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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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The Tower of London at night : Antoine Debroye on Flickr (click image)

The Tower of London at night : Antoine Debroye on Flickr (click image)

for alleged treason. Gerard had been facing accusations that he had tried to turn people from loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. As
part of his examination, he had been tortured which had left him in a weakened physical state. Had he eventually been found
guilty then he would have faced a terrible execution. A decision was made that Gerard would try to escape – but how could
this be done?
After bribing the warder, Gerard had been allowed to visit and conduct mass with a fellow Catholic called John Arden who had
been imprisoned following accusations of involvement in an anti-Government plot. Gerard was being held in a part of the Tower
of London called the Salt Tower which was across a garden from the Cradle Tower, where Arden was being held. Whilst visiting
Arden one day, Gerard realised that the Cradle Tower was close to the outside wall, which overlooked the moat at the foot of
the Tower of London. Gerard worked out that with outside assistance, it might be possible to lower oneself from the top of
the tower to the other side of the moat.
A letter (written partly in orange Juice) asking for help was smuggled out to Richard Fulwood, an old servant of Gerards, and
also to John Lillie a Catholic sympathiser. On October 3rd, 1597 Gerard and Arden were allowed to spend the evening together.
As soon as they warder had gone they began to loosen the stone around the bolt on a door which led to the roof of the cradle
tower. They reached the roof at midnight, in time to see a rowing boat containing three men approach the walls. As they were
about to make contact,a man came from a house below and assuming the men were fishing began to engage them in conversation.
Gerard waited patiently for the man to leave but by the time he left it was too late for an escape that night. The tide had
risen on the Thames and as the men rowed back towards Old London Bridge they were pinned by the rising water against the
piles of the bridge. At this point there was a danger of the boat capsizing – drowning the would be rescuers. Luckily, they
were saved by the presence of a large sea going boat and the skills of a group of sailors who managed to rescue them.
Thinking that the escape was doomed, Gerard was suprised to hear next day that the rescusers were going to try again. Waiting
again until they had been locked in the Tower together, Gerard and Arden climbed onto the roof. Throwing down a weighted cord
they raised up a rope that had been tied to it by the rescuers below. The plan had been to slide down the rope but the angle
it made meant that instead the escapers had to pull themselves hand over hand along it’s length. It is worth remembering that
Gerard had recently been tortured by being suspended in manacles, which made a hazardous descent even more difficult.
After his companion managed to climb down gerard realised that the rope which had been straight was now sagging – making the
climb even more difficult. Holding the rope between his legs, Gerard pulled himself out from the high roof. Half way across
he became exhausted and at one point was left hanging in the darkness, strength failing. Incredibly he managed to find
strength and reached the end of the rope too weak to pull himself up without help from Arden. Gerard was assisted into the
waiting boat which was rowed at speed away from the Tower of London.
Gerard was eventually smuggled out of England and escaped to live the rest of his life as an exile in Rome. Here, he wrote
his life story, ‘The Autobiography of an Elizabethan’ which is where the above account is taken from. I can really reccomend
this book to anyone who is interested in Elizabethan history. Whilst I at it I can also recommend the story of these times to
any Hollywood producer who happens to read this!

In 1597 the Tower of London was the scene of an incredible and daring escape. Had this happened recently it would end up being re-enacted by Hollywood. As it is, this is a little known event – but hopefully, a better known one when you have read this post.

Having been betrayed and captured by Pursuivants, the Jesuit Priest John Gerard had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, awaiting trial for alleged treason. Gerard had been facing accusations that he had tried to turn people from loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. As part of his examination, he had been tortured which had left him in a weakened physical state. Had he eventually been found guilty then he would have faced a terrible execution. A decision was made that Gerard would try to escape – but how could this be done?

Bribery & a secret message to the outside

After bribing the warder, Gerard had been allowed to visit and conduct mass with a fellow Catholic called John Arden who had been imprisoned following accusations of involvement in an anti-Government plot.

A map of the Tower of London 1597

A map of the Tower of London 1597

Gerard was being held in the Salt Tower – across a garden from the Cradle Tower, where Arden was being held. Whilst visiting Arden, Gerard realised that the Cradle Tower was close to the outside wall, overlooking the moat. Gerard calculated that with outside assistance, it might be possible to lower oneself by rope from the top of the tower to the other side of the moat and freedom.

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A letter written in Orange Juice – click image to see our earlier post on this subject

A letter (written partly in orange Juice) asking for help was smuggled out to Richard Fulwood, an old servant of Gerards, and also to John Lillie a Catholic sympathiser. Between them they helped to work out a possible, but dangerous escape plan.

A failed escape – which nearly ends in tragedy.

On October 3rd, 1597 Gerard and Arden were allowed to spend the evening together. As soon as they warder had gone they began to loosen the stone around the bolt on a door leading to the roof of the Cradle tower. They reached the roof at midnight, in time to see a rowing boat containing three men approach the walls. As they were about to make contact, a man came from a house below and assuming the men were fishing, began to engage them in conversation.

