Anyone who’s read my paranormal romance ‘Got Ghosts?’ will know that priest holes form an important part of the plot. Not sure what a priest hole is? Well, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the official religion in England swung between Protestant and Roman Catholic depending on which monarch was on the throne.Whichever religion fell out of favour was forbidden and those who practised it, particularly the priests, were persecuted, often to the point of death.
Naturally people wanted to go on worshipping the way they always had, and in many cases continued to do just that. However, being caught harbouring a priest was also a serious crime so they had to come up with ways of hiding the priests, and the paraphernalia of their religion, in case the authorities came to call.
Many properties in staunchly Catholic areas of the country such as the West Midlands and the North West were fitted with hiding holes that the priests could scurry into when the soldiers pounded on the front door. Many of these are really ingenious, and you can find some of the best examples – a sort of ‘priest hole central’ – at a small stately home in Worcestershire called Harvington Hall.
Originally built in the 1300s, Harvington was remodelled in the 1580s by its then owner Humphrey Pakington. Sources conflict on whether the family was Protestant or Catholic at this time, but the widely accepted version is that Pakington was Catholic and during the work on the house, deliberately had numerous hiding places built into the fabric. It’s believed most or all of these were designed by the master priest-hole builder Nicholas Owen, who worked for the Jesuits, and at least four bear hall-marks of his work.
The priest holes are fascinating. Again, accounts vary on the numbers hidden around the hall. Modern accounts mention seven, plus a smaller space for hiding vestments and religious silverware. But when I visited Harvington as a teenager, I was told there could be as many as ten. All of them are ingenious, and some are the stuff of pure fiction. There’s the false chimney in one bedroom, with tiny brick steps leading up to a large hide in the roof-space. There’s a swinging beam in the library, which hinges to allow a (very thin!) person to slide through into a narrow hide beyond. And perhaps best of all, on the main staircase two of the wooden steps are hinged to access the vestment hide – which has a false back concealing yet another large priest hole behind it. Even assuming the authorities lifted the stairs to find the smaller hide, pyschology suggests they’d be satisfied with that and not investigate any further.
Sadly, although the secrets of Harvington Hall appear to have remained undiscovered at the time, Nicolas Owen and his employer Father Henry Garnett were both captured at a nearby house and were eventually executed – demonstrating just how dangerous the whole business of creating priest holes was.
Although I didn’t use exact descriptions of any of the Harvington priest holes in ‘Got Ghosts?’, some of the elements helped to inspire Greystones Hall’s own hiding place, including the brick steps and the idea of a hide within a hide. In Greystones’ case this was used for concealing something very different to a priest, but that’s all part of the mystery and if you want to find out what, I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book!
These are just a couple of photos I took of the place during my own visit many years ago, showing the main front, and the rather daunting courtyard. You can see the many odd angles and disjointed lines – a deliberate ploy to confuse the authorities and make it easier to construct hides in the voids created within.
What must have been bloody and terrifying at the time has come to seem mysterious and romantic over the passing centuries. There are plenty of other examples of priest holes and other strange spaces in old houses up and down the country, but if you want to experience the atmosphere and wonder of Harvington for yourself then you can, because it’s open to the public (details on its website) and well worth the trip.