A medieval/Tudor merchant’s house

Payecocke’s House, Coggeshall nr Colchester

Paycocke House in Coggeshall was the home of a prosperous sixteenth century wool merchant.  It was built- or rather added on to an existing building- at the beginning of the centry by Thomas Paycocke for his bride Margaret. Their initials are carved on the house along with the Paycocke merchant’s mark.   

Not only did Thomas and his wife live in the house but it was also the centre of his business.  What today is a lovely garden would have been a bustling hive of industry when Thomas was alive.

Coggeshall was famous at the time for undyed broadcloth – it’s sometimes called Coggeshall White. It’s described as a “bays”  – so a baize if I’ve got it right is a variety of worsted fabric. Thomas not only used his own home for the cloth but he also sent pieces out to the homes of his workers  – preparing, weaving and finishing.  One of the reasons for “putting out” of work may have been that the extension was designed to impress rather than to be practical – the wealth on display certainly suggests that Thomas wanted to make an impression to his visitors – think of it as a showroom perhaps?

Thomas didn’t have sons. His second wife had a daughter. The house left the family in 1584 when the last male Payecock, a great nephew of Thomas, died. It passed into the hands of the Buxton family, who were related by marriage.  The house continued to evolve. These days it’s a National Trust property and like many other National Trust properties in the area it has been partly planted with dye plants.

Thomas’s father had set Thomas on his way but the economic conditions of the period helped Thomas to become very wealthy. Raw wool prices slumped at the end of the fifteenth century – it began to rise relatively early in Henry VIII’s reign.  In the meantime Payecock was able to export his cloth at a substantial profit.

https://www.essexlifemag.co.uk/people/500-years-of-paycockes-house-1-5729009

Picture Quiz 6 answers

How many of you spotted Cardinal Wolsey’s travelling sundial this week?

Cardinal Wolsey’s travelling sundial
Museum of the History of Science


This delightful object was created by the German mathematician Nicolaus Kratzer in 1522. He came to England in about 1518 and was astronomer to King Henry VIII. The base has Wolsey’s coat of arms on one side, the arms of York Minster – he was it’s archbishop form 1514 onwards- on the other and on the two smaller sides there’s a cardinal’s hat.

The sundial is polyhedral – basically it tells the time in a number of different ways depending on which side you’re using. And yes it is completely covered in gold. Aside from being a very busy man who needed to get to his meetings on time Wolsey was also demonstrating that he was a cultured and learned chap. Or put another way he liked beautiful and complicated things and if you were really lucky you might be invited to take a closer look if you visited him – so a conversation piece as well.

Holbein depicted Kratzer holding a sundial and there’s a polyhedral sundial in his picture of the Ambassadors which can be seen in the National Gallery.

Nicholas Kratzer, Hans Holbein Held by the Louvre

For a happy half hour finding out more about the importance of mathematical objects including sundials visit the National Gallery page below to explore the Ambassadors by Hans Holbein.

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors

What is an affinity and what is a livery badge?

Richard III’s white boar livery badge – York Museum

Having set a challenge about Royal Arms I thought I probably ought to post a little about the way in which arms and badges were used during the medieval period. Clearly a personal badge was originally designed so that people knew who was who on the battle field or tournament ground – either on a banner, a surcoat or a shield for instance but by the fourteenth century they had developed into something that was given out almost like a contract between a noble and the group of people who served him in a variety of capacities.

An affinity was a set of political and social connections – like an extended family- but with a nobleman at the centre of the web based on his links to royalty, personal patronage, family and territory. The noble would have a household and a set of retainers, or followers, who were sworn to provide the lord with help in terms of military service, political support etc in return for which they would receive protection; a leg up the social ladder and dating agency for their offspring; offices; land. As the fifteenth century progressed these retainers wore either his livery or someothe badge that associated them with their noble – the bear with the ragged staff is a well-known badge associated with the Earl of Warwick for instance.