Gerard waited patiently for the man to leave but by the time he departed it was too late for an escape that night. Meanwhile, the tide had risen on the Thames and as the men rowed back towards Old London Bridge they were pinned by the rising water against the piles of the bridge. At this point there was a danger of the boat capsizing – drowning the would be rescuers. Luckily, they were saved by the presence of a large sea going boat and the skills of a group of sailors who managed to rescue them.

Old London Bridge - the Thames is powerful and dangerous at this point

Old London Bridge – the Thames is powerful and dangerous at this point

A second attempt is made

Thinking that the escape was doomed, Gerard was suprised to hear next day that the rescusers were going to try again. Waiting again until they had been locked in the Tower together, Gerard and Arden climbed onto the roof. Throwing down a weighted cord they raised up a rope that had been tied to it by the rescuers below. The plan had been to slide down the rope but the angle it made meant that instead the escapers had to pull themselves hand over hand along its length. It is worth remembering that Gerard had recently been tortured by being suspended in manacles, which made a hazardous descent even more difficult.

After his companion managed to climb down, Gerard realised that the rope which had been straight was now sagging – making the climb even more difficult. Holding the rope between his legs, Gerard pulled himself out from the high roof. Half way across he became exhausted and at one point was left hanging in the darkness, strength failing.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

‘I managed to work myself as far as the middle of the rope, and there I stuck. My strength was failing and my breath, which was short before I started, seemed altogether spent’

Incredibly he managed to struggle on, reaching the end of the rope too weak to pull himself up without help from Arden. Gerard was assisted into the waiting boat which was rowed at speed away from the Tower of London.

Escape and exile from England.

Gerard was eventually smuggled out of England and escaped to live the rest of his life as an exile in Rome. Here, he wrote his life story  ‘ The Autobiography of an Elizabethan‘  from which the above account is taken. His book is packed with stories about his life in Elizabeths England – well worth a read if you are interested in this period. Also, if you do read it then pass it on to any movie producers you come across as this would make a really great historical epic!

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The Rack.

The rack in the Tower of London was used throughout the Tudor period in England. It was reserved for those identified as having committed the most serious of crimes against the state.

In theory there were rules about the use of torture. For example, people were not meant to be tortured to death or tortured repeatedly. People who were physically weak were not mean to be tortured because they might not survive the process. Attempts were made to start with ‘milder’ tortures before moving on to the rack if all else failed.

1984 Burg Bewartstein Torture Devices 02 (broken thoughts Flickr: Click image)

1984 Burg Bewartstein Torture Devices 02 (broken thoughts Flickr: Click image)

Terrible physical damage.

On the rack, a victims legs and arms were tied to bars at either end of the device, rollers were then used to stretch the body.  The tension was maintained and gradually increased by use of a ratchet.

This caused terrible pain for the victim as well as increasing physical damage as the torture continued. Tendons were ripped, joints separated and bones fractured. The sounds of muscles and tendons tearing and snapping provided audible signs of the damage being done. A victim of the rack was often left with permanent physical disability. For example, because of injuries suffered after being racked three times the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion was unable to raise his hand to swear at his trial.

The rack

The manacles.

Eventually, public disgust led to the Rack’s use being restricted. Richard Topcliffe, a notorious torturer, claimed to have invented the use of ‘gauntlets’ or manacles as a torture instrument. This was considered to be a lesser form of torture, however, this distinction may well have been lost upon people who experienced it. John Gerard, another Jesuit Priest described being hung by his wrists from a post in a torture chamber in the Tower of London.

manacles-tower

‘ such a gripping pain came over me. It was worst in my chest and belly, my hands and arms. All the blood in my body seemed to rush up into my arms and hands and I thought that blood was oozing out from the ends of my fingers and the pores of my skin. But it was only a sensation caused by my flesh swelling above the irons holding them. The pain was so intense that I thought I could not possibly endure it.’

Gerard remained hanging for several hours and was only taken down after fainting. As soon as he revived he was put back into the manacles and suspended again. This continued until after 5’oclock when he was eventually returned to his cell. Incredibly, Gerard never broke and maintained his refusal to answer the questions put to him.

A terrible death.

Official reluctance to use torture was abandoned in cases of those suspected of involvement in the Gunpowder plot. In an incident which became infamous, Nicholas Owen the builder of secret hiding places was racked to death in the Tower of London. Owen, who was starved out of a hide during a search in Worcestershire was taken to the Tower for examination. Because of his knowledge about the secret Catholic organisation, Owen was a potentially valuable source of information.

Unfortunately for the authorities however, he never revealed any secrets and died on the rack without saying anything of use. An embarassed Government tried to suggest that he had killed himself with a knife. The truth is that an earlier injury ruptured and according to John Gerard ‘his bowels gushed out together with his life’ .

Torture – a controversial practice.

Official use of torture continued in England until the 1640’s. Throughout it’s use in this country it caused controversy, both on moral grounds as well as it’s usefulness – obviously, evidence obtained under torture has very limited use.

Sadly, this subject has current relevance as we continue to  hear discussion around the rights and wrongs of torture. The rack is no longer employed, having perhaps been replaced by ‘waterboarding’ ? We are left to question whether we have really moved on all that much from our Tudor predecessors?

PS Since writing this post I came across this – things really haven’t moved on much from the 16th/17th Century!

I also found this blog which is worth a look.

See also this related post about John Gerards eventual escape from the Tower as well as more about Topcliffe here

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PS – anyone got a spare Google wave invite? You could become Tudor Stuff flavour of the month? (if you do just leave a comment somewhere on the blog for me – it will never appear in public btw)

See also:

Google books Torture & democracy

Human rights education association

Medieval torture

Middle ages torture

Wikipedia – Torture

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Baddesley Clinton by Nala Rewop on Flickr (Click image) Baddesley Clinton by Nala Rewop on Flickr (Click image)

Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire is a moated house now owned by the National Trust. The house which partly dates from the 15th Century experienced one of it’s most dramatic events during the Tudor period.

During this time it was an offence to attend Catholic mass, people were fined for not attending Church of England services and Priests could suffer savage punishment. In an attempt to maintain the faith, priests were trained abroad, smuggled into the country and then hidden by a covert network of sympathisers. In Warwickshire, as elsewhere in England, many of the gentry continued to practice what they saw as the true faith. One such family were the Ferrers who owned Baddesley Clinton.

A secret conference.

In 1591, the house was the scene for a secret conference of Catholic Priests. Amongst those at the conference were the well known Jesuit Priests John Gerard, and Henry Garnet as well as seven or eight fellow Jesuits, other Priests and a few fugitive sympathisers. All of these people were being actively sought by the authorities and the capture of such a group would have dealt a serious blow to the secret Catholic mission to England.

Partly because of concern about the possibility of such a large group being captured the conference broke up early. Several people departed leaving only John Gerard, Father Southwell and five others at Baddesley Clinton. At five o’clock in the morning whilst preparations for Mass were being made the house was raided by the authorities.

Baddesley Clinton by matthewallton on Flickr (Click image)

Baddesley Clinton by matthewallton on Flickr (Click image)

Armed raiders.

Four armed Priest hunters ( known as Pursuivants) had arrived and were loudly threatening a servant who had barred the door to them.  Because the servant had delayed their entry the Priests inside the house had time to hide their vestments and the altar stuff. The Priests even had time to turn the mattresses on their beds so that they would not feel warm to a searchers touch.

By the time the mistress of the house had come downstairs and allowed the searchers to enter, the Priests were hidden in a secret hide underneath the house. They had to remain crouched here for four hours whilst the search went on above them. Eventually the searchers tired of their efforts and left after they had extracted payment from the household for their troubles.

Baddesley Clinton Lizwalker1975 (Click image)

A close escape.

Once it was certain the Pursuivants were gone, the Priests were called up out of the hide. Care still had to be taken though to guard against the searchers appearing to leave and then returning which was a common tactic.

John Gerard wrote the account of this search in his memoirs when he escaped England and returned to live the rest of life on the continent. Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet were not so lucky as both of them were later caught and executed by being hung, drawn and quartered.

As you can see from the pictures, Baddesley Clinton is a really beautiful place to visit. If you go there, you can still see some of it’s hiding places as well as it’s beautiful rooms and gardens. The hide that was used in 1591 was originally part of the house sewer and is though to have been converted to a hide by Nicholas Owen, the master builder of such places.

You may well find it hard to imagine such a peaceful and secluded place being the scene of dramatic and perilous events.

See our earlier post ‘Tyburn Martyrs

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Tower of LondonTower of London

In 1597,the Jesuit Priest John Gerard was held in the Tower of London on charges of Treason.  Gerard had been tortured and was awaiting trial on charges that would certainly have brought him to the scaffold.

Whilst held in the Tower Gerard was able to smuggle secret messages out to friends and I thought it would be interesting to try and re-create these messages.

Apparently, Gerard managed to please the warden by making him a gift of some oranges that he had been sent. Because of this gift, the warder agreed to allow Gerard to send a gift of crosses made from orange peel to his friends in the clink prison (also in London). The warder agreed that Gerard could write them a message in charcoal as long as he was allowed to check the message first.

Gerard wrote a message in charcoal which must have been all that he had to hand with which to write – as you can see from the poor handwriting below, I found it hard to write anything at all!

Charcoal message
Charcoal message

Once the warder had left the cell, Gerard used the saved orange juice to write another letter onto the paper. Once it had dried,it was used to wrap the crosses and sent to his friends.

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All that the recipieint of the message then had to do was to hold the paper up to a fire, as you can see, a new message appears on the paper. I don’t think it is known what Gerard wrote – I would have written something like this asking for help to escape!

Apparently, this was a well known technique for sending messages.  Sometimes lemon juice was used, but Orange juice has the advantage of permanently marking the paper once heated up. This quality makes it less easy for a  letter to be intercepted and read without detection.

As you can see, from the picture below, the orange juice turns to a dark brown once heated. In practice, it took quite a lot of heat to produce this effect and it was difficult to avoid setting the paper on fire!

Hidden message
Hidden message

I did wonder whether this was where we got the expression “reading between the lines”? – I was unable to find the origin of this and would be interested if anyone knows where this comes from.

(See related post)

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