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Posts Tagged ‘priest holes’

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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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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Coughton Court has an impressive west front which is shown at its best in the warm evening light. (Photo by Kate & Drew on Flickr: Click image)

Coughton Court has an impressive west front which is shown at its best in the warm evening light. (Photo by Kate & Drew on Flickr: Click image)

On Saturday I paid a visit to Coughton Court in Warwickshire.  I have often driven past it on my way out of Birmingham into the countryside, but had never stopped before to have a look round.  I have to admit it has always distracted me from driving as I should, as it looks spectacular from the road.

The Throckmortons

Like Harvington Hall Coughton (pronounced Coe-ton) was home to a Catholic family who refused to renounce their faith and practice during the reformation.  The Throckmorton family were very highly connected.  henry8england-50pc-smallerSir George Throckmorton (d. 1553) was a knight at the court of Henry VIII, and was in charge of the royal Forest of Arden.  He spoke out vociferously against the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and was imprisoned several times without trial for his outspoken views – being released once Henry believed he had calmed down – only to end up back in prison again!

George’s aunt, Elizabeth, the abbess of Denny, came to live at Coughton when her convent was closed in 1537 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  Another sister came with her, and together they lived a secluded life, continuing with the daily office in two rooms in the house.  The dole-gate from the convent is now at Coughton Court, having been found relatively recently.  You can see the hatch through which the sisters would have spoken to visitors, and given out alms.

Coughton Court (Kate & Drew on Flickr: Click image)

Coughton Court (Kate & Drew on Flickr: Click image)

Recusants

In the time of Sir Robert Throckmorton, and his son and heir Thomas (1533-1614), Coughton became a centre for Catholic recusants. It is believed that Mass was celebrated in the Tower Room from which you can see in all directions.  There is a priest hole there, built by Nicholas Owen who made many of the priest holes at Harvington Hall.  The hide at Coughton was so secret that members of the Throckmorton family did not know where it was even when it was in use.  Its location was so closely guarded that it was not discovered until work on the house in 1945.

The family were subjected to heavy fines for their non-attendance at the established Church of England, and Thomas spent 16 years in prison (on and off) for the same offence.  In the Tower Room you can see the Tabula Eliensis – rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century – which is a tapestry showing the names and portraits of Catholics imprisoned for their faith.  It is believed this was displayed during mass in the house.

Coughton Court Bluebell wood (Ruthsophe on Flickr: Click image)

Coughton Court Bluebell wood (Ruthsophe on Flickr: Click image)

Other Treasures

Coughton Court houses many other historical treasures including a chair reputed to be made of the wood of the bed where Richard III spent his last night before the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, a chemise which has stitched upon it ‘of the holy martyr, Mary, Queen of Scots’ (carbon dating tests prove that the linen was woven in the year of Mary’s death in 1587), a perfectly preserved and beautiful velvet cope embroidered in gold by Queen Catherine of Aragon and her ladies-in-waiting, and the original abdication letter of King Edward VIII in 1936.

NB See the second part of this post

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Harvington Hall
Harvington Hall

Instead of a post today there is an entire new page (see above) – this is a new part of Tudor Stuff blog. As well as continuing the regular posts about Tudor history, the blog will also be paying a visit to Harvington Hall.

This will give readers an insight into the history of the Hall and also report on events as they happen there throughout the year. It is intended to tell more about the story of the Hall – and it is quite a story!

The area around Harvington traces it’s history back to before the Norman conquest. Elements of the Hall story relate to the medieval period as well as  Tudor and Stuart times and the Civil War.

The Hall is a great place to visit – many people love it because of the way in which history seems to come alive here. Hopefully, finding out more about the Hall will encourage you to go and see it for yourself – in the meantime, take a look at Tudor Stuff to find out more.

Another development is that I am doing a monthly guest post on Anglotopia – this is a really good website for people in the US who are interested in things British. I will probably use this as an excuse to look at other bits of history, why don’t you check it out?

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