element, so the ordained incumbents were funded by the local gentry and landowners, and this was referred to as the “living”. Willcocks12 tells us that the gift of the living at the Rectory of Parkham was held for a period in the later 16th century by Thomas Risdon the elder, and it was ‘presented’ to his younger brother John: he was instituted to the Rectory on the 16th of January 1576. This is apparently confirmed by one of John’s grandsons,13 who also tells us that the Risdon heirs presented “one time in three”,14 and that the other two times were the responsibility of another local family, the Bassetts, into which family the Risdons will undoubtedly have married somewhere along the line. This is an intimation of a sort of local ‘pecking order’, but it would also have meant that the financial burden of supporting the local church did not fall entirely on the shoulders of one family.

In 1622, John Risdon was living at Bableigh with his family, according to Berta Lawrence,15 so either the church in the village of Parkham did not have a Rectory, or John chose to continue living at Bableigh (or to return there if there was not sufficient space at the Rectory: he is known to have had at least 2 sons). Ostensibly, John was a Church of England Rector, but he was playing a dangerous game: he was continuing to live by the Catholic faith within his own household, and he employed The Reverend Father (Dom) Philip Powel, alias Morgan, of The Order of Saint Benedict, as his chaplain. Lawrence’s monograph gives quite a good, concise biography of Powel, but it is worth giving some relevant details here. He was born in 1594 near Abergavenny, south Wales, not far from the border with England, and attended a grammar school built using funds from the local priory that had been dissolved by Henry VIII; there, and at home, “he was nurtured in the proscribed Catholc faith.” He came to the attention of a local man, David Baker, who had studied at the Inner Temple, before becoming a priest in 1613, taking the name Dom David Augustine Baker. He paid for Philip Powel to study at the University of Louvain and sent him, with his own nephew, to St Gregory’s, Douai, where the novice master was a Welshman. Powel was professed a monk in 1614, and ordained as a priest in 1618, but presumably stayed at Douai until 1622, when he returned to England.

After a few months in London, under Baker’s tuition, Powel travelled to Parkham, to take up the position of chaplain for the Risdon household; Lawrence does not shed any light on how this might have come about, but Baker would have been a contemporary of the Risdons at the Inner Temple,16 and even if Edward Risdon had died before Powel arrived at Douai, it is possible that Edward’s reputation and background could have been a contributory factor in the choice of location. Powel was ostensibly “on a mission to Catholics living in … the English west country”, but the primary objective of conversion, or re-conversion, was not necessary here: the relationship would have been symbiotic, with the young man Powel dispensing the benefit of his vocation to a willing & receptive audience, and John Risdon providing a supportive domicile in which Powel could establish roots for his mission. Lawrence describes Powel’s hosts, the Risdons as “a distinguished Devon family, several of them barristers and Benchers of the Inner Temple”, noting the Thomas (the younger) who became Recorder of Torrington, and she comments on the “rather curious circumstance” of Thomas’s presentation of the living at Parkham to John, “as the Risdons were one of the few dauntless Catholic families in the neighbourhood of Bideford and Barnstaple.” She also notes the financial support of the local Catholic families for the church, and the connections by marriage.17

Powel performed his duties unmolested for two years at the Risdon household “although the threat of persecution hung like a thunder-cloud over Catholc families even in this remote district.” By way of a minor digression, Lawrence relates two occasions when John’s nephew Giles, “lately of Bableigh in the parish of Parkham, gent.” (which almost seems to suggest a surrender of the property, but this isn’t borne out by the Heralds’ lineage: both namesake son & grandson continued to occupy Bableigh) was penalised for recusancy18 under the 1581 Act.19 The first, which looks to have been quite severe (as in costly, not life-threatening) was in 1594, and the second was two years later, when Giles’s wife was also penalised.20 After the two years, Powel moved on, although Lawrence does not offer any explanation of why that might have been; John lived for another four years after this, so perhaps he considered that his children were sufficiently old as to not need the ‘education’, or perhaps he felt he had risked detection for long enough.

Powel moved about 80km east to Leighland, near Old Cleeve in west Somerset, to the household of Catholic landowner Giles Poyntz, who had also studied at the Inner Temple, so there was obviously a network of like-minded and well-placed men, even then: the connection which possibly facilitated the move was Giles Poyntz’s grandfather Edward, who hailed from Alwington, next door to Parkham and, while Edward left a brother at Alwington, he bought property in Dunster, north Somerset (although he still retained his Devon property); also, Edward’s wife Margaret was a daughter of “the sturdily Catholic Amyas Chichester of Arlington who could boast of nineteen sons and four daughters.” Notwithstanding any sympathy for the fecund Mrs Chichester, it is highly likely that Amyas was related to Henry Chichester, Edward Risdon’s contemporary at Oxford (see sidenote 6). With the coming of the Civil War, Powel moved back to Devon, a staunch royalist area, and Lawrence asserts that the Risdons, as well as the Coffins, offered him refuge temporarily, but she offers no attribution for this, and no other sources have so far been found to corroborate this. Powel ministered to Goring’s Catholic troops in Cornwall for six months thereafter, but when they disbanded, Powel tried to flee to Wales; unfortunately for him, the parliamentarian vessel that intercepted the boat had two Bideford men on board, who recognised Powel as a priest, so he was arrested. He was condemned to death, and executed in the customary way on Tuesday 30th of June 1646.

It is most likely that the Risdon family supported the royalist cause in the Civil War, but it is not known if any of them suffered loss of life and/or property as a result; this support could have taken the form of funding and facilitating a local militia, which could have been called for again forty years later, during the Monmouth Rebellion (for details, go to the Coat of Arms page. John Risdon did not live to see the Civil War: he was buried on the 3rd of May 1628, at Parkham. After Powel left his service, John presumably lived out his days in the service of the church, but he will have been able to share this dedication with at least one of his sons, his namesake John, who was also a Church of England cleric, with a living at Bishops’ Teignton, Devon (see sidenote 13). The first John is mildly admonished, posthumously, by the Rector of Parkham between 1864 and 1889, Edward Hensley M.A., Cam., in an introduction to a 1906 publication for the Devon and Cornwall Record Society of the transcription of the parish registers, undertaken by John Ingle Dredge, Vicar of Buckland Brewer (1874-1897), when he laments the use by John of pumice on the parchment used for the marriage register;21 however, he is praised for his assiduity in sending copies of the baptism register to the Diocesan Registry;22 also, the poor state in which the registers were found by Hensley when he took over in 1864 (and which appeared not to concern the local farmers of the congregation) could certainly not have been attributed to John Risdon!23