22 March 2010

St Nicholas Owen and Harvington Hall

On 22nd March we remember St Nicholas Owen, the Jesuit who was martyred at the start of the 17th Century. Nicholas Owen is remembered, other than his martyrdom, for his outstanding skills at building priest-holes. One such home to come under his craftsmanship was Harvington Hall, located within the archdiocese of Birmingham. Their website, here, records:

The priest-holes were built in the time of Humphrey Pakington, when it was high treason for a Catholic priest to be in England.

The hiding places at Harvington are the finest surviving series in England, and four of them, all sited round the Great Staircase, show the trademarks of the master builder of such places, Nicholas Owen, who was at work from 1588 onwards.

Owen was servant to Fr Henry Garnet, the Jesuit superior in England, who during the 1590s built up a network of houses throughout the country to which incoming priests could be directed and where they could find disguises, chapels and priest holes. The centre of this operation for Worcestershire and the Welsh Marches was Hindlip House, the home of Humphrey's friend Thomas Habington, where the Jesuit Edward Oldcorne arrived in 1590. It was there that Garnet, Owen and Oldcorne were all captured in 1606, just after the Gunpowder Plot. Owen was starved out of one of his own hides on the fourth day of a twelve day search, during which he and a companion, Ralph Ashley, had nothing to eat but one apple between them. He died under torture in the Tower; Garnet, Oldcorne and Ashley were all hanged, drawn and quartered. Although Hindlip was demolished in 1814, descriptions of the hides there show a striking similarity to those that survive at Harvington. That is unlikely to be an accident.

I'm told that they do excellent homemade cakes at Harvington, though I have yet to taste any. Over the years it's been my pleasure to visit Harvington on not less that four occasions. Each visit the baker has, sadly, not been present. Ah, it was ever such. Pray one day I may get to enjoy the cakes, but meanwhile I remain satisfied to have witnessed to Nichols Owen's great skill.

I was amused to read of the connection with Blessed Edward Oldcorne and Nicholas Owen: It is my understanding that a certain priest who ministers, from time to time, at a school under the patronage of Oldcorne was stuck, recently, in one of Owen's priest-holes at Harvington. It seems we priests are growing in girth if not sanctity! I can testify, however, that my learned colleague is most certainly diminishing in girth through his Lenten observance, and undoubtedly flourishing in sanctity at the same time.

What an heroic saint for our times. St Nicholas Owen - pray for us.

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