Posts Tagged ‘Harvington Hall’

Nicholas Owen at work (adapted from an original drawing by Ian Fletcher)

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.

Oxford in HDR (Max-Design on Flickr:Click image)

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.

Fr Henry Garnet

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.

A typical older hide - cut the floorboards, disappear down the shaft & cover the entrance(Harvington Hall)

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”

Scotney Castle - hiding place made by Nicholas Owen? (Photo by Tom Hills on Flickr)

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.

Baddesley Clinton - scene of a close escape aided by an Owen hide (click image to read story)

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.

The Tower of London - scene of Owen's death

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.

Oxburgh Hall - site of a probable Nicholas Owen hide (nickpix on Flickr)

(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

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This post continues the Civil war theme of last week with a look at how the musket was used and also what might happen if a person was hit.

Maintaining a constant rate of fire.

As you can see from the previous post, firing the gun was not an easy process. An experienced person might manage just under 3 shots a minute but the rate of fire would most often be about one shot every 30 seconds. In order to maintain a constant volley of fire, groups of musketeers were arranged in ranks. Whilst the person at the front would be firing, the three people behind would be re-loading. As the first person discharged his gun he would retreat to the back of the line and begin re-loading,  the gunner at the front would then fire before returning to the back to load again. In this way the gunners would advance across the battlefield towards the enemy lines – firing more or less continually.

Comparison with the longbow.

Before this period the English longbow was the most feared weapon on the battlefield. It is interesting to note that the longbow has a longer useful range  than the more technologically advanced musket. It is estimated that a longbow could shoot an arrow up to at least 180 yards – compared to 70 to 100 yards for the musket. There is an idea that the musket was used because it was easier and quicker to train someone to use it. Another idea is that the longbow simply fell out of fashion – eventually there were less people who could use them in battle.

The Musket ball and it’s effectiveness.

12 bore musket ball

12 bore musket ball

This is a 12 bore musket ball and it measures about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. The term ‘bore’ comes from the number of balls that can be made from a pound of lead. It is possible to make 12 of these balls from a pound of lead. Sixteen bore shot was also commonly made i.e. 16 smaller balls from a pound of lead.

As stated in the last post test firing has revealed these guns to be much more accurate than expected but what effect did they have ?

It is generally thought that at up to a range of 30 yards the ball would go straight through a man. At a greater range it would still be enough to cause very significant injuries. At this time,  any serious wound would be almost certainly prove to be fatal. In his excellent book about the Civil War, Trevor Royle describes the death of a soldier called Gabriel Ludlow who was  wounded in the battle of Marston Moor

his belly broken and bowels torn, his hip bone broken, all the shivers and the bullet lodged in it’

Of course,  for poor Gabriel and thousands of others like him there was little chance of survival. The wound would have fragments of cloth and dirt driven into it, although not immediately fatal,  it would certainly become septic quite soon – causing a prolonged and painful death to the victim.

Just in case all this hasn’t put you off why not learn to be a Musketeer yourself?

(This is the second of a two part post – see also ‘Musket’



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This post has a Civil War theme – one of our occasional excursions away from the normal Tudor period.  Harvington Hall had a living history weekend at the end of August.  The Hall really comes to life during these occasions as there is always a wide range of re-enactors from a variety of different historical periods (click here to see the diary of events at the Hall – by the way, if you contact the Hall you can ask to be kept informed of future events, some sell out quite quickly )

Ian the deputy Hall manager was demonstrating  the use of this gun for the benefit of Hall visitors and kindly agreed to talk to Tudor Stuff.

Priming the gun

Priming the gun

Ian is holding is a musket of a type used in the English Civil War. This gun has an effective range of 70 to a maximum of 100 yards although it’s accuracy drops off sharply beyond it’s minimum range. It is often said that these weapons were quite innacurate but apparently the gun was much more accurate than expected when tested with live ammunition.

Process of firing the gun.

Firstly, Ian takes the priming flask which contains very fine gunpowder and pours it into the circular flash pan.  This is where the term ‘a flash in the pan’ comes from i.e. the gunpowder in the pan goes off but fails to ignite the powder inside the gun – resulting in a lot of smoke but nothing else.