A powerful lord like John of Gaunt would attract local gentry as well as family and tenants. The Gaunt affinity was particularly noticeable in Derbyshire for instance. This meant that men with a large affinity, such as the duke, effectively had an army that they could call upon whenever they needed one – something of increasing importance as the fifteenth century moved into the wars of the roses. Consider the impact of the Neville affinity in the escalation of feuding during the fifteenth century.

Livery badges and colours were used to show that you belonged to a particular affinity. More can be found on livery colours here: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/13103/whose-colors-coat-of-arms-did-men-of-arms-wear-in-a-feudal-army-14th-century and if you’re interested in the Wars of the Roses here: https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/tag/livery-colours/

Livery badges could be displayed anywhere, but usually on the outside of the upper left sleeve, on the left breast. They turn up in jewellery – think of the medieval livery collar -(https://thehistoryjar.com/2015/07/17/nicholas-and-ralph-fitzherbert-a-glimpse-of-the-wars-of-the-roses/), on horse trappings, weapons and their scabbards, stained glass windows and masonry. In fact, now I come to think of it there’s a photographic project there when we’re allowed out again!

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III’s personal livery badge was a white boar. Sometimes the badges were taken from a charge (an emblem from the shield) on a coat of arms but they might also be more personal than that – they could be to do with an event in the lord’s life or a play on the lord’s name. Richard II’s white hart is a pun on Rich hart.

Henry VII needed to stamp out the concept of the affinity as the bands of men that nobles could gather up as part of their affinity could be used for the king but also form armies that fought against him. The Statute of Liveries of 1506 forbade issuing livery badges to men of rank; they had to be domestic servants unless the livery was covered by a specific royal licence.  Eventually livery badges were reserved only for those who were part of the monarch’s affinity and for household servants of the aristocracy. Henry made sure that everyone rocked the Tudor rose rather than their own personal livery. John of Gaunt’s livery chains of entwined “esses” ultimately became associated with chains of office rather than with the Lancastrian royal house.

Bear and ragged staff

The bear and ragged staff was associated with the Earl of Warwick during the Wars of Roses but in the reign of Elizabeth I it was associated with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who was the successor of the Earl of Warwick (via a circuitous route.)

The blue lion – or lion rampant azure- is associated with the Percy family.

The Prince of Wales feathers were first associated with the Black Prince when he chose them as a device on hearing about the bravery of the blind King of Bohemia.

The Stafford knot is associated with the Dukes of Buckingham.

The Talbot dog is associated with the Talbot Earls of Shrewsbury

The portcullis is associated with the Beaufort family and was used widely in Tudor iconography.

The white rose of York and Edward IV’s sun in splendour – St Andrew’s Church, Penrith

Livery badges issued by the livery companies of the City of London are of a later date.

Heartsease (viola tricolour) – Elizabeth I’s flower

“There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts”.  Ophelia

Detail of pansy on hemline of Hardwick Portrait

The regular post has moved to a midweek time to accommodate the weekly history challenges. Let’s hope I can stay organised.

I’ve been doing some gardening today, making the most of the lovely weather. At this rate I’ll have the tidiest garden ever. Today I did some weeding and planted some seeds that I’ve found lurking in the back of a cupboard. Apparently heartsease populate walls, rockeries and paths easily. Time will tell. Anyway, heartsease as I know it has many different names including Jack-behind-the-garden-gate; kiss-behind-the-garden-gate; Kit-run-around; godfathers-and-godmothers; herb trinity and herb constancy to name but a few.

The name heartsease comes from the days when if you were suffering from a broken heart you could take an infusion of the pretty little plant to treat your woes. I don’t suggest that you try it. In Victorian times when courting couples couldn’t speak openly the flower represented happiness and if you gave it to someone the meaning might be that the recipient occupied the giver’s thoughts – presumably leading to the kiss behind the garden gate.

