Agecroft Hall: Discover 17th Century England in Richmond
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Priest Hole

 

 

Located in the reproduction servants’ quarters in Agecroft Hall is a small space known as a priest hole.  What appears to be a built-in shelf instead contains a false back that, when pushed, opens to reveal the concealed space.  Priest holes—purposefully constructed hiding places—were not uncommon in English manor houses during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603).  Religious paraphernalia including a rosary, a leather chalice case (1475) and a communion cup (1570) are on display in our priest hole. 
 
What’s the reason for these little hiding spaces?  During the reign of Elizabeth I Catholicism was outlawed and those who were caught practicing faced harsh fines and tortuous punishments, often leading to their deaths.  Many Catholics refused to alter their beliefs, and were forced to lead double lives outwardly showing allegiance to the queen to safeguard their survival, while privately practicing Catholicism.  Catholicism’s abolishment began with Henry VIII’s (1509-1547) request for divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon.  The Pope denied this request and, in 1533, Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England to be able to annul his marriage to Catherine. England returned to Catholicism for a brief period under Mary I (1553-1558) and officially became a Protestant country under Elizabeth I. The notion of allegiance to the crown was also important to Elizabeth I. In 1559, the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity were enacted requiring all individuals to attend church weekly and on holy days or face fines. As Antonia Fraser (1996) states, this act also recognized that the divine power was bestowed to the crown—not the Pope. 

Lay people caught practicing Catholicism were oftentimes punished with high fines, which were especially difficult for the poor. The penalties for priests caught practicing were much harsher.  In public, known Catholics were often harassed, threatened, or cheated by Protestants.  Priests caught performing Catholic mass were imprisoned, tortured, and often killed.  For example, Cuthbert Mayne (1544-1577), a catholic priest, was, while still alive, hacked into pieces for wearing an Agnus Dei pendant on his necklace.  Priests were also known to have their hearts cut out and their bodies emasculated, hung, or drawn and quartered.  Thus it was very important that priests were well hidden to avoid seizure, torture, and death.

Priests were often disguised as cousins or teachers, lived with wealthy families, and were kept in buildings called safe houses.  Priest holes were constructed primarily to hide priests during raids by pursuivants—priest hunters—and the hiding spaces generally found in fireplaces, gables, and staircases.   Many were built by Nicholas Owens throughout England between the dates 1550-1605. Owens was martyred in 1606 for building the priest holes as well as participating in other Catholic practices.  Unfortunately, priests struggling to avoid torture and death occasionally remained in these cramped hiding places for long periods with limited oxygen supply, sometimes leading to their deaths anyway.

The oppression of Catholics through social and legal sanctions forced many Catholics into Protestantism or caused them to either lead dual religious lives or be faced with stringent ramifications.  This explains the need for hiding places like priest holes during the Elizabethan era.  Agecroft Hall strives to create a realistic experience for visitors having constructed a replica priest hole with real 15-16th century English vestiges concealed in a wall.  One would never know it exists without it being unveiled during tours. 


References

  • Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: Doubleday, 1996. 

  • "Nicholas Owen."  Original Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed October 29, 2015. 

  • "Pope Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom." Article-History of the Catholic Church in England (16th – 19th Century) / The Catholic Faith / Home. Accessed October 27, 2015. 




Josh Kline, Assistant Curator