Loose powder is blown away and then the musket is turned upwards to allow for gunpowder to be poured down the barrel.  A ball is then rolled down the barrel, in practice, an experienced gunner would hold several of these in his mouth and spit them down the barrel – people were unaware of the dangers from lead poisoning at the time!

The next thing is to add some wadding, ideally a bit of cloth but some grass would do just as well in an emergency. This partly serves to keep everything tightly in the barrel but is mainly neccesary because it causes the ball to be ejected more powerfully – thereby increasing accuracy and damage caused.  The scouring stick is then removed, pushed down the barrel so that the powder, ball and wadding sits at the bottom.

The match is a piece of cord impregnated with saltpetre which once set alight burns with a steady glow. Ian blows on this to make sure it is alight and then threads it into the ‘serpentine’, so called because it looks like a snake. This mechanism will plunge the lighted cord into the gunpowder in the flash pan – this causes the gunpowder in the barrel to ignite – ejecting the ball from the gun at an estimated speed of around 300 metres per second.

As mentioned above, these guns are more accurate than many would expect, however, there most effective use was probaly when fired into a crowd of opposing soldiers. The next post will say a little more about tactics as well as discussing the injuries these weapons would have caused.

PS Many thanks to Ian Fletcher at Harvington Hall for help in putting the post together.

Don’t forget the second part of this post ‘ The Musket – use in battle and a dreadful injury’



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On a busy day Harvington Hall attracts many visitors. As well as enjoying the history of the Hall it is a wonderfully peaceful and restful place. Someone once remarked that as soon as you cross the moat it can feel as if time has stood still here. If you have even a bit of imagination it is easy to sit quietly in the Hall and think about the people who once lived here.

I like to know everything that happens here

I like to know everything that happens here

Sometimes I like to try and see in my mind’s eye what it must have looked like. A lot of posts on Tudor Stuff have focused upon the big players on the Tudor stage, King Henry and his wives, Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Cromwell or Shakespeare. Otherwise, we talk about religion, persecution, torture – events that still have echoes today.
What about the ordinary folk though? I suspect that for the common people life (usually) went on, untroubled by events at court.  What would it be like to talk to these people? – what would they tell us about their lives?

Let’s go back to 1608 and meet Susan, a lady’s maid.

Susan in the herb garden

I am Lady’s maid to Mistress Abigail Packington.  She is married to the Master of the House, Humphrey Packington and she comes from a fine family in Derbyshire, the Sacheverell family.

My day begins early, before the sun is up. I make sure that my mistress has her clothes laid out to wear and that she has water to wash with. Mistress Packington says her prayers every morning before breakfast and I go with her to the little chapel in the house. The Master and Mistress like to keep to the old religion and so do I.

After breakfast, I go about my duties. I have to look after the Mistress’ things and  her own chamber. I make it my business to know what is going around the house and the mistress likes me to tell her what is going on. All of the servants have to look up to me and as I am responsible for helping the Mistress with her clothes and personal things I get to talk to her quite a lot – especially when the master is away on business. My clothes are quite nice too – I have a proper pair of shoes, an underskirt and a nice dress. I carry a lot of keys too – I know where the jewellery is and I am trusted by the Mistress.

I am trusted with things that the other servants don’t hear about too.

I was one of the first to hear that Mistress Abigail was pregnant, I was there this summer when the baby was born – a little baby girl. I was there at her Christening and at her funeral, poor little thing. That was hard on the Mistress.

Abigail Sacheverall

Abigail Sacheverall (1630)

I know about things that happen here too, things that other folk don’t know and have no business knowing.  I see the Priests that come here and I hear them say the Mass – poor things they are too! Some of them are so young; and they are so brave – especially when everyone knows what dreadful things will happen to them if they are caught by the priest hunters. There are so many treacherous people around these days, spies that would betray us – but they will never hear anything from me!

That is all from Susan right now but over the next few weeks I will try to introduce you to a few more of the people around the Hall.


PS – Historical note: The character ‘Susan’ is completely fictional. The above account  is a creative mixture of fact and imagination.

On the 23rd of June 1608 there is a record of the christening and burial of ‘Mistress Abigail Packington’ daughter of Humphrey and Abigail.