Gerard’s herbal reveals other medicinal uses for the pansy or heartsease:

It is good … for such as are sick of ague, especially children and infants, whose convulsions and fits of the falling sickness it is thought to cure. It is commended against inflammation of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.’

So back to the history – the pansy was Elizabeth I’s favourite flower, and as a consequence it was everyone else’s as well. For Elizabeth the humble heartsease was not linked with kissing behind gates, it represented chastity- an important facet of being the Virgin Queen. In medieval times, prior to the Reformation, it was linked with the Virgin Mary. The colours of the heartsease, white, yellow and purple relate to purity, joy and mourning respectively which relate in turn to the Virgin’s life. 

The Stowe Inventory of the Wardrobe identifies many of Elizabeth’s clothes in 1600 as well as her new year’s gifts which included many hand embroidered items. Elizabeth herself hand embroidered gifts for her own family, most famously Katherine Parr’s prayer book cover stitched when Elizabeth was eleven-years-old, which includes pansies or heartsease.

Katherine Parr’s Prayer book cover stitched by Princess Elizabeth

Look closely at any number of Elizabeth’s portraits including the Pelican Portrait, the Hardwick Hall portrait and the Rainbow Portrait for example and you will find pansies.

Dr Simon Forman – a Tudor version of Pepys…with magic and poison

Simon Forman was born on December 30, 1552, near Salisbury. Unlike Shakespeare for whom there is no evidence of attending grammar school we have Forman’s account of his teacher and his education which began when he was seven. Unfortunately Simon’s father died suddenly and the boy had to leave school taking employment with a merchant who sold herbs and drugs.

Ten years later Simon left Salisbury, apparently after an argument with his master’s wife, and went to Oxford to live with his cousins. It appears that although he was eager to continue his education that he was unhappy in Oxford so when back to Salisbury where he became a teacher.

In 1579 things changed, Simon became a prophet! “I did prophesy the truth of many things which afterwards came to pass…the very spirits were subject unto me”. He also moved to London where presumably there was more need for doctoring, astrology and magic – remember these three things weren’t at odds with one another during the Tudor period. What made the real difference to Forman’s career as a doctor was that he remained in London during the plagues of 1592 and 1594. As a result he became known for his skills and the publication in 1595 of a book entitled Discourses on the Plague. He claimed that he was able to work with plague cases because he had caught and recovered from the disease.

Unfortunately the Royal College of Physicians took umbrage because he lacked their training. They described his herbal medicines as “magical potions.” In short they determined that he was a quack, fined him and told him not to call himself a doctor. Forman ignored them but within nine months a man died soon after taking one of his prescriptions and he found himself in prison. He finally gained a licence from Cambridge University in 1603 despite the fact that he had never studied there.

Forman wrote a lot of books and kept a diary which recorded his own life as well as his consultations with people from all ranks of society. He recorded some of his womanising activities even though he’d married Jane Baker in 1599.

William Lilly

We even know how Forman died thanks to another astrologer, William Lilly. In September of 1611, Forman apparently told his wife that he was about to make his last prophesy, namely that he would die the next Thursday evening which he did whilst rowing on the Thames.

That wasn’t the end of Forman though. Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset went on trial in 1616 for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. Whilst she was still Lady Essex married to Robert Devereux. Frances had gone with her friend Anne Turner to see Forman for potions that would keep Lord Essex at arm’s length and another to attract the attentions of James I’s favourite Robert Carr as he seemed a better financial and political bet than the spouse that she had been required to marry when they were both children. Forman was also accused of providing the poison which added to some tarts killed Sir Thomas Overbury whilst he was in the Tower.

Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset

Ultimately Forman’s papers ended up in the care of Elias Ashmole, the founder of the Ashmolean in Oxford and thus his diary which includes visits to the theatre to see Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale survive – though not without some dispute as to their veracity.

