In the 16th century many parts of Europe experienced an uneasy post-Reformation convergence of politics, monarchy and religion.

In England, Henry VIII’s break with Rome brought decades of unrest, violence and secrecy.

Historical background

His successor and son Edward VI appointed Archbishop Cranmer to write the first version of the Book of Common Prayer. ‘Common’ meant that everyone would worship uniformly as Protestants.

After Edward VI’s death, his half-sister Queen Mary — ‘Bloody Mary’ — sought to restore Catholicism. Dissenting Protestants who came to her attention were burnt at the stake.

After Mary’s death, her sister Elizabeth I, came to the throne and once again restored England as a Protestant country. She passed the Act of Uniformity, designed to unify England as a strong, independent nation of one religion. Those who disagreed with her were given fines or prison sentences.

Catholics secretly practised their faith during this time. The more influential among them hatched plots to bring Elizabeth I’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots to the throne in order to re-establish Roman Catholicism throughout the land. They sought the help of Bloody Mary’s widower, King Philip of Spain. Hence the attack — and Elizabeth’s sinking of — the Spanish Armada in 1588.

During this time of heightened religious tension, Elizabeth declared High Treason on any Catholic priest entering England. Any aiders and abetters were dealt with severely: prison, torture, death.

That said, a number of Jesuits sailed from continental Europe to England to lodge with prominent Catholic families or in safe houses. They supported the dissenters and provided them with spiritual comfort, Mass and the sacraments. England also had its share of Catholic priests who were lying low and seeking refuge. There were also humbler people who did not wish to renounce Catholicism and died for their faith.

Priest holes

Catholics during this time often communicated in secret code and symbols. They practised their faith discreetly and covertly.

Catholics who lived in grander circumstances built hideaways in their homes for their clergy. These are called priests holes. Historic UK describes these structures for us:

Hiding places or ‘priest’s holes’ were built in these houses in case there was a raid. Priest holes were built in fireplaces, attics and staircases and were largely constructed between the 1550s and the Catholic-led Gunpowder Plot [led by Guy Fawkes] in 1605. Sometimes other building alterations would be made at the same time as the priest’s holes so as not to arouse suspicion.

Priest Hole HUKNot surprisingly, although a few larger estates also had secret underground chapels, most priests holes were tiny. Some could only accommodate one man, others several. However, there was little space to stand or lie down. (Illustration courtesy of Historic UK.) Most occupants had to crouch for hours or days at a time. There was no sanitation and no fresh air. Food was at a minimum or non-existent.

Elizabeth’s government had priest hunters called ‘pursuivants’, the French word for ‘pursuer’. The priest hunters were very thorough in their check of suspect properties:

measuring the footprint of the house from the outside and the inside to see if they tallied; they would count the windows outside and again from the inside; they would tap on the walls to see if they were hollow and they would tear up floorboards to search underneath.

Another ploy would be for the pursuivants to pretend to leave and see if the priest would then emerge from his hiding place.

Once detected and captured, priests could expect to be imprisoned, tortured and put to death.

St Nicholas Owen

A lay brother of the Jesuits and a skilled carpenter, Nicholas Owen, built a number of priest holes. He also created a network of safe houses for priests in the 1590s. In 1597, he helped the Jesuit priest John Gerard escape from the Tower of London. After the Catholic Gunpowder Plot failed in November 1605, the authorites arrested Owen and tortured him to death in 1606. Owen was canonised in 1970, which makes him St Nicholas Owen. He is the patron saint of escapologists and illusionists.

His masterpiece of priests holes was built at Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire. The stately home housed the Jesuit Henry Garnet for 14 years:

One hiding place, just 3’ 9” high, is in the roof space above a closet off a bedroom. Another is in the corner of the kitchen where visitors to the house today can see through to the medieval drain where Father Garnet was hidden. Access to this hiding place was through the garderobe (medieval toilet) shaft in the floor of the Sacristy above. A hiding space beneath the library floor was accessed through the fireplace in the Great Parlour.

Tatler magazine had a feature on priest holes in their January 2015 issue (pp. 90-95). These hideaways still exist today in a few estates under ownership of the original Catholic families who hid priests away during this era. The photographs are fascinating.

