Hiding to Avoid Hanging: Priest Holes, Hidden Chambers, and Secret Passages
Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, which began in 1558, Catholics were persecuted by law and priests were imprisoned, tortured, and frequently executed. As a result of this oppression, wealthy Catholic families began building secret chambers and passages in their homes called ‘priest holes’ in order to hide priests when the pursuivants or ‘priest hunters’ came searching.
During the 16th century, Europe was under the religious leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. However, over time, protests against the Catholic Church and its influence eventually led to the formation of the Protestant movement. The separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII in 1537 brought England alongside this broad Reformation movement, which came to influence the Church of England decisively under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
During Elizabeth’s reign, the constant threat posed by recurring plots involving the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots heightened the severity of the situation and an Act was passed making it High Treason for a Catholic priest to enter England or for anyone to aid a priest that did. To enforce the Act, ‘priest hunters’ were given the job to hunt down and capture any such priests. Arrest meant imprisonment, and often torture and execution.
The Protestant Reformation came to influence the Church of England decisively under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The "Darnley Portrait" of Elizabeth I (Wikipedia)
Priests hid in Catholic homes
In 1540, the Jesuit religious order was created to assist the Catholic Church in opposing the Protestant movement. Jesuit priests snuck into England to support Catholic families and many of these families hid the priests in their homes.
Once the pursuivants or ‘priest hunters’ were established, it was no longer enough for these families to claim the priests were simply friends or cousins. Now with the risk of torture and death, the priests had to be carefully hidden away if the pursuivants ever came knocking on the door.
Priest hunters took their job very seriously, sometimes searching a house for days or even weeks. They would move furniture, lift floorboards, bang the walls for sounds of a hollow cavity, and plunge their swords between cracks and crevices. They counted windows from the outside and inside, and measured the height of ceilings and the length of walls, in the hope of detecting hidden chambers.
Clearly, the priest holes had to be very cleverly constructed to evade such extensive searches.
The consequences if a priest were captured. Engraving by Gaspar Bouttats. (Wikipedia)
The construction of priest holes
Priest holes needed to be disguised very well and were frequently built into fireplaces, attics, and staircases. Sometimes, a network of passages led to the final hiding place, at other times the priest hole was hidden inside another chamber, making it more difficult to find.
However, more often than not the priest holes were tiny with no room to stand or move. Priests sometimes had to stay for days at a time with little to no food and water, and no sanitation. Sometimes, they would die of starvation or suffocation if the priest hunts went on for too long.
A "priest hole" (hiding) behind the panelling in a room called withdrawing room in 16th c. manor house, Harvington Hall, Worcestershire, UK. (Wikimedia Commons)
False perspectives and illusion, much like those employed by stage magicians today, were used to hide the secret chambers. Some large estates, like Hindlip House, had up to twelve separate priest holes, and often other building alterations needed to be undertaken so as not to arouse suspicion.
Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, England, which is today open to the public, is recognized as having some of the finest surviving examples of priest holes in Britain. They were created so masterfully that no priest was ever discovered, despite searches from the pursuivants.
Cross section of the West side of Harvington Hall, showing the hiding places. The false fireplace in the Marble Room led to two hides in the attics (Harvington Hall).
Recently researchers used 3D laser scanning to discover more about how priest holes were made. After scanning Coughton Court in Warwickshire, they were able to learn more about how priest holes were constructed and hidden from searchers. At Coughton Court, for example, a secret double room was constructed in the tower of a gatehouse, creating a “double-blind” meant to fool pursuivants into believing they had discovered an empty priest hole.
As Christopher King, an assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham, explained, “When they're searching, they think they've found the priest hole but it's empty, but actually the priest is hidden in the more concealed space beyond. And that's what happens at Coughton: there's one chamber under the floor in the turret of the tower, and then there is another trap door that goes through into a second space, which we assume is where the priest was actually hiding.”
Nicholas Owen, master constructor of priest holes
Nicholas Owen was the most skilled and prolific builder of priest holes. A Jesuit brother, Owen dedicated his life to constructing secret chambers to protect the lives of Catholic priests. In the book Secret Chambers and Hiding Places, Alan Fea describes how he artfully designed and created priest hides:
“With incomparable skill, 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”.
Owens worked for Friar Henry Garnet, the Jesuit superior in England, who built numerous safe houses for priests throughout the country during the 1590s. He guarded the secret of their location with his life.
A priest hole made by Nicholas Owen in the library in the Harvington Hall (Wikipedia)
Owen’s priest holes saved many lives during this period of religious turmoil, but he could not save his own. In 1605, Owens was starved out of one of his priest hides at Hindlip Hall during a twelve-day search by priest hunters. He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured to death on the rack – he never revealed the locations of his secret chambers or safe houses. In 1970, Owens was canonized by Pope Paul VI and became the Patron Saint of Escapologists and Illusionists.
The death of Nicholas Owen in the Tower of London in 1606. (Wikipedia)
The Protestant Reformation in England contributed to the onset of the English Civil War (1642–1651), a series of armed conflicts and political machinations over the manner of the country’s government. Most of the violence ended when the last Roman Catholic monarch, James II, was deposed in 1688. The Roman Catholic establishment remained illegal in England until the 19th century.
Featured image: Priest hole in the cupboard of Harvington Hall, Worcestershire
Bagwell, G. (2011). Priest Holes – Historically Obsessed. Available from: http://historicallyobsessed.blogspot.com/2011/11/guest-post-gillian-bagwell-priest-holes.html
Britain Explorer – Harvington Hall Priest Holes and Hides. Available from: http://britainexplorer.com/listing/harvington-hall-priest-holes-and-hides/
Harvington Hall – Priest Hides. Available from: http://www.harvingtonhall.com/the-priest-hides/
Johnson, B. Priests Holes – Historic UK. Available from: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Priests-Holes/
The National Trust – Priest Holes. Available from: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355832702468/