Wednesday 15 December 2021

St Nicholas Owen Priest-Hole Maker - Tony Reynolds

St Nicholas Owen:
Priest-Hole Maker
Tony Reynolds
ISBN 9780852448496
ISBN 9781781820322

This book was a fascinating read. It is an odd mix of history, biography, And technical review of priest holes. The book by no means focuses exclusively on Owen. In fact his part is likely less than half of the book. We are given a lot of background information on the times, the persecutions of Catholics, the recusants, and ultimately the Gunpowder Plot. The description of this volume begins with this statement:

“During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I it was high treason, and therefore death, to be a Catholic priest in England. It was consequently vital that there be somewhere to hide when the pursuivants came battering at the door. One name is prominent in the construction of priest-holes ‒ that of Nicholas Owen. A very short and later crippled man, he built the majority of these shelters, so saving the lives of untold numbers of priests and fugitives.”

 I came across the name Saint Nicholas Owen in a different book and wanted to find out more about him. I could only find this volume and Nicholas Owen: Builder of Secret Places: A Ten-Minute Biographical Play by Gay Toltl Kinman. This was the one that look most promising and it was a fascinating read. I highlighted several passages while reading this book, some of them are:

“He records that he turned to Nicholas Owen to arrange him some lodgings. This is a talent of Nicholas’ that we have not previously seen, but Gerard praises his skill in making the arrangements and implies that it was a duty he often carried out, describing him as ‘that excellent man, who was so experienced in transactions of this sort.’”

“Prisons even competed among themselves for the custody of the most lucrative detainees. Inmates were charged for everything necessary to survival and comfort; food, drink, clothes, bedding, medical attention and so on.”

“Nicholas was the chief, but not the only, constructor of priest-holes at the time. In the far North of England which Garnet seldom reached, there was Father Richard Holtby, whom Squiers calls the ‘Nicholas of the North’. Holtby was a very competent and hard-working priest to whom Garnet had given the northern counties as his territory.”

“It is pleasing to consider that we may well see more priest-holes rediscovered. In an episode evoking innumerable scenes from children’s fiction, the ingenious pivoting beam hide at Harvington was discovered by a young boy in 1897 when he teased out a loose brick. Similarly, the double hide at Coughton Court, despite its considerable size, was forgotten and found only during repair work in 1945. We can have every hope that more examples of Nicholas’ particular genius remain to be found.”

“On the first occasion that Nicholas was captured, twelve years previously, the authorities had not realised that they had anyone of importance in their clutches. This time it was different. No doubt through confessions wrung out on the rack they knew that Nicholas was the chief builder of priest-holes in England. One Councillor (Tesimond says it was the Earl of Salisbury himself) exulted: ‘Is he taken that knows all the secret places? I am very glad of that. We will have a trick for him.’”

“The truth was this: the man had lived a saintly life, and his death was answerable, and he a glorious martyr of extraordinary merit. God assisted him with so much grace that in all his torments he gave not the least sign of relenting, not any sign of impatience, not any one word by which the least of his acquaintance either did or might come in any trouble.”

“We can perhaps take consolation from the thought that being declared a saint and martyr is an even higher honour than being accepted as a member of the Society of Jesus.”

“We have then a picture of an intelligent and companionable man who was also skilled and knowledgeable craftsman.”

“In the end what raised him to sainthood was not his martyrdom alone, but also his loyalty to his friends, his unstinting labours for his Church and his faith that gave him the strength to endure unto death tortures which can surely be compared to those of the Cross.”

There is a section towards the end of the book talking about the saints and martyrs of England during these times. It talks about the 254 causes proposed in 1886, of whom 241 were martyrs. From those a detailed examination of 136. Which lead to the 40 submitted in 1960. The Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. In 1970 those 40 were canonized. 

This book was an excellent read. The illustrations, and photos throughout the work add to the tale. And the fact that the author is trained in architecture gives him incredible insight into what was done and how it was accomplished. 

For those interested in this period of Catholic History in England this is a most excellent volume. 

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2021 Catholic Reading Plan!

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