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Priest hole at Harvington Hall, accessed by tilting a step on the Grand Staircase.
Wikimedia Commons

Priest holes are secret hiding places in the homes of prominent Roman Catholic families for protecting chaplains and itinerant priests from legal persecution during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.[1] Following a papal bull of 1570 releasing the subjects of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) from their allegiance to the monarch, and after several plots against the Queen’s life were discovered, strict laws against the practice of Roman Catholicism were enacted.[2]

Following the arrival of the first Jesuits in England in 1580, parliament made it treasonous to convert an English subject to Catholicism, and outlawed the harboring of Catholic priests. A second statute of 1585 made it treasonous for a Catholic priest even to be in the country, and as result the Catholic gentry began to incorporate secret hiding places in their homes to conceal the clergymen from the authorities.[3]

The most skillful designer of priest holes was Nicholas Owen,[a]Nicholas Owen’s two brothers were priests.[3] who while engaged on a otherwise apparently mundane construction or remodeling project, would work at night to construct these hiding places. They usually offered some kind of escape route, and even some way of discretely feeding the occupant during a prolonged search.[3]


a Nicholas Owen’s two brothers were priests.[3]