New Scans Reveal The Architectural Ingenuity Of England’s Persecuted Catholics

An interesting news item about using new technology to uncover a relic of England’s past caught my eye this morning.

Coughton Court is a grand country house in Warwickshire, England, built by the Throckmorton family over the course of several centuries, and whose descendants still live in it today. In one of the turrets of the primary entrance to the home, the Throckmortons constructed what is known as a “priest hole”, an architectural term with which you may not be familiar. Now, thanks to 3D scans, we can get a better sense of how this unusual space functioned, and how cleverly it was concealed within the building – but first, let’s have a bit of background.

Beginning in the latter half of the 16th century, it became an act of high treason for a Catholic priest to even set foot in England. Henry VIII had already closed all of the monasteries and seminaries, appropriating much of their property for himself. His daughter Elizabeth I furthered her father’s madness by having Catholic priests declared traitors under English law, while those who harbored them or attended Catholic religious services were de facto guilty of committing a felony. As a result, a number of Catholic families who refused to convert to Protestantism decided to build secret hiding places inside their homes, where Catholic priests could escape detection by the authorities.

Some of these spaces were just large enough for a single individual to hide in for a short period of time. Others were of more substantial size, including living quarters and even tiny chapels. In the case of the priest hole at Coughton Court, the occupant of the secret chamber had enough room for a bed and a portable altar, where he could celebrate the Mass in secrecy if needed.

In addition to operating a kind of Stasi police force aided by local informants, England employed special bounty hunters popularly known as “priest hunters”, in order to combat the phenomenon of priest holes. These men traveled the countryside looking for Catholic hiding places, often accompanied by builders, stonemasons, and carpenters, in the hopes of bringing back a Catholic priest in chains. However some of the priest holes were built so successfully, that they were only discovered centuries later. Even today, previously unknown hiding places are still being stumbled across during renovations and restorations of historic homes.

Perhaps one of the largest concentrations of these hiding places can be found at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, where a total of seven priest holes were concealed throughout the house by the Pakington family. These rooms are believed to be the work of St. Nicholas Owen, a builder and carpenter who constructed many such holes (or “hides”, as they are sometimes called) over the course of several decades. As his experience in designing these spaces increased, his work became more and more clever, and difficult for the priest hunters to detect. Nevertheless, he was eventually captured and executed in 1606, and was canonized a saint by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

While we don’t know who built the priest hole in the tower at Coughton Court, being able to see how this ingenious structure fits into the building is a fascinating use of technology. Whoever designed this hiding place was particularly clever, in that he created a stacked structure to avoid detection. Even if the authorities managed to discover the first priest hole, which would be empty other than for some bedding and other materials, they would be unlikely to realize that this space was just a decoy: the real priest hole was lying just underneath it, as the scans clearly show. Given the narrow and cramped location of the hiding place inside the house, these new 3D scans give the public a much better picture of how this concealment would have worked, than might be appreciated by simply viewing the structure from the outside.

In our present age, it sometimes seems as though we may need to return to the construction of priest holes at any moment. For the clergy, places like Coughton Court are reminders that Holy Orders can often be accompanied by great suffering. And for the laity, the courage of families like the Throckmortons to build these places, even at the risk of losing everything, ought to inspire us to bravely face whatever the future holds.

Archaeology As Sideshow: Digging Up the Dead

I wanted to be a lot of things when I was little: superhero, paleontologist, CHiPs officer, fireman, Jedi, wizard, pope, etc.  One of my more lasting pipe dreams however, was to become an archaeologist, and that early interest in archeology has stayed with me lo these many years later.  Yet there’s always been an aspect of this science which I find disturbing, as exemplified by some recent work in the UK, and that is the practice of digging up the dead in order to put them on some sort of display

Recent reports are that the group of archaeologists and researchers who managed to rediscover the tomb of England’s infamous King Richard III are at it again.  This time their quarry is King Harold II, last of the Saxon kings of England, who was allegedly killed during the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  In the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is shown rather graphically getting an arrow through the eye into the brain, proving that our medieval ancestors liked violent comic books as much as we do.

The exact location of Harold’s grave is presently unknown, but archeologists have an idea of where they should look.  The hope is to find it using the same ground-scanning technology employed to locate Richard’s grave, on the grounds of a much-rebuilt former Benedictine abbey from Harold’s time.  If he can be found, they may be able to determine whether Harold was indeed felled in battle, or whether – as another source maintains – he lived to a ripe old age as a religious hermit, after being deposed by William the Conqueror.  Thus, a long-standing historical mystery would be solved.

Part of this same historical curiosity was what drove these researchers to look for the remains of Richard, of course.  Did the last Plantagenet king in fact have a hunched back? Was he really killed in battle?  After locating his tomb and digging him up, it turned out that yes, Richard had a spinal deformation, and yes, he was hacked to death in battle, and pretty savagely, too. These kinds of details make history, and indeed archeology, an exciting area of study.

