Priest Hunters and Holy Holes: Secrets of the English Reformation

These days, you may attend the religious celebration of your choice without being the target of scornful looks. Nevertheless, religious quarrels keep arising in modern societies, at which point one may rightfully wonder: has religion gotten better or worse? A little journey through the time-travelling machine should provide an adequate answer to this question. Turns out that not so long ago, clergymen had to preach secretly and conceal themselves beneath the floor.

In the early 16th century, the Reformation brought massive change to religion in Europe, condemning the Catholic Church’s abuses in favor of a more humanist reading of sacred texts. Plus, some countries wished to get rid of papal authority, which most of the time exceeded those of monarchs and sovereigns. Protestantism thus became a tool of political supremacy. It had also been half a century since the onset of the printing industry, and freshly-translated Bibles started to spread around the continent, enabling anybody (capable of reading, which encompassed roughly 20% of adult males and 5% of women at the time) to make up their own interpretation of the ‘Good Book’.

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Pilgrimages, regular Masses, cult of the saints, collection of relics… Before the Reformation, all means were good for one to atone for his sins. Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, was well-known for his piety: during his life, he amassed no less than 17,000 relics, meant to spare himself from 128,000 years of Purgatory.

Obviously, the Reformation contributed to weaken the Catholic Church, which  immediately counterattacked: Martin Luther, the founding father of Protestantism, was excommunicated by the Pope, and the latter also got Inquisition back on track so as to dissuade Catholics from changing sides. In spite of these efforts, the Reformation slowly but surely gained ground: Swiss cantons, German burgs and even the towns of Mulhouse and Strasbourg relayed this new Christian spirit, followed by Scandinavia, Poland, Bohemia and the Netherlands – featuring, however, bloody clampdowns.

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Between 1545 and 1620, various protestant branches gained ground in Europe. (Map: Ernio48 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In England, Reformation expressed itself through the rapid rise of Anglicanism, under the reign of Henry VIII. The monarch wished to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon; however, such a procedure was forbidden by the Holy See. Henry VIII thus jumped on the Protestant bandwagon to bring his divorce to a successful conclusion and dismiss papal authority in this regard… Queen Elizabeth I followed suit in 1558, reinforcing the pillars of Anglicanism within English law. Being a good, devoted Catholic in 16th-century England was no more an enviable situation. It meant that one accepted papal authority, and thus contested that of the throne; and those found guilty of high treason were immediately sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Did Catholic cults stop for all that? Surely not: but they got to be delivered far from the royal eye. London was far too risky, and official Catholic Masses were given the cold shoulder. Instead, new places for forbidden religious rituals to be staged happened to be the manors of noblemen, in the north of England. There, clergymen on-the-run still preached secretly, but they had to journey from manor to another with catlike stealth: with repression in full swing, Catholics saw their martyr waiting list grow dramatically, with monks, nuns, Jesuits and Franciscans sentenced to death. Papal documents were banned, and priest hunters sent after the fleeing clergymen.

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Thomas More (who wrote Utopia in 1516) and John Fisher were amongst the first victims of Henry VIII, for both refused to recognize him as supreme leader of the English Church. The former is said to have proclaimed moments before his execution: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” (Photo: Wikipedia)

Priest hunters were literally the worst thing that could happen to Catholic dignitaries (or at least rank second after the ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’ part I mentioned earlier). They were capable of investigating dubious manors for days; they employed informers, intercepted letters, and even pretended to be Catholics so as to catch their preys. Clergymen on the run, fearing that a priest hunter would learn something that would give them away, called them “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and got quite suspicious.

For Catholic priests to keep on with their secret duty in the manors of noble Englishmen, the latter got hideouts built so as to conceal them from priest hunters. So-called ‘priest holes’ were sometimes actual man-shaped holes in the floor where clergymen could hide for hours (even days). Others were tunnels weaving across the domain, emerging far away from priest hunters. Most of the time, priest holes were the only frontier between life and death.

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Priest hole at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk. (Photo credit: Jim Barton via Flickr)

A Jesuit brother, Nicholas Owen, grew up in a pious Catholic family during this turbulent epoch. He inherited from his father, a carpenter, know-how that was to make him the most famous architect of priest holes. From 1588 on, under the aliases ‘Little John’, ‘Andrews’ or ‘Draper’, he went from manor to another to build, at nighttime, exit doors for his hunted brothers. In return, Nicholas only asked for the necessities of life – the permission to live decently under a system which forbade it. At daytime, he took the appearance of a travelling carpenter so as to avoid suspicion.

For eighteen years, he tirelessly pursued this high-risk mission, day after day, manor after manor. At some point, he became the primary target of priest hunters, whose preys had escaped thanks to Nicholas’ skills… and he eventually fell into the authorities’ clutches in 1606. Following an umpteenth torture session at the Tower of London, during which he did not give his brothers away, he died at the hands of his persecutors in the night between the 1st and the 2nd of March. Another Catholic martyr joined a growing list.

Nicholas Owen has prolonged the faith of numerous priests – even after his death. His legacy is still visible to this day, deep down the bowels of manors which sheltered his night-time construction sites. But one would have to wait another century and a half for Catholics to get treated more peacefully in the United Kingdom. At the end of the 18th century, ‘papists’ (as they got nicknamed) were finally allowed to purchase land or serve their country, and eventually sat in Parliament from 1829 on.

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Catholics were sometimes used as scapegoats when the authorities could not find the right culprits. Following the Great Fire of London, in the course of which the homes of 80,000 Londoners were devastated, Catholics unfairly received the blame for the accident. A later investigation revealed that a local baker, Thomas Farriner, had left his oven on overnight. He was Anglican.

Nowadays, the Anglican Church and the Holy See have reconciled. Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970, and religious history has left the priest-hunting episode behind. But the wound is still gaping within the English society, as reflected by the demonstrations which span the capital city when the Pope pays Londoners a visit, or the Partition of Ireland enshrined in 1921. And while priest holes are not in use anymore, let us hope their architects rest in peace for eternity.

 

 


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