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.

Deco Nouveau: A New Life For An Old London Movie Theatre

I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to a wonderful restoration-conversion project in London, where an old Art Deco-era cinema has found new life as an hotel. This article gives an overview of the project, as well as a link to a video featuring Jason Flanagan, the lead architect from the firm of Flanagan Lawrence who worked on it.What is particularly interesting about this design however, although this fact is not mentioned in the video, is that it has nothing to do with what the original building looked like.

Today we look at the lines of the exterior facades on the former Shepherd’s Bush Pavilion and say to ourselves, “Art Deco,” but at the time it was built the cinema was supposed to be in the Italian Renaissance style. One takes this description with a grain of salt, of course, since as anyone who has been to an old movie palace built in the early part of the 20th century knows, stylistic mish-mashes were quite common in these places. Here there would be some Chinese Chippendale, there some Hispano-Moorish, over there some Italo-French Rococo.

Nevertheless when it opened in 1923, this cinema made quite an impression, for both the exterior and the interior of the building won design awards from RIBA (The Royal Institute of British Architects). It was named as Best London Street Façade of the year, described as an “imposing structure of brick and stone in which the former material especially is used with great imagination.” It also won a Bronze Medal for Best Interior Design, due in part to having over two miles of carpet, and solid silver light fixtures. This was occurring at a transitional time in the entertainment industry, when films were becoming longer and more elaborate, and the stars of the silver screen were becoming the trend-setters in society, so that movies were no longer something raunchy or silly shown only in gaming arcades or at the seaside.

What is particularly interesting here is that the interior of the new hotel is not a retrofit of the original. In fact the original interior was bombed out by the Luftwaffe during World War II, and the place was essentially abandoned until 1955. The ruined interior was ripped out, and a more utilitarian interior put in its place, rather than attempting to restore the original. Thus when Flanagan Lawrence began work on the building a few years ago, they did not have an historic interior to try to preserve, only an historic exterior.

The end result is neither a recreation of the 1920’s original, nor a restoration of the 1950’s replacement, but something contemporary that references both eras. During the day the interior atrium is somewhat reminiscent of a building in which the advertising men of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “Mad Men” would feel at home, all wood paneling and simple, curved geometry. At night however, when those panels are illuminated from within, the effect is to create dazzling, rippling bands of gold stacked up to the ceiling, like a stage set waiting for a Busby Berkeley production featuring The Rockettes, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap dancing down the middle of the room. I must confess, I never went to Shepherd’s Bush when I lived in London, but to see this interior in the evening, and have a cocktail at the bar, I just might, if I lived there now.

Such conversions of lumbering structures that have lost their way are never easy. However in this instance the architects did a tremendous job of bringing new life to a sad shell of a building. Kudos to Flanagan Lawrence for doing such a great job.

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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