Kassell, Lauren (2007) Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician

Rowse, A.L. (1974) The Casebooks of Simon Forman

B

Garendon Abbey

Garendon Hall

Garendon Abbey in Leicestershire was founded in 1133 by Robert, Earl of Leicester.  It was a daughter house of Waverley, the earliest Cistercian monastery to be established in England. As well as holding land in Leicestershire it extended its grand holdings into Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire – Roystone Grange near Ashbourne was gifted to the monks by Adam de Harthill.

By 1225 the abbot had obtained permission to export wool to Flanders which is typical of the order and a reminder of the great Cistercian houses in Yorkshire. The monks weren’t always the best example of monastic chastity or sobriety – one of the abbots was married and another had a bit of a drink problem. Abbot Reginald was murdered in 1196 according to the Monastic Anlicanum. By the reign of Edward III the abbey had got itself into severe financial difficulties and seems to have been harbouring robbers.

By 1535, the year in which Cromwell sent his commissioners to the monastic houses of England and Wales, Garendon was worth less than £160 p.a. There was also the matter of three monks wishing to escape their vows and two more being deemed guilty of unnatural vices. There were only 14 monks at the time. However, they were also providing a home for old people and children. This didn’t save it from dissolution the following year.

Lady Katherine Manners after the death of her husband – the Duke of Buckingham

The estate and it’s buildings were granted by Henry VIII to Thomas Manners, the Earl of Rutland. He paid £2,356 5s 10d for his new property. Garendon remained in the hands of the Earls of Rutland until 1632 when it formed part of Lady Katherine Manners dowry. She was the sole surviving heir of the 6th Earl. She ended up married -by trickery- to the Duke of Buckingham. https://thehistoryjar.com/2018/01/20/witchcraft-scandal-and-the-duke-of-buckingham/

Katherine’s son sold Garendon in 1683 to Ambrose Phillipps, a successful London barrister.

I have posted about Garendon before: https://thehistoryjar.com/2016/11/14/garendon-abbey-granges-and-a-spot-of-drunkenness/

Roystone ended up in the hands of Roland Babington. Roland was born in Dethick along with his brother Thomas. Thomas tried to secure land from Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield upon its dissolution. Thomas’s descendent is the more famous Sir Anthony Babington.

The Duke of Buckingham’s mistake

Edward_Stafford.jpgEdward Stafford the third Duke of Buckingham really should have known about the dangers of irritating monarchs.  His father the second duke was executed by Richard III and Edward a mere child of five was forced to flee into hiding having been dressed by his mother Katherine Woodville as a girl.

The problem was that Edward was descended thrice over from Edward III despite the fact that his mother was Katherine Woodville.  The Stafford family had been around for centuries whereas the Tudors were Johnny-Come-Late-lies.  This was so much the case that after the death of Prince Arthur in 1502 it was suggested in some quarters that the Duke of Buckingham might make an appropriate monarch.  Not only was Edward a Plantagenet with clear  and legitimate lines of descent but he had also benefitted from a royal upbringing having been made a ward of Margaret Beaufort.

Seven years later  when Edward discovered that his sister had become the king’s mistress he was absolutely furious.  He believed that his family was far to important for Anne to be the mistress of a mere Tudor, a marked contrast to the Duke of Norfolk who would spend most of his political career from the 1520s onwards dangling Howard girls under Henry’s nose.

Buckingham knew how the court worked under Henry VII – a man not admired for his lack of mistresses and had failed to notice that whilst the Plantagenets were first amongst equals – in a country where rulers appointed men to effectively rule their own regions that the Tudors centralised and appointed administrators – that they were absolute rulers for want of a better description.

Henry VII sought to use Edward’s Plantagenet blood in the marriage market when he suggested a marriage with Anne of Brittany but avarice won out when the Earl Northumberland offered the king £4000 for Edward to marry his daughter Eleanor.  By 1509 Edward Stafford had claimed the hereditary right of being Lord High Constable and was on Henry VIII’s newly appointed council having performed in a series of diplomatic and high status court roles.

