Bevel, square, maul, saw and iron ulna. “Little John” laid them out carefully and stepped back to review the plans rolled out on the floor. His task was to dismantle a tread in the grand staircase of Havington Hall and make a few modifications. Every job he did for the cause had a creative edge to it and this was artfully one of his best.
“Right,” the little man said looking up at his hosts. “Imagine this. The tread’s a door, see. I’ll hinge it. That way Father Gerard or any other priest only has to pull open the top, slide through the step, push it shut, and stay nice and comfy in a hidden room under the staircase until trouble leaves. Provided you have food there for the bloke of course. Could be a long stay.” They nodded knowingly. He unrolled a second drawing.
“Now look. Here’s the beauty of this project. I’m inserting a box under the step just in front of the actual entrance. If Queen Bess’s men think of pulling up the stair tread they will find this, right? Looks like a hidden treasure box now don’t it? You and her ladyship can store a few of your personal valuables in it if you like. It conceals the actual door to the hole and the room.”
The hiding place would be successful. Harvington Hall near Birmingham, was owned by Catholic sympathizer, Humphrey Packington. It was riddled with hiding places for Roman priests being hunted down by Queen Elizabeth’s pursuivants. There were false panels , trap doors, a hidden passage to the cellar, a fake fireplace whose chimney was an entrance way to a hidden room, and a beam that was actually a door to a cubby hole in the wall. Nicholas Owen, or “Little John” as they called the dwarf-like little man, remained the single most prolific builder of so-called priests’ holes in English History. But he had a price on his head.
A day’s journey northeast, an execution had taken place in the City of York. Thirty year-old Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife in the old part of the City, a mother of three had been caught by pursuivants – members of an elite force charged with finding priests’ holes, Catholic clergy, and treasonous citizenry. An informant had spoken. Margaret was arrested, and dragged before a judge, where she quickly pled guilty to spare her family members from being tortured to extract evidence.
Her crime was that she had opened her door to Catholics priests being pursued and given them shelter. She had a “priest’s hole” built into her the top floor of her house and an escape hatch through the attic. She was a Catholic sympathiser in a Protestant England invaded by Catholic missionaries and spies. Her sentence was swift, but her death was slow. She was laid face-up on the ground. The offending oak door to her house was laid over her and massive stones were slowly piled on top until she was crushed to death. As her ribs crack she cried out, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Have mercy on me.” It was Good Friday 1586.
It was a precarious time to wave the flag of your religious affiliation, unless it was the monarch’s flag.
Years earlier Henry VIII had asserted his headship over the Church of England through the First Act of Supremacy in 1534, breaking relations with the Papacy. England had become an enemy to Rome. Some years later the religious pendulum swung the other way. In July 1553 Mary Tudor became the Queen. She was passionately Roman Catholic and executed over 400 Protestant sympathisers – the author of the Prayer Book, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, among them. She reigned less than half a dozen years. The religious pendulum swung back and her Protestant sister, Elizabeth 1st came to the throne and returned the country to the Protestant fold.
Her goal had been to bring peace to England’s divided religious fabric. But the late 16th and early 17th centuries were dangerous times. Rome began sending missionaries into England under cover. Most were Jesuits lay brothers or clergy, typically English and skilled at blending in as ordinary citizens. They had two assignments: to win England’s populous back to the Catholic Faith, and to offer sacramental ministry to England’s beleaguered and covert Catholics. The first goal bore limited fruit. The second was quite successful. But there were those bent on the overthrow of Elizabeth and her successor, James 1st. Any spirit of reconciliation with the Catholic minority was quickly dampened.
This is where Little John came in. For thirty years Nicolas “Little John” Owen built dozens of priests holes into manor house and estate houses across England, devoting his skills to saving the Catholic faithful at a time of fear and intolerance and he was one among many. Owen was arrested and imprisoned in 1606, and what a catch he was. His interrogators boasted they would “coax” a list of covert Catholics, and a “booty of priests” out of him. He sturdy little body was difficult to break. His spirit even tougher. He died in the Tower of London on the rack, taking that list to his grave. His friend and co-conspirator, Jesuit John Gerard wrote, “… no man can be said to have done more good… he (saved) the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.” Gerard himself would be arrested. He became one of the few to escape from the Tower of London.
It is doubtful all the holes have been found. Occasionally during the remodelling of an estate house, a tunnel or a hole is discovered. Random finds have turned up sacred books, eating utensils, clothes, loaded pistols, an early depiction of Queen Elizabeth herself, and a skeleton of an unfortunate priest still waiting for the pursuivants to finish their search, which could have been weeks.
“Little John” was honoured by sainthood. The Roman Catholic parish church of St Nicholas Owen, Little Thornton, in Lancashire is a memorial to his bravery. Margaret Clitherow was honoured likewise. The Roman Catholic parish of St Margaret Clitherow, Grahame Park in London is her memorial. A plaque can be seen in “The Shambles” in the Old City of York near where her house would have been.