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.

Join Me For A Glorious Christmas Concert!

​On Wednesday, November 30th at 7:30 pm, the Choir of St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church in Washington, DC will hold their first Christmas Concert under music Director and Organist Neil Weston. For more information, read the flyer below or check out the parish web site. I strongly urge you to attend if you can, and even if you cannot, please share this information with anyone whom you think may be interested because, quite frankly, our choir is amazing. Those Christmas CD’s they will be selling after the concert will go very quickly.

As regular readers know, St. Stephen’s is my parish here in the Nation’s Capital, and I have often praised the musical talents of our musicians on social media. In fact, everyone who has joined me for Mass at St. Stephen’s over the years has commented on how superb our music is, and that we are one of the best-kept secrets in Washington. Check out this recording I made of them singing Vivaldi at Mass one Sunday – I think you’ll agree that they sound more like something out of a cathedral rather than a parish church.

Part of this amazing sound has to do with the church itself, a building which will be of interest to those who like Midcentury Modern design. From the outside, St. Stephen’s doesn’t reveal its secrets, except in the magnificent bronze doors depicting scenes from the life of St. Stephen by the great contemporary sculptor Antony Visco of Philadelphia. Upon entering, you are enveloped in walls of French Modernist stained glass from Chartres, and the swooping lines of Mad Men and Connery-era Bond architecture. You can read about the history of the building, including why it was JFK and Jackie’s favorite parish when they were in the White House, by reading the Wikipedia entry.

However even with the great acoustics inside the building, in the end it is the people who make the music. Our musicians at St. Stephen’s are seriously impressive talents, capable of performing a very wide repertoire, from Medieval to Modern, highly popular to relatively unknown works. Director Neil Weston not only has exquisite musical taste, he is also a force to be reckoned with on the organ, as you can hear and see here.

I hope you’ll join me for this evening, and please do share this event with those you know who might be interested in attending. Be sure to come up and say hello, if you spot me at the performance. It is early enough in the season that it will not conflict with anything else on your calendar, and it will help all of us to start the Advent and Christmas season off right!

Barcelona Abundance: Two Architectural Landmarks Now Opening To Public

One of the joys of wandering around Barcelona – and there are many – is rounding a corner and being confronted with a remarkable bit of architecture. It could be coming across the ruins of a 1st century Roman temple built by Caesar Augustus (to himself, natch) standing in a courtyard, or an intact Baroque church hidden behind a nondescript façade down a dark alley. Yet for many, the real pleasure of discovery lies in coming across one of the flamboyant creations of “Modernisme”, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. Now, two highly important examples of this movement are being opened to the public for the first time.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of “Modernista” homes and apartment buildings sprang up all over Barcelona, as the citizens of a booming Catalan economy began to capitalize on their wealth. Take a look at the structures that line the famous “Block of Discord” on the Passeig de Gràcia, then as now Barcelona’s most prestigious street, and you’ll see bizarre architectural confections by three of the most famous and prolific exponents of the period – Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch – competing with one another for public attention and admiration. Homes by these and other architects working in this highly unusual style can be found throughout the city, and first-time visitors often marvel at the fact that many of these fantastic structures, which are often so unique as to escape any single architectural categorization, are still being lived in.

One of these is the Casa Terrades, built by Josep Puig i Cadafalch in 1905. It is more popularly known as the “Casa de les Punxes” (The House of Spikes), because of the many turrets and pointy finials that mark its roofline. It is essentially a fairy tale castle from the Middle Ages, reimagined as an early 20th century luxury apartment building. One source of inspiration for the structure is believed to be the buildings which appear in the background of the 15th century altarpiece by Lluís Dalmau, “The Virgin of the Barcelona City Councilors”, now in the National Museum of Catalan Art. The highly visible exterior decoration is covered in references to St. George, Catalonia’s patron saint, who has been a favorite subject in Catalan art and architecture for centuries.

Ever since it was built, the Casa de les Punxes has remained a tantalizing mystery to both Barcelona’s citizens and visitors. The three sisters who owned and occupied it kept the best apartments for themselves, and lived off the rents which they received from the commercial tenants in the rest of the building. The rest of the apartments were sold to buyers whom the sisters found socially acceptable, a process functioning somewhat like an early version of a condo board application review, I suppose.

Yet while the commercial offices located within the building could be visited by members of the public if they had business to conduct, there were limits to what one could see. The upper floors and the roof were strictly off-limits, and the merely curious were not permitted inside. Given its prime location on a prominent intersection of the Avenguda Diagonal, one of the city’s main boulevards and a major retail area, everyone could see the building, but few had actually been inside it.

Now, after several years of renovation by its new corporate owners, part of the Casa de les Punxes has been opened to public tours for the first time. While there are still commercial and residential tenants occupying parts of the building, it is now possible to tour many parts of it, including the many-towered roof looking down over the city. Even if you have been to Barcelona before, this new stopping point on the architectural itinerary looks to be very much worth your time, next time you find yourself in the city. I myself plan to visit it next month, not only from architectural curiosity but also for personal reasons, since one of my great-great-grandfathers and his family lived here.

Another major Modernista structure which is currently being prepared for public tours is the Casa Vicens, the first residence built by the most famous of all Catalan architects, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet. Completed in 1888, the Casa Vicens was the young architect’s first major contract, and proved to be something of a shock at the time. In its extraordinary interior and exterior decoration, it was like nothing that the city had seen before. From this point, architecture in Barcelona became an all-out war for the next two decades, as each architect competed to see who was going to win the battle for the most innovative, over-the-top architecture – brought about, of course, by courting clients with deep pockets.

The Casa Vicens was originally built as a getaway for a well-to-do Barcelona stockbroker, in what was then the semi-rural suburb of Gràcia. Before the coming of the automobile, it was the custom for the Barcelona bourgeoisie to have apartments downtown, which they lived in during the week, and villas in the suburbs just outside the city, which they used on the weekends or for holidays like Christmas and Easter. They wanted something that felt like they were in the countryside, but which could be easily reached by a short coach or tram journey. Similar practices still exist today around the world, such as the weekly exodus of New Yorkers to The Hamptons on Friday afternoons.

While I have wandered around the outside of the Casa Vicens before, marveling at its extraordinary combination of Victorian decorated tiles and Moorish ornamental brickwork, I have never been inside. Until two years ago, when it was purchased by the cultural foundation of a bank, it was still being lived in by the descendants of the man who purchased it from the original owners back in 1899. Now, these descendants are helping art history experts in their efforts to restore and renovate the house for public tours, which are slated to begin next year.

The Casa Vicens is famous among the cognoscenti for its elaborately decorated rooms in bright colors and accompanying, sinuous furniture inspired by nature. I am particularly looking forward to seeing the dining room of the house, which features carved and painted beams bursting with fruit and flowers, while images of all kinds of birds fly about on the walls. It is a space of which any Gonzaga or Medici would be proud.

I will have to wait to report back to you, gentle reader, on the Casa Vicens, but stay turned to my Instagram account for shots from inside the Casa de les Punxes in late December.