Thursday, November 15, 2012



Priest Hole

Priest hole" is the term given to hiding places for priests built into many of the principal Catholic houses of England during the period when Catholics were persecuted by law in England, from the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.

The measures put in force shortly after Elizabeth's accession became much harsher after the Rising of the North (1569) and numerous other plots by Catholics against Elizabeth (1571-1586); in particular, the utmost severity of the law was enforced against seminary priests. An Act was passed prohibiting a member of the Catholic Church from celebrating the rites of his faith on pain of forfeiture for the first offence, a year's imprisonment for the second, and imprisonment for life for the third. All those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy were called "Recusants" and were guilty of high treason. A law was also enacted which provided that if any "Papist" should be found converting an Anglican or Protestant to Catholicism, both would suffer death for high treason. In December 1591, a priest was hanged before the door of a house in Gray's Inn Fields for having said Mass there the month previously. Laws against seminary priests and Recusants were enforced with great severity after the Gunpowder Plot episode during James I's reign.

It was common for the castles and country houses of England to have some precaution in the event of a surprise, such as a secret means of concealment or escape that could be used at a moment's notice. However, in the time of legal persecution the number of secret chambers and hiding-places increased in the houses of the old Catholic families. These often took the form of apartments or chapels in secluded parts of the houses, or in the roof space, where Mass could be celebrated with the utmost privacy and safety. Nearby there was usually an artfully contrived hiding-place, not only for the officiating priest to slip into in case of emergency, but also to provide a place where the vestments, sacred vessels, and altar furniture could be stored at a moment's notice.

The effectiveness of priest holes was demonstrated by their success in baffling the exhaustive searches of the "pursuivants" (priest-hunters). Priest-hole success is a matter of record in surviving contemporary accounts of the searches of suspected houses. Search-parties would bring with them skilled carpenters and masons and try every possible expedient, from systematic measurements and soundings to the physical tearing down of panelling and pulling up of floors. It was common for a rigorous search to last a fortnight, and for the "pursuivants" to go away empty handed, while the object of the search was hidden the whole time within a wall's thickness of his pursuers, half-starved, cramped, sore with prolonged confinement, and almost afraid to breathe lest the least sound should throw suspicion upon the particular spot where he was immured. Sometimes a priest could die in a priest hole from starvation or from lack of oxygen.