Priest holes at Selly Manor

Priest holes at Selly Manor

We have recently redesigned our priest hole and we are writing some new interpretation for it, so we thought you might all enjoy learning a bit more about this secret space! We often get asked about the priest hole here at Selly Manor; there is sadly no evidence that it was an original feature of the house and we are unsure of when it may have been added. Regardless of its authenticity, it provides an interesting starting point to talk about religion during the Tudor times, especially with our school groups! 

In the 16th century, religious beliefs could be a matter of life and death and the differing religious beliefs of the Tudor monarchs caused lots of upheaval and persecution in England. Henry VIII caused religious conflict by creating the Church of England and proclaiming himself head of it in 1531, distancing himself from his previous Catholic beliefs. Edward VI continued promoting Protestantism in England, while Catholic Mary I earned the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ for burning Protestants at the stake. Elizabeth I then passed The Act of Uniformity when she took the throne in 1558, which restored the Church of England and also stated that all who did not conform to this religion would be fined or imprisoned. Elizabeth’s devout nature, combined with several Catholic plots to dethrone her, most importantly the Rising of the North (1569) and the Babington Plot (1586), meant that she took severe measures against Catholic priests. An Act was passed prohibiting a member of the Roman Catholic Church from celebrating the Catholic rites – with punishments of imprisonment or even death for going against this!  Dedicated priest hunters were asked to collect information and find Catholic priests.

As a response to this, many prominent Catholic families had priest holes built into their houses so they could continue to practice. Mass was still celebrated in many Catholic houses in secluded apartments or chapels. Hiding places were usually, but not always, found nearby. These were needed so that vestments, sacred vessels and altar furniture could be stored at short notice – as well as for a priest to hide during a raid! These hiding spaces became known as priest holes. Most priest-holes were constructed between 1550s and 1605. Priest holes – due to their life or death nature – were very cleverly hidden. They were concealed in walls, under floors, behind panelling, in water closets, under stairs, behind wardrobes, in roof spaces and even under moats. The one at Selly Manor is very well hidden in the attic - when we close the door of the priest hole it looks just like any other panel of the wall - you would never know it was there!

Many priest holes were designed by a Jesuit lay brother called Nicholas Owen. He spent much of his life nobly building priest holes to protect his persecuted brothers. Nicholas Owen was a highly skilled builder and architect. He kept his priest holes so secret that he wouldn’t even tell other Catholics where he had built them. As a consequence no one knows just how many priest holes he made and whether some of them may still be undiscovered. Sometimes other building alterations would be made at the same time the priest holes were inserted so as to not arouse suspicion. Sadly after the Gunpowder Plot, Owen was captured and killed. He was later canonised as martyr.

The effectiveness of priest holes was demonstrated by the frustration that priest hunters encountered when trying to find them. They would exhaustively search houses; they would measure the footprint of the house from the outside and the inside to see if they matched; they would count the windows outside and again from the inside; they would tap on the walls to see if they were hollow and they would tear up floorboards to search underneath. Another tactic was for priest hunters to pretend to leave the site and see if the priest would come out from hiding.

Aside from the danger of being discovered, the priest would have to endure were pretty terrible. The priest holes were often very cramped, with no food or water. You could not move around or get out of the priest hole – priests would often be scared to even breathe in case it alerted priest hunters to their presence. Occasionally priests would die from starvation or lack of oxygen; however these priest holes saved many lives.

Next time you are at Selly Manor make sure you check out our priest hole!