Thursday, 25 March 2010

Priest Holes

A priest hole is the term given to hiding places for priests built into many of the principal Roman Catholic houses of England during the period when Catholics were persecuted by law in England, from the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558. (Pictured right: The concealed entrance to a priest hole in Partingdale House, Middlesex in the right column).
The measures put in force shortly after Elizabeth's accession became much harsher after the Rising of the North (1569), and numerous other plots by Catholics against Elizabeth (1571-1586), and in particular the utmost severity of the law was enforced against seminary priests. An Act was passed prohibiting a member of the Roman Catholic Church from celebrating the rites of his faith on pain of forfeiture for the first offence, a year's imprisonment for the second, and imprisonment for life for the third. All those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy were called "Recusants" and were guilty of high treason. A law was also enacted which provided that if any "Papist" should be found converting an Anglican or Protestant to Roman Catholicism, both would suffer death, for high treason. In December, 1591, a priest was hanged before the door of a house in Gray's Inn Fields for having said Mass there the month previously. Laws against seminary priests and Recusants were enforced with great severity after the Gunpowder Plot episode during James I's reign.
Location and use
It was common for the castles and country houses of England to have some precaution in the event of a surprise, such as a secret means of concealment or escape that could be used at a moment's notice. However, in the time of legal persecution the number of secret chambers and hiding-places increased in the houses of the old Catholic families. These often took the form of apartments or chapels in secluded parts of the houses or, in the roof space, where Mass could be celebrated with the utmost privacy and safety, and nearby there was usually an artfully contrived hiding-place, not only for the officiating priest to slip into in case of emergency, but also to provide a place where the vestments, sacred vessels, and altar furniture could be stored at a moment's notice.
How effectively priests' holes baffled the exhaustive searches of the "pursuivants," or priest-hunters, is shown by contemporary accounts of the searches which took place frequently in suspected houses. Search-parties would bring with them skilled carpenters and masons and try every possible expedient, from systematic measurements and soundings to bodily tearing down of panelling and pulling up of floors. It was common for a rigorous search to last a fortnight, and for the "pursuivants" to go away empty handed, while the object of the search was hidden the whole time within a wall's thickness of his pursuers, half-starved, cramped, and sore with prolonged confinement, and almost afraid to breathe, lest the least sound should throw suspicion upon the particular spot where he was immured. Sometimes a priest could die in a priest hole from starvation or from lack of oxygen.
Nicholas Owen
Many such hiding places are attributed to a Jesuit lay brother, Nicholas Owen, who devoted the greater part of his life to constructing these places to protect the lives of persecuted priests. They were sometimes built, as at East Riddlesden Hall, as an offshoot from a chimney or behind panelling, for example in Ripley Castle in North Yorkshire. Others were incorporated into water closets, for example at Chesterton Hall, near Cambridge.
"With incomparable skill Owen 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. But what was much more difficult of accomplishment, he so disguised the entrances to these as to make them most unlike what they really were. Moreover, he kept these places so close a secret that he would never disclose to another, the place of concealment of any Catholic. He alone was both their architect and their builder. No one knows how many he made. Some may still be undiscovered."
After the Gunpowder Plot, Owen himself was captured at Hindlip Hall, Worcestershire, taken to the Tower of London and tortured to death on the rack.