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.



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.


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.


Hogge Alice.  God’s Secret Agents

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

Richard Topcliffe – torturer

topcliffe-300x246Richard Topcliffe, born in 1532,  the eldest son of Robert Topcliffe of Somerby in Lincolnshire was orphaned early in his life and raised by an uncle. Perhaps he tore the legs off spiders but history has not recorded this information. He became a lawyer at Gray’s Inn and was an elected Member of Parliament for Beverley in Yorkshire.  Again, perhaps he embodied all that was appalling about both professions – but that’s speculation.

What is fact is that Topcliffe was not a nice man.  He is more ordinarily remembered as Elizabeth I’s  interrogator – you would not have wished to have met this man down a dark alley and most especially not in the dungeons of the Tower of London nor in his own home where he’d improved on the official instruments of torture in his spare time.

Topcliffe had such a reputation for sadism and cruelty as well as enjoyment of his work (he took his work home  at the weekend to his house in Westminster where he had a specially adapted cellar) that when he met Father Gerard for the first time he felt that his name was sufficiently terrifying on its own.  Gerard was unimpressed.

He was responsible for the torture of Robert Southwell, Henry Garnet and John Gerard (who described him as a ’cruel creature’) as well as other Jesuit priests.  He tortured ordinary citizens as well if it was believed that they could help track down priests and stamp out recusancy.  Ben Johnson, the playwright, came to his attention and the unfortunate Father Gennings so outraged him that when Gennings was executed Topcliffe had the priest cut down far too soon so that the dying man was still alive when his heart was flung into the flames.


His most infamous act was the torture by racking and then the rape of Ann Bellamy in order to extract Robert Southwell’s location.  Ann came from a notable Catholic family.  One of her relations, Jerome Bellamy, was executed for his part in the Babbington Plot He covered this outrage up when she became pregnant by forcing her to marry his servant Nicholas Jones in July 1592. Ann’s mother was to die in prison and Southwell was captured and tortured most horribly with Mrs Nicholas Jones being forced to come to court to give evidence against him.  Gerard was not far wrong when he described the interrogator as a ‘veteran in evil’.


Just for good measure Topcliffe also attempted to blackmail the Archbishop of Canterbury…

Cecil became alarmed about the appetites of the man who fantasied about having an intimate relationship with his queen and described his fantasies as he tortured his victims. He had Topcliffe removed from his post but not for long.  The man was too creative in his use of rack and thumbscrews to ignore besides, Topcliffe regarded his authority as coming directly from the queen rather than Cecil or Walsingham.

He received  rewards and wealth for his help in tracking down the threat of the Jesuit Counter-Reformation in England; after all Topcliffe had suffered as well.  All that exposure in dank and damp dungeons had left him with rheumatism and a pronounced limp.


Topcliffe died in 1604 at home in his bed having retired to Yorkshire and also to his home at Badley Hall near Ashbourne in Derbyshire which he acquired in 1603.  It had previously belonged to a catholic called Thomas Fitzherbert – Thankfully Fitzherbert hadn’t encountered Topcliffe in his place of work; he lived until 1640 as a Jesuit in Europe.