However the problem is that Harold, like Richard, was a Catholic. As a Catholic, he had the right to be buried in the way he and any Catholic would be buried, in consecrated, Catholic ground.  I suspect that Harold, if he’s found, is going to be dug up and put on display in a building expropriated from the Catholic Church, for indeed that is what is happening to the remains of Richard.

To be fair, the rediscovery of Richard’s resting place led to his reburial in a church, rather than leaving him in a parking lot, and that’s all very well as far as it goes.  Yet there is a certain element of the bizarre in the notion that either of these monarchs should be disinterred and reburied in buildings stolen from their faith by people who would have persecuted or executed these men for being Catholics but a few centuries ago.  Even today, in the 21st century, Harold and Richard would still be banned from succeeding to the English throne, based exclusively on their Catholicism.

Given that Harold, at least, is expected to lie somewhere in the graveyard of the abbey where he was originally buried, it seems far more preferable to leave him there, even if his tomb is located and explored.  Don’t turn him into some sort of sideshow attraction, just leave him where he is when all is said and done.  It still won’t be a Catholic site, but at least it would avoid the painful historical anachronism of what would surely follow, in a formal re-interment somewhere else.  The dead deserve far more respect than that, whether they are a significant archaeological find or not.

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070) Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070)
Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

 

Popery and Politics in 21st Century Britain

It may be something of a surprise to the regular reader of these pages to learn that I have no interest in watching coverage of the British royal wedding this weekend. Certainly I wish Prince William and Catherine Middleton well in their marriage, but I cannot bring myself to be as enthralled by it as is virtually every pin and cog of the media juggernaut on both sides of the pond. I would never favor abolition of the British monarchy, much as I am quite happy not to live in a monarchical system. Yet as a Catholic I cannot help but turn up my nose a bit at it, since in its present form it represents the continued power of institutionalized British anti-Catholicism in the more than 300 years since Catholics were removed from the line of succession upon passage of the 1701 Act of Settlement.

Recently Deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg nixed the idea of abolishing the prohibition on Catholics, following pressure from Church of England leaders. As Peter Hutchinson reports in The Torygaph today Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish National Party, has called for Mr. Clegg to issue a formal clarification of the government’s position on the issue. The reader will no doubt note the curious fact that Mr. Salmond is not himself a Catholic but a member of the Church of Scotland; even more curiously, Mr. Clegg is an atheist who is married to a Catholic Spaniard, and whose children are being raised as Catholics. Make of this what you will.

The issue of the British succession came up last evening in the context of a discussion among friends regarding Prince William’s decision not to wear a wedding ring – a practice very widespread among the married Englishmen I knew during the time I lived in London. One of the gentlemen in our conversation was surprised that I did not really care either way whether he wore one. My response was simply to state that my position on matters related to the Saxe-Coburgs is one which I can only describe, for lack of a better term, as “Jacobite”.

Jacobite views were well-regarded in my family; indeed, one of my siblings has “Stuart” as one of his middle names for this reason. The attempt to try to get the Stuarts back on the throne is one of those great lost causes of history which still inspires the romantic, as indeed is the Carlist cause in Spain. In both cases, these wars of succession are still being fought, albeit off the actual field of battle, in the trenches of constitutional law, where the anti-Catholic reaction to the Jacobites came to be formally enshrined at the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason.

Subsequent attempts to abolish or reform the Act of Settlement in order to allow Catholics to succeed to the throne have been considered and dropped numerous times. This is partly due to the complicated legal maneuvering that would be required, and partly due to the continued opposition of politically conservative British Protestants. Thus the re-emergence of this issue in recent weeks has been more interesting to me than questions about whether Prince William ought to wear a wedding ring or whether the tune “Coal Miner’s Daughter” should be played whenever Catherine Middleton enters a room.

For unlike the romantic notions of putting a Stuart back on the throne of Britain or a Hapsburg back on the throne of Spain, the Act of Settlement is a blatant instance of institutionalized anti-Catholicism that is still enforced today. It remains the law of the land not just in England and Scotland, but throughout the British Commonwealth, since any attempt to change it must be passed by the respective governments of each of the members of the Commonwealth, from Canada to Australia, New Zealand to Jamaica, and so on. It is so ancient a prejudice as to be deeply embedded in the fabric of the entire empire.

Those in Britain, the U.S., and other northerly climes who look at the ongoing arguments between Catalonia and Castile in Spain as being anachronistic remnants of the Carlist and Bourbon conflicts of the early 18th century, have only to look at Britain’s own history for an example of deliberate policies of exclusion that date back to precisely the same period. The key difference, of course, is that in Spain religion did not directly enter into the question of succession. In Britain, by contrast, religion is very much at the heart of the matter.

The Church of England is very right to point out that to allow a Catholic to ascend the throne could create a potential constitutional crisis. That fact would seem to suggest, to a reasonable mind, that the flaw is not in the idea of opening the succession, but rather in the anti-Catholic language of the Act. To undertake what is difficult, but just, may result in tears or worse, but that does not mean that apathy or inaction are the better choices.

Portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart
by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1748)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery