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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Owen’

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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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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