My new novel ‘Remember, Remember’ tells the story of the Gunpowder Plot from an unusual point of view. I am currently researching the history of the time and have been learning a lot about ‘priest hides’ or ‘priest holes’. These hides were incorporated into the structure of the houses of Catholic recusant families and were used as a hiding place for priests should a search party turn up – it was high treason to be a priest in England at the end of the sixteenth century. But faith was often the most important part of a person’s life, so many risked their very lives in order to house a priest in their home so that they could attend Mass. As part of my research I read a lot about Harvington Hall, a moated medieval and Elizabethan manor house near Kidderminster in Worcestershire. The hall is renowned for its wealth of priest hides, many of which are still accessible. So, in the name of research I went along to Harvington Hall just before Christmas to have a look for myself.
I was surprised at my first glance of the Hall. You drive down a tiny country lane flanked by cottages and fields until you turn into an open space. On one side is a church, on another some stables and then, surrounded by a moat, to your right rises the great red brick house that is Harvington Hall. There are no imposing gates or sweeping driveways, you simply park your car, walk across the moat and go in.
You can explore the house by yourself, but we decided to join a guided tour. We were really glad we did and I would highly recommend that if you visit you do so too. Our guide, Arthur, was so informative and entertaining, and I’m sure we learnt so much more form him than we could have done otherwise.
We started our tour in the kitchen where we learnt about the plight of the kitchen children who, sometimes aged just three or four, worked naked in the heat of the two great fireplaces, turning the heavy spits all day long. We also learnt the origin of many interesting terms – for example, if a kitchen boy lost his job, he was given a piece of sacking in which to wrap his few belongings. Hence losing your job is now known as ‘getting the sack’. We continued through the kitchen to a store room in which meat was kept cold and animals may have been slaughtered. In a passageway adjacent to this was the first priest hide. It is a tiny space, barely room for a man. It was hard to imagine hiding there, sometimes for days, with no heat or food or fresh air, hardly able to move. Arthur explained that the hide was situated underneath a toilet – a woman would be dispatched to sit on the toilet in the hope that the searchers, for modesty’s sake, would not venture in!
We continued on to see the four main priest holes, all of which are located near the central staircase and are believed to have been created by Nicholas Owen. Owen constructed many priest-hides in Catholic homes from around 1588. After the Gunpowder Plot he was arrested and tortured. Our guide explained, in gory detail, how this poor man withstood the torture to the extent that, by the time he died (having never revealed any of the locations of his priest hides) he was practically split in half.
The priest hides we saw in Harvington Hall are a testament to the man’s genius. This one below has been made to so resemble a fireplace that even the back has been coloured black in order to give the impression that fires have been lit. If you stick your head in and look up you can see where the priest would have climbed and the space above where he would have hidden.
This hide, in the library, was so cleverly concealed that it was not discovered for 300 years after its construction.
And this one is actually under the staircase itself – two steps are hinged so they can be lifted.
Wandering through the hall it was easy to imagine the former inhabitants going about their daily lives, and to envisage the panic that must have been felt at the approach of searchers looking for the priest. And with the twists and turns of staircases and corridors it is easy to believe that there may be many more secret hides still not discovered. It was a thoroughly interesting visit – the hall was brought to life by our wonderful guide and it really helped me to gain an insight into the turmoil of the times and the constraints placed on those just trying to practice their religion in peace.
Find out more about Harvington Hall here