The Priest’s Hole in Oxburgh Hall is a magical cave into which saints have crawled on their journey to their ultimate Home
As a hobbit in exile my heart’s hearth remains in the Shire; and, to be specific, to the English shire of Norfolk in East Anglia.
For many people, the restfully rolling landscape of East Anglia will bring to the mind’s eye the works of John Constable whose depiction of haywain and mill have become timelessly evocative rustic icons. Constable’s landscapes are to the mind’s eye what Beethoven’s sixth symphony is to the mind’s ear — a sensual celebration of the pastoral idyll which places pasture and peasant in perfect and permanent union. Implicit in the composition of both the landscape painting and the symphonic score is the vision of humanity harmonizing with Creation in a hymn of living praise to the Creator.
Whenever I have the opportunity to revisit the thatched coyness of rarely visited villages, viewing churches and pubs that border lovingly groomed village greens, I wonder why these eastern parts of England are so often overlooked. The picturesque coastal towns and villages of Norfolk and Suffolk are heaven-havens of Hopkinsesque serenity in which the landscape’s inscape is almost palpable. Aldeburgh, once the home of Benjamin Britten, and Southwold, still the home of the justly celebrated Adnams ale, are paradoxically dwarfed by the diminutive charm of Walberswick, nestling shyly at a bashful distance from the bustling world, and by the desolate charm of Dunwich, most of which has long since sunk beneath the waves.
There is, however, one special sacred space to which this particular hobbit makes a pilgrimage whenever he returns to the Shire. Oxborough Hall, a place which embodies the unbroken spirit of Catholic England, fills my heady heart with reverence and revelry, commingling heartfelt humility with heart-skipping joy so that the desire to kneel in silence battles with the urge to jump and sing. This mystical and powerful sense of peace and elation is connected to the fact that Oxborough Hall feels like home, and Home, in its truest and fullest sense, is the most sacred place of all.
Needless to say, Oxborough Hall is not “home” in any literal or mundane sense. It is the ancestral home of the Bedingfield family, noble lords who have counted royalty amongst their associates. As far as I am aware, I have not the least drop of blue blood flowing through my veins, though, as the son of a carpenter, I can perhaps claim a mystical equality with the noblest of my countrymen. Oxborough Hall is home because it has always been a bastion of Catholicism in England, and it is as an Englishman and as a Catholic that I claim kinship with the Bedingfield family.
Throughout the centuries, in spite of all the persecutions of the penal years, the Bedingfields kept the Faith, spurning the lure of heresy and the allure of worldly preferment which had enticed most of their fellow countrymen to rebel against Christ’s Mystical Body. In an age of trial, tribulation and treachery they emerged as heroes of the Recusant Resistance.
Today, amidst the many treasures to be found at Oxburgh Hall, the most dramatic is the Priest’s Hole, secreted beneath the stone floor of one of the upper rooms. Climbing into this hideaway one can feel, with the thrill of chilling reality, the perils of being part of the Catholic underground in Elizabethan England. Here the priest could hide from the prying eyes of the Queen’s cohorts, knowing that, if he were discovered, he would face torture and death.
Asking for the prayers of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, and feeling the presence of the 40 canonized Martyrs and the 85 beatified Martyrs of England and Wales, any pilgrim who clambers down into this holiest of hobbit holes will know that it is a magical cave into which saints have crawled on their journey to the ultimate Home that every healthy heart desires.