St. Nicholas Owen, Builder of Secret Hiding Places for Priests

St. Nicholas Owen, pray for us!

Gaspar Bouttats (1640-1695), “Nicholas Owen”
Gaspar Bouttats (1640-1695), “Nicholas Owen” (photo: Public Domain)

On March 22, 1606, St. Nicholas Owen, the Jesuit lay brother and carpenter extraordinaire, died under torture in the Tower of London. Owen, Fathers Henry Garnet and Edward Oldcorne, and lay brother Ralph Ashley had finally emerged from their hiding places, commonly called “priest holes”—that Owen had constructed— in Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire, northwest of London on Jan. 26 that year.

The government agents wanted to find and arrest Fathers Henry Garnet and Edward Oldcorne particularly because they wanted to find out what they had known about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The main conspirators who’d survived the dragnet after the Plot had been discovered in late October, including Guy Fawkes, had been captured and questioned. Two other Jesuits, the intrepid Father John Gerard and Father Oswald Tesimond, aka Father Greenway, had escaped England. Hearing that Oldcorne might be at Hindlip Hall, the agents searched the house for days, never finding the hiding holes. Garnet, Oldcorne, Ashley and Owen finally had to leave the holes because they had no water or food. Dehydrated and starving, they were taken to London and the questioning and torture began.


Eighteen Years of Hard Work

The authorities wanted to find out what these four Jesuits had known about the Gunpowder Plot: whether or not the conspirators had consulted them, even confessed to the priests their plans to blow up Parliament when King James I, his family (especially his sons), his Privy Council, and the legislators were all gathered—or if they’d encouraged the plotters in this murderous scheme.

But they wanted to know more from Nicholas Owen, also known as “Little John”: they wanted to know where all the hiding places were. Once they had that information, they could raid the known Recusant houses—there were no protections against unreasonable search and seizure in 17th-century England—arrest the owners and fine them if they were hiding a priest. Any priest would endure what Fathers Garnet and Oldcorne suffered, questioned about where they had celebrated Mass, who had attended, etc. Owen was already known to the government because he had served St. Edmund Campion, SJ (executed Dec. 1, 1581) and had been arrested after Campion was executed for protesting that he had been innocent—he had also helped Father Gerard escape from the Tower of London.

There would be no escape for Nicholas Owen. James I’s agents wanted to know everything he knew about the Recusant network of safe houses.

He would not tell them. He told them what they already knew and that was all. According to the Jesuits in Britain website, we have two records of Owen’s confessions under torture. For example on March 1, 1606:

He confesses that he has known and sometimes attended Henry Garnett, the Provincial of the Jesuits for around four years.

He confesses that he was at the house of Thomas Throgmorton called Coughton at the beginning of November last year, when the Lady Digby was there and by the watch that was in town they knew that Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, and the rest of the gunpowder plotters were up in arms.

That on All Saints Day last year, Garnett said Mass at Coughton House, and that at that Mass there were around half a dozen people.

That Henry Garnett was at Henlipp, the house of Thomas Abington some six weeks before he was apprehended and Hall the Jesuit was there about three days before the house of Mr Abington was searched.

That while he was staying with Garnett, he made his fire and served him and that both he and Garnett hid in a secret room below the dining room.

Since they weren’t getting what they wanted, the torture was intensified.

Nicholas Owen was keeping 18 years of hard work secret. He had labored alone at night in cramped spaces, developing a hernia. He had worked through that pain and he was enduring this suffering in silence too. The authorities knew they were torturing an injured man: they had even placed a plate of metal and a belt to prevent the hernia from rupturing.

But it did rupture and Nicholas Owen died on March 22, 1606.


The Cover-up and the Aftermath

Since they had learned nothing from Owen and had killed him, the authorities covered up what they had done by holding an inquest and issuing the verdict that Nicholas Owen had killed himself. As Father John Gerard later commented in his Autobiography, they added “calumny to murder,” admitting that they had tortured him cruelly but that he had committed suicide to avoid further torture. Gerard comments that if Owen had not injured his neighbor by revealing secrets that would harm them, he certainly would not “offend God by self-murder” concluding that the “Day of Judgment will refute this calumny as well as others.”

Father Oldcorne and Brother Ashley were executed on April 7, 1606, in Worcester. King James’s government had never made any connection between them and the Gunpowder Plot, so they were hanged, drawn, and quartered for their Catholic faith: Oldcorne as a priest and Ashley as one who had served a priest and helped him on his mission in England to serve the still-faithful Catholics. Ashley had suffered and survived the same kind of torture as Owen, because he had so much knowledge of where and with whom Oldcorne had traveled and visited:

When Ashley came to die he prayed and asked for forgiveness and noted that like Oldcorne he was dying for his religion and not for being a traitor. Before his execution, his last words were, “What a happy man am I to follow the steps of my Father unto death.” Ralph Ashley was beatified in 1929. 

Father Oldcorne had ministered in the West Midlands of England for 17 years, serving even while suffering from throat cancer. In 1601, he had made a pilgrimage to St. Winefride’s Well in Holywell, north Wales to pray for a cure—and he was healed. He was also beatified in 1929, as was Nicholas Owen, by Pope Pius XI. Owen was included among the 40 martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Father Henry Garnet, who was tried and found guilty of treason in the Gunpowder Plot, has never been beatified or canonized, because of uncertainty about how much he had been involved in the murderous conspiracy. He was executed on May 3, 1606.

In one of the odd twists of time, many of the houses in which St. Nicholas Owen built priest holes are now tourist spots on the National Trust list, including Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk. Visitors can actually crawl in that priest hole and see how it would have felt. From a place of desperate refuge, it has become a highlight on a “day out”!

Saint Nicholas Owen, pray for us!