This blog has covered various aspects of Catholic persecution during the Elizabethan and early Stuart period. Many of the characters involved are well known to us and would have been recognised as ‘players’ in the struggle between the authorities and the Catholic underground movement.
People such as John Gerard, Henry Garnet and Richard Topcliffe were well known figures of the day, however, for the most part, the supporting players are forgotten. This post looks at Nicholas Owen, who despite spending his time in the background, nevertheless managed to play a vital part in preserving the Catholic faith in England.
A carpenters son from Oxford
Nicholas Owen was born in St Peter le Bailey in Oxford. His father, Walter Owen was a carpenter and Nicholas followed him into this trade when he was apprenticed for a period of 8 years on February 2nd 1577.
Oxford at this time was a centre of Catholic recusancy and it is clear that Catholicism was a strong influence onthe Owen family. Nicholas had three brothers, two of whom became Priests and one who was known as a printer of secret Catholic pamphlets and religious materials.
In 1588 Nicholas was engaged as a manservant by Henry Garnet (see earlier post) who was at that time the Jesuit superior in England. Garnet employed Nicholas’ carpentry and building skills in the service of the recusant Catholic movement.
Hiding holes across England
Today, England contains around about a hundred houses which have a secret hiding place. Many of these are of a simpler design i.e. a hole in the floor leading to a space below, usually within a wall. The hide entrance is covered by a hatch which would have been hidden with reeds and rushes typically used to cover floors during this period. Harvington Hall has two such hides and a similar hide at Moseley Old Hall was used to conceal Charles the Second after the defeat and flight from Worcester in 1651.
The master craftsman of the secret hiding place
Unlike the simple (and predictable design) of the older hides, Nicholas Owen’s constructions are recognised because of the ingenuity of their construction.
Alan Fea’s book ‘Secret Chambers and Hiding Places’ (freely available to download on Project Gutenberg) contains a description of Owens work;
“With incomparable skill,” says an authority, “he knew how to
conduct priests to a place of safety along subterranean passages,
to hide them between walls and bury them in impenetrable recesses,
and to entangle them in labyrinths and a thousand windings”
Although it is possible to question the accuracy of Feas work ( hide builders didn’t generally make subterreanean passages for example) the ingenuity of Owens work cannot be questioned.
Nicholas Owens hides were always different, discovering one in a house would not help a searcher to find a hide in another house. Often ceilings and floors were raising or lowered and hides were concealed in roof spaces, behind panelling and walls, in or below false fireplaces.
Owen worked alone and despite his small stature (hence the nickname ‘little John’) he must have been a really powerful man. Creation of the hides involved cutting through walls, floors and wooden beams. Nicholas Owens work helped to save lives onmore than one occasion (see example) and he was probably also involved in a spectacular escape from the Tower of London.
Martyrdom in the Bloody Tower
His knowledge of the Catholic underground movement must have been vast – he was a prize catch for the authorities and the fact that he died (see link to earlier post) rather than reveal his secrets helped to elevate him to heroic status among his peers and amongst people ever since.
Nicholas Owen was canonised in 1970 – he has a church named after him in Lancaster.
(PS Check out this photography website owned by Nick who took the Oxburgh Hall photograph)
Also, I have linked to this film before but if you haven’t seen it I thought you might want to take a look, it gives some background to Nicholas Owen’s work at Harvington Hall.
And finally – check out ‘Henry, mind of a tyrant’ theme – now available to download – see details on Philip Sheppards blog