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Priests Holes

A tour of some of the stately homes which date back to Medieval times is all the more exciting if a priests hole is known to exist on the premises. Chenies Manor House, Oxburgh Hall and Chambercombe Manor are just a few of the properties which show these well concealed hiding places.

After Henry VIII's Reformation and the establishment of the Protestant Church, Catholics for a time were free to worship within their private homes, although generally they were regarded with distrust.

However, after the Roman Catholic Rising in the North and other plots against her, Queen Elizabeth I passed an act prohibiting celebrating the rites of the Catholic religion.

Those who refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy were known as recusants and they were guilty of high treason, punishable with imprisonment or hanging. One recorded example was of a priest being hanged outside Gray's Inn Fields for having celebrated Mass.

Things became even more restricted after the Gunpowder Plot to blow up James I and his Government. Those who remained faithful to their Catholic faith had chapels made in garrets and secluded rooms. They also created a small hiding place, a priest's hole, where the sacred vessels and altar pieces could be hidden at a moment's notice, along with the priest.

It appears that many of the cleverly designed hiding-places were devised by a Jesuit, Nicholas Owen, who created many ingenious underground passages and impenetrable recesses.

As the architect, many of his priest's holes were never discovered, even though priest hunters searched, measured and tore up floors and panelling for a whole two weeks before leaving empty-handed.

The thick walls held their secret and the priest would be brought out, half-starved from the ordeal, but still alive.

Nicknamed "Little John" for his slight stature, Owen never disclosed his hidey-holes to anyone except the person who called upon his services, even under torture.

Eventually Owen's work came to an end when he was arrested at Hindlip Hall, Worcester in 1606, betrayed by the owner's servant. Owen was tortured in the Tower of London on the rack to no avail and he died holding his secrets and the lives of many priests safe.

John Abingdon, the owner of Hindlip Hall, had made his house into a refuge for priests and Catholics. The walls are said to be riddled with passages and priest's holes inside thick brick walls, behind wainscoting and even in the chimney. Four of the plotters of the Gunpowder Plot were known to have hidden here. Hindlip Hall is now the home of the West Mercia Police Headquarters.

Some of the best surviving examples of priest's holes can be seen on a visit to Harvington Hall. The house was built in 1260 and adapted by the Catholic owner, Humphrey Pakington, to accommodate four separate priest's holes, all cleverly devised by the master himself, Nicholas Owen.

Ripley Castle and Boscobel House also offer the chance to see a priest's hole on their guided tours.

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