Reynolds: St Nicholas Owen

October 11, 2014

St Nicholas Owen
Priest-Hole Maker
Tony Reynolds
(Gracewing, 2014)
200 p.

The plight of Catholics in England during the tumultuous generations that followed Henry VIII’s self-investment of ecclesiastical authority has been a long-standing area of interest for me, and, of the many Catholic recusants who suffered and struggled through that period, St Nicholas Owen has long been a subject of particular personal interest. In most treatments of his historical period, covering the last few decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and the first few years of James I’s — roughly 1580-1610 — he appears only as a peripheral figure, fascinating but furtive. I was therefore delighted to see this recently published biography devoted to him.

Nicholas was from a staunch, working-class Catholic family in Oxford. As an adult he was, for nearly two decades, a special assistant to Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England. This, of course, at a time when merely being a Jesuit priest on English soil was sufficient grounds for arrest and execution. Nicholas was a layman (probably), and he was widely regarded among the Jesuits and the Catholic recusants as a man of discretion and trustworthiness. He was also a carpenter and a mason, and his principal claim to fame is as the probable architect of many of the most cunningly designed secret hiding places built into the homes of Catholic recusants. All of that romantic tradition of old English manor houses with sliding panels, false floors, pivoting beams, and rotating bookshelves owes much to St. Nicholas, and has its roots in the real, and decidedly unromantic, peril faced by priests of the time. The country homes of wealthy Catholic families served as harbours and safehouses for the priests ministering clandestinely to Catholics, but they were subject to sudden search by government-funded “priest hunters”. If a priest was present in the home at the time of a search, he would, if possible, retreat into a hiding place — a “priest-hole” — and wait out the search, sometimes for as long as 8 or 10 days. Nicholas’ ingenious priest-hole designs were credited with saving the lives of many Catholics, both priests and laymen, over a period of several decades.

In 1606 Nicholas was arrested in a series of general raids upon Catholic homes during the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot. When the authorities realized who they had captured, they had him tortured for information in the Tower of London. Records of these interrogations still exist, and in this book Reynolds does a nice job of showing just how little useful intelligence Nicholas yielded up under duress. After several days of torture his long-standing hernia burst and he died in the hands of his interrogators; the authorities put out a story about his having committed suicide, but Reynolds does a good job picking that story apart. St Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His particular feast day is 22 March.

Readers who do not know much about this absorbing period of English and Catholic history would, I expect, find this little volume fascinating. Reynolds does a good job introducing the main people within Nicholas’ world, and although the focus is on Nicholas himself, Reynolds is able to tell the broad story of the Jesuit mission through those crucial years. He also gives a concise but well-judged overview of the historical background which led to the straitened circumstances in which Nicholas and his Jesuit friends were forced to operate. On the other hand, those who, like me, have previously read some of the first person accounts surviving from this period, such as those written by Fr. John Gerard and Fr. Oswald Tesimond, will find much of the story familiar. Even in this case, however, Reynolds filled in some details drawn from official government records that I did not remember having seen before. There have been a few other books published in recent years covering some of the same territory — such as Michael Hodgetts’ Secret Hiding Places, Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, and Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors — but I appreciated Reynolds’ rather more forthright admiration for Nicholas and sympathy with his cause. It’s a very nice little book.

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