The reign of Elizabeth I saw a transition from resentful tolerance of Catholicism to an active persecution. Refusal to go to Anglican church services was known as ‘recusancy’ and was punishable by fines and property confiscation. After the Catholic Council of Trent decreed in 1562 that it was “better to suffer most bitter cruelties than to give the least sign of consent” to Protestant church services, recusancy became increasingly common. Recusants looked to Catholic priests, able to perform Mass secretly. By 1574, an organised underground Catholic Church had been established in England, augmented by Catholic seminaries across Europe and the arrival of the Jesuits from 1580. As the number of priests rose, their persecution rose accordingly. In order to survive, these priests became dependent on the Catholic nobility and the hiding places (which became known as ‘priest holes’) they provided.
During the later years of Elizabeth’s reign and the early 17th Century, the network of Catholic gentry and priests was extremely well-organised. The leading Catholic families, such as the Throckmortons, resided in the Midlands, though there were other known Catholic strongholds, including some parts of Essex. Under Elizabeth, Catholicism among the lower classes dwindled, but those who stuck to their faith would often find employment in the households or estates of more notable Catholics. Catholic men of commerce would also use these major houses as a market for goods, where they could guarantee payment and secure credit. Thus, the close ties, not only between Catholic neighbours, but also between Catholic workers and their landlords, ensured a reliable and relatively safe network of protection.
There are several examples of the importance of these networks, the most famous being the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Most of the conspiracy took place in Northamptonshire, at the houses of Catholic noblemen. An oak-panelled room, known as ‘the Plot Room’, in Ashby St. Ledgers, the home of Robert Catesby (executed for his role in the Plot), is thought to have been the primary site of the preparatory meetings; to this day, Ashby boasts of being ‘the home of the Gunpowder Plot’. At the nearby Rushton Hall, a hiding-place was uncovered in 1832 that contained secret correspondence of the conspirator Francis Tresham (also executed). After the discovery of the role of houses such as these in the conspiracy, James I ordered a clampdown on such secret networks. The number of ‘pursuivants’ (government officials hunting for Catholic priests) dramatically increased, along with the harshness of anti-Catholic legislation.
Such harsh measures invited more elaborate attempts at evasion. Catholics priests relied heavily on the grand houses, which provided both refuge and work, and the owners went to great lengths to protect them. In the years preceding the Gunpowder Plot, builders and priests had been hard at work constructing hiding-places, which became known as ‘priest holes’. These were tiny compartments, just enough to hold a man, hidden in the structure of the building. The most skilled, and most prolific, builder of priest holes was a Jesuit called Nicholas Owen, who became known as ‘Little John’ on account of his size. The hiding-places that he created were ingenious – he would often make use of the smallest space unaccounted for, or would have a complex system of labyrinths to baffle any pursuivant, sending him home empty-handed after visits that sometimes lasted weeks. His hiding-places were known to save priests on numerous occasions – although they often emerged very hungry after evading a long search.
Many priests wrote of their experiences in hiding. One such priests was Father John Gerard, whose autobiography gives an account of a particularly narrow escape in 1594. The house in which he was staying – Braddocks in Essex – was burst into by pursuivants. While they arrested the mistress of the house and her daughters, Gerard disappeared into a priest-hole. The pursuivants disappeared after two days, but, due to the treacherous action of one the servants tasked with bringing Gerard out of his hiding-place, returned very soon afterwards. After failing to uncover Gerard on the first day of their return, the searchers turned in for the night and lit a fire to warm themselves up. It so happened that the fireplace they used did not have bricks as its base, but planks of wood. It was these same planks of wood that Gerard had lifted up to climb into his hiding-place. The watchmen noticed that the embers fell through (and nearly hit Gerard), but decided to put off investigation until the morning. Fortunately, they completely forgot about the incident with the fireplace, and spent the next three days searching in vain around the rest of the house, after which time they departed, thinking Gerard to have escaped.
Such priest-holes also served to conceal another man – Charles II. After facing Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, Charles sought refuge at White Ladies Priory, an estate owned by the eminent Catholic Giffard family. At White Ladies he met George and Richard Penderel (members of another Catholic family in the area), who cut his hair and gave him a labourer’s clothes, before teaching him to walk and speak like a labourer. Sufficiently transformed, Charles travelled to nearby Boscobel House on 6 September. He spent the day hiding in an oak tree with William Careless (yet another recusant Catholic) while Parliamentarian troops prowled below. Having evaded capture so far, Charles was brought inside Boscobel under cover of darkness, and spent the night in one of the house’s priest-holes. After being moved around the country several more times, on 15 October Charles left England, arriving in France the next day.
The priest-hole that Charles slept in is still there today. It is thought to have been created in the 1620s with the intention of concealing Catholic priests. It is situated in the attic, where Mass and the chapel would typically have been located. The building, Boscobel House, would have formed part of a wider network of hiding-places for priests (it had often been believed to have been a hunting lodge, but it has recently been shown to have been built for the express purpose of hiding Catholics), and continued to be associated with secret Catholic meetings into the 18th century. Of course, its most famous attraction (apart from the oak) is the priest-hole, which acquired a somewhat legendary status after its role in the escape of King Charles.
While this may be the most famous account of a priest-hole, such hiding-places saved the lives of many others. Cramped, with little room for food, a priest-hole would have had to be accessible at a moment’s notice, and was an essential part of the house of a Catholic. Their sheer number, dotted all across the country, as well as the numerous accounts of priest-holes offering salvation, suggests that they played a very significant part in the survival of Catholicism during this period. They remain a fascinating insight into the commitment and dedication of persecuted peoples, that still has relevance today.
Fea, A., 1901. Secret Chambers and Hiding Places Historic, Romantic & Legendary Stories & Traditions About Hiding-Holes, Secret Chambers, Etc. Good Press
Stacey, N., 2011. An Obscure Habitation: Boscobel House and its Recusant Background. English Heritage Historical Review
Stacey, N., 2011. Boscobel House. English Heritage Guidebooks