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!

YouTube Video: Mass For My Mother

Today I want to share with my readers an audio recording that is rather special to me. Back on October 11th of last year, my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital celebrated the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, with the Mass Intention being for the repose of the soul of my Mother, who had died six months before. Music was of enormous importance to her, and throughout her life she loved to sing, both as a soloist and in choirs, and enjoyed playing musical instruments. So some weeks prior, our parish Music Director Neil Weston very graciously allowed me to sit down with him, and request a number of hymns and musical pieces that my Mother loved to be included in the Mass. The end result was an uplifting celebration, giving thanks to God for His goodness, and in a particular way for His gift of the lady whom we all prayed for that day.

It has unfortunately taken me an inordinately long amount of time to post it, but the audio of the Mass is now available for you to listen to on YouTube. Admittedly the recording quality is admittedly not the best, as I recorded it on my phone, and of course there are background noises of people moving about or doing things like coughing. However it is certainly listenable, and I want to thank both my brother Alex, and my friend Rich Cromwell from The Federalist, for helping to both improve the sound as best as possible, and to get the resulting video ready for posting.

When Neil and I had drunch a couple of months earlier to discuss the Mass, he did not bat an eyelid at my requests, whether for hymns or for pieces to be performed by himself and his musicians. If you have ever been to Mass at St. Stephen’s, you know that Neil is an amazing organist, and that our choir is magnificent – without exaggeration, it is among the very best in this town, which is particularly remarkable for such a small parish as ours. However as I discovered subsequently, both Neil and the other musicians went far above and beyond the call of duty in preparing for this Mass.

The piece that I had requested for the Offertory was the joyful “Alleluia” from Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate”, and I think you’ll agree from the recording that Neil, violinist Jeffry Newberger, and soprano Grace Srinivasan did a splendid job. I only found out later that Grace had never sung this piece before, and learned it specifically for this Mass. It is a real challenge for any singer, and of course Mozart is particularly infamous for taxing the abilities of his sopranos, but Grace was clearly up for it – plus she absolutely nailed that difficult, high Top C at the end.

I also asked Neil if he could learn the music to the Catalan hymn, “El Virolai de Montserrat”, if there was enough time for him to play it quietly on the organ after “Adoro Te Devote”, the beautiful Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas that I had requested for during Communion. “El Virolai” is a 19th century hymn to Our Lady of Montserrat, the Patroness of Catalonia, to whom my Mother had a particular devotion. To my great surprise, when the time came it was not only played by Neil, it was SUNG by the entire choir – and in Catalan, a language which none of them speak! They all had to learn to sing it phonetically, by carefully studying both the text and audio recordings of the piece.

While I had directly chosen everything else, for the Postlude I semi-left it up to Neil to choose a piece. As he had been so – ahem – instrumental in helping the parish to obtain our magnificent new organ, I suggested that he pick something very loud and grand, which would enable him to quite literally pull out all of the stops and rattle the windows, in the manner of the famous Anglo-American organist and musicologist E. Power Biggs. Neil obliged with a very appropriate selection, Biggs’ arrangement of a piece by the 18th century Catalan composer and organist Father Antonio Soler. “Padre Soler”, as he is often referred to by musicians, had begun his musical studies at the Abbey of Montserrat, before eventually rising to become the Chapel Master to the Spanish Court at the Royal Monastery of the Escorial. While the microphone on my mobile was not quite good enough to capture the full breadth of Neil’s playing of this piece, what an absolutely splendid performance it was.

My thanks once again to everyone who participated in and attended this very special Mass, for which my family and I are eternally grateful. I hope that, for those of you who choose to listen to part or all of it, you will find some joy and beauty in this recording. Even if the audio quality is not the best, it may yet bear good fruit – whether by [hint, hint] encouraging you to visit us at St. Stephen’s on Sunday at 11:00 am, or by supporting and encouraging excellence in your own parish music program, or by introducing you to some wonderful sacred music which you might not already know.