The Arundells originally came from Lanherne in Cornwall. Sir Thomas Arundell was granted certain lands of Shaftesbury Abbey in 1547 after the dissolution of the monasteries, although he retained clear Catholic sympathies and was executed for plotting against Dudley, the Protestant Duke of Northumberland in 1552. His grandson, another Thomas, was involved in the capture of Esztergom in Hungary from the Ottoman Turks in 1595 and was created Count of the Holy Roman Empire to the intense displeasure of Elizabeth I, who promptly imprisoned him on his return for his effrontery in assuming a foreign title. He succeeded his father in 1598 and was subsequently created first Lord Arundell of Wardour by James I.
At this period, the Arundells lived at Old Wardour Castle, down in the valley, which was redesigned by Smythson, who was working at Longleat at the same time. It was visited by Charles I, but subsequently ruined in the English Civil War. Apart from a brief period of conforming in the early years of the 17th century, the Arundells remained staunch Catholics; the third Lord Arundell of Wardour was imprisoned in the Tower of London during the Popish Plot of 1678.
During the 18th century, the Arundells repaired their fortunes by a series of judicious marriages to heiresses. Henry, eighth Lord Arundell of Wardour succeeded in 1756 at the age of 16 while studying abroad at St Omer. He married Mary Conquest of Irnham Hall in Lincolnshire in 1763. His mother died in 1769, and after her death he determined to build New Wardour Castle.
After various vacillations, he chose James Paine as his architect. Paine was a disciple of Palladio, and he designed a house of proportion and elegant austerity between 1770 and 1775.
This part of Wiltshire had at the time the largest Catholic population outside London. In 1780, the Vicar of Semley wrote to the Bishop of Salisbury, in his annual return "should the number of Papists seem large for this parish, which is not a populous one, your Lordship will easily account for it from the vicinity to Wardour Castle". There were in 1780 43 Catholics in Semley and 324 in Tisbury; Ansty was almost entirely Catholic.
Paine disguised the chapel. A Catholic place of worship at this period could not be freestanding, and it was therefore placed in the west wing between bedrooms and the laundry. Pevsner however observed “....it is so grand in its decoration that it seems to express consciously......the spirit of the Catholic ecclesia triumphans".
In the background was Father John Thorpe, an English Jesuit resident in Rome. He wrote to Lord Arundell two or three times a month over a 24 year period; he was responsible for the altar, designed by Giacomo Quarenghi at a cost of 600 guineas. Quarenghi was known as "Palladio's shade upon account of his passion for that great man". Lord Arundell wanted a reticent altar in order not to offend protestant sensibilities. Fr Thorpe agreed: "angels holding candlesticks or crucifixes may look pretty in a drawing yet, if erected on an altar, will perhaps have too much of the puppet show in England ". He also opposed the erection of a baldacchino.
Christopher Hussey, in his Country Life article in November 1930, describes the altar as "consisting of porphyry, agate and pietro duro.... the tabernacle in the shape of a circular temple has a porphyry dome and jasper columns with silver capitals and enrichments". The altar was shipped from Rome in bits and was assembled on September 28, 1776.
Quarenghi went on to be Catherine the Great's architect and was for instance responsible for the Peterhof in St Petersburg. He was a curious figure and Fr Thorpe wrote to Lord Arundell: "your Palladio is one of the most clumsy looking fellows that your Lordship saw, passionately fond of music and ready to abandon everything for it: he works when his clothes are in pawn and he has not a groat to pay for his dinner. The English artists watch their times to get something from his pen. He is so full of genius and fire that he cannot touch wine, drinks nothing but plain water, a small glass of any liquor would raise him into a frenzy. Think, my Lord, what a man I have to deal with".
Fr Thorpe was also responsible for various other items in the chapel:
Of the paintings in the nave, one is by Gerard Seghers, four are ascribed to Gaspar de Crayer, and one is by Louis de Boullogne (his painting of Christ at the well with the Samaritan woman came from Notre Dame in Paris following the stripping of the Cathedral in the aftermath of the French Revolution).
The sarcophagus in the altar contains the relics of two unidentified early Christian martyrs, known colloquially as Primus and Secundus, sent from the catacombs in Rome by Pope Alexander VII as a gift for the chapel.
The chapel was opened by Bishop Walmsley, the Vicar Apostolic of the Western district, on the feast of All Saints 1776 with ecclesiastical ceremonial not seen by Catholics in England since the Reformation.
The Gordon riots in 1780 caused a fear that the chapel would be burnt. For a time, Lord Arundell arranged for a keeper of the peace to be present at all services. The rough pew at the back reserved for him is still there. In this year, it was reckoned that the church served a congregation of some 540 Catholics (compared with a total of some 40 or 50 Catholics in Salisbury).
In 1789, Lord Arundell resolved to extend the east (sanctuary) end of the chapel, and commissioned John Soane. This work was completed by March 1790. The flanking tribunes supported on Corinthian columns, the large segmented window behind the altar (with glass by Francis Eginton), the shallow dome above it and the low galleried wings are his work. Soane’s plasterwork and orders of architecture brilliantly extend Paine’s work but are richer and airier.
During the French Revolution Wardour provided a temporary refuge to a number of émigré clergy, including the Bishop of St Pol-de-Léon.
The passing of the Catholic Emancipation act in 1829 allowed the Lords Arundell again to play a part in public life.
In 1898 the chapel was made over to a trust created by the 12th Lord Arundell.
In 1944, John Francis Arundell, 16th and last Lord Arundell of Wardour and Count of the Holy Roman Empire, was repatriated from Colditz, suffering from tuberculosis. He died before reaching Wardour, and the estate was inherited by his Talbot cousins, descended from the Arundells through the female line.
The castle and a small part of the estate were purchased by the Jesuits (a policy known as objet d'Arcy), but they were unable to raise sufficient funds to adapt the house to their purposes. It subsequently became Cranborne Chase School for girls, before being turned into apartments in the 1990s.
In 1963, £30,000 was raised by appeal to restore the interior of the church. The American diocese of Baltimore with which Wardour has been linked since the 17th century contributed generously. In 2023 an appeal was launched to raise funds for the restoration of John Soane’s dome above the altar.
Michael Hodges, based largely on “Wardour - A short history” by Philip Caraman SJ 1984 ; updated 2023