Equally fascinating is the fact that some of the newer generations did not realise their homes had priest holes until they had structural work done in the 19th or 20th centuries.

Georgina Blackwell’s article, ‘England’s Finest Priest Holes’, profiles four of them from all over the country:

Ingatestone Hall in Ingatestone, Essex (p. 91): The Petre family have owned this estate for centuries. It has two priests holes which date from 1570. (Later generations did not discover them until 1855 and 1905. The children have since used them as spaces in which to play.) The Petres of Elizabeth I’s time harboured a Jesuit, John Payne, for several years beginning in 1576. He posed as the family’s steward but was really their chaplain. A servant betrayed Payne to the authorities. Payne was hanged, drawn and quartered at the marketplace in nearby Chelmsford in 1582. Sir William Petre, who had built the house, escaped prosecution and persecution by actually helping to dissolve the monasteries and then serve as privy counsellor to four monarchs, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I. Talk about discretion being the better part of valour.

Coughton Court in Alcester, Warwickshire (p. 92): Coughton (pron. ‘Coe-ton’) Court has been home to the Throckmorton family for 600 years. It was built in the early 15th century. The aforementioned Nicholas Owen built a ‘double hide’ here. A second compartment lies hidden underneath the first. Rediscovered in 1910, it still contains the original rope ladder and bedding. The Throckmortons were among those grand families who attempted to overthrow Elizabeth I in favour of Mary of Scots. The family member who engineered it — Sir Francis Throckmorton — was beheaded. Those men involved in the Gunpowder Plot hid and amassed their ammunition here, too.

Naworth Castle in Brampton, Cumbria (p. 94): Like the Throckmortons, the Howard family also built their home in the 15th century. A family member, Lord William Howard, built a stunning priest hole which is not only roomy but also has a window. Howard was known for hanging Scots — as many as 63 in a two-year time span. The hangman’s tree is still on the estate. A notable occupant of his priest hole was a Catholic activist by the name of Nicholas Roscarrock. Roscarrock is said to have been the last man to die on the rack. Some of the Howards spent a lot of time in the Tower of London. One of them, Sir Philip Howard, spent 13 years there; he was later canonised a Catholic saint. Another ancestor, Sir Charles Howard, played the system. During the English Civil War, he renounced Catholicism and followed Cromwell. Just before the Restoration in 1660, he helped bring Charles II to the throne. For his efforts, he was made Earl of Carlisle. Although he amassed a great deal of wealth, he, unfortunately, earned it via the slave trade. For this reason, the Howards call him ‘a particularly dodgy ancestor’.

Ripley Castle in Harrogate, North Yorkshire (p. 95) – The Ingilby family (originally Ingleby until the late 18th century) did not find Ripley Castle’s priest hole until 1963. They were having the house inspected for death watch beetle and, in the process, discovered a tiny hiding place. It was large enough for a man to stay hidden, crouched down, and had just enough room for a candle and a Bible. Lady Ingilby told Tatler that priest hunters were very good at pointing swords in between floor panels to get an ‘Ouch!’. One of their ancestors is on the route to sainthood: Blessed Francis Ingleby, who was ordained in France before his return to England. He was hanged, drawn and quartered in York in 1586. Francis’s brother David was known as ‘the Fox’ and is considered to be the Catholic version of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He died undetected athough he was known to the authorities. The present day owner, Sir Thomas Ingilby, says that Elizabeth’s I spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, lived in fear of ‘the Fox’. Even later, during Cromwell’s Interregnum, the priest hole had its use. After the Royalist Sir William Ingleby returned to the house following the defeat at Marston Moor in 1644, he sequestered himself in the hideaway. Cromwell appropriated the house shortly thereafter as a billet. Whilst William hid, his sister Jane held up Cromwell at pistol point. The Ingilby family have lived at Ripley Castle since the 14th century.

Thus ends the intriguing story of priest holes. There are no doubt a few more, discovered and undiscovered, in grand houses around England.

UPDATE — September 2017: One of my readers, CherryPie, visited Harvington Hall recently. She wrote about her visit and included many interesting pictures of priest holes. Recommended reading. Many thanks, CherryPie, for sending in the link to your post.