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Bedroom at Harvington - a hide is directly above this room

Bedroom at Harvington - a hide is directly above this room

Across the UK there are said to be around a hundred old houses which still have a Priest hole.  Harvington Hall is famous for it’s seven hides – more than any surviving house. Several of these hides can be seen by visitors to the Hall today. Visitors who don’t suffer from claustrophobia (and who are also fairly thin!) are allowed to enter one of the hides when accompanied by a guide.

You can see the entrance to the staircase hide in this post (well sort of, you have to come to the Hall to really see where it is!). This time I thought it would be good to let you see inside the biggest hide at the Hall, but I can’t show you the entrance – again, come to the Hall and someone will be happy to show you this.

Grafitti in the Attic - written 114 years & 8 days ago!

Grafitti in the Attic - 114 years & 3 days old!

A hide in the ceiling space.

In an earlier post I used this picture (very top of this post) of a bedroom at Harvington Hall. What I didn’t mention at the time was that anyone standing in this room would be very close to a hiding place – so close that they could be overheard by anyone in the hide. The room has an unusually high ceiling, and it may be that it’s height is intended to disguise the fact that just above is the largest hide in the house.

A disorientating jumble of beams

A disorientating jumble of beams

The attic, a disorientating place to be.

Entered through a secret passage in one of the bedrooms, the rooftop hide is by far the biggest hide at the Hall. As soon as you enter the attic space you are confronted by a jumble of beams – it is quite easy to become disorientated as to your whereabouts in relation to the Hall below. Of course, this confusion served the purpose of the hide builder perfectly.

The end of the roof space?

The end of the roof space?

The rooftop hide (in common with several other such hides at Harvington) is assumed to be the work of Nicholas Owen, the master builder of such places. At one point there is a false hide, intended to confuse searchers and recognised as a trademark of Owen’s. At the end of the building one comes to a wall, at about chest height there is an entrance to a large space beyond. At one time this entrance had hinges and a bolt, any searcher coming across this may well have assumed that they had reached the end of the building. In John Gerards autobiography he describes a similar hide in a house in London which was ‘built in a secret gable in the roof’ and that he had occasion to use during a search in July 1599.

Searchers gone & the hide opens to reveal a large space beyond

Searchers gone & the hide opens to reveal a large space beyond

A search at Harvington?

There is no record of Harvington ever having been searched – which is perhaps a little strange because the owner of the Hall, Humphrey Packington was known to the authorities as someone sympathetic to the outlawed catholic cause. Like a lot of the stories about Harvington Hall, the truth is only partly known and to a great extent the Hall keeps it’s secrets to itself – I feel quite sure that the original builders would be quite satisfied with this.

The Colditz connection.

One story about this hide is that the Hall was visited a few years back by people who had been held as prisoners of war at Colditz castle. There is a famous story that they built a glider in the attic of the castle, planning to use this in an escape attempt ( click here for more about this story). Apparently, these visitors were shocked to learn of the similarities between their hide and the one at Harvington. Many of the techniques developed to disguise the entrance to the Colditz hide had been thought up over 300 years earlier by whoever built the hide at Harvington.

Priests bedroom - imagine the ceiling has vanished & this is what you might see?

Priests bedroom - imagine the ceiling has vanished & this is what you might see?

(PS Important note – the panel shown on the picture above, entitled ‘the end of the roof space’ does not exist. I made this in Photoshop as a representation of how this may have looked.)



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top of stairs4

This post takes a look at the main staircase at Harvington Hall. Like a lot of things at Harvington it has a bit of a story to tell – some of which can be told in this post, and some of it not!middle stairs smaller

A grand entrance

The original staircase dates from about 1600. This would have provided important visitors with a suitably grand entrance.

Harvington Hall was built by Humphrey Packington around 1578. After he died the Hall passed to his daughter Mary Yate. After Mary died, the Hall passed by marriage to the Throckmorton family from nearby  Coughton Court.

A replacement staircase

The Hall was not regularly lived in for over 200 years and a great many of the fixtures and fittings at Harvington were taken out.  If you want to see the original Harvington Hall staircase you have to travel to Coughton to see it. The staircase that we see today is an exact copy built between 1936 and 1947. The only things remaining at Harvington from the original construction are some candlesticks made from the bannisters and the shadow painting of the staircase seen on the walls in the pictures on this page.

half way down the stairs

A hidden purpose?

