Church, State and Monarch in Elizabethan England were as consubstantial as the Trinity. To hold religious views that did not conform to the established religion was to court danger, disaster and death. The modern, secular distinction between a public and private sphere was unimagined, and outlawed rituals carried out within the walls of one’s own home were viewed as a direct threat to that trinity of the English state. This was not paranoia: the Catholic powers of Europe were working remorselessly to overthrow Elizabeth and restore Papal authority in England. In the sixteenth century Cold War, Catholic priests were agents of hostile foreign powers and therefore guilty of High Treason, as was anyone who aided and abetted them.
Across England the houses of the aristocracy and the gentry who remained loyal to Rome became centres of recusancy and resistance. They hosted undercover priests, indigenous or Rome-dispatched, who, masquerading as teachers or relations, would enact the subversive sacraments in secret sessions. These safe houses were anything but safe. A new cadre of government agents, the pursuivants or priest-hunters, was formed to track and arrest the priests and those who harboured them. And so a new craft was initiated to construct hiding places for priests, their vessels and vestments. These were dubbed ‘priest holes’, and a Jesuit lay brother called Nicholas Owen, a master builder and carpenter, became the leading designer and craftsman of these boltholes. (The priest hole in these photographs is at Selly Manor in Bournville and is not known to be the work of Owen. It is certainly simpler than many of his designs.)
The spaces, having to be concealed within the existing fabric of the houses – behind chimney breasts, within walls, under roofs – were cramped, stifling and potentially fatal. The pursuivants soon learnt the general pattern and it became a matter of searching out the particular place. Rooms were measured and compared, walls were knocked upon and drilled, floor boards and wainscots were lifted. The pursuivants would pretend to leave and then return abruptly in the hope of catching out the hidden enemy.
This was grim work for the hunter and the hunted, both of whom were sustained by the belief that this was God’s service. Imagine a priest standing or lying in such a constricted space. Heat and dark, thirst and hunger, pain and numbness. Alone with oneself and with God. ‘…to give and not to count the cost…to fight and not to heed the wounds.’ Time stretches, the mind turns to thoughts of sin and folly, hope and despair, salvation and damnation. The enforced intimacy with the foulness of bodily waste. Rank smells and the taste of fear. The necessary purification. Silence and the sound of the Queen’s men searching. Or are they avenging angels? Muffled voices, knocking and creaking, louder and closer. The ecstasy of waiting. More silence and then perhaps the relief of discovery. Is this is what Purgatory feels like?