St Nicholas Owen SJ
‘How hard can it really be?’ That’s the question I would ask myself as I tore excitedly into the box of a flat-pack set of shelves for my flat, when books once more had started to grow in piles on my floor, not just around the walls, but in the middle of the room too! Several hours later, but with not a lot of progress to show for it, the answer was always, ‘very hard, indeed!’ All of which only serves to increase my admiration for the heroic martyr, St Nicholas Owen (c.1550-1606), who was a carpenter and ingenious constructor of priest holes, for which there were certainly no instructions, and for whom time was of a premium.
Fr John Gerard SJ*, another heroic figure of the time, and a beneficiary of Owen’s priest holes, wrote of his Jesuit lay brother: “I verily think that no one can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular, which had been lost and forfeited many times over if the priests had been taken in their houses.”
There is much we can learn from this saint’s life, even, if like me, your skills are not in DIY and you have little to offer the Church in that regard. For what is most striking about Owen’s life is how he always put his ingenuity at the service of others, and that he was unstintingly loyal to the Church and his fellow Catholics.
Thus it is that his first brush with the authorities was not for attending Mass, nor for aiding and abetting in the hiding of priests, but for the vehemence of his defence of St Edmund Campion who had been accused of treason. So impassioned was his defence of his friend that, in 1581, he was imprisoned for it.
By 1586, he was in the personal service of Fr Henry Garnet SJ, the Jesuit Provincial, who would later be hanged, drawn and quartered. The two travelled extensively staying at various at Catholic houses where Owen would carry out his craft with great aplomb, conceiving of and constructing hides that would confound the authorities. Many of these still survive at key houses in recusant history, including Sawston Hall near Cambridge, Coughton Court in Warwickshire, and at both Harvington Hall and Huddington Court in Worcestershire (Wus-ter-shur for those of our American readers who want to pronounce it correctly!).
In order to provide cover for his principal work of constructing priest-holes, Owen would always engage himself with other obvious works by day, only conducting the real work by night. This in itself must have been exhausting, not to mention that he would generally work unaided and would be engaged in substantial physical work. Whilst the hides built by others were often simple trapdoors or hidden doors, covered with furnishings or other floor coverings, Owen’s constructions are recognised because of the ingenuity of their construction. Alan Fea’s book Secret Chambers and Hiding Places quotes an authority saying of his work, ‘With incomparable skill, he knew how to conduct priests to a place of safety along subterranean passages, to hide them between walls and bury them in impenetrable recesses, and to entangle them in labyrinths and a thousand windings.” All very impressive for a man nicknamed ‘Little John’ because of his diminutive size and who walked with a limp owing to an earlier accident. Furthermore, Owen’s hides were always different, discovering one in one house would not help a searcher to find a hide in another house.
In 1594, Owen accompanied by his fellow Jesuit, Fr Gerard SJ, was betrayed to the authorities by the servant at a house where he had previously carried out works. Such an arrest was obviously a great coup and had the potential to yield precious information about the underground Catholic network. Accordingly Owen was tortured horrifically, but his resolve was unbroken and they yielded no information and begrudgingly released him. One might think that Owen would slink off and try and keep a low profile for a while, but immediately he busied himself with planning the escape of his Jesuit brother, successfully smuggling him out of the Tower by means of a rope strung across the moat.
For a number of years, he managed to evade any further significant brushes with authority, however, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 saw Catholics uniformly treated as suspicious and dangerous, and once more Owen was a wanted man. With three other Jesuits he took refuge at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire. When the house was raided, 100 men were employed to search for them, but failed to find the priest-hole, testament to the skill of his earlier work at the Hall!
After eight days the starving Owen slipped out of the hiding place unobserved and tried to pass himself off to his captors as a priest in order to save Fr Garnet. The ruse failed, and when it was realised who had been captured, the Secretary of State, Robert Cecil exclaimed: ‘It is incredible, how great was the joy caused by his arrest… knowing the great skill of Owen in constructing hiding places, and the innumerable quantity of dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests all through England.’
Once more he was held captive in the Tower and mercilessly tortured on the rack. On the rack, a victim’s legs arms and legs were tied to bars at either end of the device; rollers were then used to stretch the body. The tension was maintained and gradually increased by use of a ratchet. This caused terrible pain for the victim as well as increasing physical damage as the torture continued. Tendons were ripped, joints dislocated and bones fractured. The sounds of muscles and tendons tearing and snapping provided audible signs of the damage being done. A victim of the rack was often left with permanent physical disability. However, such was the value of the information Owen held – information that if leaked could seriously hinder the mission in England – that the torture continued with no mercy until, on March 22 1606, his entrails burst out when he was on the rack, and he expired. The Government, hugely embarrassed, tried to suggest that he had killed himself with a knife. One can note the irony in trying to excuse the futile death of a man committed to the truth with a lie.
His Feast is celebrated on the 23rd January in the Diocese of Birmingham and 22nd March elsewhere.
*For those who would like an eye-witness account of the Catholic mission in these times of persecution, I recommend Fr John Gerard SJ’s autobiography, The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, published by Ignatius Press.