The original staircase was built around 1600 and was a substantial improvement to the Hall. However, there is a theory that this development may have served another more secret purpose.

Of the seven hiding places at Harvington, four are to be found close to the staircase. These are the most ingenious hides and the ones thought to be the work of Nicholas Owen – the famous hide builder.

In a house such as Harvington which was being used to hide Catholic Priests an attempt was made to employ servants (often Catholic themselves) who could be trusted to keep quiet about what was going on in the house. Despite this, there was always the possibility of the authorities being tipped off. Hide building and the location of such hides would have been a secret known only to a few people.

In order to make a secret hide it would have been necessary to cut through plaster, bricks, and wooden beams. As with any building project this would have involved a lot of mess and noise.  It is thought likely that the staircase construction also served to hide the activity of the hide builder.

A secret –  hidden somewhere on this page!

The entrance to one of the most ingenious hides left anywhere is hidden somewhere on this staircase. The actual hide is quite a large one, over 5ft by 5ft wide and 6ft high, when it was found it contained the remains of a  rush mat that had been left there. There is also a story that it was once possible to spy on people in the great hall from this hide.

The entrance to this hide can clearly be seen in one the pictures on this page – exactly where is it? – well, that is a secret!

stairs side


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Harvington Hall, the Malt House

Until recently, the Malt House at Harvington Hall was closed to the public. In 2007 the Hall was awarded a Heritage Lottery Grant to enable restoration. The work was completed whilst the Hall was closed for the winter and is now open to visitors.

Inside the Malt House were many original features including an 18th Century kiln, the perforated tiles of the drying floor and a hoist for raising sacks of barley.   All of these have been incorporated into the restoration, along with information panels describing life at Harvington in the 18th Century.

Harvington Hall was once at the centre of a 6000 acre estate, the Malt House exhibition centre gives details about this as well as telling more about the lives of people who lived and worked here over the years.

The Malt House - before restoration. (Ruth Bourne on Flickr, Click image)

The Malt House - before restoration. (Ruth Bourne on Flickr, Click image)

There is a new audio-visual display, so that those who have difficulty accessing the upper floors of the Hall can learn all about it.   There is now room for a classroom, with interactive children’s games upstairs, and the top floor is an archive storage space.

Malting, an important task.

The Malt House was first built in Tudor times and was originally used as a stable or barn.  Whatever it’s original purpose,  it was being used for malting barley by the 18th century. This was a process which turned the locally grown barley into beer.

A skilled craftsman was required to oversee the malting process. In the 18th century this job was done at Harvington by a man called Randall Bagnall who would see that the following steps were completed.

Once threshed, the barley was taken by cart to the Malt House where it was steeped (soaked) on the ground floor for at least two days. After this the grains were spread out on the first floor where they were left to germinate. This part of the process which took between ten and twenty days required that a constant temperature be maintained.

The germinated barley was moved up another floor where it was left to dry for four days, during this time it was regularly turned.

Once dried, the barley was fed down a chute onto the curing floor – above the kiln. Here it was spread out on perforated tiles, a process which gave the grains a lovely aroma and flavour.

In the last part of the process the kilned grains were put into sacks and taken to the Hall. In the Brewhouse, hops and yeast were added to make beer.

Barley ( Photo by Earthwatcher on Flickr - click image)

Barley ( Photo by Earthwatcher on Flickr - click image)

Beer – an essential drink.

In the past, beer was an important drink for ordinary English people. We still talk about ‘small beer’ as being something which is of little importance but in the past, it was far from being unimportant. Small beer, which is produced from a second and third use of the barley was drunk by everyone from labourers in the fields to their children. This was because water was often unsafe to drink, unlike the beer which contained enough alcohol to kill harmful bacteria.

Come and see Harvington Hall for yourself!

As you may know, Tudor Stuff blog is a bit biased when it comes to Harvington Hall. However, in our opinion the Malt House restoration is another reason that a visit to the Hall is essential for anyone interested in the history of the Tudor period.

The Malt House

The Malt House by Hall volunteer David Parkes

See also post entitled ‘Drunken Bidford’

NB This post contains information reproduced from material originally written by Michael Hodgetts and Sherida Breeden at Harvington Hall.

Photo at top of post by Imagemakers Interpretive Design and Consulting


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