In October 1591, at 5am, armed men hammered on the door of Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire, calling out that the house was surrounded. The day before, all the Jesuit priests and novices in England had gathered at the manor, summoned by their leader, Father Henry Garnet. Most left swiftly after the meeting, but some remained to take part in a forbidden Mass. The house had been leased to the two Vaux sisters, and as soon as they heard the commotion outside, they knew what it meant.
Father Southwell feverishly stripped off his vestments and cleared the altar, while others turned the mattresses on their beds knowing the searchers would feel them for signs of warmth. Anne Vaux, in her nightgown, attempted to stall the searchers at the door. Her sister, Eleanor, who Anne knew would never stand up to questioning was rushed upstairs to a secret room. Then the five Jesuit priests, two novices and three Jesuit servants clambered down into a narrow sewage channel beneath the house, which Nicolas Owen had converted into a hiding place. The entrance to the tunnel lay beneath a concealed trapdoor covering an old garderobe shaft built into the wall.
The sewer was only 4ft at its highest point, meaning the ten Jesuits had to bend double or crouch, ankle-deep in icy water, in the airless tunnel, listening to the searchers hammering on the walls above, overturning furniture and ripping off panelling. Among the Jesuits was Nicholas Owen, himself, whose life and those of the others, now depended on the hiding place he’d created.
The searchers, finding no one, eventually departed, having forced Anne to part with twelve gold pieces, and serve them breakfast, as payment for their trouble. But the Jesuits stayed hidden until they were sure the searchers weren’t doubling back to catch them as they emerged. Finally, after four hours, the Jesuits clambered out. They were lucky, some searches continued for days.
Under Elizabeth’s reign, Marian priests – those ordained in England during Mary’s reign – were not punished provided they renounced the priesthood. But Jesuits and seminary priests – priests trained in Europe after England broke from Rome – were liable to arrest, imprisonment and could be executed. But it wasn’t only the priests who were in danger, in 1585, the New Treason Act declared that anyone who sheltered or helped a Jesuit or a seminary priest would be considered a felon, and could be imprisoned, forfeit their property and even their lives. Little wonder the Catholics called the searchers leopards, because leopards were regard as vicious, ‘bastard’ creatures, the offspring of an unnatural mating between a lion (leo) and a panther (pard). And this was a deadly game of cats and mice.
Up until 1585, when houses were raided, priests had hidden in haystacks, hollow trees, lofts and byres. Many had been found. Some purpose-built hides were installed in the sides of chimney stacks or behind cupboards, but they were so similar in construction, that once one was discovered, those searching the next house knew immediately where to look. But now that not only the lives of the priests were in danger, but also those of the household who sheltered them, it was vital that more secure hiding places were constructed.
The mouse who would save hundreds of lives was a young joiner and carpenter of unusually short stature, with a twisted spine and, following an accident in 1599, a pronounced limp. Nicholas Owen, code-named Little John, was a man of exceptional courage, faith and talent. He had served an eight-year apprenticeship learning how to make chests, build wide curving staircases and install oak panelling – all the skills a future priest-hole maker needed. In 1589, he approached Father Garnet and asked to become his servant.
Owen constructed his holes alone and at night, ensuring that even the most loyal servants didn’t know where they were, for fear they might be tortured into betraying them. He built inside the fabric of the buildings, ensuring the entrance to every hide was different, using trapdoors, false ceilings and pivoting beams. He fitted funnels into certain chimneys to channel air and light to some hiding places, and feeding tubes connecting to other rooms. At Huddington Court, near Worcester, he constructed an outer hidden chamber, which concealed an inner one, to trick the leopards into believing that they had uncovered an empty priest hole. Later at Gothurst, Owen devised a revolving floor leading into concealed rooms and passages. Little John never charged for his work, and if money was offered, he gave it to the Jesuits.
At Oxburgh Hall, he excavated a section of tiled floor next to a recess. By treading hard near the wall, the priest could release a trap door so neatly camouflaged with tiles that when in place, it was indistinguishable from the surround. The door led into a L-shaped space, between two and three foot wide and seven foot tall, hidden between the walls of a cluster of rooms. There was an exit beneath one of the steps in a passageway. The hides were so well-constructed that no amount of knocking would make the space ring hollow. Older manor houses had been altered so frequently over the centuries, that many had odd-shaped spaces between walls, which not even the owners guessed were there. Owen’s genius lay in working out where they might be, and constructing concealed entrances to them.
On Easter Monday 1594, a Jesuit, Father John Gerard was preparing to say Mass at Broadoaks, not knowing that a servant had betrayed them. Within minutes the house was surrounded, and Gerard hurried to cram religious objects, books and papers into one of Owen’s hides beneath the chapel fireplace. Gerard planned to hide in another hole near the dining room, which was already stocked with provisions, but the mistress of the house, urged him into the same hole with all items, giving him a jar of quince jelly which she happened to be carrying.
The leopards burst in, tapping walls, measuring dimensions of rooms inside and out, smashing through panelling and ripping up floorboards. On the Thursday evening, the men guarding the chapel lit a fire and in doing so, knocked away part of false covering beneath the grate. Soon the wooden planks above the priest’s head were smouldering, hot ash rained down on him and by morning, the planks had burned through, so that if the leopards had peered into the grate, they’d have seen him. But they were called downstairs to demolish the room beneath. They destroyed most of the walls, but didn’t break through the elaborate mantelpiece in the lower room, which was just as well, because behind it was the hole where Gerard was crouching. But they did uncover the hiding place Gerard had originally intended to use and finding the provisions, concluded Gerard had fled and called off the search. When they’d gone, Gerard was so weak he had to be lifted out, having eaten only the jar of quince jelly and two biscuits in five days.
Conditions inside the priest holes were grim, as I’ve tried to portray in my new novel Traitor in the Ice, set in Battle Abbey, Sussex. Candles couldn’t be lit for fear that the smell of burning wax would drift out. Depending on the shape, in some a priest could sit, but not stand or lie down, in others he could only stand. When Garnet and Oldcorne surrendered at Hindlip, Worcestershire after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, they had been in a priest hole together for eight days. Unable to stand or stretch, their legs were horribly swollen. They’d been fed warm caudles through a reed inserted in the hole in a chimney breast in an adjoining room. But in the end, it was pain, and the lack of a lavatory or a close stool (commode), which eventually drove them out. Garnet later wrote that neither he or Oldcorne ‘went to the stoole’ in all that time, which must have caused them enormous discomfort.
After the Gunpowder Plot, Little John was arrested and tortured, though suffering from a hernia, he was suspended by his wrists with heavy weights tied to his feet. His belly burst and he died in agony, though the authorities claimed he had stabbed himself. He never betrayed a single name or divulged the whereabouts of any hiding place he had constructed, and throughout the following century many lives continued to be saved by his handiwork. One priest, Father Richard Blount, evaded capture for forty years using Owen’s hides.
Priest holes credited to Little John have been found in Braddocks, Essex; Chingle Hall, Lancashire; Coldham Hall, Suffolk; Coughton Court, Warwickshire; Harrowden Hall, Northamptonshire; Harvington Hall, Worcestershire; Lawkland, near Settle; Sawston Hall near Cambridge; Scotney Old Castle, Kent; Speke Hall near Liverpool; Townley Hall, near Burnley and Ufton Court, Berkshire. But there were a great many more which never been discovered.
Traitor in the Ice by KJ Maitland, the second novel in the Jacobean set Daniel Pursglove series, is published by Headline Books on 31 March 2022.