Buckingham’s sense of self worth was probably reinforced when he received a licence to crenelate, i.e. to fortify a property.  He was treading the path of the fifteenth century over mighty subject who ruled his own domain. He had failed to spot that his second cousin   Henry VIII granted favours to his friends but woe betide them if they didn’t play by his rules.

Thus when Edward heard from Anne’s sister Elizabeth that Anne was conducting an affair with the king he thought that there would be no repercussions when he summoned his brother-in-law and removed Anne to a nunnery some sixty miles from court.  Even worse the affair became common knowledge.  Queen Katherine who was pregnant became very upset and Henry was embarrassed. Anne would return to court and the affair probably continued for another few years if Henry’s New Year’s gift list is anything to go by.  However, the damage was done – Henry knew how to carry a grudge.

In 1520 Buckingham was suspected of treason. It had become clear that Katherine of Aragon was not as fertile as her mother.  A child, Mary, had been born the pervious year but it was unthinkable that a girl might inherit – the Tudors were in danger of dying out.  Edward Stafford was the man, so he said, to take up the Crown –   Henry personally interviewed the witnesses. In April 1521 he was packed off to the Tower for imagining the death of the king and executed on the 17th May. The evidence was flimsy.

Jane Parker, Lady Rochford

Jane-Parker.jpgJane Parker or Mrs George Boleyn has gone down in history as the woman who accused her husband and sister-in-law of incest.  She was also the woman who connived to allow Katherine Howard to meet her lover  Thomas Culpepper- resulting in Katherine being executed and Henry VIII changing the law to allow for the execution of the insane so that Jane could share the same fate on the 13th February 1542.

The image at the start of the post is a Holbein. Recent consensus is that this particular Lady Parker is actually Grace Parker – nee Newport the wife of Jane’s brother Henry rather than Jane.

Jane was described by Henry as a “bawd” because she had helped Katherine to meet with Thomas, had passed on letters and kept watch whilst the pair conducted their assignations during the royal progress to York.. It can’t have come as a total surprise that Henry ordered her arrest when he discovered what had been going on. rather unreasonably Thomas Culpepper and Katherine Howard both tried to put the blame on Jane for orchestrating the meetings.  Jane had a nervous breakdown whilst in confinement.

So, what else do we know about her?  She was descended from Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe,  Margaret Beaufort’s mother – making Jane a distant Tudor relation which accounts for her court links. Her father was raised in Margaret Beaufort’s household. Jane first appears in the court records in 1520 pertaining to the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  She would have been about fifteen. She served in the households of Catherine of Aragon, her sister-in-law Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves  and also in Katherine Howard’s.  We know that she appeared in court masques and we know that in 1524 /25 she married George Boleyn.

Warnicke theorises that Jane and George were unhappily married  because of George’s sexuality- certainly something wasn’t right if Jane was prepared to send her husband to the block on some rather unpleasant charges.  The primary source evidence for this comes from George Cavendish’s account of Boleyn.  However to counter this it should be noted that Cavendish was loyal to Wolsey and there was little love lost between the Cardinal’s faction and the Boleyns. It should also be noted that George had a bit of a reputation with the ladies. The only bad thing that Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, could say about George was that he was very Protestant in his outlook.  It’s safe to say that had Chapuys got a whiff of George being homosexual that it would have been recorded in his letters.

Whatever the family relationship, in 1534 Jane helped Anne to get rid of an unnamed mistress of the king’s and that Jane was banished as a consequence.  This allowed Anne the opportunity to place another potential mistress under Henry’s nose – a Howard girl- possibly Madge Shelton and someone who was unlikely to be used by the conservative faction at court to weaken Anne’s position.  Jane herself was back at court the following year.

Popular history claims that Jane told the king that one of Anne’s lovers was George but whilst the primary sources talk about ‘one woman’ they don’t actually name Jane as the culprit and there is certainly no written evidence to support the idea although that doesn’t preclude the possibility of verbal evidence.  Like so much popular history we think we know what happened but the closer you look at the evidence the more elusive the truth becomes.

