St Nicholas Owen was a truly extraordinary figure. Born into a devout Catholic family in c.1562, he became a carpenter, rather than a priest like both his brothers. During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, he created hundreds of priest-hides (or priest-holes) in the homes of recusant families around the country. Naturally, this was extremely secretive work, so we don’t know exactly how many he made in total. Nonetheless, the scale of the undertaking was clearly staggering. In Harvington Hall alone, for example, there were at least eight hides, the most impressive of which were all made by St Nicholas Owen. Here, for example, is a priest hide within a priest-hide hidden beneath the staircase, the larger room being hidden by the much smaller hide for ‘massing stuff’:
It wasn’t just priests who needed to be hidden but any evidence of their presence and work. Take this room, for instance:
It was a hidden chapel (so the altar would not have been on show as it is today.) Can you work out what would have happened if there was a raid? Here’s part of the answer:
This is a hide for the so-called ‘massing stuff’, objects like this altar stone:
It was also illegal in Elizabethan England to own “any crosses, pictures, beads or such like vain and superstitious things” (just as it was illegal for priests who had been ordained abroad to set foot in England), which explains why these rosary beads were found hidden under the floorboards:
Some devotional objects, however, could be hidden in plain sight. This triptych, for instance, has been rather ingeniously designed:
St Nicholas Owen knew full well what risks he ran in creating hides for priests and Catholic objects of devotion. After being arrested in 1594, he was tortured and then released (because the Elizabethan authorities didn’t realise just how significant he was.) The Jacobean authorities didn’t make the same mistake. When Owen was captured in 1606, he was tortured in the Tower of London. He could have betrayed the whole English mission but he didn’t. He could have revealed the presence of hundreds of priest-hides but he didn’t. Instead he was tortured to death.
It is incredible that the story of this saint’s life and work isn’t better known, so I can heartily recommend Tony Reynolds’ St Nicholas Owen: Priest-Hole Maker, which strikes a fine balance between the popular and the scholarly. It is well-researched and accurate, but also well-written and highly accessible. If you want to know more about martyrs of Britain, this is as good a place as any to start.