Julia Fox, Jane’s biographer states that Jane was only named during the reign of Elizabeth I.  Jane was long dead and who else cold have told such blatant lies – but a mad woman?  Alison Weir on the other hand concludes that Jane was probably instrumental in George’s execution.  It is also true to say that an anonymous Portuguese writer claimed a month after Anne’s execution that Jane was responsible for the incest accusation.  Weir deduces that Jane was jealous of the closeness that existed between her husband and Anne.

It is true though that the evidence of George’s trial points to Jane telling Cromwell that Anne Boleyn had talked of Henry VIII’s impotence which one imagines would have been more than enough to get Anne into serious hot water with her spouse.

Jane didn’t benefit from her husband’s death.  Thomas Boleyn refused to pay Jane’s jointure.  She was forced to write to Cromwell asking for help.

And whilst we’re at it we should perhaps also look at the idea that Jane was insane at the time of her execution.  Primary evidence supplied by Ottwell Johnson reveals a woman who went to her maker calmly and with dignity despite the fact that no one in her family had attempted to intervene on her behalf. Lord Morley (Jane’s father) and his son Henry perhaps realised the extent of Henry’s anger.

Finally – just to make life that little bit more interesting in 1519, the year before the first written account of Jane at court Henry VIII had a fling with  “Mistress Parker” or at least court rumour said he did.  At fourteen Jane fitted Henry’s liking for young mistresses best typified by Katherine Howard.  Jane like so many other of his mistresses was related to him and like many other of his mistresses a large wedding gift was given.  Alternatively maybe Mistress Parker was Jane’s mother Alice St John?

In 1519 Henry was in the midst of his affair with Bessie Blount the mother of his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy. Mistress Parker was a diversion whilst Bessie was pregnant.  Could Alice have been Henry’s mistress and gained her daughter a place in Catherine of Aragon’s household?  It’s possible.

Alice outlived her daughter and like her husband she did not publicly mourn the death of Jane.

Fox. Julia,  (2008) Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford

Retha M. Warnicke “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII”

Anne Plantagenet and the duke of Norfolk

princess anne plantagenet framlinghamAnne was the fifth daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, born in 1475 had her father not died in April 1483 she would have found herself married to Philip of Burgundy.  However, Edward IV died unexpectedly and the treaty with Burgundy was never ratified.  Had she married Philip she would have gone to live in the court of her aunt Margaret of Burgundy.

Instead, Anne’s uncle Richard arranged a betrothal to Thomas Howard who would one day become the 3rd Duke of Norfolk.  Once Richard III was overthrown in 1485 Howard petitioned for the betrothal to stand – meanwhile Anne served her sister Elizabeth of York as a lady-in-waiting. She featured during the baptism of both Arthur and Margaret.  The problem was that the Howards were not supporters of the house of Lancaster.

John Howard, Thomas’s grandfather, served Edward IV and was knighted by him. Richard ennobled John making him the Duke of Norfolk on 28th June 1483 with Thomas’s father another Thomas, becoming the Earl of Surrey at the same time thus ensuring their continued loyalty.  In fact John, the 1st Howard Duke of Norfolk was killed at the Battle of Bosworth as he commanded the vanguard of Richard’s army by an arrow which struck him in the face.  The Earl of Surrey spent the next three years in the Tower until he convinced Henry VII of his loyalty.

3rd duke of norfolk framlinghamMeanwhile Anne married Thomas junior on 3rd February 1495. She was never the Duchess of Norfolk  Anne died in 1510 or 11 depending on the source.  It was only in 1514 that the Earl of Surrey was allowed to inherit his father’s title which had been made forfeit by his attainder following Bosworth.

Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_Thomas_Howard,_3rd_Duke_of_Norfolk_(Royal_Collection)As for Anne’s widower depicted above -Thomas junior- he would remarry Lady Elizabeth Stafford but would go down in history as the rather brutal third Duke of Norfolk, uncle of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard and arch-Tudor politician.  Anne had a son who died young but the Howard heirs came from the third duke’s marriage to Elizabeth Stafford (the eldest daughter of the Duke of Buckingham who revolted against Richard III and Eleanor Percy the eldest daughter of the Duke of Northumberland – and thus having more sound Lancastrian credentials.)

Anne was buried originally in Thetford Priory but upon the Dissolution of the Monasteries she was reinterred in Framingham Church.  Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk managed to survive both his nieces’ downfalls, topple Thomas Cromwell from power  and generally demonstrated more political wiliness than a cat with nine lives but he was ultimately charged with treason and was sent to the Tower to await his execution.  Henry VIII died the night before he was due to be executed.  He eventually died in 1554 having been freed by Mary Tudor.

His tomb is in Framingham next to Anne who lays on his righthand-side because she, as a princess, is more important than a mere duke.

 

The Church of St Michael Framingham guidebook

 

The man who made priest holes

DSC_0094.jpgYesterday I found myself in the garderobe, sliding into a small space, ducking my head to avoid a low beam and then straightening to find myself in a priest hole.  Fortunately for me no one was going to slam the lid back into place and leave me in total darkness until it was safe for me to emerge or I was discovered and dragged off to the Tower.  I was enjoying a sunny afternoon at Oxborough Hall.

 

DSC_0093.jpg

During the reign of Elizabeth I Jesuits priests were feared as enemies of the state and hunted down by pursuivants.  Catholic priests moved from Catholic household to catholic household, often purporting to be cousins or other distant relations.  Wealthy families built hiding places in their homes so that when the priest hunters came calling there was somewhere to hide their illicit guest.

DSC_0092.jpg

The most successful priest holes were built by Nicholas Owen – not that he built the hole at Oxborough. Owen, an Oxfordshire man, was born in 1562.  He had three siblings one was a Catholic priest and another printed illegal Catholic books.  The brothers’ father was a carpenter and Nicholas in his turn was apprenticed to a joiner.  By the time he was in his mid twenties he was working for Father Henry Garnet and had become a lay brother in the Jesuit order.  He suffered from ill health including a limp from a poorly set bone and a hernia. Despite his physical frailty he travelled from house to house constructing priest holes.   Most of the people he worked for didn’t know his real name – to them he was Little John.  He worked by night in total secrecy to create his hiding places.  Many of the priest holes were so well concealed that they were only discovered in later centuries when houses underwent renovation.  Unfortunately the occasional hole is still found with its occupant still in situ.

 

Owen’s favoured locations seem to have been behind fireplaces and under stairs.  The pursuivants were men who could judge if an interior wall looked shorter than an exterior wall so Owen had to be very careful as to where he located his priest holes.

 

Nicholas was a man strong in faith.  He was eventually captured in 1606 at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.  It is thought he allowed himself to be captured in order to distract attention from Father Henry Garnet who was hiding nearby.

There were rules about torturing people with disabilities but this didn’t stop Robert Cecil from demanding that Owen be taken to the Tower and taxed about his knowledge by Topcliffe.  He was racked.  This caused his intestines to bulge out through his hernia.  Topcliffe ordered that they be secure by a metal plate. This cut into the hernia and he bled to death in his cell. He died rather than give away his secrets and the lives of the men who depended upon him keeping them.  The State announced that he had committed suicide.

St Nicholas Owen was canonised in 1970 and is the patron saint of illusionists and escape artists.

san-nicolas-owen.jpg

Hogge Alice.  God’s Secret Agents

Reynolds, Tony. (2014) St Nicholas Owen: Priest Hole Maker

https://soul-candy.info/2012/03/mar-22-st-nicholas-owen-sj-d-1606-martyr-artist-builder-of-hiding-places-for-priests/